There's been news of a survey going around asking if a karma system in the next Grand Theft Auto would make the game more enjoyable. I've recently become a bit cynical towards karma systems. It seems that giving the player a moral choice is an ever increasing trend in gaming, but does it really make the game more interesting? It certainly did a few years ago, but since then I fear they've become so common that simply giving players a choice between good or evil has lost its emotional punch. Richard Clark on Christ and Pop Culture suggests the next logical step, "What I would like to see instead is for games to present us with these moral choices that have real consequences on the game world and the gameplay, but that don’t have an opinion on whether we did the right thing or not." I like where he's going, but I don’t think it’s necessary to abandon the karma system completely. Players still need a set of guiding morals in order to give their choices a weight within the game world. One possible solution is adding more ambiguous choices; this will naturally lead to a karma system that's less overt, if even there at all. Another possibility is to use story to express the guiding morals, keeping the "karma" but ditching the "system." (Spoilers abound for both Fallout 3 and GTA IV)
However, if I had chosen to kill Harold and received good karma points, this quest wouldn’t have been anywhere near as memorable. If I killed him and regretted it, I could reassure myself that I did the right thing because the game would tell me so. This shows the limits of a black and white karma system. Even if you add a neutral stance you still have to assign a morality to each choice, and when that choice is as nuanced as putting the needs of many above the needs of one, assigning any kind of morality defeats the purpose of having such a complex choice to begin with. It's difficult to impress consequences and morals on players without such a direct system, but I believe GTA IV proves it's possible.
The consequences come from the fact that these two are established characters that both give out missions. This results in a fear that no matter who I kill I'll miss out on more potential missions, a very tangible consequence for me as a gamer. With this in mind, Playboy X is presented as a rich man with connections who can help Niko find the "special someone" he's looking for. We got to know him so he could help us with that search, and we've done missions in order to gain his trust so that he will help us. We invested time and energy into our relationship with Playboy X, time and energy that could pay off by advancing the main story, by bringing us closer to finding that "special someone." On the other hand, Dwayne has no friends other Niko, and we're made aware of that every time we see him.
The consequences urge us to kill Dwayne, but the guiding morals of the game urge us to kill Playboy X. The moral conflict is set up without any kind of overt karma system. While there weren’t actually any missions at stake, killing Playboy X makes Dwayne an official friend who can send you backup whenever you call. It’s a consequence (reward?) that affects the game world and gameplay. My one complaint is that if you kill Dwayne you’ll never know what you’re missing, so the consequences for that choice aren’t as pronounced as they could be.
I hope more games follow the GTA IV approach to morality, presenting us a choice without blatant judgment, and I hope that survey remains just a survey.