Morality in Fantasy Role-Playing Games

You’ve built your character very carefully, designing them into a realistic, if perhaps over-skilled person, one with individual characteristics, and perhaps even a somewhat planned storyline.  Then, you accidentally steal something.  You meant to select the shopkeeper or house-owner before you, but instead, you select their valuable health potion, and without hesitation, they attack you.  Your immediate reaction?  You don’t return the stolen item, or explain your mistake.  Nor even do you admit what you’ve done and accept a night in jail.  Often times, you don’t have the chance to do these things, and, when you do, well, it costs you less coin to just take out your enchanted mace and kill that poor shopkeeper.  Of course, then, the guards attack, so you end up killing them too, and before long, you find yourself on a city-wide killing spree that spares only children, and certain characters that will now certainly be necessary for a quest that your murderous character will later need to complete.

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This is Skyrim, only one of many popular RPGs with interesting moral and ethical setups and boundaries.  Skyrim is a different sort of game, of course, with a much freer range of quests, travel, and choices.  There are few limits to what your character can do, and so, if you so choose, you can indeed carry out the scenario above, even if it was not originally meant.  Of course, there are surely some Skyrim players that choose not to go on killing sprees — or rather they keep their killing sprees to gangs that hideout in caves and the undead.  Others, too, complete their killing spree only to load an earlier save.  After all, there are some in-game consequences to committing crimes.  Of course, these consequences don’t quite seem to always match up to your offenses, often limiting themselves to bounties, jail-time that you don’t actually have to experience (unless the quest calls for it), and fines.  In fact, the only time consequences become more serious is if you are attempting to kill a character considered innocent, at which point guards start attacking you with intent to kill.  This, however, is little different than many in-game quests wherein enemies are attacking you with intent to kill, and often, by this time, you’re powerful enough to defeat them, sometimes with little real effort.

The consequences for horrendous moral choices are so limited in Skyrim that the scenario I described above has certainly been fulfilled by countless players who feel no regret for murdering that poor old town-lady, that one who has been constantly complaining to the Dragonborn (the title of the player’s character) that her son is missing and has been captured.  Skyrim is certainly not the only RPG which allows for entirely immoral choices.  In Dragon Age: Origins, there are countless opportunities to do terrible things, even if there are less freedoms than in Skyrim.  There are no killing sprees, as combat tends to be limited to enemies that attack the player first.  Despite this, it is quite easy to make a purely evil character.  This is represented in a wide-range of mostly pre-planned quests, some optional, and some not.  Sometimes, this can even be involved in the more basic aspects of the game, such as choosing your companions.  Certain companions, such as Morrigan, tend to be very morally skewed, and encourage the POV character, the Grey Warden, to make choices that are also morally skewed.  Another potential companion, Sten, has been locked up for murdering innocents, including children, when the player meets him.  Morrigan suggests that Sven’s worth as a battle companion outweigh his crimes, and it is entirely possible to free him, and add him to your team.

Sten, imprisoned for his crimes.

Other opportunities for evil are more obvious.  At one point, the Warden must free a young boy from possession in order to save the boy’s father.  There is a way to do this without harming the boy or either of his parents.  Or you can make a deal with the demon possessing him, and sacrifice the boy or his mother in order to increase your own power, and access the morally dubious power of blood magic.  Later in the game, there is a quest in which the Warden discovers a secret, illegal, elf-slavery ring.  When the end of the quest is reached, and the player has defeated those running the ring, the big bad offers them a choice; let him live, and he will use (kill) all the kidnapped elves to increase the Warden’s power.  It is important to note, however, that these choices have in-game consequences that, while they differ from those in Skyrim, and the player is unlikely to be arrested or killed by guards, they actually seem to have bigger negative consequences than in Skyrim.

This is because, in Skyrim, paying a fine means nothing, as once wealth is accumulated, there is too much to even spend.  Nor does being killed by guards mean all that much either, as the player can just reload their game.  In Dragon Age, however, the consequences tend to appear in the form of companion relationships.  Of course, if the player has chosen to make their character evil, and chosen their companions accordingly by sticking to those who share their dubious morality, this may not matter much, but to those who have chosen more ethical characters such as Alistair, Wynne, or Leilana, consequences can become so serious that a companion may leave the Dragonborn’s side for the remainder of the game, with no chance of regaining their previous relationship status.  Indeed, if your character is romancing a character, and does something to displease them, it can also result in an immediate breakup.  It seems strange, that these consequences seem more serious than the ones in Skyrim, as in real life, fines, jail-time, and the punishment of death, but within the contexts of the games, it is much more effective to take away the Warden’s companions, decreasing their skills and power in battles.

