October 13th, 2004


on morality in games

I have just completed Fable.

It was a good game. A bit short, could've done with more interesting combat. Nice special effects. Pretty. A few irritating battle issues ("wait, you mean I can't buy bright plate anymore? How the hell was I supposed to have enough money back then?"). In general, a good game.

For those who don't know, Fable is, well, a fable. You are the Hero. You wander through the land, doing Good and Evil as you see fit, eventually saving the world from some guy with a superpowerful sword who wants to kill you, your mom, and your sister. And then, if you wish, taking up the superpowerful sword and dooming the world to an eternity of fire. Your call.

There have been a few of these lately. Black and White, done by the same person. Knights of the Old Republic. The problem is that they don't work.

Morality's a really hard thing to get a grasp on even when you've got a human mind. When you're trying to describe it to a computer, you're basically fucked before you even start. Computers are great at small bits of evil, like mindless slaughter, stealing, or hitting small children. They're not so great at large bits of evil, like crafting a web of intrigue designed to leave an entire country beholden to you and you only, plus at war with itself.

One gets a mental image of Young Darth Vader, tripping old ladies, stealing from the library, and downloading music off Napster.

"The hate swells within you now."
"Ow! Stop poking me! Give me that fork!"

The issue here, really, is that motivation is important. Really important. And aside from asking the player ("Excuse me, but was that evil or good? I really can't tell") there's no way for a computer to determine which. Examples:

At one point in Fable, some lady tells you to go look for her husband. Apparently he's sleeping around. You go find him and, yep, he sure is. He says something to the effect of "Don't tell anyone! Take this money and shut up." And you can, of course, take the money, and it's considered Evil.

Then, if you want, you can go tell the lady anyway.

Now there's two reasons you could be doing this. For one thing, you might have had an attack of conscience, and this is all well and good (har har). But also, your dad said that he'll give you money for each good deed you do. So maybe you just want more money. Alternatively, maybe you just want the guy to get in trouble. And, you know, that's evil.

The game, of course, considers it a Good Deed, which highly irritated the guy who was trying to play evil.

Another case study: Later in the game, there's this big bandit chieftain, who attacks you and who you roundly trounce (maybe on your second or third try, but let's ignore that for now.) Of course, he's not dead. He's just wounded. And you have the option to finish him off, or not, as you see fit.

So: Bandit chieftain. I've just humiliated him in front of his entire bandit army, all of which are standing around screaming for his blood.

Is leaving him alive supposed to be a GOOD deed or an EVIL deed? Because, you know, he's probably dead anyway. I'll just do a cleaner job of it.

I have the feeling this particular question came up during testing, because almost immediately as soon as it drops out of the cutscene and leaves you ready to make a decision, he says "Please don't kill me". So there you have it, killing him is definitely evil now. But this is one of those decisions that could be spun either way without any trouble. Killing him is good because it's better than the alternative. Killing him is evil because, yay, killing! Letting him live is good because death is evil. Letting him live is evil because, let's get the popcorn and watch what happens.

This is why game morality is completely doomed. For now.

There's only one way I can think of to work around these. Step One: Define some sort of a "overall goodness function", based on people's happiness. (How to do this is an entire book on its own. Which is better: one person living in abject misery and everyone else very happy, or absolutely everyone somewhat less happy? Show your work, and be prepared to argue it in front of the class.) Step Two: Actions that increase the Overall Goodness Function are good. Actions that decrease the Overall Goodness Function are evil. Badabing badaboom.

If you wanted to get really clever, you could define half a dozen of them and then quiz the player at the beginning to see what their view of morality is. Then watch to see how well they conform to it.

On the other hand I'm not even sure that would help. In the end, I think I'm forced to conclude something really simple:

Good and evil isn't a one-dimensional line.

And there we have it.

(no subject)

All the online comic back issues stores suck. Seriously. They do.

I mean, they all say things like "The Most Complete Back Issue Catalog On The Web!" and then you type in "Transmetropolitan" and they say "Series Not Found". Like, WTF.

And eBay sucks for single issues. Sure, if you're missing, say, ALL of them, it's easy to find. Or if you're missing a large set you might be able to pick up a good number of 'em. But if you're missing, oh, say, #8 and #31, you're basically fucked.

And so here I am, with single or double-issue holes in half a dozen serieses, and absolutely no way to fill them.


That's all I have to say.

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