Videogame Morality & Procedural Content

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Feb 28, 2007

Filed under: Game Design 10 comments

Jay Barnson has a long and thoughtful post on procedural content in games. I had a post on this a while back, where I pointed out that the rising cost of content creation (the cost of making gamespace was on a near-exponential growth curve for a while in the 90’s) is making it so that procedural content in one form or another is probably inevitable.

Also, 79Soul has a great post on Videogames and morality. I want to point back to a related post, where I talked about adding some moral flexibility to the GTA formula, and how that would improve the game. Both posts express similar themes, which is a desire on the part of the player to interact with a game without having moral choices imposed on them. Emergent consequences are fine (and even desirable) but railroad morality is often frustrating even if the player agrees with the imposed choices.

Note that in the hypothetical game I outline in that post, the player’s moral choices is one of the input values for a procedurally-generated city.


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10 thoughts on “Videogame Morality & Procedural Content

  1. gedece says:

    Really interesting articles. The technical one I liked, but I already knew about procedural content and it’s posibilities.

    The moral one, on the other hand, was kind of new to me, not because I didn’t play the games described (fallout rocks), not because I usually prefer the good side, but because I’ve never put so much thought in it, and by the looks of it, it seems I should have.

  2. Hal says:

    I was a philosophy minor as an undergrad, so I really liked the morality article.

    Actually, it reminds me of the first time I played through KOTOR as a Dark Jedi. Sometimes I was really unsettled by the things I had to do to stay on the path of the Dark Side. Everytime that happened, I thought, “Why am I feeling this way? It’s just a game, and I’m just trying to see the other ending.”

    One of the things I find interesting is that we like games where you have to be good because, well, everyone loves a hero, and it’s even better to play one. We’ll praise games that give you freedom in moral choices because they add complexity, depth, and “reality” to the game world and story.

    Yet games where you have to be evil are largely scorned (as much as a game that sold like GTA3 can be said to be scorned). Sometimes I wonder if this isn’t because such games are a rebellion against the escapism that these games are supposed to provide. Death, murder, gang warfare, dead hookers . . . this is the stock in trade of the evening news. When you’re trying to entertain yourself apart from reality, do you want to save a princess from a dark wizard and his dragon? Or do you want to kill a family of four so you can take their mini-van for a spin around the city?

  3. gedece says:

    I loved Dungeon Keeper, and you are the bad guy there, but evilness in Dungeon Keeper is sort of cartoonized, while evilness in GTA3 resembles everyday evil.

    The same kind of cartoonized evil can be found in Evil Genius and City of Villains MMORPG (where you do missions similar to the one heros in City of Heroes do, but for all the wrong reasons). I have no problems in either game inmersion or evilness in that kind of games, but I could never enjoy GTA3 the same way.

  4. Yunt says:

    I had a ridiculous amount of fun with GTA3. It has a sort of theatre of the absurd feeling for me. I ignored the story insofar as I could ignore it and still get goodies but once I was comfortable with my level of armament I didn’t do any more missions. I became the cartoon bad guy, I was evil just for the sake of evil. I rolled grenades under gridlock to see how many explosions I could make with one grenade (21 is my record, incidentally), I stood on top of the cars of panicked drivers while firing wildly at pedestrians and more often than not, I spent my time driving off of buildings just “to see what happens”.

    To paraphrase, it’s better to rule in Vice City than serve in Springfield, MO.

  5. Roy says:

    I just wanted to say thanks for the nod, Shamus. I logged in today and saw a string of comments and thought “What happened?!”

    I definitely think, by the way, that the kinds of actions that the player is forced or encouraged to do can influence how upsetting or troubling the game is. I have a much higher tolerance, for example, with games that require me to steal from people than I do with games that require me to beat people up or murder them. The more outlandish or cartoonish the situation is, the less, I think, that the ethics of it bother me. I remember playing Tecmo’s Deception, and having a lot of fun setting up the ridiculous traps and setting them off.

    I think I’ll probably be posting about this again.
    Thanks again for the link, Shamus!

  6. Thad says:

    But what about Lemmings? Are you the vicious sadist that kills those helpless wee creatures just to let the others get away? Evil! Evil, I say!

    But more relevantly, I don’t recall much being said on this blog about Fable, the one game that is supposed to be open and adaptable to your actions, and you are free to be however moral you want.

    Is it just that no-one has played it, or that is wasn’t well done, or ???

  7. Shamus says:

    I never played fable, although it’s been on my list of stuff to check out if it pops up in the ol’ bargain bin.

  8. Thad says:

    Looks like Fable: The Lost Chapter (the improved working version for the PC) will be there soon!

