October 20, 2008

Morality and Gameplay in “Bring Down the Sky”

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 11:00 am
Bring Down the Sky

I’ve been in the process of moving, one of my least favorite activities, so when I had an evening to give myself a break I decided to indulge by downloading “Bring Down the Sky” — the first DLC release for BioWare’s Mass Effect.

It was a pleasure to return to the Mass Effect universe — though, like many others, I was disappointed that so much of “Bring Down the Sky” focuses on the boring peek-a-boo tank combat that was probably the weakest element of the original game.

More troubling, however, was the morality embedded in “Bring Down the Sky.” Explaining this requires a little background. (Also, there are spoilers ahead, so don’t read further if you’d like to avoid them.)

Like most BioWare games, you can play Mass Effect according to different moral codes. In the case of ME these are “paragon” and “renegade.” As your character develops, your accumulated points from playing one way or another open new dialogue/action options (“charm” and “intimidate” options, respectively).

In “Bring Down the Sky” your play approach doesn’t matter much at first. You’re blasting turrets, turning off asteroid-mounted boosters, and perhaps finding the bodies of dead scientists. But at the mission’s climax you learn that BDtS is also a hostage situation. Your paragon/renegade choice is whether to (a) let a terrorist go in return for the lives of his hostages or (b) sacrifice the lives of the hostages in order to apprehend the terrorist (and arguably save the lives of his future victims).

As a moral quandary, it is convincingly presented, giving both paragon and renegade characters a reason for their actions. In formal game terms it’s also a balanced decision. I played through both ways and got the impression that the experience points, paragon/renegade points, and available equipment were about the same.

But in terms of gameplay it’s utterly unbalanced. If you choose to let the hostages die you get a battle with the terrorists, a final confrontation/conversation with the lead terrorist (giving much more backstory for the events, and new dialogue/action options to explore), and a final denouement with one of the characters. If you choose to save the hostages you get to defuse three bombs and then have the denouement.

Obviously, one of these is a lot more content and a lot more interesting. Even if the formal game rewards are balanced between paragon and renegade, then, it’s clear that the gameplay rewards are utterly lopsided. And we’re all in this for the gameplay, right? The gameplay gives me enjoyment in my real life, whereas paragon points do not.

I’ve certainly talked with people who find it more fun to play BioWare games like Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire with the “evil” approach (“dark side” / “closed fist”). But I don’t think I’ve heard them say that playing in that way simply provides more content and better gameplay opportunities.

Of course, there’s always the chance that I’m missing something. Maybe choosing BDtS’s paragon option also adds another element to a later part of the game — like a confrontation with the lead terrorist on another world, where moral and gameplay debts are repaid. But I think it’s highly unlikely we wouldn’t have heard about such an easter egg by now. So I guess BioWare means to leave us with an understanding: in our universe, if you want the best gameplay and story, you shouldn’t think twice about the lives of hostages.

8 Responses to “Morality and Gameplay in “Bring Down the Sky””

  1. Chris Lewis Says:

    As core gamers, we’re trained to want to extract everything from the game disc. Any part of the game that isn’t played is almost tantamount to wasting money, or the developer explicitly denying the player enjoyment. While patently ridiculous when written down, it is hard to shake that nagging feeling, even as a relatively balanced individual! For some, it is incredibly important.

    The renegade path in Mass Effect is actually very frustrating. A bad conversation choice can lead to angering the NPC, the dialogue ending (preventing me, a narrative completeist, from finding out everything) and a fight ensuing. There was no ability to be Jack Bauer… breaking fingers until being told what you wanted to know… just accidental conversation endings. Very frustrating. I hope Bioware understands that this sort of thing, alongside what you mention, Noah, only serves to upset players.

    When I think about games with choice, I often think to Deus Ex. One of Deus Ex’s most unsung achievements was offering choice without highlighting it. The player chose automatically through gameplay, not through neon signposted “choice”. The key here is that players don’t feel shortchanged by a game when they aren’t *aware* of missing things. It was only when I had conversations with my friends after I finished the game did I find out that there were multiple other ways to play the game, and that was OK. I wasn’t upset during my actual experience.

