Tobold's Blog
Friday, August 19, 2011
Story-based MMORPGs and morality

In the past weeks there have been several bits of preview information about Star Wars: The Old Republic which made me think about virtual morality. For example it was revealed that there are romance options with your NPC companions, but that pursuing these options as a jedi would yield you dark side points. Or in other words, jedi don't have sex, because sex is evil. No wonder they died out and lost the old republic to the sith, who apparently get stronger by having sex.

There are two problems here. One is having a morality system which is black and white, with just one form of neutral in between. If you are a jedi and take decisions in SWTOR, you will either get light side points, or dark side points, or neither. That doesn't leave much room for complex moral decisions. And a lot of people will end up making all the obvious choices, not for reasons of story or role-playing, but because you need so and so many light side points to be able to wield the glowing lightsaber of holiness.

The other problem is that by clearly attaching good and evil points to decisions, the players are bound to the ideas of morality of the developers. If developers say that romance is evil, then it is so in the game. If they wanted to make straight sex good and gay sex evil, they could do so as well. Unless you keep stories extremely simplistic, there are bound to be situations where a player believes he is doing the moral thing, only to get slapped with points that tell him that the devs consider his choice to have been evil.

I think we will see a lot of stories in the future about players complaining how SWTOR judged their actions and awarded the "wrong" kind of points to actions the player considered "clearly" moral/amoral.
To be fair this silly moral relativism is very much part of the IP. I watched films 1-3 again and the main message is how bad Anakin is for being a fairly normal teenager, with a rather sweet love story. It was hard to see why any normal person would not conclude that the jedi rules were stupid, arbitary unfair and deserved to be broken.
Anakin Skywalker got lured to the dark side because he wanted to save his pregnant wife, yea evil..
That's the problem with most of the so called moral system in many games.
They only allow for Lawful Good or Chaotic Evil, which is very limited.
In the Star Wars expanded universe, the Dark Side it's not automatically evil, it's just a different kind of relationship with the force. Jedis don't avoid sex because it's evil, they avoid it because it goes against the Jedi code of conduct. These options only yield "dark side points" if pursued by a jedi, because they go against their code (kinda like in D&D when a paladin goes against his alignment); but if pursued by another class, they do nothing?: if that is the case, it doesn't seem to be an absolute moral code in the game, just a relative one affecting some classes, according to the game lore of those classes.
Stabs is right, it's important to the IP. Jedi need to feel like a monastic order and it's hard to do that if every single player Jedi is banging a harem of groupies. If you want a sexy character, play a smuggler.

But more importantly, having darkside points isn't like getting cancer and people need to stop thinking 'omg if my character isn't totally perfect in every way then I'm a loser' because storytelling doesn't work that way.

Plus I'm sure you'll be able to grind darkside or lightside points in endgame if you don't like where your character ended up.
Why exactly is every morality system instantly considered in terms of good vs. evil? Personally, I blame D&D.

Now, I am the first to admit that I am not a Star Wars buff, but from what I've understood the conflicting moralities of the Sith and Jedi could be described as indulgence vs. transcendence (if you ask the Jedi) or emotional expression vs. emotional suppression (if you ask the Sith). And how would you call one of those inherently evil?

The whole good vs. evil thing doesn't really work on an objective level, since noone considers himself truly evil. Consequently, trying to map an actually working morality system to good and evil will also fail, independent of the system.
well I imagine a guide in swtor like zygor guides to say

choose this for light points or chose this for dark points :P

I like the morality choices in a single player game, like Dragon Age for example, were your decisions affect the story and not your abilities..

in a competitive environment, like MMO is, I agree with you that the choices will be fixed and guided to success..


there is an amount of players who play MMO that they are solo players..they don't care so much about the end game and sometimes they don't care at all..they are people who leveling characters and exploring the world!For them the system will work nice as they will chose what they want and not what it is best to chose!

the other type of players, the ones that only matter is power, loot and progress they will choose what is best.But really they don't care either way..

It is a feature that 90% of the people don't care about and does not affect them and 10% of the people will like and care about.So any feature like this is welcome.
Games like the Witcher aim for a more complex morality.

It's not up to the game designer to tell us what's moral or not. Just let us choose and show us how are choices change our surroundings. We can be the judge of good & evil.
you can see which answer is good/evil before you choose it
Loved star wars, seen every movie several times. BUT, I am not a star wars lore expert.

