Not Enough Games Ask Players to Compromise Their Morals

Most games let you be a “good” person because that’s just how things usually go, but what if more games pushed players outside moral and ethical comfort zones? This week, Rob wrote about how games can uncomfortably reflect who we are as people, which Rob, Patrick, Austin, and Danielle used to more broadly discuss why games don’t ask more from players.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at
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Oh wow I have so many thoughts on this. I think this is one of the major questions my master’s thesis probed at, or was at least a question I had on my mind while writing a lot of it.

Instead of diving into all of that, I’ll say that this was one of the major things I loved about Nier: Automata. I’ll blur from here but very major, end of the game spoilers to follow. I think what’s brilliant about the structure at the end of that game is that it gives you two pretty diametrically opposed philosophies/characters and asks you which you identify more with. Do you want to probe further into the truth of Yorha and watch as 9S descends into nihilism, or see A2 discover that life can be given meaning and purpose even when you know it’s all meaningless. It doesn’t necessarily ask you to compromise your morals, but it asks these big, difficult moral questions so much more effectively than any game I’ve ever played. It’s not a moral points system, it actually does the work of digging into 9S and A2’s morality and at the end makes you decide which one you agree with more. That’s the really pivotal point in that game for me.

I think moving forward, that’s what I want difficult moral decisions or problems to look like in games.
Games are always already limited by their programming, you can’t ever give the player complete agency within any sort of moral system. Instead I think games need to experiment more with letting the player play morality within a narrative framework. Even though Nier: Automata technically gives you a lot less agency over the narrative than something like, say, the Mass Effect series it felt so much deeper because it brought out those big moral questions through gameplay rather than through dialogue and quicktime events.


Do you guys choose what gets recommended in the “Watch This Next” box or is the Waypoint algorithm trying to say something:



My initial reaction to the title of this thread is that I definitely don’t want more games that ask players to compromise their morals and after listening to the episode and attempting to go for a walk to think about it while getting groceries but failing because wow the ground sure is icy tonight and groceries can wait, I still don’t entirely like the premise.

I’m all for exploring difficult moral questions in games, but I don’t think making it difficult for players to do what they think is right is necessarily the best approach to that. Accurately depicting difficult scenarios is one thing, but to explicitly balance a game in a way that makes “evil” play more appealing would generally be counterproductive to exploring the consequences moral decisions.

I say “generally” because I’m sure there are cases where pushing players to make immoral choices can be effective, particularly if the game calls out the consequences of those choices at some point. However, even that type of ploy doesn’t sit well with me because it’s easy to view as a “gotcha” moment that relies on a misunderstanding of the game rather than a moral failure. Ethical choices in games also often feel like false dilemmas because the options available to the player will always be restricted compared to the options they’d have as a person in the real world. Adjusting the balance between the fantasy of being a hero and the anti-fantasy of needing to cause harm doesn’t make a forced choice more interesting.

Rather than asking whether I want to be good or whether I have the technical competence to be good, I’d prefer games ask what it means to be good. Having to compromise on Not Being a Murderer because you’re not good enough at aiming non-lethal weapons is not an interesting moral choice. Compromising on your ability to help people now in order to help other people later is an interesting moral choice because it doesn’t ask whether you want to do good but how you think you should do it.

The idea of choosing where and how you can best do good does fit with what the Waypoint team were saying about making tough resource management choices in games. Where I differ is that I’m less interested in games hammering the failure component of each decision if they don’t also highlight moral victories in an interesting and satisfying way. I’m not fond of games asking me to pass up in-game advantages to perform virtual good deeds that don’t even impact virtual people. Saving lives isn’t good because it creates saviors; it’s good because people continue to live. Telling a player they’re a mass murderer has less of an impact than telling them the people they killed had hundreds of stories to tell (from what I understand, this is the point of Undertale, though I personally bounced off the bullet hell mechanics of that game after having thoroughly spoiled the story for myself before playing).

