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What Is Good Without Evil?

After 20 years, thou hast found the slayer of thy best friends. The villain proves to be a man who provides the sole support for a young girl. Dost thou...

• spare him in Compassion for the girl

• slay him in the name of Justice

At the beginning of Ultima IV (1985), you're subjected to a series of questions like this, meant to measure how you value relative virtues like valor, spirituality, and humility. In the context of the game, this determines what character class you begin with. Mages value honesty, paladins place honor above all else, bards specialize in compassion, and so on.

This is where I first encountered the concept of moral ambiguity: that sometimes it's hard to even know what the right thing is, because choosing one good outcome means preventing another. (Though this being 1985, these questions are asked by a "gypsy fortuneteller." Video games have come a long way on more than one front.) When Ultima IV was released, this was a remarkably complex moral concept for a video game. Other games of the time, like King's Quest (1983), Super Mario Bros. (1985), and The Legend of Zelda (1986), all cast the player as a hero of unwavering moral virtue.

Video games aren't widely considered to be a bastion of complex ethical thought. And yet narrative-focused video games have revolved around conflict between good and evil for at least thirty years—in simplistic terms, at first, but with increasing philosophic nuance. Still, in early games, there was never a question that the villain was bad and the player's character was good. And certainly there were no soul-searching moments wherein the player was urged to contemplate whether or not they were doing the right thing.

But to be fair, there wasn't a lot of soul-searching even in Ultima IV, either. After that first brilliant taste of moral conflict, the point of the game is to become equally accomplished at all eight virtues. And in the game, unlike life, it is possible to be virtuous in all things.

You were the hero, and you could do no wrong. Not even if you wanted to! But fashion in games changed not long after.

Godlike Powers

Thee and thy friends have been routed and ordered to retreat. In defiance of thy orders, dost thou...

• stop in Compassion to aid a wounded companion

• Sacrifice thyself to slow the pursuing enemy, so others can escape

For a while in video games, it was even possible to choose to be actively and aggressively evil, thanks in large part to the influence of game designer Peter Molyneux.

His 1987 game Populous was arguably the first in a genre now known as god games. The most popular of these are, of course, are the Sims franchise, including such entries as SimCity (1989), SimAnt (1991), and of course The Sims (2000). These games give you power over the lives and deaths of your people (or ants). You can choose to make your population flourish to the best of your ability, or you can unleash tornados and earthquakes to make them suffer. Give your Sims pretty wallpaper and a TV to pass the time, or lock them in a house with no doors and no toilets.

God games generally permit the player to act with intentional malice, something rarely seen in earlier games. But they typically lack any element of judgment over what the player chose to do. You could be benevolent if you wished, or you could be a scourge on your people, but there was no feedback mechanism to measure your goodness except your own conscience.

Later yet came games that weigh your moral choices and change how the game reacts to you in response. Molyneux's Black & White (2001) was a notable entry in this landscape. This is a god game where your will is enforced on your worshippers by a Creature. You control the Creature by slapping it when it does something you don't like, and stroking it when it gets things right.

The Creature physically changes to reflect the nature of your commands. If you choose to rule with kindness, dispensing miracles and prosperity, the Creature will grow lighter and develop a heavenly glow. If you choose to govern through cruelty, though, allowing it to eat worshippers and destroy their buildings, the Creature will repeat those behaviors, and eventually it will turn black and monstrous, beclawed and hunched over. (Molyneux brought this mechanic for measuring morality into the Fable series, as well, including the concept that physical attractiveness shows of the moral virtue of the character.)

But in these cases there was nothing ambiguous about the morality. Players had a choice to be good or evil, but those choices were very clear-cut: giving money to the poor is good; murdering peasants is bad. And no matter whether you chose to be good or evil, you could still win those games and achieve substantially the same outcomes, cosmetic differences notwithstanding.

Modern Times

Thou art sworn to protect thy Lord at any cost, yet thou knowest he hath committed a crime. Authorities ask thee of the affair, dost thou...

• break thine oath by Honestly speaking

• uphold Honor by silently keeping thine oath

The philosophic depth of the RPG has grown dramatically. The modern era of games morality is marked by the difficult ethical dilemma—though most of these choices are still ultimately meaningless in the grand arc of the game. For example, Mass Effect (2007) has a moral compass and allows you to play as a Paragon or as a Renegade. Flatter the informant, or threaten them for their information? In the end, the difference is one of color more than of outcome.

But increasingly, these games include a handful of keystone choices that genuinely do change the grand arc of the story, which means that these choices have consequences, and so more weight. The true genius of Mass Effect and other Bioware games—and, indeed, an increasingly large number of similar RPGs, such as Witcher 3 (2015) and Infamous (2009)—is in requiring the player to make difficult moral choices with no clear correct solution. These keystone choices do offer conflicting goods, or sometimes a situation where the "good" moral choice results in a worse narrative and emotional result.  Games have finally delivered on the promise Ultima IV made back in 1985.

Mass Effect's Virmire storyline is a prime example of this mechanic. To complete this mission, you need to split your team up to tackle different objectives. But as the assault progresses, more and more enemies appear. It becomes clear that some of your people are going to die, even if the mission succeeds. A battlefield choice arises with no warning. Your forces are being overrun. Now you can only save one of your squad mates, Kaidan or Ashley, both of whom have been staunch and loyal allies from the very beginning of the game. So which one lives, and which one dies?