Anakin got lured to the dark side because he let his emotions rule his actions over logic. Isn't that a hallmark trait of lovers? :D

Anyway, developers defining morality... hmm. sounds like "pope defining morality" Yeah, the leader of a religion gets to define what is and is not moral. If you dont like that the developers think that gay sex is amoral, then you should quit the game. (and probably start a movement to get EVERYONE to quit)

I am less worried about that example and more worried about inconsistency. "So its ok to kill a dog, but not a cat?" sort of thing.
Sorry folks. I said relativism when what I should have said was moral absolutism. Apologies to the philosophers here.
The gray area would be getting less points for middle of the ground choices.

Kill someone and rob them lots of dark points. Flick someone off 1 point.
the conflicting moralities of the Sith and Jedi could be described as indulgence vs. transcendence

Maybe I'm the wrong "generation" of Star Wars, but in the "old" episodes 4-6, the lines were drawn very clearly in terms of good vs. evil. The rebellion is good, the empire is evil. Reagan even borrowed the term "evil empire" from the film, and it has since been applied to everything from the Soviet Union to Microsoft and Google.

I think the Star Wars universe leaves less room for interpretation than the Warcraft universe, where orcs and undead ended up being seen as not any more evil than the Alliance.
I think that's not so much morality in games, but putting a game in a universe that is paper thin and created by someone with the emotional maturity of an 11 year old.
@Spinks "But more importantly, having darkside points isn't like getting cancer"
From a story perspective, that may be true. But from a game mechanics perspective, it could be a big problem.
It's a classic problem in games that want to have a morality system. They try so hard to make each side 'balanced' but that just ends up making them feel contrived. They're forced to make the bad side self-destructive and the good side have characters that respond way too nicely to what you do.

In a real morality system, the good path should genuinely be harder. You're constantly giving away advantages, self-sacrificing, and you end up weaker than you would be otherwise because of it. The bad path should be genuinely easier, because you're selfishly trying to gain every advantage, and while that might not be nice, it works, it's very effective.

This is completely ignoring the nuances, grey vs greyer morality systems that make things so much more fun. I'd love a game where when a tearful mother comes up and asks you to save her child from trolls you can either:
1) go and do it yourself, getting nothing for your troubles (lawful, good),
2) give her money to go hire someone to do it (net loss, somewhat good),
3) ignore her (neutral),
4) do it for some money (net gain, somewhat bad),
5) do it if she agrees to have sex with you (net gain, bad)
6) go to find him, kill the trolls and the child (chaotic, evil).

Instead of only having an option between 1 and 6.
I don't know if I necessarily agree with your argument Tobold. Sure the division of black and white may be highly pronounced and two-dimensional, but that has always been the hallmark of the Star Wars franchise. It is classic good vs. evil, with almost no room for anything in between.

Given that this is what Star Wars is known for, and despite my own issues with gameplay mechanics that are based on such plastic underlying principles, I think it should be said that this is what Star Wars has been all about.

Now if someone were to make an MMO the George R.R. Martin saga...
It will be interesting to see what they decide is evil or not. It seems almost inevitable that they'll disappoint players who are trying to follow one path and choose the opposite by mistake. If there are as many difficult choices in the game as they've lead us to believe, how are they to say what's evil or not?

Morality is an unexplored area in terms of MMOs and real consequences on the player. Letting players decide just how good or evil they want to be, and doing so through empowering decision making, may just be what it takes to convince people story matters again.

Related to this, Tobold, I'd love to read a post with your thoughts on morality gear included in the game. In the context of MMOs, deciding gear based upon narrative decisions is an iffy line to tread. Link to informational article.
It will be interesting to see what they do with this. It's worth remembering (or finding out about) how the KoToR games handled this— they in fact had some "gray side" force users, who eschewed both jedi and sith paths.
I think you are completely misunderstanding the jedi order, Tobold. Relationships are romantic, romance draws from emotionality, and emotions are to be avoided as a Jedi because the light side of the force isn't about being good, it is about maintaining order and control of one's own mind and body. Sex certainly isn't evil, it is just that relationships tend to lead to a loss of control.

That's what the sith are: Emotional.
The problem with that strict interpretation of what a jedi is or isn't is that it leads to zero freedom of decision. What interest does a story-based game have if there is a "right" decision to everything, and it isn't one I can't identify with?
Tobold: Since when are you prevented from choosing? If you choose to break the rules of the monastic order that your character joined at a very early age and has very strict rules, you get dark side points. You aren't prevented from choosing.

Then again, I have no idea what light side or dark side points actually do within the game. But unless there is some sort of stat penalty, it obviously isn't a right/wrong choice, it is just a trait that defines your character.