Morality in RPGs has always been an interesting concept, and certainly, it seems an improvement that there are opportunities in these games to make your character both entirely evil, or completely heroic and morally innocent, if one considers the killing of enemies that have instigated attacks as innocent.  It does, however, seem, that the rules of these games would be more effective, or make the stakes more real and heightened, by ensuring that the in-game consequences of unethical choices are as serious or in-line with those offered in the real-world.  This way, the choice to murder a city of innocent people, or to sacrifice a child to increase your character’s own stats, is one that takes as much thought as other aspects of these games.

  3 comments for “Morality in Fantasy Role-Playing Games

  1. eppsilon
    February 16, 2015 at 12:38 pm

    Great post. I think you’ve nailed it on the head. To build off of what you’ve said, I’d say that in order to truly enforce the consequences of players’ actions, a game would have to eliminate the option of saving, or at least the option of reloading a save at will. After all, we can’t save and reload in real life, can we? In this way, if you’re character does something morally incorrect, or something otherwise unintended, the player must deal with the consequences. This would make an extremely challenging game, for in order to “undo” some significant action, the player would have to restart the entire game–or restart from some distant, barely-remembered checkpoint.

    The one example I can think of that comes closest to this is Telltale Games’ adaptation of the Walking Dead (or any of Telltale’s other titles). Saves are done via checkpoint. There is no manual save, and especially not Skyrim’s blessed quicksave. So in order to undo an action you have to quit out of the episode you’re playing and come back in. Often when I’ve done this a checkpoint was reached after I’d already made the action I wished undone. At this point I can either suck it up and keep going, or replay the entire episode–potentially hours worth of heavy conversation. So, while it is technically possible to “undo” a poor decision, Telltale has made it enough of a hassle to undo your choices that you’re just better off dealing with the consequences.

  2. mclark6
    February 18, 2015 at 2:30 am

    Skyrim and Origins are two great games to contrast here! I was extremely impressed with Origins’ character dynamics. I always found myself wanting to please everyone (mostly Alistair and Morrigan), but it’s difficult to balance your decisions among an entire party. After one part of the plot, Alistair became angry with me and our relationship score dropped 20 points. I was so upset about it.

    But anyways, in a more objective view, Origins does an incredible job of making it’s characters play a non-passive role in the player’s moral decisions. If you destroy the Urn of Sacred Ashes with Leliana and Wynne in your party, I’m pretty sure Leliana tries to KILL you and Wynne leaves the party. Followers in Skyrim are relatively passive and will usually either refuse to let you commit illegal acts or go right along with them, while Origins’ followers don’t really follow anyone. They’re there to help you under the condition that you respect them, just like normal people would in real life.

  3. Ariel
    February 27, 2015 at 2:12 am

    Wonderful post! Morality in video games has always been something that fascinates me, though I will admit I’ve often failed to consider in depth the stakes of making morally gray or immoral decisions in games, and am, as a result, grateful for the way that you examined and criticized the stakes’ shortcomings in games such as Skyrim. I think, for many players, myself included, the reason that making immoral choices in video games such as Skyrim invokes a negative response, at first, is because we are taken aback by being called out or attacked for our in-game behavior. That novel shock, however, can wear off quickly and, suddenly, without stakes that escalate to match the severity of our immoral choices, we become desensitized or the game itself becomes less challenging than it could be.

    I couldn’t agree more with your decision to bring in Dragon Age: Origins as a contrasting example, because, while you aren’t going to get arrested for immoral choices, you face what feels like higher stakes within your character’s relationship with their companions. We don’t fear repercussions because of literal consequences such as getting arrested or attacked, but because of the more emotional consequences of harming relationships with deeply fleshed out characters whom we have come to care for.

    There is an argument to be made, however, that even in Dragon Age: Origins the repercussions of a lot of decisions are not as severe as they initially seem due to the game’s gift-giving system. On several occasions, I have made choices that party members have not approved or picked the wrong dialogue choices and, in many cases, while I am initially wounded to see that they disapprove and our relationship has suddenly withered, I quickly recover, because I can give them a golden necklace or some mead and, suddenly, it is as if my error never occurred. Of course, there are some cases, as you mentioned, where things are not that simple — such as sacrificing the son of Arl Eamon, or doing something so shocking that a party member leaves your group — but, still, I would argue that the gift system cheapens a lot of the stakes, as well.

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