Moralty Meters …

So I’m playing The Old Republic again, and am playing a Dark Side Sith Inquisitor … and running into fun with morality meters. Since I want my character to be fairly Dark-Sided, I’m choosing the Dark Side options as often as I can. TOR is very helpful in that it tells you which option is Dark Side and which is Light Side before you select it but some of the choices they make for that can be … jarring. Which leads me to consider issues with morality meters.

Shamus Young puts his finger on it while discussing the “Paragade” meter in Mass Effect:

One of my favorite illustrations of this problem is here on Virmire. The Salarians are going to attack Saren’s base head-on to create a diversion, while you sneak in the back. It’s basically a suicide mission for them. During your ingress, you run into several opportunities to make life easier or harder for the Salarians out front. You can destroy the Geth communications array. You can ground their air units. You can set off various alarms to make the enemy move into a different position. Each of these actions will allow you to fight more foes so your allies can fight less.

The paragon / renegade points are awarded under the assumption that taking more heat on yourself is altruistic and paragon-ish, and easing your way by dumping more foes on your allies is the renegade thing to do.

I saved Ashley because I love space-racism, but the game didn`t give me any renegade points for it.

Let’s ignore that fact that some of these actions (like blowing up the communications array) can easily happen by accident in a firefight, without you even realizing you’d done something other than shoot some robots. What’s funny about this situation is when I tried playing through this section as a renegade. I wanted to fight as many Geth as possible, because they’re filled with lovely delicious XP that will level me up and let me kick more ass. The game assumed that I was killing these Geth because I wanted to help my allies, but in reality I was motivated by simple videogame bloodlust. Helping your allies is undeniably the optimal thing to do, so you kind of have to screw yourself here if you’re fishing for renegade points.

While I think he’s wrong in arguing that his OOC gameplay reasoning where he was destroying things only because he wanted more of that sweet, sweet XP is something that should be taken into account, he makes a good point that morality meters go wrong because, in general, they have a hard time determining what the intent of the character is in making that choice if there’s any ambiguity in intent there at all. In TOR, in one sidequest you can tell the truth about who the Revanites are, or lie and tell the investigator that it is his Sith Master who is the leader of the Revanites. The game assumes that lying is Light Side because it is helping to keep the Revanites hidden and working against the Empire, and telling the truth is Light Side. However, my ambitious Sith saw advantages in lying about it, by shaking up the power structure above her leaving room for her to gain power and influence at their expense. This would seem to be pretty Dark-Sided, but I got Light Side points for it anyway, because the game had no idea of knowing why my character did what she did.

Another case is with the bones of Turak Hord and your companion Khem Val. The bones can be used to control Khem in some way, but he reveres them. You can choose to destroy them or not. If you destroy them, you get Dark Side points (I think) and preserving them gives you Light Side points. But a Light-Sider could destroy them as a means to help Khem Val move on from his dead former master, while a Dark-Sider might preserve them in the hopes of having another hold on Khem to enslave him even further. Because the game can’t determine your intent, it gives you Dark and Light Side points on the basis of relatively shallow determinations.

None of this would matter that much if the morality meter doesn’t matter that much to anything in the game. But if the morality meter doesn’t have an impact, then why is it there? In a Star Wars game, of course, it’s there because the setting builds it in, but in something like Mass Effect if it’s there it had better do something good. And it generally does, but then you have the frustrations of it not aligning with your character’s morality because it doesn’t take your character’s intent into account.

Chuck Sonnenburg at SF Debris commented in his playthrough of Dragon Age that he really liked that there wasn’t a morality meter, but that the actions you take have consequences in the world. Unlike the other games, Dragon Age doesn’t judge you on your actions, but instead tries to give you reasonable consequences for your actions, in terms of the reactions of your companions and of the people in the world. Yes, those actions often have consequences that might be considered negative, but as long as those consequences are ones that reasonably follow from what actions you take that’s fine. And I agree with him on that. If, for example, you defile Andraste’s ashes, you can certainly imagine that Leliana and even Wynne are going to be upset with you and even react violently. And if you think that you have reasons that make that worth attempting, then the game even manages to preserve character intent by letting the character decide if they made a hasty decision that had consequences they didn’t foresee, that they took negative consequences because they really thought it was the best choice, or even that they don’t think those consequences were bad at all, and were in fact all part of the plan.

It’s really, really hard to accurately capture character intent in a video game, but for a morality meter to really work you need to do that or else the meter ends up judging morality in ways that make no sense to the character and player. So it might just be better to stop trying and instead just give reasonable consequences. Of course, that itself has some issues …

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