It's keeping a list, it's checking it twice. It'll determine whether you're naughty or nice. But most are less than thrilled when the morality meter comes to town.
As we approach the end of the year it often seems appropriate to sit and contemplate our actions that have transpired over the course of the last 12 months: the ups and downs, goods and bads, that sort of thing. Well, given that this will be the last week of writing for this year (I'm taking a holiday week next week just to get that out there now) I figured that it couldn't be a better time to have a sort of soft topic week about the choices we make in games, starting with a hard look at everyone's favourite in game ball and chain: the morality system.
I've commented on morality in games before, and some of my other topics for this week will likely retread some of that group a little, but actually looking at the morality as implemented in a game system is a both a good point to jump in as well as relatively fresh in terms of my coverage.
Morality systems can go by a couple of different names: you have good vs. bad, karma, light side vs. dark side, order vs. chaos, and so on. What it all ultimately boils down to though, is the first set: good vs. bad. In games with morality -- and especially so in the ones that implement said morality to determine things and let the player track said morality -- the player is often encouraged to stick to one set of choices or the other, and it's always painfully obvious which choice is which; that is assuming the game doesn't state outright which choice leads to which consequence.
A recent example of morality meters in games is the inFAMOUS series. In the game you could choose to be either good, evil, or neutral. Except that's not really the case already, because it's only be sticking to either the fully good or fully evil path that you can unlock the best powers of each. With neutrality already stricken as a possible choice (at least if the player wishes to have access to more goodies, which most players do) you either have pure good or pure evil, which are pretty much self-explanatory. Making selfish choices and doing things like killing civilians and the like earns you puppy kicking points, and being a hero, saving lives and that sort earns you boyscout cred.
The game for the most part at least tries to enforce a sense that you can only go one way or the other, since there are side missions, and by choosing to do say, a good side mission, an evil one will become unavailable. However, there's nothing stopping you from grinding one type of karma over the other aside from patience. One interesting thing that I will note is that in the original inFAMOUS there is one choice that you can make that will lock you into a permanent state (in this case the evil one) and indeed if you've been on the evil path it actually gives you a nice bonus. But again, this choice is reflected in one particular instance. You can be at the highest good aligned rank and still choose to do the wrong thing, at which point you'll be locked into the highest evil rank, but without the bonuses because it wasn't the path you were on at the time.
If it sounds frustrating and constraining, that's honestly because it is, and inFAMOUS is one of the examples where the morality meter even affects something that you might be inclined to care about. In other games you are often given the choice between being good or being a dick, but there aren't even that many consequences for it: perhaps you get discounts in some places but charged more in others, perhaps one NPC won't join you but their good/evil counterbalance one will, that sort of thing.
The point I'm trying to get at here is that by shoving morality in your face and keeping a running tally of it, games are not doing you a favour. Since most of these things are rated mature anyways, I'd like to think that the people playing it are smart enough to discern that running over grandpa whilst flipping off his sweet little granddaughter is not a heroic choice (barring something really fucked up going on). When games hammer us over the head with these choices and then say "it's black or white, no grey here boyo" then they are depriving us of that freedom to make the choice ourselves and gasp maybe actually deal with unforeseen consequences of that choice. For this very reason morality meters are the target of many a tirade coming from gamers, and for good reason.