It's a powerful, painful emotional dynamic. These choices are so difficult that many players try to dodge grappling with their emotional impact entirely, instead crawling through walkthroughs, FAQs, and forums to try to find a "correct" answer that results in the best possible outcome.

Similarly the Infamous franchise allows you to choose between selfish and selfless acts in gameplay, as does the Grand Theft Auto franchise. These games also track incidental behavior, like killing or injuring innocent bystanders, and deduct from your overall morality if you choose the path of wanton violence—in no small part due to outrage over a prior generation of games wherein there was no consequence for collateral damage.

But even these emotional choices leave the overarching story of the game largely the same, beat by beat, regardless of your choices, with perhaps a handful of branching but predetermined endings. No matter whether Ashley or Kaidan dies, it is never possible to ally with the Reapers and sell out the galaxy for your own benefit. You can't choose not to kill Kessler at the end of Infamous.

Artful Illusions

Thou art a bounty hunter sworn to return an alleged murderer. After his capture, thou believest him to be innocent. Dost thou...

• Sacrifice thy sizeable bounty for thy belief

• Honor thy oath to return him as thou hast promised

This is, of course, in part due to the limitations of labor and technology. It's just not possible for a story-driven game to provide infinite choice right now. Even slightly expanding meaningful choice exponentially increases the amount of writing, animation, and voice acting required to make a game, as each choice can have implications that cascade through a game. And so the production costs for providing a wider palette of moral choices is prohibitive.

The closest we get is procedurally generated content, where the game "creates" quests randomly from a database of predetermined possibilities. They're simply a more sophisticated version of a website where you tell it what's in your pantry and it tells you what to make for dinner.

While open-world games like Skyrim and Fallout do use substantial amounts of procedural content to provide the player with more to do, the result often feels shallow, even meaningless. It certainly doesn't advance an overarching plot, which is without exception written in advance. And, to date, vanishingly few games have used procedural content to create meaningful emotional and ethical dilemmas.

The one exception that springs to mind is Papers, Please (2013), in which you play the role of a border agent deciding who does and does not get to enter your nation. This is a game all about making difficult moral choices, weighing compassion and security. If an immigrant's spouse is missing important paperwork, do you let them over the border to keep a family together? Ah, but what if the spouse is no spouse at all, but a terrorist trying to put one over on you?

Even in this case, the final impact is somewhat shallow; you're graded on your performance for the day, and your pay is perhaps docked for a wrong choice, but the consequence ends there. And so in most games, no matter what moral nature you go with, the outcome is the same: you beat the bad guy, and you save the kingdom, world, or galaxy.

Shadow of the Colossus (2005) is one of the rare and gorgeous exceptions. In this game, you are killing a series of enormous and fantastical beasts at the bidding of a power who can bring your true love back to life. But over the course of the game it becomes increasingly clear that you are doing harm—that these beasts hold within them imprisoned pieces of the soul of an evil spirit. By the end of the game, Wander, the protagonist, is completely possessed by this spirit and dies.

This transition is highly unusual; late in the game, it becomes clear that the only way to avoid doing evil is not to continue to play the game. And even here, once you play through to the end, that evil is ultimately defeated anyway. But by and large, games don't cast the player as a villain, and rarely permit the player to choose evil. It's just not the story the game is meant to tell.

Context is Everything

During a pitched battle, thou dost see a fellow desert his post, endangering many. As he flees, he is set upon by several enemies. Dost thou...

• Justly let him fight alone

• Risk Sacrificing thine own life to aid him

There's a long-running conflict about what constitutes a story in games. On the more literal level, we have explicitly narrative games: games that tell you a story, either predetermined almost entirely at the beginning (Zelda) or allowing for weighty choice that changes the tone and substance of the ending (Mass Effect). But there is another mode of thinking in which all games are narrative games, because even this year's installment of Madden is constructing a narrative on the simplistic level of a-series-of-events-that-happen. The premise is that what matters is not the authored story told to the player through the experience of the game, but instead the personal story the player chooses to tell about the experience they had once the game is over.

This thinking devalues the very thing that distinguishes a video game from everyday experiences like getting cut off in traffic or having a weird dream. We tell stories about those experiences, to be sure. But unlike life, games have an authorial point of view. 

Part of that point of view is providing a defined context in which the story can occur. A sandbox game can give you theoretically infinite choice—or more specifically, hundreds of options for what to do and when it do it. But it is only through authorship that a game develops emotional and narrative threads with the controlled pacing and satisfying resolution we expect from a story. Our emotional state has been carefully designed, just as much as the clouds in the sky and the scratches on your armor. And that design has a reason for not letting Mario team up with Bowser to rule the Mushroom Kingdom: it breaks the story.

It's fun to imagine the kinds of games you could play where just about any choice you can think of is possible. Where you can choose to be as good or evil as you like; where there's always a way to outfox your nemesis, or romance up your preferred sidekick; or save your team; where you can always find a way to win. These games would be emotionally dull compared to the curated-choice style of design.

The most powerful emotional dynamic in any game takes place when the game has you, the player, questioning your own values and priorities in order to navigate two equally bad outcomes. The difficulty in a difficult binary (does Ashley die, or does Kaidan?) comes not from the ability to make a choice, but from an artificially induced sense of powerlessness. You can't save them both. So now what?

In a way, Ultima IV had it right all along.

Andrea Phillips is an award-winning game designer and author. Her debut novel is the snarky SF thriller Revision, which totally got good reviews and everything. You can find Andrea on Twitter at @andrhia. I mean, if you like that sort of thing.
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