Morality and Karma Systems

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)

Fallout 3 is filled with morally vague quests, but the one that stands out in my memory is “Oasis.” Harold, a man-tree mutant who’s been rooted in place for too long to bear while surrounded by people who see him as a kind of deity, wanted me to kill him by destroying his heart, and specifically asked me not to use fire. Right away I had my good and evil options. But soon after, one of his followers asked me to apply a special liniment to Harold’s heart, speeding his growth so the oasis could spread out to the Capital Wasteland. Then another follower asked me to apply a special sap, stopping his growth and keeping the oasis the safe-haven it was. Suddenly the difference between good and evil wasn’t so obvious. Did being good mean killing Harold and destroying the oasis his followers called home? Was it good to stop his growth, protecting the oasis but betraying Harold’s trust? Was it good to speed his growth, putting the betterment of the Capital Wasteland above Harold’s wish to die? I wanted to be good, but for the first time in the game I didn’t know what that meant. I couldn’t discern the morality behind each choice. I eventually chose to speed his growth, but I felt awful betraying Harold’s trust. After a long conversation, I was able to convince him that living rooted in place wasn’t so bad, but that made me feel worse because I didn’t really believe the supportive optimism I was laying on him. I didn’t receive any good or bad karma for my actions, and in retrospect I know that’s because I had chosen a neutral option, but at the time the lack of affirmation on either end of the moral spectrum only made me question my actions all the more.

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.

In GTA IV, the player eventually has to decide to kill one of two characters: Playboy X or Dwayne. The game has an unspoken moral code established through its story, one that emphasizes loyalty and family over money and success. It’s with this code that we judge each character’s personality and actions. Dwayne is presented as sympathetic because he’s shown having difficulty adjusting to life after prison: He lost his girlfriend, his business, and his friend, Playboy X, who changed over the years. We also have a more personal connection to Dwayne because his missions involve helping him get back on his feet. We invested time and energy into helping him. Of course this meant killing lots of people, which is only to be expected in a Grand Theft Auto game. Dwayne is by no means a nice person, but he’s not meant to be nice, he’s meant to be sympathetic within the moral guidelines of the game. Playboy X is presented as arrogant and egotistical, standard fare in Liberty City, but he steps out of bounds when he orders a hit on Dwayne, betraying their friendship. His reasoning includes a comparison of himself with Jesus that doesn’t exactly inspire goodwill, “Jesus killed people. He killed that John the Baptist cat.” So when we’re finally given the choice, it’s easy to see killing Playboy X as “good” and killing Dwayne as “bad.”

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.