Morality systems in games usually amount to the gameplay equivalent of Pokemon Red & Blue: a contrived reason to play the same game twice.

In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, you get two upgrade paths and the usual grab bag of alternate endings—good, bad, and boring.

If you’re lucky you’ll get something more interesting like the Witcher 2 and 3, morally ambiguous choices that have very explicit positive or negative effects.

Moral decisions in the Fallouts and Mass Effects have plot and relationship altering results. This is all external.

And that’s the point of this micro-ramble. Morality systems generate external tensions, obstacles, and consequences for the player.

But games almost never attempt to use these systems as points of internal conflict for the player-character.

We may get a series of dramatic cinematics tinged with brooding regret, but psychological growth and tension is poorly communicated through interactivity. This is partially because game’s allow for virtually no interiority. But more likely because the integrity of fun must be completely protected. There can be no hiccups or tensions within the mechanics.

When Arya in GoT killed someone for the first time, it was a deepening and fulfillment of her personal convictions. Obviously there were external consequences, but the internal back and forth revolved around the value of life, who does and doesn’t deserve death, and most importantly her own identity.

Is a she a faceless assassin or a Stark? Whose values does she uphold? How will her militant desire for revenge (the human nature component of her relationship with murder) change her? Will she overcome this desire or will it consume her?

When you kill in Deus Ex, it means nothing more than losing out on an achievement, some upgrade, or alternate ending. Adam Jensen’s morality means next to nothing for his character. Murder and nonlethal action are disconnected from his interiority.

The missed opportunity is to implement these changes and arcs into the gameplay in a way that supports the story. And no, not new weapons or moves.  But abilities define and communicate character in games more effectively than the average game script. Character could be explored through a gameplay arc that is as focused on the internal growth as it is on the player’s fun.

My question then: what does gameplay look like when you apply a 3 act structure to it?


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