RPGs are all about choice and consequence. Whether it’s the way you develop your character or the way you interact with the world, an RPG should let you to express yourself. Morality meters are a common way of doing this. Plenty of RPGs allow you to be “good” or “bad,” saving the day from villains or becoming the villain yourself.

In theory, this is brilliant. What better way to express yourself than through moral choice? What’s better than witnessing the consequences of your actions for good or ill?

In practice, it rarely works out this way.

MORALITY METERS
This is not how reality works.

For decades, it’s been a fad to quantify the player’s actions on a sort of “good vs. evil” scale. These “morality meters” are a way to bridge the gap between the player’s choices and the world itself. They often have an impact on the player’s appearance, abilities, and reputation within the world.

They’re also one of the worst ideas to plague the genre.

Morality meters reduce decision-making to a series of binary choices. They fail to account for the complexity of context, culture, and consequence. You can’t reduce right or wrong to a game mechanic. Doing so restrains the player, the story, and the world itself. This isn’t a call for moral relativism. It’s a criticism of faulty game design. Morality meters are holding games back and barring a few exceptions; there’s little reason to use them.

So, what’s so bad about morality meters in gaming? What’s the best way to tackle morality in video games? Well, let’s take a look!

Morality Meters Simplify How People Work

People are complicated. The world is a place of countless beliefs, customs, standards, and moral codes. Everyone has their own red line, and there’s always someone ready to cross it. Ideally, an RPG will feature a living, breathing world, with people who react to your decisions. Too often, morality meters reduce humanity to a caricature of itself.

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Let’s take a look at FALLOUT 3. As with most FALLOUT games, it features a “karma” system, represented by a cartoon angel and devil. The moral choices in FALLOUT 3 are notoriously shallow and extreme, such as choosing whether or not to nuke an entire city. If you do, the game rewards you with a house. If you don’t… it rewards you with another house.

Granted, you can’t blame FALLOUT 3’s writing problems entirely on its morality system, but it’s clear its own mechanics further constrains the game. Because morality is so simplified, so too are the people in the world. The Brotherhood of Steel, at one point portrayed as paranoid, morally grey remnants of the military, became literal knights in shining armor. The “evil” factions are either impossible to interact with or almost Lovecraftian in their moral degeneracy.

FALLOUT 3 MORALITY METERS RPGs
This businessman will pay you for the severed ears of the righteous. I’m just as confused as you are.

The problem is there’s almost nothing in between. In real life, you can be good without being flawless, and you can be evil while staying relatable. FALLOUT 3’s morality system fails to acknowledge this. It also cheapens the way people react to the player’s actions. Put simply, if you’re good, good people will like you, and vice versa.

There’s A Better Way

Compare this to FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS. The karma system is present but thankfully de-emphasized in favor of a deeper faction system. Put simply, there’s a number of governments, criminals, and tribes wandering the Mojave Desert, each with their own motivations and priorities.

Rather than the entire world hating you for your actions, different factions will respond in different ways. For example, if you wipe out an NCR military base, people belonging to that nation might not be happy to see you. Their rivals in the “Great Khans,” however, will welcome you with open arms.

This leads to some interesting social dynamics, where you’ll find yourself siding with groups that share your values and quickly making enemies to please them. It also ensures the game is highly replayable, as you can’t access every faction’s content within a single playthrough.

So, just by acknowledging the moral complexities of the world, NEW VEGAS is capable of providing deep, organic, replayable content for the player. Morality meters do nothing but restrain an RPG’s content.

Morality is Complicated

But let’s go beyond the game itself and into the real world. How many times have you had a legitimate reason for doing what the game considers “evil?” How often have you wanted to explain your reasoning to the game while it judges your choices? No matter how advanced games become, there’s no way around this problem. The ethics of the developer will never perfectly match the ethics of the player.

For an extreme example, take a look at STAR WARS: THE OLD REPUBLIC. As one of the few MMOs with a morality system, the game certainly tries its best to present the player with interesting dilemmas to solve. But too often does the “Light Side/Dark Side” system get in the way of this.

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For instance, a soldier in a warzone tasks you with finding stolen medicine. You quickly discover the supplies were stolen by a refugee who has been treating injured survivors. You can’t explain this to the soldier, nor is there any way to compromise. Your only choices are to let the woman continue stealing, or to threaten the child she’s treating to force her to return the medicine.