Playing as criminals, pirates, and other people who have to make decisions that are not socially acceptable doesn’t change the fact that players want to make the best of the situation – just as the people they’re roleplaying would. Unless the player character is supposed to be a sociopath, they should be motivated to be the best person they can be given their circumstances. Again, there are certain to be exceptions to this if a game is satirical or makes some other deliberate use of the player’s immorality, but generally a player’s morality should align with who they are in a game if the game has successfully made the player empathize with their character.

I don’t want to regret a moral decision in a game because it doesn’t align with what I hope I’d do in real life. I want games that get me to question what I’d hope I do in real life. Give me reasons to do multiple things and make them all compelling and good.


Wait Danielle, did you not kill the guy in Death of the Outsider who’s like two steps away from necrophilia with the corpse of a witch? Oh god, did you do the alternative to killing Lady Boyle?

Also I need Austin screeching “I love robots” on the Austin Walker soundboard next to the 11 different "Vinny!"s.

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The mention of “playing Han Solo” stuck out to me. In films, TV, novels, and even real life we love the Han Solo and Mindy St. Claire. The selfish assholes who eventually redeem themselves with some big risk or sacrifice.

Video game “morality systems” often seem to be designed to make that character arc impossible. If you pick all the “good” options, you get to also pick the big “good” option at the end. If you pick a mix of options, a lot of the “good” options aren’t available to you. I wonder if that’s a conscious choice by the writers to depict a certain moral worldview, or if it’s just an effort by designers to make it feel like the game has ““consequences””.

Hm… now I kinda want to see a video game version of The Good Place…


I have a couple thoughts/stories on this (First post so please let me know if I mess anything up, I will delete/edit/apologize as needed).

I first wanted to tell the story of when I first played Metro 2033. So, I was still in high school and I was mostly playing Metro because I liked all the little “immersive” mechanics, like having a hand charger for your flashlight, seeing the actual number of bullets in a clip and if you didn’t have enough bullets the clip would only be half full when you put it in and dealing with gas mask filters. I didn’t really pay attention to the story, years of playing shooter games with half-baked stories had taught me not to play attention. So when I finished the game I firmly believe that “nuking the bad guys” was a good thing to have done. It wasn’t until I watched a critical Let’s Play several years later that I learned about this hidden mechanic and another ending. I imagine if they had allowed that ending without requiring the player to actually engage in the world and be open-minded though various sections of game play, I probably would have just chosen not to nuke them because “Oh, if the game is giving me the option to not nuke them then that’s probably the right option!” Also, replaying the game, I was surprised by the amount of depth the game had, like, spiritually. In the metro universe the afterlife was literally destroyed in the nuclear holocaust, leaving shadows of those who’ve passed left lingering i n the tunnels continually reliving the moments of their death.

Speaking of Obsidian, I played Tyranny last year. This is a game where you are a part of a world conquering empire. It’s hard to describe your actual role in the empire, but your character probably isn’t a “good person” if they have that job. You play what’s called, I think, a fatebinder? You basically enforce Kyros’, the emperor’s, laws in newly conquered lands. So going in to the game I intended to compromise my morals in order to roleplay this character. So for set up, you enter Tyranny, make your character, and participate in the subjugation of the last free part of the world during a beautifully rendered kind series of choices, (no combat). Inside the empire there are various factions that are vassals of Kyros that compete to govern/control new territories. Here in the Tiers, the name of this newly conquered region, there are two factions within the empire who desire this land, the Disfavored and the Scarlet Horde. The Disfavored are well trained and take slaves of those they conquer, vaguely Roman, I’d say. The Scarlet Horde force those they conquer into conscripting, and what they lack in skill they make up for in numbers. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “I hate both of these groups. Great!” So again, I went into the game with the goal of forcing myself to… be terrible, that seemed like what the game wanted.