  9. hank says:

    I tried to play Fable, and it wasn’t worth it for me. I was playing on the PC, and it was obvious that the game had been developed for consoles (or that the GUI had been developed by blind epileptic chimps). I went through the first couple of tasks/quests, and the game failed to engage me at all. I never bothered to finish it… the pacing was all wrong, almost like they had sacrificed much of the freedoms inherent in such a game for a “Dragon’s Lair” style of play… nothing much would happen for awhile, you just (have to) go through the motions, then there is an instant where suddenly your input becomes crucial. If you survive that instant, you’re back in ‘slowly loping through the world’ mode, a real snoozer.

    Morality in games: I am currently replaying NWN2, more out of boredom (I am laid up with a debilitating illness) than out of admiration for the game. I decided to try and play the game completely evil… to intentionally cultivate negative influence, always choosing the selfish and uncaring dialogue option (if one is given)… I’m near the end, and so far the only thing that has been different is that the hippie chick left my party because I was harshing her mellow. I’ve read that your moral decisions have more effect in the penultimate scenes, but that’s almost the same as having them not effect anything… if ANY moral position inevitably leads you to the same place, where you are then given a token opportunity to assert your playing style, the game is far too much on rails and the whole ‘role playing’ aspect of the RPG is diminished.

    Procedural content: sure, it can only go so far. But look at Spore, where a player might encounter procedural content that has been evolved through the decisions of some other human player (they intend to have the game communicate with the net, uploading your uniquely evolved creations so others can interact with them). There is almost infinite possibility in this… just as online games that let you actively compete against a real person with their own unique strategy provide you with unpredictable situations…. ‘Quake’ is the first game that comes to mind… playing online, with the lack of predictability that the single-player mode exhibited, was a truly awesome experience… I’ve never felt more immersed in a game than I was in Quake 1, trying to out-think other human players). (I should also admit that during the time period when I was playing Quake I 4-5 hours each night, my wife and I once went out to a concert and stopped at an ATM afterwards to get cash so we could go to a restaurant… the first thing I noticed was that while the ATM itself was lit quite well, there was a blind spot in the eaves above it that would be perfect for a grappling-hook-enabled foe to set up an ambush. My wife was busy dealing with the ATM, but I was busy thinking of the possible directions from which an attack could come :P A sure sign that I was getting a little too involved in the game, and a sure sign that the mechanics of the online portion of the game were truly successful.)

    Combining procedural generation with human-controlled evolution, a game might provide infinite possibilities for the curious adventurer. It combines the ‘open-source’ idea with the creativity and intent of a real human player, rather than relying on the (all too) bounded and disappointing ideas of the game creator. Testing yourself against the (procedurely maintained) creations of other players could potentially be an unending process. I think there is a lot of promise in this direction; promise that the game companies will likely seek to compromise, since they hope to sell you the same game over and over. (Anyone who has played KOTOR2 and tries to play NWN2 will be aware of the disappointment that awaits a player who expects a unique and internally-consistent game, that is instead presented with half-way resolutions at every turn, forcing the player to adhere to simple, formulaic, and ultimately disappointing plot twists using motion-capture that was obviously co-opted from KOTOR.)

    The procedural idea might be the future… provided it allows for the truly committed (fanatical?) players to feed their creations back into the system. It’s a test of the democratic process – will people who are free of restricting restraints come up with new ideas, or will they merely recycle the ideas that have come before? (Sadly, this mental experiment shows that, historically, people are more likely to assume the worst than they are to assume that a certain idea holds future promise. This is especially true of any idea that challenges the current zeitgeist… for instance some people will fight very tenaciously to hold on to modern ideas even in a situation that both compromises their other beliefs and establishes a different set of rules… see the IMDB discussion about ‘The Prestige’, for instance.)

  10. Shoku says:

    Necromancy go!

    With Fable the “morality” is too black and white, it’s shallow. I’m obviously not saying that to talk about Fable though because every game that gives you the choice between helping the poor guy and punching his dog is really just asking you what color you want your effects to be.

    GTA would be a good place for some shades of gray morality options though. On the surface you could just choose whether you were going to shave away the drug pushers and the like to replace them with a “nicer” kind of crime or if you were just going to get yourself a progressively bigger cut of it.

    Going a bit deeper you could instead make difficult choices like where or who you would spend your effort while letting something bad happen to the other, and have this change the world.

    With the way GTA storylines go they could only do this at the end of an arc because you wouldn’t have any more missions there and in Fable you would have a handful of little references to it during some second pass through it. Actually branching storylines are something I would love to see with this but the exponential development time is bad enough without immediately multiplying the load- though there’s always that majestic pgc option waiting to embrace us any time now.

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