The Games of Bethesda and a Lack of Moral Agency

I want a world where good choices are possible. It’s hard enough to figure out what is a good choice in the real world but in video games you’d think it might be easier. In a role playing game, in order to play a role, you need the ability in the game to make good or bad or neutral choices. Bethesda, for all their love of crime/moral systems, doesn’t like good choices. In fact, their crime/moral systems suck.

Oblivion guard


Now sometimes this is simply sloppy design. It shouldn’t be so easy to commit crimes that you do it without ever realizing you did it. I had several times in Oblivion, minding my own business I thought, and a guard would pop out of nowhere bellowing at me. What did I do? I have no idea. Somehow accidentally tripped something in the game that counted as a crime. Picked something up by accident maybe? Walked through the wrong door? I’M INNOCENT I TELL YOU!

(Did you know that horses can report you for stealing them? Who decided that made any sense?)

There’s multiple cases in that game where it’s consisdered licit to kill a character, even necessary in a quest, but then illicit to take any of their stuff.

In Skyrim, meanwhile, there you are innocently defending yourself against a dragon which landed in the middle of town and a chicken walks by just as you shout at it… and then everybody in town attacks you.

But that’s just design quirks. What about actual moral choices?

Fallout 3 has a karma system. It affects which companions you get, which faction will be attacking you constantly, stuff like that. All well and good. Except that it doesn’t necessary reflect good and bad. As part of the main quest, the player character has to go and get something from Vault 112. The inhabitants of Vault 112 are trapped in a virtual reality by a sadistic scientist. Then you have two choices: torture and kill everybody but actually leave them trapped for the rest of their lives to be tortured and killed repeated or actually kill everybody. One of these will get you negative karma and the other good but here is no good choice.

One soon to be deceased vigilant

I think that cheese is eating him

In Elder Scrolls, do a daedra quest and most of the time you’ll be forced to do something awful. Well, just don’t do them then, right? Except that the developers sometimes set it up to trick you into it. Walking into Markarth you may come upon a Vigilant of Stendar hell bent on getting himself killed (the only thing apparently Vigilants of Stendar are good for). Help me investigate this house, he asks and if you don’t know better and go along, you end up traped in the house. The only way out: kill him.

In both cases the game designer deliberately put the player into situation where they have no real choice of how they act.

Now I must make an aside about the nature of video games which complicates moral choices somewhat: you can know ahead of time what’s going to happen. Either you read it on a wiki or your roommate walked in while you were playing it and said, “hey, you realize if you help those people they murder everyone else right?”

So back in Markarth someone who gets just a touch annoyed with being railroaded into doing things they don’t like will turn their nose up at the quest you stumble into first (don’t even get me started on that one) and the nitwit next abandoned house can stand there forever unhelped and maybe actually they’ll just not bother going to Markarth. It’s really not that great anyway. These people are so stupid they sleep on stone beds. Screw Markarth.

This is unfortunately the only way to play something approaching lawful good or just plain good actually in Elder Scrolls: Skip stuff. With that foreknowledge, however, comes the temptation to act differently. If you know that a particular character will murder a group of people, maybe–if you can–it’ll seem like a more moral choice to kill them first.

So if you know that the ghouls outside Tenpenny Tower are going to kill everyone if you talk the people into letting them in, you could save the people and wipe out the ghouls. Then you get negative karma!

Game developers are fallible human beings. They’re probably also ones without any concept of natural law. As such, the morality systems they impose of their virtual worlds are often incomplete and contradictory. But they also have notions about the favor of the world and type of things that must happen which interferes further with the freedom of choice afforded the player.

How can you truly be role playing if you have no choice about your character’s moral orientation? Certainly you have choice when it comes to is this character pure mage or pure might or somewhere in the middle. But a character who murders people is a murderer and one that steals is a thief. One ought to have the option NOT to do these things. Why can’t I, for instance, save the people in Vault 112? The only reason not is that the game delevopers said no. Why? Because it doesn’t conform with what they wanted for the world. Who cares what the player wants to do.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if a game like Skyrim actually had different paths to follow down based on moral choices?  The main quests could have been more like Dawnguard which let you pick which faction you helped. They could have had a whole quest line to destroy the Dark Brotherhood for example. Oh, sure, sure, you can destroy them. IF you murder someone first.


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