In order for a moral choice to have weight, it needs to have two components. First, meaningful choices have to cause the player to lose something in order to gain power. Something has to change, or be expected to change, within the game in order for the decision to matter. In Mass Effect, at one point in the game, you have to choose which of two party members to rescue – the other dies. Or, in Fallout: New Vegas, working with Caesar's Legion turns the New California Republic into an enemy, and vice versa.
Second, a moral choice has to be a difficult choice. The old adage "If doing the right thing were easy, everyone would do it" applies here. This is where games usually fail. They can do it with little choices, like with stealing even when you won't get caught in New Vegas. Take the owned items and you'll lose karma, which might be a small hit compared to the benefits of a new weapon. Alternately, in some games, honorable characters will simply refuse payment for quests, forcing money to be acquired by other means.
But by and large, games don't make morality difficult. The biggest problem is that they treat good and evil decisions as roughly equivalent. Your process through the quest is roughly the same, and your rewards are roughly the same. Perhaps the greatest example of this is just outside of the realm of role-playing games, in 2006's BioShock. Your character is given the choice of harvesting small, corrupt children called "Little Sisters" for their power. It's portrayed as a difficult choice, where you get much smaller improvements in power if you let the girls live, but much more power to save more people generally if you sacrifice the Little Sister. The problem? If you save the Little Sisters, you get the power gifted to you anyway -- the only penalty is a slight delay.
The Old Republic's nature as a massively multiplayer game causes major problems in terms of meaningless moral choices. MMOs like The Old Republic are rigidly designed so that every aspect of the game can be understood and controlled. Meaningful choice doesn't exist, except in terms of how you spend your time in the game, so the choices offered become strictly aesthetic. Pick one thing, and maybe your companion likes you a little more, or you can wield a particular weapon. Nothing important later in the game will be taken away from you. You'll never have the opportunity to switch sides.
Perhaps the worst example I encountered in my time playing The Old Republic occurred on Tatooine, as an Imperial player. I was sent to uncover proof that the Jawas had a shaman who could use the Force. After a few quests, I uncovered proof, and confronted a Jawa leader. A game that allowed a truly moral choice would have given me the opportunity to leave the Jawas in peace, or even to join them and fight for their freedom. Instead, all of my "choices" forced me to fight the Jawa, and then capture or kill it and give that information to one Imperial or another. Either way, I was fighting those Jawas, even if my Light Side character's sympathies were with them, and having the freedom to actually step into that character's role would have presented options that the structure of the game couldn't allow. The game's shallow "morality" system was one of the primary reasons I stopped playing -- the choice was so obviously an illusion that it felt downright manipulative.
I'm not certain there's a single-player game that has done morality correctly. That may be impossible, given the constraints of programming compared to the varieties of ethical decisions. With that in mind, here are a few games which have dealt with morality in creative and impactful fashions:
Ultima IV: Its morality is quite different from how we see game morality today, in part because it doesn't treat good and evil as equivalent. In most games, moral success and in-game success are the same thing. In Ultima IV, you have to actively reject becoming stronger in order to become better. It's arbitrary and occasionally frustrating, but it forces a change in basic behavior, the heart of a successful ethical system.
Dragon Age: Origins: Although it still largely follows the Fallout/BioWare model, two shifts make it more interesting. First, it doesn't treat ethics primarily as good versus evil, but instead more as ends versus means. Second, that tends to manifest itself primarily in whether your companions agree with you or not, instead of an overall score. This keeps the game's narrative focused on a smaller scale of keeping your partners happy, which is great since the companions are Dragon Age's greatest strength.
Fallout: New Vegas: The perfect example of making choices matter. Although there is an overall karma score, your character's relationship with various factions is far more important overall. And you can't keep them all happy. From the start, when you have to decide whether good relations with a small town are more important than a wide-ranging gang, to the end, when your decisions force you to take sides in a major battle, those choices matter.
Mass Effect series: Like its fantasy cousin Dragon Age, there are two small, appealing perks to Mass Effect's morality. It's not a zero sum game between Paragon and Renegade. You can play as both, and doing so increases your options. I tend to talk like a Renegade but act like a Paragon, which gives me a happy best-of-both-worlds. Also, because the storyline continues from one game to the next, the consequences of your decisions seem to have more impact on the world, which gives the games tremendous strength.
I've got Dragon Age II, Alpha Protocol, and The Witcher all in my queue, and I'm excited that all three of them are supposed to do even more with ethical choice in games. What are some of your best and worst experiences with morality in RPGs?
Coming Soon: My first foray into The Witcher, what Lands Of Lore & Betrayal At Krondor have in common with Final Fantasy, a famous RPG built without combat, and the importance (or not) of thematic consistency.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.