Not only is this a morally gray situation (who needs the medicine more? Refugees? Or the soldiers dying to protect them?), but it reduces an interesting scenario into a simple binary choice. You could easily make an argument for either choice being “right,” but the developers decided that for you. These issues aren’t limited to the MMO, either. They have been a plague on the otherwise brilliant KOTOR series since the beginning.

The Opposite Extreme

Other times, in typical Bioware fashion, the player’s choices are blatantly obvious and over-the-top. There are many cases where a sane person would have no motivation to do the “evil” thing, or where the dark decision is cartoonish in its absurdity. At times, the “dark” decision could even be detrimental to the player.

While it’s always nice to have options, this forces many players to be “good” simply because they’re not stupid. Compound this with SWTOR’s recent expansions, which try to remove the Light Side and the Dark Side from traditional concepts of “good and evil.” The entire system has become inconsistent and confused.

STAR WARS MORALITY METER THE OLD REPUBLIC
Sometimes you don’t want the veil lifted.

In their attempts to simplify morality, these mechanics only make it more complicated. So why use them at all? I know people are attached to the light side/dark side meter in STAR WARS games, but wouldn’t it be better if these philosophical questions were left mysterious? If the complexity of the Force was acknowledged and left up to the player and the world to decide?

You could still have your yellow eyes and chalky skin if you kill younglings left and right, but anything before that point should be left to the player’s own moral standards.

RPGs Should Focus On Consequence

So, how should video games handle morality? What system should replace it?

Put simply, none. Quantifying morality will never work. You can’t translate the most complicated questions of human existence into a game mechanic. Developers should focus on things we can define, not things that mystify the most experienced philosophers.

For example, the RPG TYRANNY may be about a world where evil has “won,” but the game chooses to focus on concrete concepts like loyalty, fear, and favor. Good and evil still matter, but the specifics are up to the player. You get to decide the morality of your actions while the game focuses on the end results.

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Similarly, TIDES OF NUMENERA abandons morality meters in favor of several specific, color-based philosophies. Each “tide” can be interpreted as good or evil, and the player is encouraged to explore them all. Most importantly, these tides are linked to your actions, not your intentions. The game makes no judgment on the player’s inner motivations, only their outward behavior.

This is how you handle choice in video games: by focusing on consequence. Instead of relegating your actions to an abstract meter, you should see the effects of your actions in the world. What do individual factions think of you? How has the world changed as a result of your actions? Did your well-intentioned deeds spiral out of control? Did you hide your selfish deeds beneath a veil of heroism? All of this is possible when you emphasize consequence.

Smarter Choices

Take a look at THE WITCHER 3. This is a game without a morality meter, but it revolves around moral choices. The actions of the player send ripples throughout the world, for good or ill. Characters you’re attached to may die or otherwise have their lives ruined by your decisions. Entire towns and regions can change based on your choices. In this way, THE WITCHER 3 succeeds where many RPGs fail: it makes you feel like your choices matter.

WITCHER 3 MORALITY METERS RPGs
This game is about more than killing monsters.

This freedom allows for more complex decision making. In THE WITCHER, choices come down to logic, trust, and long-term thinking as well as morality. Sometimes what seems “right” can lead to disastrous consequences, because the player didn’t take the time to understand the situation, or was too quick to trust a deceptive character.

There’s this sense of logical unpredictability that adds weight to your choices. If Geralt’s decisions were tied to a good and evil meter, this nuance would be lost. Every choice would clearly broadcast its ultimate effect; you’d already know how people would react to your behavior. It would turn a genuine moral dilemma into a point system. This is the fatal flaw of morality meters: they “gameify” the experience.

The Point

When it comes to game design, sometimes less is more. Morality meters don’t necessarily ruin RPGs, but they keep them from reaching their full potential. Go back and think about some of your favorite RPGs. What would we lose by removing the morality meter?

By contrast, what would we gain? Imagine if every game handled morality in a nuanced way, giving the player additional choices and methods of solving problems in the world. Imagine if people responded to your actions in a diverse, believable manner, tied to their own priorities as opposed to a simplistic notion of good and evil. This is how you move beyond morality meters, and toward a deeper experience.

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