There’s a thing that passes for ethical choice in many video games, occasionally referred to as the three-N system (Nice, Neutral, Nasty). It usually goes something like this:
1. Cure Cancer.
2. Walk away.
3. Pour boiling oil on blind orphans.
You’ll pardon me if I feel that this fails to adequately encapsulate the nuances of ethical choice and the sheer interestingness that can be generated when you break away from this simplistic and exaggerated model.
You may as well take the text of the options themselves away and replace it with three little faces. One with a halo, one with horns and one with neither. Then, perhaps, you could get on with improving the overall writing a little.
The choices presented are often little more than caricatures. There’s no real ethical dilemma involve. You’ll cure cancer, or fry those blind orphans or neither, and there’s no real dilemma here, other than the dilemma of the player being confined to melodramatic extremes.
An ethical dilemma arises when the player is presented with two or more possible options, each of which would transgress some principle held by the player (or by the player’s view of the character, depending on exactly where you’re pitching your meta-play).
A fictional setting tends to be necessarily imperfect, because imperfections drive narratives. Which orphans do we sacrifice to save the other orphans? Perhaps we’re even cornered into saving orphans that we don’t really want to save because circumstances require it.
And that’s the thing. Our gameplay settings tend to defy the three Ns, and then game designers cram bagsfuls of three-Ns choices onto most things as if they fit.
Choosing one of the N’s (as they exist in most video games) is little more than a character sheet gimmick, on-par with selecting weapons or allocating skill points.
By contrast, CD Projekt’s The Witcher (highly recommended, incidentally), pushes you into taking one or another stands on your principles in a series of deeply morally grey situations, and then sticks you with the oftentimes delayed consequences of those choices. It can be confronting, and uncomfortable, but makes the choices ever so much more interesting.
The freedom to choose imposes the responsibility of consequences, and the responsibility of consequences fosters a feeling of freedom of choice – even if there’s very little genuine freedom actually involved (as it so often must be in video games).
Not every video game narrative has to be a masterpiece of ethical choice, moral dread and biting consequence, but at least we could aspire to grow up a little beyond the three Ns.