The Game Mechanic
In most games that present moral choices, the player is almost never uncertain about what choices lead to good and what choices lead to evil. One choice glows with a holy blue and white aura and the other choice glows in a menacing black and red. The player chooses freely between good and evil without a serpent to deceive them.
There are any number of games that provide an example of this system, and I’m sure you can think of a few yourself. Let's look at a few.
One example is Infamous, a game which represents the more rigid end of the spectrum. Moral choices in Infamous (referred to in-game as "Karmic Moments") affect the details of the story, but also what powers your character receives. More importantly, it makes no attempts to disguise which choice leads to which end. Each choice is explicitly outlined in blue (good) or red (evil). This binary is driven home by the portrayal of "good" powers as blue energy and "evil" powers as red energy.
|Subtlety, thy name is InFamous|
Unlike the Garden of Eden, these choices have little impact on overall gameplay. Choosing evil does not mean that “you will surely die,” only that you will surely get a different triumphant ending. If anything, it means that more NPCs will surely die, since the evil powers are more aggressive and destructive.
We can also look at Bioshock’s Little Sister choices as an example. The player can either choose to kill the Little Sisters to harvest all of their ADAM or save them and receive less. This in turn affects the ending the player receives. Of course, since the player can also receive ADAM from other, less child-murdery sources, these choices have little impact on the game experience. You know which choice is good and which is evil, but it hardly matters (for you will surely level up).
|These two options are morally equivalent.|
While this Edenian moral choice system provides the basis for most video games, there are three main variations that appear frequently enough to warrant discussion:
The Law V. Chaos Variation
This variation presents moral choices as different methods or ideologies instead of good and evil.
In Mass Effect, players choose between the “Paragon” and “Renegade” paths. These two moralities are not presented as good or evil, but rather as different means towards the end of saving the universe. It is not a distinction of hero and villain, but hero and anti-hero. It is clear what choices are considered Paragon and which are considered Renegade, but true baby-eating evil is not an option.
|Paragon vs. Renegade|
We might call this the “separate but equal” system, since both choices are presented as equally moral in the big picture sense. The binary distinction is maintained but the question of ultimate right and wrong is passed over. The Shin Megami Tensei games also frequently fall into this category, as they present Good and Evil as warring ideologies instead of absolute truths.
The Actually Change Gameplay Variation
This variation presents moral choices that substantially change gameplay beyond endings and powers.
In Dishonored, the morality system revolves around the choice to kill or not to kill. Killing enemy soldiers makes missions easier to complete, but it also causes more zombie-like plague victims to spawn – which makes missions harder. Both options have a concrete effect on the game world beyond NPCs yelling “Yay!” or “Boo!” as you walk past (Fable, I'm looking at you).
Both choices involve their own complications to gameplay. Killing guards makes missions easier, but having more plague victims around makes missions harder. The moral choice is still clear, but the choices have a substantial effect on gameplay beyond visual window dressing.
Dishonored is interesting in that it also provides an example of the Law vs. Chaos variation – the choice to kill is not presented as an ultimate evil, but as a chaotic action that naturally increases the chaos level of the game world. So we see that what is essential to an Edenian moral system is not how morality is defined, but that it is defined explicitly.
The Third Way Variation
One common way of complicating the moral picture is to offer a third, neutral option which lies somewhere between good and evil, law and chaos. This is perhaps most commonly referred to as the “Neutral” path, though individual games may apply different terms.
Atlus loves this variation and is shows up in many of their games. Catherine presents the Middle Way between Law and Chaos as “True Freedom.” The previously mentioned Shin Megami Tensei series and its many, many spin offs generally give the player at least three options: side with the Lawful Angels, the Chaotic Demons, or overcome both in the name of Neutral Humanity.
|Catherine's morality meter|
There are also games where neutrality is presented as the lack of good or evil rather than as a path of its own. Variations on variations could be multiplied infinitely – the point is, good, evil, and neutrality are all explicitly defined and clearly labeled.