Again, whoever compared it to a Paladin in DnD was pretty spot on. You shouldn't play a paladin if you don't want your character to act like a paladin, which, depending on GM, is usually very, very strict. The difference is that a paladin that disobeys loses all their powers completely and if you just want to be a jedi who breaks the rules of the order, all you get is some dark side points.

(Again, depending on what they do)
Just a thought, but have you considered playing a Sith that goes for all the light-side points possible? Maybe that would be more accurate for the character you want to play?
But unless there is some sort of stat penalty, it obviously isn't a right/wrong choice, it is just a trait that defines your character.

That's my point. In SWTOR there *is* a stat penalty. Basically sith and jedi have morality gear which can only be worn if you have sufficient dark side or light side points. If you go for grey, you miss out on both.
Oh, I wasn't aware of that. I haven't been following the news too closely. That does kind of suck and trivializes plot choices, unless it is only visually different and not statistically different. I was really afraid of min/maxing deciding what I say in conversations, and it appears that will be an issue. Then again, the one article I read wasn't very specific about it.

Where do you keep up with TOR news anyway? I don't know where to look, everything I have learned has been regurgitated by a blogger I follow since it didn't seem worthwhile trying to follow every little detail for 2 years and getting hyped when everything important would get repeated by everyone. But I guess it is getting close enough to release for a good amount of info to be available so maybe I should follow.
No idea about the veracity of it, but this link seems to indicate there WILL be grey morality gear.

Of course I suppose you can then argue there the same problem exists, except instead of being for people that balance their decisions the problem exists with people that are 75% light or 75% dark instead of full light, full dark, or grey.
MMOs are full of moral issues to do with griefing, scamming, quitting groups you signed up for, etc. Why are we concerned about the existence or otherwise of some autistic numeric system of morality points relating to interactions with NPCs?
It seems you are conflating good with right. The right choice is the one that helps you to define your character, or get the gear you want. If a complex character is important to you then you'll make choices that result in a grey area score and miss out on the holy roller gear. If dark side gear is important to you then you may miss out on creating a character with conflicted desires that's interesting to role play. From what I've read here it sounds like a system that has consequences for the choices you make - making those choices more meaningful, not less.
I'm going to side with those that are pointing out that this limitation on Jedi is very directly thematic. People like to think of everything in terms of gray in real life, in the present age, but that isn't how Star Wars works for Jedi. Jedi are supposed to be ruled by logic, the Jedi Code, and the directives of the Jedi Council. It's a disciplined life, first and foremost. Jedi serve; it is what they do.

Passion leads to the dark side because it causes you to decide on the basis of what you feel at the time, not on the basis of the Code. Both love and anger are viewed as dangerous because they can trigger actions in conflict with the Code. A man in love may do something that he would not otherwise do, in order to protect or please the one he loves. For instance, Anakin and Amidala defying the Council to pursue the distress call on their own.
If you really want to look at it in terms of the IP, choosing to go a middle gray with a Jedi character should get you kicked out of the Jedi Order and land you as a rogue with force abilities but not authority.

In terms of the Star Wars IP, and only that IP, you're essentially asking to play a Jedi who isn't a Jedi and not get penalized for it. Being a Jedi is entirely bound up in the Code; those who reject the Code are force users, but not Jedi.
You seem to be assuming that every player will value gear over morality.

I will explicitly be playing for morality (and story) over gear, because I don't want to play with the elitist pricks who would scrutinize me for it in the first place.
Well, the Jedi Code is a far stronger set of rules then an avarage Joe's morality code, that's clear.

But morality aside, grinding morality points to have perfect Lightside or perfect Darkside will probably simply cost you the quest rewards during he game.

I imagine the employer conversation tree after quest completion to feel like this:
- And now, Employer, you will die!
- Gimme a large reward!
- Ok, reward time
- Can you be so kind and present me with some sort of reward please?
- I can't accept that reward. It's against the Code.

Killing the employer and not accepting the reward will most probably cost you the quest reward while boosting up your morality points. Other options can modify morality, nut will grant you stuff in addition.

I would very much hate if playing a goodie-two-shoes was the easier path, like in KOTOR. That's actually against the IP.

Getting the morality points maxed out one way or the other will make you regular items work pretty well, while ignoring morality should grant you powerful items, cause you won't really count on any type of morality bonus.

And if one can grind morality points by repeating some sort of trivial task Bioware can see me out of this game real quick. Each and every task should have a single morality modifier that once applied stays that way, so that a player wanting to modify their morality score needs to watch it in subsequent adventures, not simply re-do the last one.
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