Good old Peter Molyneux. Maverick genius. Gaming god. Someone who is always pushing the bar higher and higher. His company, Lionhead, has recently worked hard attempting to take gaming to new levels by giving a player the freedom to make moral decisions with their in-game avatar, and so shape their future into one of either "good" or "evil". The idea is that by allowing a player to decide how to react to a situation, Molyneux hopes that they will become more emotionally involved and perhaps even learn something about themselves in the process.
It's a great ambition, but in my opinion, the morally ambiguous Syndicate (1993) offered the player more moral freedom than Black & White (2001) or Fable (2004), despite these more recent games being designed specifically to offer this new type of gameplay. Is Peter Molyneux moving in the wrong direction, or am I just talking rubbish?
In Syndicate, yes, you were working for a heartless, futuristic megacorp, taking out its competitors using the most underhanded and unscrupulous methods imaginable, but at least you were free to complete your missions in any way you saw fit. Meaning you could wait for the car to pass, or blow it up and cross the road immediately without fear of recrimination, losing "good" points or growing "devil" horns.
Ok, it's not a great example of a moral dilemma, but at least the player was free to do what they wanted (provided they could handle the police response), without actually being judged for their actions. You see, as soon as you think there's some all-knowing, all-seeing deity watching over your every move, judging you, you start acting in a way to please them, instead of yourself.
The idea of being watched and judged is the very foundation of control not freedom.
It really irked me that Black & White's tag line was "Find out who you really are", as if the designers had created a flawless personality test that would reveal the truth about people. But the reality is that you can't make an honest decision if you think the game is going to judge you for it. What if I don't feel like helping that villager right now..... Well if I don't, my "good" rating will decrease, so I guess I better had. It's not really eliciting the 'emotional response' Molyneux has talked about, or providing a decent moral quandary, but instead turning "morality" into a "points based" system, and therefore a conscious decision to play the game a particular way.
What's worse is that Black & White's two advisory characters, The Voices of "Good" and "Evil", have very explicit and self-conscious ideas about "right" and "wrong", when they really don't need to. "Evil" doesn't really exist in a real-world sense; it is usually a negative emotion, like apathy or fear, that leads to actions that are later judged as "bad", rather than someone making a conscious and premeditated attempt at doing something evil.
Everybody thinks they're a good person.
So, instead of Black & White's 'Voice of Evil' saying, "Let the villagers burn, why should you care about those little creatures... you're a god!" (paraphrase), he should say, in a fed-up tone of voice, "Ohhh, do we have to help them? I'm sure they'll be able to sort it out themselves. After all, they survived long enough before we arrived. Why do we need to interfere for every little thing? There's such a thing as nature..." I.e. Create a justifiable argument that might convince the player to do something arguably "bad". Even altering the scenarios so that players are tempted with a "fast reward" for doing something quick but not necessarily "good", would have tested a player's apathy and seen how prepared they were to do the "right" thing.
But is that enough?
Even if the game did work like this, I contend that it still shouldn't recognise "good" and "bad" actions. It shouldn't keep a tally in the way Black & White does: Play "bad" and your citadel turns "evil" looking, play "good" and it grows wings, gains a halo, and sprouts a rainbow, or something. Because, quite simply, you're still playing to the game designer's idea of right and wrong.
A great alternative to this would be possible in something like Fable. Instead of the "universe" deciding how evil your character is, it could be judged by NPCs on an individual level.
If games must insist on giving your evil avatar red glowing eyes, or your good avatar open-toed sandals, it would have been more interesting, and true to life, if it changed depending on how the NPC you were talking to viewed you (at least in Fable). For example, kill a NPC's husband and the next time you speak to her you will look "evil". Stop talking to her and you will look neutral again. Go talk to a father of the boy you saved and you will appear "angelic". If the people of a village hear of your misdeeds, you appear menacing when you enter the village, and normal again when you leave.
(If Molyneux does feel strongly about a particular moral decision, and wants his opinion heard by the player, then he could appear as a villager in the game and give his judgement the same way as everyone else!)
Removing the idea of being judged and rewarded altogether would be best, though. It would create an infinitely more interesting, mature and ultimately more emotional experience for the player. Doing so would also allow the designers to create more complex quandaries, leaving the user to make up their own mind about the "right" decision, and experience the resulting consequences.
Imagine having to seriously think about your character's reaction, rather than just making a simple, cartoony decision to play as "good" or "evil"; it could be very addictive and inspiring!
Friends and online communities might well begin arguing the "correct" action for a particular scenario in such a game, and with no-one to step in and play god, telling them who is right and wrong, we would all probably learn a lot more about ourselves in the process of discussing and justifying our decisions.
The early moral quandaries might be simple, but as your progress into the game, they become more and more of a "grey" area and hence more difficult to decide about.
I can imagine a future where games could really excel in this way, doing things that truly couldn't be followed by other media.
Of course, this shouldn't all be laid as Molyneux's feet, as if he's to blame for the lack of such a game existing! If anything I should be praising him for pushing games towards such lofty ideas, and poking at other gaming companies for not even trying to do anything new.
Who knows what the future of such games is, but fingers crossed Molyneux (or some other talented designer) will take all the ideas that Lionhead have injected into the gaming world, and turn them into something even more revolutionary.