Morality. Karma. Alignment. Call it what you want, but the idea is still the same. What you do defines what kind of person you are. In the past decade or so, role-playing games have included this idea of right vs. wrong as a gameplay mechanic in an attempt to give more weight to your decisions. This began with Dungeons & Dragons, the original basis for all RPG’s, by allowing you to choose an alignment that affects your character’s nature and decision-making process. But rather than picking an alignment that determines your actions, modern RPG’s have your actions determine your alignment. As Bruce Wayne said to Katie Holmes before she turned into Maggie Gyllenhaal , “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” I could get into how Batman is a bit of a contradicting asshole due to having a moral compass against killing anyone, but sleeps soundly at night after causing tons of cars to crash and explode that someone must’ve died from, but I digress. Morality systems have become somewhat of a staple of RPG’s in recent years, as seen in Mass Effect, Fable, Fallout, and my all-time favorite, Knights of the Old Republic, as well as the MMORPG based on KOTOR, The Old Republic. But how is it that an RPG that didn’t include any morality or alignment system was received so well, nearly sweeping all of the Game of the Year awards last year?
Before we talk about Skyrim however, we’re going to discuss the mistakes its RPG predecessors made in regards to karma. These issues come down to one of two things: lack of proper neutrality or moral extremism. As much as I love Knights of the Old Republic, and as impatiently I am waiting for The Old Republic to begin it’s free-to-play model, all three of these games have both issues when it comes to its alignment system. The neutrality issue is definitely seen as the opportunity to act and the ability to decide in a neutral fashion is rarely available, and if you do attempt to fill your heart with neutrality, the game essentially punishes you because the really cool and powerful weapons and armor are only available to someone who’s chosen between the dark side and the light side. This is especially so in The Old Republic, as the dark side and light side both have vendors with exquisite goods who stand there gloating at the neutrals, essentially saying, “Teehee, no epic gear for you, you indecisive prick.” Now, what I mean by moral extremism is that when faced with the choice between good and evil, the choice is almost always between extremely good and extremely evil. In Knights of the Old Republic, I’m frequently faced with the decision of either spewing peace and love as some Jedi preacher, or going on a malicious rampage. This extremism is also evident in how you converse with people. You’re either complimenting and empathizing with someone, or insulting and/or threatening them. I guess when you’re set on either saving or conquering the galaxy, there’s no time for casual small talk.
I haven’t played Mass Effect or Fable as much as the others I’ve mentioned or will mention, so we’ll put them in one paragraph. From what I remember, Bioware made a few improvements to the morality system since KOTOR, and this was seen in Mass Effect. As the name suggests, and as anyone who’s played the game will tell you, it’s big draw was the universe-altering importance behind your decisions. But rather than simple good vs. evil choices (or Paragon vs Renegade in Mass Effect’s terms), you were occasionally met with legitimate ethical dilemmas. This mostly consisted of deciding whom to sacrifice, or which crew members to bone, but at least it was a change of pace from the typical decision between being nice or being a dick. Well the boning was an ethical dilemma for me at least, outer-space lovin’ is important to me. Fable, on the other hand, faced similar issues that KOTOR faced, namely a lack of neutrality and very extreme moral choices. Should I free the town of bandits, or join the bandits in ransacking the defenseless citizens? Free the enslaved prisoners, or sell them off to the highest bidder? Is a bit of middle ground too much to ask for? But looking back at Fable, the game and story would probably have been very hard to advance with a hero that took a neutral stance on things. So it gets a pass there. But perhaps a bit of moderation when it comes to your levels of heroism or malevolence? Perhaps I could just be a good-hearted guy instead of the constant defender of the free people.
So at last we come to Bethesda’s crown jewels of Fallout and Skyrim. What we saw in Fallout 3 and New Vegas was a morality system that actually did alright in terms of neutrality. You could acquire perks and companions by behaving in a neutral fashion, which we haven’t seen in many other games. The only issue was that in order to be neutral, you had to essentially ignore people’s problems rather than take a stance. Or you had to balance your good deeds by going out and stealing things or killing random people you come across for no reason. In a wasteland where everyone’s looking out for themselves, is it so outlandish to just worry about yourself? Why do I have to deal with other people’s problems? Fallout also had the extremism issue. Should I free all the slaves from Paradise Falls, or work out a deal with the people in charge and enslave innocent people? Any sort of middle ground you have to figure out on your own, which is why I started enslaving raiders. Shoot at me, and I have no problem putting a collar around your neck.
What I like about Skyrim is that how people treat your character isn’t based on how good or evil of a person you are, it’s just based on realistic things, like notoriety and reputation. If you’re a member of the Thieves Guild, and you walk around wearing Thieves Guild armor, people will give you shifty glances cause they assume that you’re a thief. And then give you a shiftier glance when they notice that their coin purse is missing. The same goes if you’re a member of the Dark Brotherhood. If you’re a Thane of the city you’re in, people will smile and thank you. If you’re slaying dragons (what do I mean if? Of course you’re slaying dragons!), someone will blunder into you and thank you for dealing with that pesky dragon problem. The only issue is that your race seems to go right over people’s heads some times. Talking to Ysolda, she talks about how horrible the Khajiit homeland is as if I’ve never been. The fact that I’m a Khajiit means nothing to her apparently. I don’t know why I still married that broad. Some Winterhold citizens will verbally abuse a Dark Elf woman in broad daylight, but then say nothing to me, another Dark Elf, when I enter a tavern. If you’re going to be racist, at least be consistent about it.
I think Skyrim succeeds because it doesn’t allow your morality to affect others around you, or to be effected by the decisions you make. I think D&D got it right. Your decisions may define who you are, but it’s what kind of person you are that determines your decisions. In Skyrim, the only person your morality is important to is you. A few more ethical dilemmas would have been nice to see, but overall, I think Skyrim excels in the alignment system field because you’re not making decisions to determine your morality in order to reap the benefits of being that sort of person. Your decisions have impact, but you know that they’re your decisions.