Imagine trying to explain to someone who’s never picked up a controller in their life how much fun moral choice games can be: “Yeah, so when it comes to making the decisions it can be horribly tense. Sometimes, what seems like the morally right choice may actually turn out to be bad for everyone. It’s rarely a case of black and white.
You actually feel guilty for unknowingly picking the option which ends up screwing everyone over. Some games, you don’t even find out how much of an effect your choices have had until later on, by which time you’re too far in to reload and change things – should you decide you’re not happy with the consequences of your actions. Oh, and occasionally there’s a timer counting you down, meaning you’ve hardly any time to think about what to do, making the whole thing all the more palpitation-inducing. They’re brilliant!
The choices we make in these games are often a reflection of the person we are, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes we want our character to be a bit of an obnoxious a-hole because that’s how we imagine them to be, or we choose to act like an evil Sith lord because we want to experience what it’s like - it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re secretly some kind of sociopath.
So what have been some of the best moral games ever made? There’s quite a selection, and it partly comes down to what can be considered part of the genre: a lot of games contain sections where the player needs to make difficult choices, but the ones on this list are titles which are famed for their moral decision gameplay. These are the games that really put you on the spot and demand you make the difficult choice. There’s no sitting on the fence here.
Anyone who has played the Walking Dead series will know why it’s regarded as number one when it comes to moral choice games. There’s a ton of agonizing decisions to be made, and it’s very difficult to know how to pick the ‘best’ option - especially since silence and inaction can also be choices. It’s not only that there are so many of these palpitation-inducing moments, but there is also the fact that each of these choices is made against the clock, adding even more stress to the proceedings - but the good kind of stress.
The attachment the player feels towards the characters also pushes The Walking Dead to the number one spot. They’re as well written as the survivors in Robert Kirkman’s comic books (which anyone who has read them will tell you are better than the TV show), giving you a real connection to Clementine, Lee, and the others. Without giving too much away, those who have played through the entire first series will know the most difficult decision they face arrives at the end of the game, which, especially after every difficult choice they made before it, is a gaming moment that will stay with the player forever.
While the arguments still rage on over which Dragon Age is the better game, Origins or Inquisition, it’s generally accepted that it was the first entry in the series that contains the superior moral choice elements. Origins was one of the earliest games to contain a less clear-cut ‘good or bad’ path for its characters, often what seemed to be the morally right choice turned out to be disastrous for all involved.
Your actions affect your party’s individual approval rating of you, leading to a variety of new dialogues, quests, bonuses, and even romance. There’s also the fact that following the less than virtuous path can lead to you gaining some fairly impressive powers, and who wouldn’t want to play as a bad-ass blood mage?
How does game over fifteen-years-old so often win the ‘best RPG of all time’ award? By being absolutely brilliant, that’s how. And because Planescape: Torment focuses on dialogue, rather than combat, there’s plenty of opportunity to shape protagonist The Nameless One’s ethical and moral perspectives.
Beginning the game as a truly neutral blank slate, the actions of the player determine their alignment as the game continues. Non-player characters respond differently to The Nameless One depending on this alignment. Unlike most games from the genre, there are not only aspects of good and evil, but also of law and chaos. It may be old, but Planescape is still amazing, play it now!
Before anyone spits their drinks out in outrage at Mass Effect being on here, remember: having a disappointing ending to the trilogy doesn’t take away from the hundreds of hours of stunning decision-oriented gameplay that came before it.
Having the choices made in previous games carry over to the later ones is a brilliant way to see the long-term consequences of a player's actions. Some people have been known to replay an entire Mass Effect game just so they can pick a different series-altering choice.
Because morality in Mass Effect is not measured on a single sliding scale, instead using separate paragon and renegade levels, a ‘good’ action will not make up for previous ‘bad’ one. So just because you’re often polite to people, it won’t make them fear you any less after you brutally murdered an innocent man.
Much like the Dragon Age series (another entry on this list) there are questions over which Knights Of The Old Republic game is the better of the two. While it’s true The Sith Lords was released with a number of technical issues, and had quite a bit of content cut, the game doesn’t portray a clear dichotomy between the light and dark side of the force the way the first game so often does.
Throughout KOTOR2 you’re constantly reminded by your companion, Kreia, about the long term effect of your actions. Giving a beggar some money may help him right now, but it’s not helping him help himself - “Giving him what he has not earned is like pouring sand into his hands.” Kreia’s not the ideal candidate to become a charity worker, but she is good at pointing out how life is full of gray areas – although she usually does this by criticizing most of the decisions you make. These grey decisions really make you think and justify choices that other games might pan as 'good' and 'bad'.
It’s not easy to write about Heavy Rain without giving away any spoilers; suffice to say, the entire experience is pretty much one hard decision after the other.
Heavy Rain is excellent at pulling at the emotional heartstrings, making the decisions the player has to face all the harder. Parents will especially be able to relate to the moral dilemmas that one of the main protagonists, Ethan Mars, has to endure while making tough parental decisions.
There are some genuinely uncomfortable moments in Heavy Rain, partly due to these realistic characters that people care for. It’s a game where making a bad decision will weigh heavily on your conscience, and with 22 different endings, there’s plenty of variation in the ways the player can shape the outcome.
Much like Knights Of The Old Republic 2, Fallout: New Vegas did many things better than its predecessor, but was plagued with bugs and fell victim to claims it wasn’t "as atmospheric as Fallout 3." While this may have made it the inferior game in the eyes of many players, it’s still generally regarded as having the better moral system - with less obvious ‘good or bad’ scenarios popping up and it containing better-written characters with more depth.
New Vegas presents the player with some difficult choices. The decisions you make influences the way various factions react to you, which can open up different gameplay options depending on how people perceive your past deeds. You can even 'beat' the finally boss of the game with words alone, should you be morally against violence, or find him too tough.
Not only one of the greatest RPGs of all time, but also a game with some of the best moral choice mechanics ever seen. There is no binary ‘good or evil’ here, the best moral dilemmas you’ll face in The Witcher 2 are far from a simple choice of picking either what is the right or wrong thing to do.
The game’s excellent writing and characters give the player some truly agonizing decisions to make, from choosing personal emotions over the needs of the many, to deciding who gets to live and who gets to die. Often it comes down to picking whichever choice seems to lead to the least awful consequence. The Witcher 2 is a dark, brutal and brilliant game, and when it comes to moral choices in RPG’s you’re unlikely to find better - at least until The Witcher 3 finally arrives, hopefully.