Many computer role-playing games, both classic and contemporary, feature a so-called “karma meter“–an abstract scale measuring how “good” or “evil” the player character is. Said scale is usually singular and one-dimensional, so the player can move either “up” (to sainthood) or “down” on it (to an abstract ideal of absolute evil) during gameplay. It may be capped on both sides (a la Ultima IV, which actually had eight competing virtue scales) or unlimited in either direction (a la Fallout). The present positioning on the scale affects dialogue and sometimes gives bonuses to “good” or “evil” abilities.
As any gaming abstraction, this mechanic has its flaws and a major one is that it shoehorns the player into one of just two behavior patterns: for the lack of better terms, “a saint” and “a monster”. This tempts the devs not only to boil every choice in the game down to two or three options (good, evil, and occasionally neutral) but also to make the correspondence of options to the morality scale exceedingly obvious. If the best dialogue options and skill bonuses only become unlocked near the ends of the scale, a gameplay-savvy player soon grows accustomed to picking the option that brings most “morality points” without stopping to think about its implications or the alternatives. Story-wise, the simplification and ethical highlighting of moral options functions as an early warning of the consequences of the player’s actions, which is beneficial when the devs choose not or fail to foreshadow them in-story. The pitfall here, however, is that the player likewise grows accustomed to reaping certain (morally gratifying) consequences by always picking options corresponding to certain moral scale extreme and begins to ignore their content and alternatives (unless the consequences deviate from what the highlighting promised, which is frustrating). As a result, the role-playing aspect, while not completely gone, is largely pushed to the sidelines.
Another property inherent to the karma meter is that the player character always (except when imported from an old saved game) starts the game in the neutral position on the scale and moves in the one or the other direction as the story rolls along. It is thus assumed that she arrives to the game world as a perfectly blank slate and the player must either decide on her morality from the get-go or choose her in-game behavior case by case in accordance to their own ethical preferences. The design pattern “The player character starts at zero and must become someone” was justified in Ultima IV, where attaining sainthood was the entire point of the game, but in games where pious behavior is not required, the karma meter instead becomes detrimental to role-playing. The alternative design pattern, “The player character is someone from the get-go and must behave accordingly in the game”, is rarely featured in computer RPGs and, if at all, only at the cost of the player’s freedom in selecting what kind of character to play.
The design pattern cited above, however, is exactly how characters are played in the tabletop RPGs, where the computer sub-genre has its roots. Before each campaign, the players define their own roles (characters) in accordance with the setting defined by the game master and keep playing them in all situations that their characters find themselves in during the game. Some tabletop role-playing systems offer gameplay mechanics to formalize the role-playing aspect: the Storyteller System, for instance, formalizes many of the unquantifiable properties of a character, but the most well-known example is, perhaps, the two-dimensional Alignment system from Dungeons & Dragons. Such formalization holds the key to correcting the skew of the computer RPGs towards the combat aspects of the genre, since formalizing ethical decisions can hardly be much more complex than formalizing a physical conflict.
The proposed solution is based on letting the player define their character’s moral profile during character creation the same way they define her outward appearance: instead of face length and hair color, one has gauges of “willingness to compromise” (the preference for forceful or diplomatic solutions), “reward expectancy” (doing things on principle or only for a reward), “acceptance of magic” in fantasy settings, etc.. The list is far from complete, and there are thousands of alternative approaches to it, none of which can adequately reproduce the complexity of human consciousness. However, even a small degree of ethical customization will force the player to give some thought to what kind of role they want to play in the game. Crucially, the morality profile may never limit their options during actual gameplay (except indirectly via earlier moral decisions), but playing according to it must be immediately rewarded: both a cynic and an idealist may save people and refuse rewards but only the latter should receive the proverbial carrot out of it.
Without a karma meter, the role of said carrot naturally falls to the experience points. In tabletop RPGs, the experience points are distributed among players by the game master at the end of every chapter/session, with a substantial chunk awarded “for role-playing”. In computer RPGs, the program takes over and hands out a fixed amount of XP for every completed quest but the role-playing bonus is rarely implemented. VtM: Bloodlines awarded additional blood points for stealth and diplomacy but it ignored whether you played a combat- or stealth-oriented clan. The proper way to do it would be to split the XP awards into two pools: the guaranteed minimal (fixed) reward for completing the quest and the role-playing bonus, whose exact size varies from zero to, say, equal to the fixed reward. Each possible decision path through a quest should be assigned hidden moral values and when the player completes it, the path they chose should be compared to the moral profile of their character and awarded accordingly, from just the fixed reward for completely breaking the character to the double reward for playing perfectly in-character.
Such implementation would require considerably more time and effort from the level designers and writers but on the upside, it provides ready blueprints for non-linear quests with multiple paths to completion. It also allows trapping the player in situations where their character’s moral preferences conflict each other (e.g. while investigating corruption, does she bust the thing wide open or keep the scandal under wraps to prevent riots?), while the choices’ consequences are not only seen in the story but also palpable in the character sheet. And if a quest goes completely against the character’s moral profile, refusing it outright should be rewarded with role-playing XP (but not the fixed reward)–the experience that comes from resisting the temptation to do things that go against one’s principles.
A nice-to-have feature would be the ability to slightly correct the player character’s moral profile after significant or traumatic events in the story. The alignment of the Nameless One in Planescape: Torment could shift but it was actually a disguised karma meter, since it only reflected the player’s past decisions. Instead, the player should be given a few opportunities to consciously and deliberately adjust moral profile settings within fixed limits as a result of the character’s self-reflection. For instance, a chance to adjust Hawke’s views on the use of magic would be very appropriate after “All That Remains”.
Personally, I cannot recall any games that featured something similar in regards to moral choices, except maybe the original Mass Effect, where the War Hero and Ruthless backgrounds gave a 5% bonus to the Paragon and Renegade points, respectively. If anyone knows better examples or has thoughts on the matter, please comment down below.
PS: Here is an interesting article on a similar topic: “Dark Side ‘Cause It Looks Cool: The Failings of Moral Choice in Games”. Of particular note is Mr. Kaiser’s demand for better handling of in-story consequences of moral choices, a topic I barely touch above.