Believe it or not despite all my rantings, there are a couple (if only just) of games that for the most part are actually doing the morality thing right.
Coming back down to earth now, I'm going to end this theme week (I have something different in mind planned for tomorrow) with an investigation into how morality can be implemented into games in ways that actually work.
I think if anything I've come to the conclusion that a morality system of any kind has a thin line to tread. If it's always hovering over the player, making it painfully obvious as to where any choice he/she makes stands and encourages one extreme or another then it's not really a morality system, rather it's just a choice that unlocks certain things and locks others. Sure it might double replay value, but in one of the most annoying ways possible.
On the other hand a system where is only ever left to their own devices and left to come up with their own answers to every problem is just as hampering in the long term because it slows down -- and in some cases could even completely stall -- gameplay. People play games because of the element of escapism present therein, they don't need hyper realism (something I admit that I could be wrong about, but we'll cross or burn that bridge when we come to it) as an incentive to play, they just need something to keep them engaged and entertained.
To that end there are a couple of games currently out that I feel are doing a good job with morality for the most part: the Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Both of these games are mentioned in this article but I'll also comment on what I've seen from both of them. These games give a sense of direction: there are options on what you can do, like in Deus Ex when you can choose to try and kill as few people as possible or choosing factions in both games. Likewise there's also dialogue options for how conversations can play out. Nothing so far that's too off the mark.
The thing is though, each of these systems lets you make a choice in each situation and doesn't judge you for it. You can bribe a guard or be abrupt in a conversation and not have to become a paragon or light or a baby eating sin machine just because you were an asshole to one person and a saint to another. The choices stem from what the player wants, and don't need to hammer them over the head based on whether they are good or evil. The situation reacts to the player choice, rather than the player reacting to the choices the situation gives (or doesn't give if you've trodden too far down one path in some cases). I think the player can in most cases discern whether a choice is strictly speaking a positive or negative one, but then again it also depends on how the player feels regarding the circumstances. If someone that has hated your guts throughout the entire game and then comes demanding a favour, then why does brushing them off count as an evil act? It doesn't make sense, which is why the freedom to choose and not feel punished for it -- at least in the moment -- is something that morality in games needs to adhere to more.
Now, I am aware that I've just said that the player should be given free reign and choice, but in terms of endings I believe that it might be for the best to limit (at least the first time through) the type of ending that you can achieve through a moral system. It struck me as very odd that no matter how I'd progressed in Deus Ex Human Revolution that the endings all revolved around a final choice and nothing more. I know that it made seeing all of the endings an easy matter, and that you still picked the ending that you felt you were most in tune with via how you'd played the game, but it seemed to ruin some of the point. I'm aware that it's a little bit backwards in terms of what I've been talking about, but for something like an ending I believe that some exceptions can be made.
That quibble aside though, these are the systems that more games need to adopt if morality meters are going to be a stable of future game experiences.