Here’s what happened: After being conquered the locals of the Tiers started rebelling, it was multiple uncoordinated rebellions in each of the various regions of the Tiers. And I found myself just wanting to save lives. So when I had them surrounded I would let the rebels go. The specific way that my orders were worded allowed me to show leniency.
And by taking my orders in their broadest context I started siding with the rebels. In order to do this I had to have the rebels swear fealty to me. But I believed I could unite the various rebel factions,
defeat the empire factions (but not fight the empire itself) and achieve some local autonomy for the people of the Tiers. I don’t want to go in to the specifics of how the magic system in this game kinda works, but very briefly your renown, what people believe you can do, actually gives you power (that’s one of the reasons the emperor is so powerful). So in the final moments of the game, after exploiting legal loopholes in the commands I was given to achieve my goals WITHOUT compromising my beliefs I had enough power to actually confront Kyros, but I chose not to. Kyros,
worried that I was about to rebel had sent an army to attack my holdings, but I reaffirmed my fealty to Kyros. I, the player, know that empires tend to fall to internal conflicts, and it’s possible that I could have been that conflict. But I just couldn’t do it. I don’t like Kyros, but I was apprehensive about pitting my war torn depleted lands against the might of the rest of the world. And the game does a lot to give context to this choice, suggesting that one rebellion here might lead to rebellions in other areas, etc.
Anyway long story short I basically found a way to keep true to my morals as best as one could in this situation. I later watch a critique of Tyranny from someone who did compromise their morals and sided with the Disfavored the first time they played and had a miserable time (Noah Caldwell-Gervais on youtube!).

One last thing I wanted to say (I wrote too much already) I like Dragon Age 2, a lot. It’s my favorite DA game just because it bring so much context to the mage/templar conflict which DA:I is able to build upon very well. It’s a hot mess though.


Genuinely the best example I can think of here is Telltale’s The Walking Dead… season 2. It’s overly railroaded in a way that’s clear even on a first playthrough, but fundamentally it’s asking, over and over, ‘how many chances will you give Kenny?’. It’s clear to the player and most of the characters - probably including him - that eventually you’ll have to give up on him, but I found the tension between an idealistic Clementine trying to live up to the lessons Lee taught her and the cynicism of a lot of the other supporting characters, especially Jane, fairly compelling… Is trusting other people a luxury too dangerous to afford, or a necessity of rebuilding society?

Anyway I think season 2 of Telltale’s TWD is underrated, altho even with that said I haven’t played the rest of it.


T h e a l g o r i t h m s c a n n o t s a v e u s

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I think a lot about I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. I have like, serious issues with the game on a lot of levels, but I was very enticed by the original purpose stated by Harlon Ellison, of a game where you can’t win, but instead of a selection of ways to lose.

In Prey, one of my favorite little moments is when a prompt pops up on screen and asks you to make a decision: do you destroy a possibly contaminated escape pod with people on board, or do you let it go? This doesn’t have any major bearing on the outcome of anything in the game, but it forces you to address the ethics.

Spec Ops: The Line also does this to an interesting effect.

I’m honestly surprised so few games have just straight up put the Trolley Problem in their games. There are lots of interesting decision paradoxes and ethical quagmires that have the opportunity to have players address really unique parts of their ethos that they are not normally challenged.


There’s always Tyranny, Obsidian’s fascist RPG that tasks you with trying to make a broken system work and constantly surprising you with the revelation that all you’re doing is propping up an evil system by trying to break it from the inside. I mean, one of the big not-surprises is that the warrior faction are literally just neo-nazis, despite them initially looking like the least evil faction in comparison with the sadist cult.

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I honestly forgot a lot about season 2, even though I really loved it, but that choice at the end with Kenny really fucked me up. Me and my brother were playing through it together, and when we got to that point we each had different ideas on what we wanted Clementine to do. I had the controller in my hands though, and I ended up killing Kenny and sticking with Jane. I felt bad about it immediately afterword, but I don’t think there was a choice to make there that wouldn’t have made me feel bad.

