On Morality Systems in Video games: The consequences of poor writing – the Mass Effect Story

In my previous article I introduced the topic of morality systems in video games, and amongst other things outlined the various problems that games have had with implementing them.

Today I’m going to look in detail at one of these problems: poor writing.

I replayed the first Mass Effect game whilst writing this series, and the first thing that struck me in terms of the morality system in the game was this: it’s hampered by unnecessarily poor writing. In particular, poor writing in the conversations and especially the “summaries” of what Commander Shepard is going to say next.

I should make it clear at this point: I like the Mass Effect franchise. If this article seems somewhat negative, that’s largely because I’m only focussing on the flaws in the dialogue that drives the morality choices.

ME1 AllOptionsAreTheSame 2
All options appear to be about the same.

The conversation minigame consists of choosing between several summaries of what Commander Shepard might say next. These summaries are the tools upon which you rely to make informed choices – and if they’re broken, the whole conversation mechanic is broken. It’s true that the writing isn’t bad due to the presence of the morality system, but the morality system adds actual mechanical consequences to the dialogue. As the game often doesn’t give any indication before the fact as to which dialogue choices matter (in terms of giving Paragon or Renegade points), players who care about the morality system have to assume that every dialogue choice matters (unless you trawl the wiki, but wikis/walkthroughs are to game design what autopsies are to medicine – if the customer has to end up there to get through the game, you have officially messed up).

This is deeply problematic when the summary options are either:

a) saying the exact same thing in slightly different wording; or,

b) a completely inaccurate/misleading representation of what your character actually says.

There is very little difference between the choices.

Other sins in this vein include conversational railroading where you have no option to make your character say a reasonable and *obvious* response to the situation, and the mechanically less relevant but highly annoying instances where the option you want to choose for mechanical reasons sounds absolutely moronic.

These flaws in the writing of Mass Effect’s conversations have significant impacts on the functionality of the mechanics. In particular, the combination of dialogue summaries which are indistinguishable from one another, and others which are totally misleading compared to the dialogue they are supposedly summarising, makes it impossible to actually choose dialogue options in line with your favoured moral philosophy by reading the summaries and choosing accordingly.

MassEffect Best Line Ever
Fig 1. The summary of Shepard’s dialogue options to Rear Admiral Mikhailovich

Fortunately, BioWare did apparently notice this problem, because you don’t  need to actually read or listen to any of the dialogue to achieve your desired outcome re: Paragon or Renegade points. You see, all the “Paragon” options are always at the top of the conversation wheel; all the Renegade options at the bottom. This does solve the problem of “I can’t tell which of these identical options is the one I want to pick so I can be more persuasive later”, but only at the cost of rendering the conversational gameplay and morality system totally irrelevant in any meaningful sense.

Completely Unpredictable
Fig 2. What Shepard actually says in the dialogue option. Be honest. Would any of you be able to pick this from the summary of ‘we need to kick ass’?

In the case of the former, I think it should be self-evident that, if you can skip every single line and not suffer any mechanical penalty, there really is no gameplay to be had. In the case of the latter – the fact that you can know, with confidence, that “this option, regardless of what it actually says, will give me Paragon points” means that the only decision you are making is “I would like some Paragon points”.

The aspect of poor writing and morality systems that irritates me most, though, isn’t any of the things I listed in the above paragraph. It’s that all of those flaws are entirely avoidable.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution – which I’ve previously touched on – has conversational gameplay (although it lacks a morality system) that’s quite similar, structurally, to Mass Effect, but for the most part it manages to avoid the same mistakes. The summaries are an accurate depiction of what protagonist Adam Jensen is about to say; they’re specifically relevant to what has just been said in the conversation, they usually cover all the obvious responses that occur to the player and the only lines that sound stupid are the ones that are intended to sound that way (Intended by the writers, that is. Usually this occurs when you fail in a conversational challenge).

The most far reaching consequence of dumbing down the conversational gameplay aspect of the morality system is something I’ll be looking at more closely in the next instalment of this series. By removing the necessity to understand the individual moral choices, it makes it possible for the morality “system” to function even when the moral code (that should, in theory, determine whether an action is “Paragon” or “Renegade”) is totally unclear. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, this leads to that moral code being totally unclear. Next time, I’ll look at the implications of this.

As an aside, from a philosophical point of view; I’d like to see a game that took this gameplay and satirised it. It’d start with a conventional “Good” vs “Evil” morality axis, then  the “Good” options start becoming first a little odd, then questionable, then blatantly, cartoonishly evil. They would continue, however, to have all the trappings that games use to label their morality choices : blue text highlighting for Good options, the same chime-like little audio-cue, always located at the top of the conversation wheel, with the reverse of these tropes for the “Evil” options. If it were incorporated into an otherwise ordinary game I’d be very interested to see how long it took people to notice anything was amiss on their first blind run.

– Simon Mattes

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