Players and Decisions of Morality

There has always been a sense of desire in video games to create an experience authentic enough to more greatly suspend reality. This is largely contingent on the extent of player freedom, a facet of game design that game developers have been struggling to perfect for many years. The first games were linear, entirely operated within the specific constraints of the game. As technology progressed, and role-playing games began inserting players into the identity of a specific character in a specific setting, games began to push the bounds of just how independently a player operates within a game world.

Stepping ahead a number of years, famed developer Lionhead Studios, creators of “Black and White” and headed by the always ambitious Peter Molyneux, announced a game called “Fable” that promised to rewrite the very rulebook for the RPG genre and deliver the first, true sense of player freedom in a game. Long before anything beyond simple screenshots of the game had been produced, Molyneux had gushed about various ambitious features of the game such as a dynamic morality system, a persistent open world that grew with the player, the ability to be recognized the land over for one’s heroic accomplishments, and various others. The video game community exploded over the announcement, making the months leading up to the game’s release overwhelmingly full of hype and high expectations. Even before the game was announced however, Molyneux stated in an interview that Lionhead was not able to include all of the features originally promised, an ominous signal that the game would not live up to the hype. Sure enough, though the game was released in 2004 to relative critical acceptance and remains a classic in its own right, the gaming community felt cheated when little of the grand ambition for Fable really came true. Many of the features that sounded full of freedom and experience were reduced to small gimmicks that were hardly as fully-fleshed out as originally imagined. Molyneux would later admit that he made up outlandish features to keep people interested in the game.

The headlining advancement and primary marketing strategy behind Fable was the supposedly deep morality system which gave greater importance to player decisions by altering their character’s nature and their role in the main plot thread. Even this claim was only partially true. The “morality system” was basically reduced to a few obvious black/white decisions in the main narrative and other obvious good or evil deeds such as killing enemies or innocents.

evil fable

A moderate “evil” character

A "good" character

A “good” character








Despite this, the system still found a number of fans due its undeniably addicting concept of watching a character’s appearance slowly morph into demonic or angelic territory based on their actions. Perhaps even more interesting, Fable’s character designs, while not overly intricate by today’s standards, possessed a fairly wide array of differences corresponding to different levels of morality within the game. A character could have a moderate morality leaning slightly to the good side, and there is a unique character model for it. With customizable armor and other features, characters in Fable did feel personal in ways that few other games had achieved. The problem with the system rested in the means used to experience it. Though there are various ways to alter one’s morality strewn throughout the game’s world, the ease and convenience of merely slaughtering enemies or innocents largely negates any sense of dynamism. Since murder is considered an incredibly evil act in the game, reaching the furthest end of the evil spectrum can be done with no more than a dedicated massacre of a small village. Equally, if you decide to kill every enemy you see and play through the main quest without performing any evil deeds, reaching the furthest end of the good side is fairly easy as well. The game obviously isn’t intended to be played with manipulation of its systems in mind, but the flaw is so easy and obvious that it’s almost a stretch to even call it manipulation at all.

Fable’s issues make it a valuable case study in the building of methods for players to dynamically interact with characters and narratives. Fable was among the very first games that attempted to utilize a morality system like this to such a great extent, and it inspired a trend of games which seemingly go out of their way to give players morality choices to better involve them in the narrative. Many games such as Fallout 3 and Bioshock in 2007 use a somewhat simplistic system of morality to implicate much larger themes, but as a whole, these types of games often make morality too mechanical for it to feel natural. Modern games continue to push the bar, TellTale’s “The Walking Dead” series has garnered huge critical praise for its player interaction within a narrative, but even in the most sophisticated morality system out there, I still feel compelled to identify and manipulate the system at hand to get what I want in the game rather than to buy into it. Players need to have sufficient freedom and opportunity within the world of the game for them to buy into the world with full authenticity. Only then, if thrust into a well-constructed narrative, will a player begin to make morality decisions based within the actual constraints of the narrative.

  7 comments for “Players and Decisions of Morality

  1. bmytelka
    February 11, 2014 at 12:12 am

    The problem with video games for making choices is that the player is generally not punished for changing morality. In Fable 2, after massacring an entire village, you can literally pass gas until they are cheering for you and praising your name. Players have too much attachment to their characters (usually a vessel for their own beliefs or desires), and don’t want to deviate to a different path. However, they may subvert game design by saving before an act of different morality just to experience what it is like (or to “cut loose” and kill everybody). This kills the narrative process, and prevents you from fully being absorbed in any decision or story. Choice makes you aware that you are a human being playing a game, since the decision makes you immediately think of a way out.

    I think for games to be a sort of electronic literature, there can be no going back. The choices you make should stick with you and not be undone. Imagine a roguelike game where you are asked to make decisions, and your impact is felt. You don’t have time to undo your decisions, but your lives don’t last long enough to regret your choices. They stick with you, they impact how your character is perceived, but you don’t have to subvert the game’s mechanics and design in order to play the game how you want. Games like Dungeons of Dredmor can create entire, varied characters within an RPG system while retaining this fast-paced, high casualty gameplay. You can play as a dual-shield-wielding lawyer vegan that dabbles in blood magic, while the next game you’re just a regular archer. The game doesn’t allow for you to really explore any choices or decisions based on your “class,” but each one feels equally fun despite being thematically and mechanically different. These devices can easily be used to create a game that is able to tell a variety of stories without a player worrying about which story they’re getting. Roguelikes always inadvertently end up creating a story with choices (see: Dwarf Fortress), it isn’t a far stretch to see them creating these sorts of decision-making moments intentionally.

