First off, I'd like to point out that this ramble isn't as technical as its predecessors. Playing the featured game was an intensely personal experience for me, and trying to relate that to the reasons why may take some time. Also, as always, spoilers.
The gripe with morality systems in games is an old, well-worn one. Extra Credits had covered it well before they were even on The Escapist. They're cursory, ineffective, and turn some of the most difficult choices in real life into simple, points-based calculations.
In games, morality is a two-dimensional, binary scale.
Except when it's not.
I recently had the immense pleasure of playing Catherine, a romantic horror puzzle game developed by the Atlus Persona Team. For those of you who don't know, the game follows the story of Vincent Brooks, a man who is in a steady relationship with his girlfriend Katherine. During a night spent drinking after she tells him about her possible pregnancy, he spends the night with a beautiful stranger - the titular Catherine. Throughout all this and the events of the game, Vincent suffers from nightmares where he is forced to climb towering structures and escape from horrific monsters.
Straight off the bat, we're introduced to Catherine's morality system, and there are two main ways to influence it - responding to Catherine or Katherine's texts, and answering questions after each stage of the nightmare, before proceeding to the next one. Both of these actions cause you to sway towards either end of a scale. The left hand side of the scale is blue, and the right side red. Depending on your position on that scale, Vincent responds to key events differently. Sounds like every other morality system, right?
Well, almost. There are three elements that make this morality system interesting.
First off, the binary scale is never named. In most games, you flit between Good and Evil, Paragon and Rengade, Fame and Infamy etc. In Catherine, the player is left to judge what it is they're choosing between. Their only indication is a little angel and devil on either side. Obvious symbolism, yes, but it becomes apparent later in the game that the core choice of the game, the choice between Katherine and Catherine, is not strictly about good or evil. Both characters have redeemable traits, damning flaws, and everything in between. It's not stereotypically good to choose Katherine, nor is it stereotypically evil to choose Catherine. This introduction of the grey area shifts the morality to a different subject.
I'd like to centend that the morality gauge is not flitting between good and evil. Rather, the choice is between the ideals that Katherine and Catherine represent. Katherine represents Vincent becoming the traditional family man; monogamy, a steady job, a stable relationship, and a family. Catherine, on the other hand, represents a much more hedonistic set of ideals - high sexual activity, personal liberty, free resources etc. These are both traits that people desire, as we all desire an amalgam of these traita from our relationship. In Catherine, these two sets are polarized, forcing us to choose and judge our own actions in relation to them. This, combined with the third reason I think this system is interesting, makes for some fascinatingly complex choices.
The second reason is a short, visual one. Save for the times that the gauge changes, and when a key event is influenced by your current standing on the bar, there is no way in the game to check your standing. When it's influenced, it appears for a short time, where the meter flicks in the direction correspondent to your choice. This puts the mechnical aspect of the choices behind the curtain, preventing players from thinking 'right, this choice moves me towards the red side'.
Finally, one of the most interesting parts of the morality system is the dichotomy between its two inputs; texting at the bar, and answering the questions between stages. When a player elects to respond to either Catherine or Katherine's texts, they compose a message based on a variety of different lines. By cycling through these line, the player can choose a response that best suits their attitudes, and the gauge shifts depending on the total value of the message, which is hidden from the player. This can lead to some surprises and a lot of uncertainty, as responses that the player expects to move the gauge towards Katherine might actually push them in the opposite direction.
In the nightmares, players are presented with a question and two responses that they must choose between. For example, one question is 'Does life begin or end with marriage?', with the player choosing either 'It begins', or 'It ends'. This is one of the more clear-cut questions, but some give responses that the player might not necessarily agree with, forcing them to weight up their beliefs and choose the one they feel best represents their priorities.
Combined, these two inputs put the focus solely on the player, presenting them with events and situations that are clearly designed to challenge what they feel strongly about when it comes to relationships. All of this adds a great deal of weight to each decision they make. Furthermore, the character of Vincent is forced to live out the consequences that we, as players, choose for him, fostering a far deeper connectoon than would be possible if morality was taken out of the players hands for this game.
So, it turns out that a two-dimensional morality system can be used to create depth. It just depends on what the player is choosing between.
'Till next time,