    I hope that Fable II, which has been pitched as a game that shapes your character through non-obvious actions, might hit this sweet spot (Fallout 3 obviously won’t). It will be interesting to see how well Lionhead have done this time around.

  2. Greg J. Smith Says:

    “There was no ability to be Jack Bauer”

    Wow. A sentence I never thought I’d hear. :)

    If you are interested in Jack Bauer, be sure to check out the new COD title, as it features everyone’s favorite right wing GIT-R-DONE posterboy protagonist in a significant role and also cheering on the USMC as the yank multiplayer “color commentator”.

    Chris, I understand your desire for “shades of grey” though, GTA could profit from this nuance as well as the last iteration suffers very badly from the kill/not kill binary. Nice post Noah – I really enjoyed Mass Effect, working through the game was really exciting. I still haven’t played the DLC, now I’m curious about it again… :)

  3. Eugene Says:

    Nice article. Thanks. :) Eugene

  4. McCain’s Game « Game Reader Says:

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  5. Steve M Says:

    Morality choices in a game should not dictate the amount of content a gamer gets to experience, but rather the type of content. I understand what Bioware was going for with the choices it presented to players, but I think the choices were too obvious and effected the amount players got to do too much. I think clearly indicating the “good” and “bad” (with morality “points”) choices misses the mark entirely. The narrative should reflect your morality–otherwise choice is relegated to just another (inane) statistic. It also makes quests feel too insular and detached from a greater story arch. This is why I have been so pleasantly surprised with the Witcher; I am currently playing this, and I am impressed by how many choices players have to make and how those choices have a subtle, yet lasting effect on the narrative. Nothing is every clearly, or obviously, good or bad. I expect to see games tackle this sort of “problem” more in the future, however, as player choice and complex game stories are still rather a recent development.

  6. Mark Says:

    I’ve had this problem with *any* choices in games for a long time, though the ethics-choices angle does raise more specific questions. But even going back to some fairly simple branching storylines in mid-1990s RPGs that had discrete choicepoints, I’d usually find myself playing a meta-game where I didn’t decide which choicepoint I wanted to take based on in-game or role-playing reasons, but instead based on a guess of which one would lead to the more interesting content—i.e. get me an extra subquest or plot twist versus skipping over it. In a lot of cases one was so clearly better gameplay than the other that it felt less like I was making a free choice and more like I was trying to guess which the “right” choice was in the mind of the story author.

  7. Mark Says:

    Actually as a followup to that, in considering Facade it seemed like this is almost necessary in games in some form. Although Facade allows freer choices than many games, clearly some lead to more interesting gameplay than others, sometimes with an angle that could be interpreted ethically. In particular, it promotes moderate, constructive behavior—if you actually engage in trying to fix Trip and Grace’s relationship, you get rewarded with more and more complex gameplay. If, on the other hand, you tell Trip to fuck off right at the start, the game just ends—you don’t get equivalently complex content, like being able to continue a heated argument for several more minutes, Grace trying to separate you and getting shoved aside, and a capstone fistfight. Should it have given equivalent content to all ethical choices in that way? I guess I don’t think it necessarily needs to, even ignoring practical reasons like authoring enough content.

  8. Noah Wardrip-Fruin Says:

    Mark, I think these are good points. At the same time, I think the difference is in what’s presented explicitly. “Bring Down the Sky” presents two moral paths. They are the top-level thing the audience experiences — and there’s no way through without choosing one.

    Facade, on the other hand, presents a possibility space. It’s even larger than the open-ended “which area will you zone, and in what way” of SimCity. It’s “what will you type” of all the things you know how to say in English.

    Just as I don’t think it’s a problem for some SimCity choices to lead to more interesting outcomes than others, I don’t think it’s a problem for Facade. On the other hand, if the climax of Facade regularly involved an explicitly-presented choice whether to save or demolish Grace and Trip’s marriage, I’d want the two paths to feature roughly balanced gameplay payoffs.

    Of course, while we wait for more experiences that follow the paths blazed by Facade, I think you’re right that we’re going to keep playing a meta-game with a long tradition: guess where the content lies. Though I suppose that’s also what gives RPG games some of their replayability — people want to find what lies down the path not taken. Another reason to wish Mass Effect allowed more saved games!

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