albeit a hypothetical one

dragon age and morality mechanics

Something I find fascinating about video games - or a particular type of video game, at least - is the way they can simultaneously appeal to two very different player responses, what I’m going to call tactical pragmatism and immersive empathy. With tactical pragmatism, you focus on the fact that you’re playing a game, that the people and scenarios you encounter are ultimately unreal, and are therefore prepared to act outside your own moral compass, or the compass you’ve established for your character, in order to achieve particular gameplay outcomes. With immersive empathy, your connection to the characters and investment in the morality problems means you ignore the unreality of the game, forfeiting certain potential advantages rather than betraying your chosen allies; you might even undertake particular actions, not because you’ll get an in-game reaction, but because imagining the reaction the characters would have offscreen heightens the gameplay experience.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is particularly good at this dichotomy, because there’s no way to please every character in your party. I mean, don’t get me wrong - I will die on a battlefield for Dragon Age 2 - but even though you’re leading a group of people with wildly divergent interests and politics, it’s still possible to come out at the end with everyone firmly on your side. But in Inquisition, there’s a palpable sense that every action has an equal, opposite reaction. What pleases Vivienne will seldom please Sera; what displeases Bull will seldom displease Solas. The in-party banter in all its permutations is wonderful for precisely this reason, but as an overall effect, it embodies the potential clash of immersive empathy and tactical pragmatism.

For instance: I am constitutionally incapable of sacrificing Hawke to the Fade. I just can’t do it. Stroud is easy to kill, because I have no emotional investment in him, but even if I were forced to choose between Hawke and Alistair, who I love, I’d still send Hawke home every time, because he represents something important to me beyond his role in the game. Even if sacrificing Hawke meant a material gameplay advantage down the line, I’d let him live, because when push comes to shove, immersive empathy wins out over tactical pragmatism for me nine times out of ten. I can’t play Dark Side characters in Star Wars RPGs; I find it too upsetting. By the same token, I’m never going to play a game of Origins where I kill Zevran, or a game of DA2 where Fenris ends up dead or enslaved, or a game of Inquisition where the Chargers die and Bull stays Qun-compliant. I’m interested to know those versions of the story exist, but even though I’m a completionist when it comes to getting markers off the map, there are certain decisions which - even knowing the story is fake, the characters unreal; even knowing I can go back and erase the decision by reloading from an old save point - I’m never going to make.

Whereas for some players, the opposite is true. There’s an escapism in going Dark Side, a fascination in playing your Inquisitor as lord or lady of the Darkest Timeline, whatever that means to them. But it seems to me that a hallmark of a good game (within the subset of games that allow such choices) is the presence of one or more scenarios where, regardless of whether we habitually default to tactics or empathy, we’re forced to stop and think about our choices. A moment where the appeal of a particularly interesting feature, reward or gameplay option makes us pull out from our emotional investment to consider what we want to do; a moment where, the outcomes be damned, we just can’t bear to disappoint a character on-screen. Even if we ultimately decide in favour of our usual impulse, the fact that we stop to choose at all - the awareness of the choice itself - is something I don’t think you get from any other medium.   

Because in that moment, you really are making a moral decision, albeit a hypothetical one. And the logic of it is fascinating.