  2. kutoof
    February 14, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    I like how you start off the post by correlating game and technology development. As we’ve become more advanced with our technology, video games have progressed and also changed. I enjoy the background information on Lionhead Studios and Peter Molyneux, but I didn’t find it necessary to talk at such a length about releasing the video game “Fable”. It is very interesting though to see how Molyneux had to lie to keep the media and people to stay talking about his new game. Which made me giggle when I read the article. Even though Molyneux had fibbed about changes in his games, it was good to see that the characters in the game had more depth to them and a background story as well.

    I like your morality view of the game and how the game was very black and white. You either decided to be good or evil. There was no complex way to be both evil and good which would make the game more realistic and interesting. I like how you bring up the importance of authenticity and how to make a game authentic. Games have been more manipulative and consist of different options for players to choose from. Games such as Heavy Rain and The Last of Us, those games give you the freedom to decide on what steps you want to take and is way more complex than the “black and white” issue.

  3. February 17, 2014 at 10:51 am

    The first games were linear, entirely operated within the specific constraints of the game. As technology progressed, and role-playing games began inserting players into the identity of a specific character in a specific setting, games began to push the bounds of just how independently a player operates within a game world.

    First of all, linearity is a really hard concept to define, but however you define it, you can’t solve it simply through progressing technology. I mean, your point in this article seems to be that — in spite of technological progression — morality as a non-linear structure is still constrained by the technology used to insert it into game play.

    And to go back the beginning, what’s so linear about Spacewar? You can fly in whatever direction you want, and space isn’t even constrained by Euclidean geometry? Or Zork, where you can move in many different directions and solve puzzles (in some cases) in different order or by different means.

    Moreover, what’s so bad about linearity? Other than the relentless entropy of time moving forward and arbitrary structures of advancement like school, job, etc., my life is pretty non-linear, and yet I frequently enjoy reading books where words — arranged in straight lines, no less — describe an exclusive sequence of decisions and events for characters. Why?

    • Dylan Tibert
      February 17, 2014 at 3:40 pm

      I think linearity sees such buzz, priority and praise due to the novelty of a virtual world wherein interactions have weight. With video games especially, this novelty becomes something almost exclusively tethered to this quality of interactivity that they provide- maybe it’s a contemporary thing, but the notion of entering a fiction as an active and meaningful agent is something that a lot of people want right now. That being said, I think it’s important that games have developed enough as a media form that we can have discussions like this- just because we CAN integrate this perception of agency into games thanks to their interactive attribute, does that mean agency and non-linearity should be standard a standard to which games are held to? I would argue not, as we are seeing through many examples narratively linear interactive fiction doing interesting things in this class’ readings alone. I would argue that right now, the flexibility of games as a media form is it’s strongest and most interesting quality. I think it’s a very good thing that nobody can nail down the concept of a “game” right now- so many people of varying means, desires and perspectives are creating such vastly different projects that are still conceptually tethered by the blanket classification of the game. With a media form so broad, protean, and uninhibited by the conceptual limitations of a narrow description, I don’t want to see anything stifling all that multifaceted creative momentum. In that sense I can see why the novelty of non-linearity is so popular, but there comes a point where it is reductive to discuss the exciting possibilities and differences of interactive media as limited to a malleable, open world experience. I believe it’s important to keep asking these questions though, as it gives a forum for people who love the non-linear possibilities of interactive media to have discussions with people who love the possibilities of interactivity for linear storytelling as well as those who choose not to subscribe to the dichotomy at all. After all, isn’t such nuanced and complex discussion and conceptualization something that always happens to art?

  4. Cameron Hodge
    February 17, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    As you talked about, I think the most interesting aspect about Fable isn’t the game itself but the paratext surrounding the game. While it’s mechanically interesting, the sole subject of discussion is almost always a comparison between the machine and what has been said about the machine, whether it’s running down a checklist of features and implementation or juxtaposing the creators’ description against the reality of the output. Perhaps it’s not a codified text or piece of electronic literature, but there’s certainly an artistic quality in Fable for what lies between the text and the paratext.

  5. aswords
    February 17, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    I enjoyed looking at this game as a case study (particularly as Fable illustrates another major problem I have with the gaming industry: the superficially inflated hype), but one thing that kept coming up in my mind was the question of whether character morality should even be a defined component of game-play. If characters can be defined on a spectrum of good-to-bad, isn’t that pretty limiting? I think your assessment of how Fable tries to make it work is good, but it’s gotten me thinking that instead of having a defined moral system, even one as complicated as kutoof would like to see, it could be better in the long run for the player-character to be judged independently by each computer-character (resulting in some optimistic characters thinking that your reason for massacring that town was justified and some pessimistic characters thinking that your act of saving innocent little Sally was out of a secret desire to corrupt her soul). I think that having a lack of a codified moral system is the best way to get interesting sorta-good-villains and definitely-not-hero-material protagonists, especially if the player-actions could influence the interactions that created the over-arching sense of the player-character’s morality and moral standings.

  6. patcrosmun
    February 17, 2014 at 3:53 pm

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