Will you save the orphans or eat them? Will you blow up the planet or give it renewable energy and free healthcare? Will you hug Leonardo Da Vinci or let his outstretched arms wither? For a minute there, it felt like games were characterized by binary choices like these—even if their prevalence might have been a tiny bit exaggerated. In honor of Mass Effect’s return, this week’s Splitscreen takes a trip back to the era of morality meters. I say “back,” because well, it sure seems to be over now.
To kick off the episode, Ash Parrish, Mike Fahey, and I chart the history of morality/karma meters in games, beginning with the first game to really mainstream the idea: 1985's Ultima IV. With eight different virtues for players to keep track of, it was a surprisingly complex origin story for a system people came to associate with simplistic choices. But contrary to popular belief, even during the time of Peak Meter, the system’s most notorious purveyors—like BioWare—were trying to subvert it. They did not always succeed (see: Paragon/Renegade), but they tried.
Next we move on to a discussion of the most difficult choices we’ve ever made in games. Fahey talks about the end of Nier: Automata, I recount the tale of the time I replayed 15 hours of The Witcher 3 to undo one choice, and Ash discusses the end of Mass Effect 3—a portion of the episode I still haven’t listened to, because I’m determined to avoid having it spoiled for me until I finally get a chance to finish it myself.
To close things out, we discuss choices in more modern video games and the forms they take sans meters. Broadly speaking, they’re better now! Maybe you disagree with that statement, but the fact of the matter is, Disco Elysium exists. Can you really argue against that?
Get the MP3 here and check out an excerpt below.
Nathan: What was the last game y’all played that had a morality meter in it? Aside from Mass Effect, which is a remaster of a game from a decade ago? But before that, what was the last game you played where it was like, “We’re going to actively measure your choices in this very straightforward way that we’ve laid out on screen?
Ash: It was Oddworld: Soulstorm.
Fahey: That’s a remake.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s another remake. What’s the most modern game you’ve played that’s done that?
Fahey: Something by Telltale, but that didn’t actually have a meter. So that doesn’t count. I was thinking of, you know, when they show you what choices everyone else made, but that’s not a meter. So yeah, I guess it would’ve been one of those superhero games I was talking about: Prototype or Infamous.
Nathan: Yeah, I think we can safely declare ourselves fully out of the age of The Meter. Even the sequels that are getting made to classic games are ones that didn’t have meters. Like, Baldur’s Gate 3 is now in development, but it’s fully rooted in a reputation system with your other characters and cause and effect based on previous choices you made. There’s no overarching idea of morality beyond what you think is right moment-to-moment and what that says about your character over time.
Similarly, Fahey, I think it’s interesting that you mentioned Telltale, because Telltale felt like it was going to be—in terms of choice in games—this revolution in terms of how games were made. Those games were relatively inexpensive to make. Telltale was pumping out tons of them; they were everywhere for a while. There was a new Telltale game based on some new property every few months. And then Telltale collapsed, and that style of game kind of just went away. No one really picked up that torch. There are other smaller-scale adventure-style games with some choices—stuff like Oxenfree—but Telltale evaporated, and nothing took its place.
Fahey: Yeah, it’s gone—that whole genre. I mean, isn’t someone remaking Sam & Max or something right now? Otherwise, it’s gone.
Nathan: I also think people got a little sick of that style of choice. It was a thing where so much of Telltale’s output was smoke and mirrors. It was very evocative smoke and mirrors, but it was still like, “We’re going to make you feel like you’ve made an impactful choice, even if the game is not actually going to diverge that much.” I guess you still have some bigger-budget versions of that same idea. Like there’s Until Dawn.
Ash: Oh yeah, Man of Medan and all those games.
Nathan: Yeah, those are filling a kind of similar niche, but without all the licensed properties. And then Quantic Dream is still...existent.
Ash: Ew. The collective sigh.
Fahey: Poor Quantic Dream. They tried.
Nathan: They’ve also been accused of some pretty heinous shit, so...
But yeah, I think games these days are also integrating choices in more interesting ways. This is gonna be my, what, second week in a row talking about it, but Pyre is a game that did a really good job of being like, “Instead of having choices based even on your character’s personal morality—or even your own personal sense of morality—this is more about how much you like these characters, who you care about, who makes the most sense for you in terms of gameplay, and who should go back to this other world, rendering them inaccessible to you.”
How good are you at making these very bittersweet choices that are never “Who should you kill?” or “Who should you save?” or whatever. Everyone in your party is trying to escape from this kind of hell-like place back to the world they came from, and in what order are you going to do that, and what impact will that have on the story? It centers the gameplay around the choices, rather than vice versa, which I think is really cool.
Ash: I think I would like a game that does not tell me it’s monitoring the choices I make. So there’s no meters, no indication whatsoever. And then something happens midway through the game, and you die, and your choices are evaluated, and you get sent to heaven or hell depending on what your choices are. If you don’t like the outcome, you can go back and replay the game, but it’s a little bit different, and you try to make different choices just to see. You want to change your fate, but you have no idea which choices led to you being doomed to hell. I think that would be fun.
Fahey: I think the best decision-making system nowadays would be something where it’s completely seamless. Telegraphing choices led to lots of really dramatic moments in gaming, but I think it would be better if you just didn’t know it was happening.
Nathan: I mean, that was Undertale before it became this hugely popular meme. I think there was some base-level understanding that your decision to kill or not kill monsters would have an impact, but people when they first played that game did not know that was the morality system—that the game was logging all of your decisions in that regard and spinning up this fairly complicated tapestry of outcomes based on that.
But yeah, I think there are a handful of games that are doing the invisible choice thing. It’s also really hard to do in a satisfying way.
Fahey: Disco Elysium.
Nathan: Oh yeah. Oh man! How have we not touched on that?
Ash: I haven’t played it.
Fahey: Ash, play Disco Elysium! We need to do a whole episode on Disco Elysium.
Ash: Is that the old Fallout people?
Fahey: You’re thinking of Wasteland.
Nathan: Yeah, Wasteland is alright, but Disco Elysium is amazing. Based on your taste in games, Ash, you’d love it. If you want to talk about interesting choices and a lot of them being invisible in terms of your morality but still adding up to something, you’re right, Fahey, Disco Elysium wins. The end.
For all that and more, check out the episode. New episodes drop every Friday, and don’t forget to like and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher. Also, if you feel so inclined, leave a review, and you can always drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or to suggest a topic. If you want to yell at us directly, you can reach us on Twitter: Ash is @adashtra, Fahey is @UncleFahey, and Nathan is @Vahn16. See you next week!