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Roleplaying with Morality and Permanence

February 11, 2012

Edit: I underplayed my friend Adam’s part in bringing this about. All of my thoughts on and experiences with this type of roleplaying developed from actually trying it out, and the idea to do so was entirely his. Thanks, Adam!

Recently I’ve been trying to play through games with more intentionality, picking options and doing things for some defined reason, rather than just doing what I feel like at the time. I’ve found that it greatly enriches the gameplay experience, giving me the chance to be someone I would never be and letting me explore parts of a game that you would never intentionally choose. Such roleplaying is extremely rewarding, and I highly recommend trying it out. If you do, the two most important factors are developing and sticking to a character and moral code, then allowing your decisions and actions to be permanent.


A lot of folks complain about karma and morality systems in games. And (though I don’t have any sources to back me up), I’m pretty sure that most people tend to be good-ish, rather than being all out malicious. I expect, though, that that’s primarily due to some desire to feel like we’re good people in real life, working in conjunction with a system that makes it easy to choose between Good and Bad. That’s why I enjoy it when games, like Skyrim, don’t have morality explicitly represented, leaving it up to our real-life morality systems (or some consciously constructed one, as I’m about to discuss) govern how Good or Bad we think we are.

This recently popped up when I started a new character in Skyrim. At my friend Adam’s prompting, we each created a new character with a back story and personality. That is, we wanted to try actually roleplaying a character rather than just doing what we felt like. Additionally, we both chose to be people we wouldn’t normally be: Adam, an unquestioningly loyal follower of the empire, and me, a violently passionate rebel, out to find alleged injustices and tip the scales against oppressors. Our goal in choosing these characters was that it would hopefully allow us to better understand these mindsets in real life if we played them in a game. Thankfully, since Skyrim has no explicit reward and punishment system in place, it’s rather natural to develop and play to your own moral code.

For instance, my character believes in respecting the dead, so when she goes exploring crypts, she doesn’t loot the corpses or pilfer coins from burial urns. And when kind folks in town offer free goods to her, she takes very little, if anything. It’s an interesting play style, I think, when you forbid yourself from doing some things. When you stop picking up everything that isn’t nailed down, your character becomes more real, and roleplaying is more natural.

A couple of weeks back, I was talking to a friend about the issue of morality in games. I realized in our conversation that the problem with morality systems is that they do not reflect reality: in life, you’re not rewarded for every good thing you do, and you don’t get punished for every bad. But more than that, the opposite can occur, too: sometimes when you do a good thing, the result is bad, and vice versa. So why don’t games feature this? I mentioned at the end of last week’s post that I’d like to see games reflect the real world more, since that gives us the opportunity to see the consequences of actions and explore possible futures (as in Deus Ex, below). So I imagine a game in which the “best possible endgame” is not reached by making all the “right” choices every time, but by making some very poor choices, or screwing up some missions. There need to be games that are much more flexible in even their implicit definitions of Good and Bad: why should Good lead to Good and Bad lead to Bad? I think the first step in this, though, is to train players to be okay with the decisions they make.


Allowing your character to make mistakes—choosing to have the errors permanently affect and change your character, rather than going to a previous save and trying again—adds a lot of value to your roleplaying experience. Allowing your character to change gives you the opportunity to simultaneously write and play through a compelling narrative over which you do not have absolute control: the outcome is not determined, and he or she could be very different by the time you’ve completed the game. If a morality system were already in place for the game, there’s a stronger desire to go back and change what you said or did to earn a few more karma points. After all, they’re treated an awful lot like currency in some sense, and not having enough (in either direction) closes doors: in Mass Effect, for instance, certain speech options are available to you only if you’ve been Good or Bad enough.

The permanence of decisions also gives you the chance to explore parts of a game that you might never otherwise encounter, and face entirely different challenges. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which I began a few weeks back, I was at one point tasked with finding a particular individual on Hengsha Island, in China. I was told that someone at this club would be able to tell me where he is. I found the informant, but failed to convince him to tell me the man’s location. So the quest marker pointed me to the bartender, and after helping him out with a chore, I once again failed the speech options. At that point, the quest marker disappeared. The quest was still in the log, but there were no more directions: I had failed to learn where the man was located. I panicked. Did I just permanently screw up? Can I recover from this? I ran around the club, trying again to talk to the informant and the bartender. They didn’t want to talk to me. So what now? As I was heading for the door, I overhead a club patron mentioning something about the lower level of the building. I found a door leading to an Employees Only area. There were security guards within sight, so hacking the door was going to be tricky. But with no other options available, I hacked the lock, prompting the guards to start shooting at me. I ran and hid in some vents until they stopped searching for me, but I soon located my target in this off-limits area. I was relieved.

In retrospect, I appreciated that the designers had allowed this to happen instead of guiding me to the solution in spite of my failures. Deus Ex is more morally restrictive than Skyrim, but it still gives you lots of freedom in how you do things. And the fact that you’re not prevented from doing things very poorly is nice.

As a final anecdote, and to advocate once more for roleplaying, early on in Deus Ex I faced a hostage situation. This is the first conversation-based challenge in the game, and you’re tasked with negotiating with the hostage-taker. I chose to reason with him, thinking that if I showed him how illogical he was being—that his best chances lay in releasing her—he would back down. But he was an ex-soldier. He didn’t care for reason. So he fled through a nearby door, where the cops were already waiting for him. I saw none of what happened, only hearing a few gunshots and a woman’s scream. I don’t know if he shot the hostage, or if the cops had poor aim, but she died and he escaped. And my character has to have that on his conscience through the remainder of the game. But I’ll speak on that more next week, when I go through the fascinating moral setting of Deus Ex, and why it gives me hope for the future of gaming.

Roleplaying: Do It

I hope I’ve painted intentional roleplaying in a good light here. And I hope you’re now encouraged to go try it out if you haven’t already, or are at least more open to the idea than before. But don’t think you’re restricted to big games like Deus Ex or Skyrim. Pretty much any game with decisions will allow you to try what I’ve described above.

Thanks for reading!

I’d love to know if you’ve ever role-played in a game before, and what your experience was with it. With what games have you done it? Or maybe this post has inspired you to try it out. Drop a comment below! 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Laura Holder permalink
    February 12, 2012 1:48 pm

    That was a very interesting post. I’m not a gamer, but James is a bit more into it than I am. I read your post out loud, and he enjoyed it. He has played a bit of Skyrim, and I think that got him thinking about how he plays games. I think that’s a good way to play video games. I played a PS3 game several months ago and had no Ira what I was doing, so I ran around like an idiot picking up everything I could (mostly because that was all I knew how to do). Intentional play makes the story line to a game seem more real, from what you have described. I love stories – when I read, I play them out in my head, get to know the characters, and become attached to them. It is intriguing to me how the same thing can happen as you play through a video game. I appreciate what you said today. If I ever get ino gaming, I’m sure that I will become an intentional player. Thanks for sharing!

    • February 12, 2012 8:55 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts, Laura! And thanks for sharing it with James.

      I think you’d find that since you love stories, games can be a great way to experience one. As a medium, videogames provide the opportunity to be a real agent in the story, and to perhaps change the world, or let the world change your character. At present, I don’t think too many games are very flexibly in this manner, but I think it’s natural to the interaction involved.

      If ever you start gaming (and I highly encourage you to do so—it isn’t just mindless entertainment), please let me know and I’d be happy to suggest games for you to try. Or if you’re interested in starting up, talk to me and we can sort out what you’d thinks you like and I’ll try to find games that explore those things.

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