Over on his blog today, Coyote discusses a topic we’ve talked about here before (specifically in Moral Choice): the way most games set up choices as only good/bad or good/evil.

Helping the old lady across the street is good. Shoving her into the oncoming traffic is bad. Walking away might be allowed and considered “neutral”. Or you might just have to choose between the first two actions.

That’s an exaggerated example of the simplistic situations we’re given in games. One reason is that it’s easier to program these either/or incidents. It’s also easier for the player to discern which one is “right” and which is “wrong”, according to the designers’ philosophy.

So if someone wants to be “bad”, he or she has no trouble figuring out what to do. Likewise, anyone who wants to be “good” has an easy time following the “true path”.

Coyote mentions (ahem) Ultima IV, and indeed, the right/wrong was often obvious in that game. However, the point of U4 was to perfect your character, to become a living role model. We also should consider that this game was written for an 8-bit machine with 64K RAM. While the mechanics may have been simplistic by today’s standards (if we have any), it was still a major achievement.

Now that we’re well beyond those primitive specs, we should be getting much more sophisticated games. Only, of course, we aren’t. We’re inundated with the same old tired “good/evil” dichotomy, with an occasional gloss of “neutral”.

Is this how we really see the world? As a matter of fact, yes. The trick is, we each have our own ideas of what is right or wrong, good or evil. Coyote points that out when he writes about the (unique for its time) “card choosing” sequence at the start of U4.

The ethical dilemmas presented have no “good or bad” answer, except in your own view of what is right or wrong for a particular situation. For that matter, there were occasional in-game trade-offs with the virtues.

When in combat with simple, but hostile, animals (not monster animals), you could retreat out of the fight. By being the last to leave the screen, you increased your rating in self-sacrifice. However, because you “ran away”, you were docked points in the virtue of Valor.

What Coyote wants, and indeed, a number of us out here as well, are games that present situations where we choose an action based on our own principles, rather than trying to “game the system” and figure out what the developers want us to do.

In the “Moral Choice” article mentioned above, I gave a lengthy description of Geneforge IV, which has no specific “right or wrong” faction to join. Which one you decide to support depends on which one you think has the right ideas.

Why don’t we see more of this in games, with in-game consequences (not necessarily immediate) that matter? The Witcher, with over a million sold and a console port on the way, demonstrates that gamers are not turned off by making ethical decisions.

It’s been a long road from Ultima IV to the present. And as we’ve said so many times before, that road is one big, deep rut. It’s time for developers to take off the blinders and see the world as it really is. That is, if they’re mature enough to handle it.

Can’t I Be Just a Little Bit Evil? on Coyote’s blog