Side note, after that I went and watched a video of the ending where Kenny takes you to the settlement and leaves you. I don’t cry often at video games or movies, but after watching that I was a wreck for a solid half hour.


Re: Legate Lanius at the end of (most) NV playthroughs, as it’s relevant to this discussion: The Speech/Barter 100 options that you get for him don’t actually change him in anyway. He doesn’t do anything on the sliding scale of “Hm maybe I’ve done bad things,” to “I, a Scythian, retract my statements against the Empire of Rome, and fall to my knees, weeping at the moral horror that has been my life and actions.” When you convince him to take his army and leave, you do so on his terms, because he wouldn’t give two shits if you tried to convince him he is in the wrong, as far as his overall goals and morals go. You can do that, and you will then start combat with him a few dialogue options later if you don’t back out and more or less sit down at the negotiating table.

You have to convince him that this particular action, this battle, is not in line with his long term goals that is: the Legion winning, the Legion being strong, moral correctness (from his perspective) within the Legion, and social cohesion within the Legion. With increasingly difficult Speech and/or Barter checks (you say different things depending on the skill,) you convince him on some variation of these points that going through with the battle will not end well for him in the long term, even if he wins it.

And getting back to my first point, he does not say anything to the effect of “And may there be peace between our people.” You can’t even form something resembling a strategic alliance with him, because that’s not who he is and, largely, not the society he is a part of and occupies probably the 2nd most important (unless Edward Sallow [Caeser] is dead when you talk to him,) position of influence in. He says, basically:

“I’ll leave for now, but some point in the near future I am coming back stronger, I am going to kill you and burn your profligate world to the ground. May we meet again.”

Which, considering all this, I don’t think the Speech/Barter options are either the moral or politically expedient decisions at all. Of course that depends on the character you’re playing at the time, but speaking for myself-as-me, I think on both those fronts the correct decisions is to put 2 (or 50, this is still an RPG) in that motherfuckers skull and tear his vaunted Legion to shreds as best you can.


One game that made me compromise my morals was LOCALHOST. Deciding if I was going to delete the drives was difficult, and by game’s end I wasn’t satisfied with how I handled it. A particular moment that stood out to me was when I decided to delete a drive because it didn’t justify its existence enough for me to keep it, but then I asked myself WHY it needed to justify to me its existence to stay alive. That was hard to deal with…

It’s also a bit of good fun that Prey lampshades this by including actual trolley problems in the psych test that you take at the beginning.

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Everyone who is saying Tyranny in this thread is spot on. Tyranny puts you in the role of the evildoer and then asks you what kind of horrors you are willing to inflict in order to satisfy your boss.

The two main factions in the game present their own rationals for minimising harm, with the understanding that harm must be done. Side with the Disfavored, the fascist elitist military, and you’re favouring the brutal, ordered cruelty that characterises fascist societies throughout history but at least you’re sparing the conquered lands from the Scarlet Chorus. The Chorus forces villages of people to butcher each other until only the most violent and resourceful remain and then recruits them, making them complicit in the genocidal crusade of the chorus. By favouring the Chorus, there’s the potential for the poor and the downtrodden to rise up against their oppressive rulers meaning siding with them can save lives that the Disfavored would systematically destroy without a second thought. For all its impossible cruelty, the Chorus doesn’t give a shit about who you are as long as you can kill. But any egalitarian principles they twist are in service of an insatiable death cult that destroys its enemy’s sanity and will to resist completely.

I ended up doing awful shit for the Disfavored purely to preserve the culture and sanity of the Tiers, a bit like Noah Gervais did in his video on the game. It just showed me that I’m more comfortable with evil that has a logic and structure to it than pure bloodlust, and it sucks however you slice it.


