Lets talk about morality. No wait, come back!
Let’s try this again, maybe I should be a bit more specific, a bit clearer. Let’s talk about morality systems in videogames. This isn’t a new system, by any stretch of the imagination. Back in 2004, I had very fond memories of Obsidian’s “Knights of the Old Republic 2”. KOTOR 2 is a game with an admittedly rudimentary morality system that was often just a binary game of making two very simple decisions, one benign and one monstrous. Do you heal the sick refugee, or convince him to commit suicide? Do you buy the cool, shiny lightsaber part from the desperate scavenger, or murder the shit out of him in the ruins of the Jedi temple, a place of peace and tranquility?
But we’re not talking about KOTOR 2, a fact you should bethankful for, because if we were I would be typing this until the end of lineartime, and you’d never get to read it. What we ARE talking about here, is onemorality system in particular. A morality system that is great, profound, and subtle,a system that rewards playing in character, a system that immerses you in aworld rather than actively pulling you out of it.
A system that, to put it bluntly, isn’t actually in the game.
Dragon Age is a Bethesda RPG series that I have mixed feelings about, as a full series. In a variety of ways it is very similar to other choice-based RPGs, such as Fallout 4 and Bethesda’s other series, Mass Effect. There’s levelling, character creation and customization, immersive and interesting quests, plenty of party members, many of whom you can form some manner of romantic relationship with.
But there’s a feature, such as it is, missing from the Dragon Age series, that is present in its siblings Fallout and Mass Effect, and its older siblings JadeEmpire and KOTOR. In those games, every choice you make that the game denotesto have real, moral value gains you a currency with a variety of names overdifferent series. For the sake of simplicity, and because I’m feelingwhimsical, we will call these Good Boy Points and Nasty Boy Points. Murder afarmer for no reason? You gain Nasty Boy Points. Reunite a family at personalexpense? Have some Good Boy Points! These add up, Good and Nasty, opposites ina binary scale, and balancing out in such a way to quantify your moral value.
This system? This system that you can probably already see as having very real,very upsetting flaws?
Dragon Age don’t got that shit, y’all.
In Dragon Age, there is no uppy-downy meter quantifying your morality, a conceptthat, while we’re discussing it, is Buck Fucking Wild, really. Morality is atricky thing, its fluid and multifaceted. To say that there are things that areobjectively good and objectively bad isn’t necessarily a crazy idea, but onceyou get deeper into it that idea becomes messier. This is ignoring a secondaryfunction of these systems, giving these good or evil acts a numeric value ofgoodness or badness. Is robbing a house worse than murdering someone? Probablynot, but -how much- less evil is it? How many robberies go into a murder? 5?10?
That’s not to say Dragon Age doesn’thave important choices, far from it. Each game in the series supplies theplayer with the option of making decisions that can impact the world around youin ways both big and small, as well as allow the character you are playing togrow into a specific image or idea. So, beyond the actual fallout (heh) ofthese decisions, the actual direct results, how does Dragon Age let you knowhow you should feel? Nothing. Nobody can, at the end of the day, tell you how-you- feel.
But your friends can certainly tell you how they feel.
And that, THAT is the secret morality system in Dragon Age. Your party members,people of a variety of races, creeds, orientations, and backgrounds, weighingin on what you should and should not do. In games like Mass Effect and Fallout,its very easy to fall into the trap of “will this decision give me Good BoyPoints or Nasty Boy Points?” Questions like that pull you out of the game; inthese moments, you have stopped being a hero on the precipice of a great, worldaltering decision, guided only by your experiences and your values, and haveinstead become some person sitting in front of a TV screen.
Dragon Age doesn’t risk this happening. When you make a decision, you can’t askwhat kind of points you’ll get, but perhaps a much more profound question; Whatdo some of my companions think of this? Do I care about their opinion? Do Iagree with them? Do I, ultimately, believe that -they- are good, are right, areworth agreeing with?
This is, to put it lightly, neat. It places the narrative and moral onus ofdecisions back on your shoulders. There are no explicitly or inherently moralor immoral decisions in Dragon Age. This doesn’t make itself felt in the littledecisions, or the ones that are really obvious; you know that murdering an innocentfarmer is Some Bad Shit. But what about letting the Templars murder a tower fullof Mages, people that are largely utterly innocent, but are at great risk ofcausing a magical cataclysm that could claim many lives? Is backing Lord Harromont,a traditionalist, stubborn ruler, better or worse than supporting his rival, aprogressive and charming man who is nonetheless completely a-ok with killinghis competition? Is this Ok? Am -I- Ok? Does Alistair think so? Does Morrigan?
These games aren’t perfect, by any means. Heck, even these-systems- aren’t perfect; Dragon Age offers fairly limited choices for changingthe world, choices that often feel decorative or unimportant once the creditsroll. Maybe Dragon Age isn’t exactly the perfect narrative storm that Bethesdamight want you to think. But in removing a numeric system for morality andreplacing it with a much looser reputation based system, it is saying veryimportant things about its world. Its saying that good and evil are not fixedconcepts. It’s saying that there is no ultimate right or wrong in any situation.It is saying that the world we live in is never, ever simple, and is oftenmessy, confusing, and unsatisfying. And while that’s not a fun pill to swallow inthe real world, it helps make Dragon Age feel that much more real.