In recent years, game developers have evolved from their roots of forcing players down a set path, such as rescuing a princess or saving a galaxy. Instead, they've presented players with moral dilemmas, pulling them more deeply into plots because they have the ability to change in-game worlds.
And the basic idea is a good one — the hope is players will care more because they're molding the universe — but this popular trend needs to be severely tweaked.
The moral dilemma offering has penetrated many genres, including action games such as last year's Dante's Inferno, but let's keep the focus for simplicity's sake on role-playing games such as Mass Effect 2. Consequences of decisions are more easily visible in the latter.
There are two primary problems with this system. First, the moral dilemmas sometimes feel forced, with shallow black-versus-white options as answers. But more important, rewards are contingent on where you place on the good-versus-evil spectrum, crippling the entire system.
In almost every game that has this moral-dilemma system, players are rewarded near the end of the game with powerful items, abilities, interactions with other characters and more, based on their placement on the good-versus-evil meter. However, these rewards often are dependent on the gamer going to one end or the other. To get them, players are essentially forced to follow either the good or the evil approach the majority of the game, regardless of whether they feel like it.
Once gamers started realizing this, they began playing the game the way they thought the game wanted itself to be played. This rules out any option of playing the game, or even answering a single dilemma, the way the player feels, at least if he wants to achieve the biggest rewards.
For instance, near the end of Mass Effect 2, unless you are nearly maxed out to one end of the spectrum or the other, the game will force one of your non-player characters to become disloyal. If you use that character on the final mission, the character will die every time. If the character is loyal, he or she might not die. The consequences of this decision will be felt in the next Mass Effect game because a player's decisions are imported from game to game.
By the time a player realizes this near the end of Mass Effect 2, it is far too late to go back and correct past decisions. This is a prime example of punishing the player for playing the game they way he or she wanted.
So what can developers do? As I said, the basic premise is a good one. The entire system does not need to be abandoned; it just needs an overhaul.
That can happen when developers stop forcing players to go to one extreme or the other. The world isn't so black and white, and the available decisions in these games shouldn't be, either. Gamers shouldn't play a game the way they think the game wants to be played based on an artificial sense of morality. Gamers should play a game the way they want, answering well-set-up dilemmas with real feeling, and they should not be punished for doing so.
If the game will reward all players of the game, not just those who wind up 100 percent good or evil, this will be one major step toward improving this popular gaming trend.