[In this analysis, Gamasutra contributor Andrew Vanden Bossche looks at games like Mass Effect and Don't Take It Personally Babe to argue, "Making morality matter means making it matter to players."]

The paradox of moral choices in video games is that ethical choices only matter when something we care about is at stake, and the most we will ever have at stake in a video game is virtual. That's good for players; I don't want to have to explain to homeland security why I blew up a ruined town in post-apocalyptic Washington DC. It does, however, make life difficult for game designers who need to make moral choices meaningful.

Steve Butts wrote an article on the Escapist called "Ethics without a Net," well worth reading, that makes the case that moral choices don't have much impact because you can just reload your game if you don't like what you get. While the article makes a lot of good points, I have a particular issue with this one, and not just because it would be such as huge headache for players and journalists alike.

This is an argument I've seen before in a much less welcoming context. It's the same one that was used by Roger Ebert in his now legendary editorial of terror against the games industry. Of course, just because Ebert said it doesn't mean it is wrong, but it's worth considering whether or not this "reset mentality" actually does prevent players from getting involved in games.

I don't believe that being able to save and reload invalidates the meaning of a choice any more than knowing that at the end of Hamlet, (spoilers) everyone dies horribly. We feel ruining the surprise lessens the impact in the same way that, perhaps, knowing there is a way to save Mass Effect's Wrex might lessen the tragedy of his death.

Yet Wrex isn't real anyway. If one truly feels a sense of loss when he dies, I'm not sure how a playthrough in which he survives invalidates that feeling. Wrex's death was always a fiction, a lie. The player's reaction, in fact, is the only real thing.

While we don't have a long history of choice-enabled storytelling, the secret to getting players to care about what is going on in a fictional universe is nothing new. It is as simple and complicated as getting players to care about the characters and situations at stake. Choices don't matter if what's at stake is meaningless, no matter how irreversible they are.

There is nothing inherently interesting or meaningful about fiction. Every inch of fiction is a battle to get readers to care about people and events that simply are not real. Epic science-fiction drama can be utterly boring if players aren't invested, while the most trivial relationship drama can completely enthrall if they are. There simply isn't a way around this.

Take Christine Love's recent visual novel, Don't Take it Personally Babe, it Just Ain't Your Story, whose approach to choice design is completely backwards compared to the AAA approach. What's at stake is nothing more than some emotionally fragile teenagers and an equally irresponsible and confused adult. The choices have relatively little immediate or long-term effect on the story, and backtracking is as easy scrolling the mousewheel. Yet somehow everything that happens matters a lot more than saving the world or extracting genetic matter from little girls.

DTIP is about John Rook, a man mid-mid-life crisis during his first semester teaching at a private school in the near future, equipped with a tablet computer provided by the administration for the purpose of monitoring (and spying) on his students. He has a difficult time dealing with their precociousness and general adolescent confusion, as it becomes apparent he is not a man who has entirely grown up himself.

His most troubled student is Taylor, a girl so lonely and desperate that she ends up hurling viscous emotional abuse at one of her classmates just for the chance of making someone else like her again. Her ridiculous approach backfires completely, of course. Her priorities of human interaction are so backwards that in the end she is the worst victim of her own bullying, but as the teacher, the player has the task of disciplining her.

The player has a pair of choices for how to confront Taylor; take the gentle or angry approach, and you get to choose at the beginning of the conversation and again halfway through. There's no right answer here: is there anything anyone could possibly say to such a self-absorbed and confused person to set her straight in a single evening? Get angry at her and lay awake at night regretting it. Be gentle with her and all you get is a depressing look at how deeply warped Taylor's worldview is.

I can understand how for a moment someone might feel cheated if the outcome is the same no matter what. Yet, the real meaning in this choice comes from taking the two outcomes together, because the point is not that gentle or angry is better or worse but that teaching is hard and so is being young, and this conclusion is all the more powerful because there isn't a solution to Taylor. She is more complicated than that.

What Steve Butts suggests makes a lot of intuitive sense, because it's how choices work in real life. Mistakes made in reality haunt us for the rest of our lives. That's because we already care about what happens in our own lives, mostly likely more than anything else. You don't need a poet to make you cry when the person you love most dies, because they matter to you. You do need one to make you care about someone who you not only have never heard of, but also doesn't exist.

Fiction starts at zero interest and has to fight for every inch of relevance. I believe that, too often, there is an assumption that players will see themselves as an extension of Shepard or Cole McGarth and feel the impact as if it was really happening to them. But players can tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

Making morality matter means making it matter to players. This takes many forms other than writing, of course; as I've said in my article on Demon's Souls, I believe gameplay alone can be a powerful literary device. But they aren't any shortcuts here. It's one thing to make players kill polygons in the shape of little girls, but it's another to make players feel that those girls are human.