Did I space out while listening, or was the first BioShock not mentioned in the podcast? It strikes me as a relevant failed attempt at this kind of idealism/pragmatism dilemma. A lot of the discussion and praise for that game when it was new centered on the Difficult Moral Choice of saving helpless children or killing them to harvest their magic power. From the NYT, for example:

The dramatic tension comes from the choice the player must make: either to kill the Little Sisters and take their special stuff, which makes the player much more powerful, or to redeem their souls and recover only a fraction of the elixir. More important, the overall story arc depends on the player’s decisions.

It’s well known now that saving the Little Sisters is the best choice from a gameplay/power perspective, as the rewards from Tenenbaum outweigh the ADAM you’d otherwise collect. The game tells you that harvesting Little Sisters is the more useful option for survival via Atlas, your tutorial radio voice, but I’m curious how many players believed that. Personally I approached it with a metagaming perspective, and I’d imagine a lot of other players did as well: I assumed that the game’s designers were unlikely to actually punish the morally correct decision, so I opted for the non-monstrous path without a second thought. It seems like a lot of attempts at tough game choices will run into this same pattern of metagaming, and some players will feel like their expectations are betrayed if the game actually sticks to its goal and makes the right choice harder.

Originally, killing little sisters was going to be optimal, but management freaked out:

Towards the end of 2006 Levine and Chey were unhappy with the system. “We couldn’t really figure out how to make them work properly, and we thought about cutting them a number of times,” says Levine. Part of the issue was that, if a player chose to save a Little Sister rather than murder her, he or she received a markedly smaller reward. One team member recalls 2K’s boss Greg Gobbi saying: “We are not shipping a $25m product where the player gets punished for doing the right thing.”


The gang covered this some in the podcast, but strategy games tend to reward compromising my morals in a lot of ways; most of which, to my shame, I didn’t even really start thinking about beyond surface level until a year or so ago.

There’s lots of examples, but the one that immediately leaped to my mind is when I decided I wanted to try playing Call to Power 2 some months ago. I played it a bunch as a kid but didn’t really do much besides cheat myself to the future and have fun filling every tile with improvements and building giant robots. So, I did what I always do these days with strategy games - started looking in on how to “best” play. What’s the most efficient playstyle to win, et all, because that’s how I enjoy strategy games, usually.

Well, it turns out in CtP2, the answer was slavers. A lot of slavers. Slaving is by far the most optimal way to play the early part of that game, because it takes away a population point (worth the resource production of a tile) away from an opposing city and gives it to one of yours. This is, abstracting it to numbers, a very very good deal. But it’s also…slavery.

It stops being relevant after a certain point because you can eventually build units to free slaves (which I believe gives you the same bonus of stealing population from an opponent) but, it was just. It was too much, I found myself deeply uncomfortable with it and moved on to something else.


Initially I was wary of the title (hat tip to some of the dunks out there) but upon listening to the podcast, that was a really good discussion.

I heard (for the first time) an ad that the UK gov* have started running that got inserted into this episode. So, in the middle of this discussion of compromised moral choices, I got to listen to a posh British voice basically giving a “See Something, Say Something” talk (these messages are not traditionally ubiquitous in the UK, although they are becoming more and more common). Here’s the kicker: it ended by implying that only by snitching on “suspicious” people to the government could we prevent child abuse.

This was a deeply disturbing ad in the way it attempts to play to the heroic impulses of the audience while playing into an authoritarian state - something that’s been getting worse in recent years here. It actually worked incredibly well in the wider podcast, however unintentionally, when discussion later moved to the way narratives play into hero complexes in games. [Oh, in case people aren’t aware, UK politicians and press have, in recent years, highly racialised CSA (which now wraps round to pointing at highly-publicised abuse and claiming that it only happened because people are called racist for calling it out) to the point where it wouldn’t be unreasonable to read this advert as a dog whistle to keep an eye on anyone who “looks foreign” and report them - that’s important context for quite how grim local politics are and how this advert plays in the wider political landscape.]

Anyway, unintentional and something most listeners won’t have experienced (due to GeoIP ad insertion).

* for those not aware, they’re currently pretty Trump-before-Trump with only slightly more saying the quiet parts quiet.