As I mentioned in my last post, I played a fair amount of Neverwinter Nights while I was laid up in bed last week. It got me thinking again about the role of the dungeon master and game designer (basically, one and the same in a CRPG like Neverwinter Nights) has with respect to the moral authority of the game.
The prime example of this, for me, was Ultima IV, which, although just a game, got me, a surly teenager, explicitly thinking about virtue abstracted from admonitions from parents, preachers, and teachers. Pride is not a virtue. Not a deep exploration of the topics by any stretch, Ultima IV still acted as a touchstone which actually advised the adult I would become.
That means that when Richard Gariott, sitting in his Austin, Texas, home or office in the early 80's, had the idea of incorporating an explicit moral system in the game, it was not just an academic exercise. Whether he knew it at the time or not, the portrayal of that moral system would have a real effect on the way his players would think about morality.
On one hand, this shouldn't be so shocking. After all, video games - and RPG's in particular - borrow much from traditional forms of art and storytelling. By making morality the theme of the game, of course the player would think about morality.
But on the other hand, it is striking. We play to be entertained, not to grow as individuals, so many of us decline to grow as individuals in pursuit of the game's entertainment value. (Who among us listened to our feelings of guilt for killing the Colossi in Shadow of the Colossus and set down the controller in protest?) Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Doom, Grand Theft Auto - they all remain meaningless, unreal abstractions that are obviously detached from reality and really make no attempt to address the player's personal morality as a topic. Despite what the soapboxers would claim, no one plays Grand Theft Auto and comes away thinking it would be a good idea to go around randomly running over people and shooting them, because those game elements are trappings hung off of the game mechanics. They're fun explicitly because that behavior is wrong and unwise and we would never do it in real life.
So to have an RPG that actually reaches through that dense gulf between the game world avatar and the gamer to address real issues for the player is rare. In the case of Ultima IV, I believe it works because the challenge is to be virtuous, not as bad-as-you-can-be. Everyone can do the latter for fun and without consequence. But to challenge the player to eschew the inventory-stealing, monster-slaying, gold-hoarding ways of the typical RPG hero is to challenge the player himself on some level. That's why I think it worked - that, and the fact that in the final analysis, it was a pretty defensible and reasonable definition of virtue. It wasn't the trite white hat black hat morality that is typically seen in games, which prompts you to actually think about the moral dilemma it poses.
Which brings me to Neverwinter Nights. Based on the d20 System from Dungeons and Dragons, the game uses the practically cliché double-axis system for measuring the morality of its characters. One axis describes how obeisant you are to order (ranking you from "lawful" to "chaotic"), while the other axis describes, basically, how evil you are (ranking you from "good" to "evil"). Thus, an approximation of a character's behavior can be summed up with an adjective and a noun: "lawful good" or "chaotic neutral" or "neutral evil" for example. In the CRPG, these axes actually get assigned numbers - "lawful (20) good (85)" - to judge when your character has slipped over into a different category.
Unlike in the tabletop game, then, you get a running tabulation of your moral choices in the game, almost like how you score points for shooting down space invaders. You can rack up "good points" or "chaos points" to help you achieve your goals, which gives a distinctly mercenary feel to the moral system. In essence, the game is quantifying morality.
Moreover, the game designers, then, reveal an interesting window into the way that they would judge certain choices in a moral dilemma. At one point in the game, you come across several escaped convicts, one at a time, each of whom surrender to you and attempt to explain the extenuating circumstances behind their crimes and subsequent harsh punishments. These convicts range from an evil braggart who shows a complete disregard for life to a man who took revenge for terrible crimes against his family a bit too far and has come to understand and regret his folly. After hearing each convict's story, you have the option to let them escape or to kill them for bounty.
Normally, I would think that this is an interesting moral exploration - where on the spectrum from unrepentent evil to guilt-ridden absolution-seeker do you draw the line of forgiveness? This could be an interesting commentary on social justice.
But unfortunately, that illusion crumbles back into the realm of point-crunching statistics in Neverwinter Nights. No matter which one you're talking to, the game consequences are the same. If you choose not to kill the escaped convict for the bounty and let them go, you see the message "Your actions have shifted you five points towards evil." For showing mercy. Evil. The good thing to do, at least to the game designers, apparently, is to kill the person who has surrendered to you, cut off their ear, and turn it in for money. Yikes.
In another part of the game, you become the mystical judge over an ancient case of infanticide. It is your job to determine who the guilty party is, and make your sentence. The case involves two brothers who accuse each other of being to blame for the murdered children. In the course of your investigation, you discover that a demon convinced one of the brothers to kill the children to attain great magical power, and duped the other brother into luring the children to the castle where they would be slain. One wrinkle in this is that the entire town has been frozen in time, trapped in a maddening limbo, awaiting your arrival (as the mystical judge) so that you can deliver the verdict.
When you go to deliver your final judgement, though, the game's conversation engine steers you away from being able to do what seems to me to be the obvious verdict. Through what appears to be mere conversation tree mechanics, you are forced to do one of four things: acquit both brothers, convict one brother, convict both brothers, or convict the demon and acquit both brothers. (This last option, by the way, dooms the entire village to remain in its damned limbo state forever, something that is certainly not made obvious before you make your decision.) In particular, there is no way to convict both the demon and the power-hungry brother while acquitting the innocent brother and all the innocent people trapped in time with them, which seemed the reasonable course of action to me.
In the end, the option to convict just the one brother and let the demon go free turns out to be the one most rewarded by the game developers. In this case, the real architect of the slaughter and the one most likely to repeat his crimes - the demon - goes free. Presumably, this is made palatable by saying that if you didn't do that, the innocents in the village would suffer along with the demon for all eternity. But of course, you only find that out if you dial back to saved games and see the alternative play out. The truth is that as you actually play the game, the conversation tree doesn't even allow you to explore the possibility of accusing both the brother and the demon - the way the conversation is structured, the avatar presumes that if one is guilty, the other is innocent.
Put together, these two experiences have a somewhat similar effect as Ultima IV did, in that they made me think explicitly about real-world morality and what it means to show mercy or to stand in judgement over someone. Unfortunately, unlike in Ultima IV, I found the moral yardstick against which my avatar (and by extension, me) was measured seemed flawed. I ended up wondering more about the scenario designer's morality than my own.
Which raises the final issue. By instituting a moral judgement system in an RPG, you are essentially acting as the architect of the fundamental morality of the game world, and by extension, standing in judgement over the moral decisions made by the player potentially as governed by their real-world morality. Moreover, you may be revealing your own moral code in the process. If anyone needs to re-examine their moral code for defensibility, consistency, and robustness, it's a CRPG designer, because you literally take on the mantle of St. Peter for the duration your players are in your charge. You need to make sure that you do not reward an action that could be done with good intent by calling the player "five points towards evil." You need to make sure that if you set up a juicy moral dilemma, you allow the player to respond in a reasonably nuanced way to that dilemma, rather than forcing the player to accept moral compromises through the conversation engine that they would not accept if they were not bound by such a game mechanic. If you're going to take on the subject of morality in a CRPG, it needs to be deep, and wise. If you can't do the topic justice, leave it alone.