[In an editorial originally published in Game Developer magazine, editor in chief Brandon Sheffield discusses what's wrong with in-game morals, and highlights some better approaches.]

Most ethical choices in games are not much of a choice at all.

In BioShock, you are given the option of harvesting the innocent(ish) Little Sisters for their Adam, which is used as currency in the game, or saving them, for which you get much less Adam.

But after saving a few Little Sisters, you get a huge package of Adam, worth about what you would’ve gotten if you’d harvested them. Your reward is simply deferred, and the choice ultimately isn’t an ethical one. It’s “Do I want to be a jerk?”

Many games that pose different ethical choices have this problem. One of the worst offenders is Infamous; the story simply did not support ethical choices. The world of Infamous takes place in a quarantined city. The first choice you’re presented comes when some food is airdropped in: You can choose to harm the other citizens and take all the food for yourself, or only take what you need, and share with them, risking going hungry later.

Of course, food is not a currency. It does not determine health and it has no bearing on the actual world of play. There is nothing to the question beyond, “Do you want to be mean to these people?” There’s no upside for you, no tradeoff.

The next ethics scenario boils down to “I can help these people get away from the guards, who are bullying them senselessly, or let them die.” In Infamous, these “moral” choices are simply a means to an end. They break up the skill tree by only allowing “good” players certain skills, and “evil” players other skills. It changes the attitude of the anonymous populace toward you, and affects which NPCs provide missions. It only affects gameplay to the extent of choosing one of two paths. Ultimately the choices are hollow.

I Choo-Choo-Choose You

I believe if one is going to present choices or issues in games as ethical, those choices have to matter in the game world. But I get antsy when games present me with choices that clearly open one door while closing another, as I want to see all of the game’s content, since I’m unlikely to go through it multiple times.

In a particular Dragon Age scenario, you have the option of siding with golems or a rogue blacksmith. Depending on your choice, you will either receive a squad of golems to command in your final battle, or the one golem in your party will leave forever (which is a ballsy move, incidentally, considering that character is part of a DLC package).

This kind of choice makes me very uncomfortable, because I want to do what’s going to be best for my one playthrough, and weighing those odds is very difficult, given that there are unknown variables -- not having fought the final battle yet, I didn’t know if I needed golems.

Methods of Choice

Dragon Age and Mass Effect have similar but subtly different ways of representing your moral choices, but both do it directly with numbers, which is controversial, as there are no “renegade points” in real life.

In Mass Effect, you get points in one column or the other for your actions being good or evil, so to speak. In Dragon Age, members of your party will approve or disapprove of your actions depending on how the characters are designed. They will also react to your decision with dialog.

I far prefer the latter method. Dragon Age poses your choices as affecting your teammates’ opinions of you, and if their opinion is low enough, they will leave the party. In Mass Effect, while characters may approve or disapprove, it has much less in-game relevance.

Furthermore, Dragon Age’s choices are one-to-one. Your character speaks exactly what you select. In Mass Effect, you choose a summary of what your character will say in dialog, choosing the top option for “good,” middle for “neutral,” and bottom for “evil.” The simplistic approach is far less interesting than the larger case of party approval.

A third solution can be found in Fallout 3. There, the choices you make in dialog certainly change how characters react to you, and it does fall into the trap of “say something nice” versus “be a jerk just because,” but the more important choices are in what you do, not what you say.

You have the option of blowing up the first town you come to, Megaton, by detonating a bomb there. A suspicious fellow urges you to, offering promises of riches and the key to the elite Tenpenny Towers if you do. The choice here is clear, but not intimidating. If you choose to blow up the town, most of the quests and shops are still available to you in a different form. If you choose not to, you still get to visit Tenpenny Towers later, albeit in an antagonistic way.

Shoot a resident of a town and expect the rest to turn on you. Steal from them, and expect the same. It’s simple, but it works as immediate feedback for a clearly moral choice.

I think moral choices are incredibly interesting territory for games, but they really do need to be integrated into the gameplay and story both. You can’t just tell a player these choices affect the world, or that they’re important. You have to show that as true, and you have to make them believe it.