Video game morality systems are sort of problematic. When they first started appearing, they were basically “A choice that will make the bad guys try to kill you”, and “a choice that will make everyone try to kill you”, ie, no real choice at all. Designers quickly realized that not only did some people want to actually have a worthwhile experience playing a bad character, but in fact designing games that expected “hero” to be synonymous with “goody two-shoes” was pretty stupid.
About that time, the Good-o-Meter came along. This measured your character’s good or evil on a slider. While there is something to be said for not having such a numeric value attached to your character’s personality, in video games, the other option is to basically have X choice in Y event trigger Z dialog shifts throughout the game. Perhaps this will feel less like a video game to some, but to me it’s just creating a very course system. I much prefer the slider, as along with it comes the ability to have minor actions accrue into something meaningful.
The latest and greatest of these (at least in my mind) is the Mass Effect system. I don’t really want to talk about that specifically; partially because I already said too much about Mass Effect, and partially because I’m likely to rant more about the annoyances that have cropped up later. Rather, I want to use it as a springboard.
The key part of this system is that your Good-o-Meter not only affects how NPCs respond to you, but also your ability to respond to them. Based on your Paragon/Renegade levels, you have access to new and exciting responses (and the consequences that come with them) that would otherwise be unavailable. And that’s cool, I really like that.
Incoming tangent. There’s a point, I promise. In an age when children who grew up on RPGs have reached adulthood, and indeed, the children of children that grew up on RPGs have reached adulthood, it might be expected that some of them have become rather good at it. There’s still plenty of people who just want to play Bob the Fighter, or even Varis Naltash, a jovial warrior with a drinking problem. And that’s all well and good. Those characters though are fairly simple. Bob the Fighter just hits things until they die. Varis Naltash, while more robust in personality, will still always be jovial while fighting, and become drunk and useless reliably.
At a certain point, roleplayers start to create characters that begin to resemble people. They not only have strengths and weaknesses, but they are subject to more overarching human elements, like bad days, random uncharacteristic acts, and spastic forays into self betterment (or harm). And while it is still possible that these characters will remain very polarized, it is far more likely that they will make equal parts good and bad decisions. This is where the trouble with morality systems beings.
The more Awesome or Boring (here meaning Evil and Good) you are, the more things become available. In fact, some problems may be solvable only if you are sufficiently one or the other. What happens to those that are a little less of both though? Your experience probably isn’t going to be terrible; after all, there is plenty roleplay to be found without access to super special awesome dialog options, but it does feel like you’re missing part of the game.
How to get around this though? The solution is not to add more facets to the morality system. Anyone who starts talking about Lawful Neutral will be shot. No, keep the scale as it is; change what you do with it. Yes, especially good or evil (or annoying, or dickish) characters should be rewarded with special options. What about people that don’t really care how nice you are, but are more concerned with how well known you are though? Have special dialog options open up based on total Good and Evil scores. (To clarify, the Paragon/Renegade system is two independent bars you can advance. The only limiting factor to your ability to fill them is that there are a finite number of dialogs before you complete the game.) Given that some dialogs will reward more good than evil, or vice versa, a “neutral” character would likely end up with a higher total score than one who focused on an alignment specifically. This would allow for option available only to such characters.
Also, have the ability to achieve some “special” events with either a very high single score, or middling scores of both. As an example, say your character is part of a mob, offering “protection” to a shopkeeper. He refuses. Perhaps very evil character have the option to break his knees and then ask him again. And perhaps a middling character would be able to stop his fellow mobsters from driving away his current customers (a mildly good act), and then remind him that protection would extend to all his family while staring at his children (a mildly evil act). Both result in the shopkeep breaking down, but are arrived at via different special options.
RPGs are constantly improving (well, there’s sometimes some backsliding) morality systems, and I have no doubt this will continue. In fact, I have no doubt someone who actually gets paid to think of these things did so long ago, but I still eagerly await the day when they become reality. And of course, if you really want nuanced personalities without a silly morality system, you can just go play P&P. You know, with people. Who do not have sliders.