The Morality Gauge

I have not gone far in Overlord. I question whether the gameplay will become much more interesting than “throw a wave of imps at it,” and I found my drive to look further stymied early on by the corruption score.

Overlord includes the familiar karma score, in which all ethical decisions fall on a single line. The moral meaning of every action is absolute and completely independent of intention. A surprising amount of violence and destruction has no moral component at all, just specifically defined moral decisions. Most of the early ones are clearly labeled, although you can get a corruption score before being told that it exists (“Hey, if I click on this guy, a green number goes up. I wonder what … oh, my gremlins killed him.”), which must make for some fun surprises and re-loads when you unexpectedly shift yourself in an undesired direction.

What are the story or in-world implications of differing morality scores? Usually relatively little except an aura and some flavor text, maybe a cut scene or something if you find all the points in one direction. Some games will have separate good and evil plots, but that will be advertised prominently enough for you to know it is coming.

What are the gameplay implications? Ha, like they are going to tell you that ahead of time. Much better to let someone make irreversible decisions without any indication of the consequences. Because hey, nothing is irreversible with enough save files (remember to save before every decision, even if you are not told it is a decision point), and what increases re-play value more than sending completists back through the whole thing to make every decision in the both directions?

Let’s pause for a moment of cynicism. One possible goal here is to encourage repetition of content in the hopes of seeing something slightly different, because you want to get everything out of the game you bought. That likely means three playthroughs: once naturally, once pure good, once pure evil. This makes the game look much longer, because it takes more time to complete. With any luck, you can get some cognitive dissonance there: once you have played the game three times, you can admit you were suckered into repeating it with little payoff, or you can decide you must have really enjoyed it if you were willing to play through three times. Best game ever, tell your friends!

Bonus points if morality can be accidental. I don’t mean unlabeled here, I mean that you can randomly shift due to things you did not even try to do. Enemies miss you and hit the villagers? Evil points for using human shields! The princess runs in the path of your fireball spell as you try to save her? Evil points for killing her! These ones can get interesting if the game has a pseudo-random number generator that will reliably produce the same results on save file reloads. Can you use up that bad die roll before the princess offs herself, without getting yourself killed by the dragon?

Let’s pause again to consider intention. What you meant to do is irrelevant. Why you did it is irrelevant. The game has a moral score attached to certain things, the way it has experience points attached to the enemies you accidentally killed with a grenade. Rescuing the princess earns virtue points, even if you thought of it as capturing her from a different villain with the plan of locking her up for reasons we do not discuss on family-friendly blogs. And hey, when you leave the dungeon, she automatically disappears to re-join her family, without giving you any say in the matter, so there will be no locking her up. Maybe your villain has his own cognitive dissonance, in which he decides that he must have meant to do that, therefore shifting him towards good.

Frequently, you are not so much a villain as a jerk. Do you want to feed the puppy or kick it? Do you want to destroy your productive resources so you can laugh over the ruins? Video game morality holds that short-sighted destruction is evil, while building up to real atrocities is virtuous until the moral downtick at the end for genocide (“murder, 10+ innocents, -5 points”).

Of course, we don’t want the game to seem to favor one side or force you down a certain path, so let’s neuter the implications of that decision by rewarding both options. You can kill the Little Sisters for short-term gain, or save them for … huh, just about the same reward, who would have guessed? And since virtue is its own reward, we will make the good options pay off more, where they give you the item you were considering stealing plus a reward.

This is pretty absurd in a “be the villain” game. What kind of evil overlord game rewards you for protecting the innocent?

Google tells me that Overlord gives out different spells down the line based on corruption scores. That’s common enough. Force healing or force lightning? Bonus points to the games that give the same ability with different special effects and pretend it matters.

I went to Google because I suspected the truth: Overlord has exactly enough morality points to fill the bar in either direction. If you make any decisions in the other direction, there is no way to become completely corrupt or virtuous. Are there any implications to being 100% in any direction? I didn’t read at length, and the game certainly provides no warnings. (It could be in the manual. I bought the game on Steam, and I have not looked for a PDF yet.)

Stacking these up, I see an obvious snare, and the only way to play is to walk right into it. It is like the first time your new MMO serves up the “kill 30 rats” quest. Kill 3 to 10 was sane, but you can see the arm of the mousetrap waiting.

The single-variable morality score is just an unfortunate game mechanic in a variety of ways, and that is even before so many games have found even worse ways of implementing it.

: Zubon

4 thoughts on “The Morality Gauge”

  1. Mmmh, I remember that corruption in the first Overlord makes your spells do more damage, but you get less money from treasure chests.
    I remember a cutscene when you encounter some villagers where Gnarly tells you that you can either let them be, or kill them. But he warns you that killing them will make you stronger, but there will be less people to care for you (and in the background, the peasants are shown grovling, with bags of gold)
    So, it’s not explicit (each villager makes you do 0.01% more damage, but you will gain 0.02% less gold from tresure chests), but it hints at it.

    And, of course, you start having a dark aura, spikes extrudes from your body, etc, etc, but that’s just flavor.

    I’m playing Overlord 2, but I… It seems more random there… I don’t know when, why or what karma change will occur…

  2. It’s quite amazing. Morality in the real world is such a font of dilemmas and conundra; situations where there are genuinely difficult decisions to be made. Yet games often squander the opportunity to capitalise on moral dilemmas. Bioshock, for example, was an insult to real moral dilemmas.

    I guess developers have spent so much time working on emulating the real world with graphics (depth of field, motion blur, sub-surface scattering etc etc) that they’ve neglected the real world when it comes to morality.

    I mean, all you need is to emphasise that ‘good’ often means making some kind of sacrifice (either giving something up or, more interestingly, not exploiting an opportunity or leaving yourself open to exploitation, a la ‘Nice’ strategies in the Prisoner’s Dilemma) for the benefit of another, while ‘bad’ often entails putting self-interest above other-interest (i.e. defecting in the PD) or deviant behaviour (which is far less interesting). Add a few situations where there’s no ‘right’ answer, and you have a genuine noodle scratcher.

  3. Overlord’s an interesting example in that the fact that it has a morality gauge, and the specific way that the gauge seems to buck the “You are the Lord of All Evil” premise, ends up having something interesting to say about who you are and free will. Unfortunately none of that becomes clear until the game’s over, by which point the ludonarrative dissonance has likely frustrated you into gaming the system. Writer Rihanna Pratchett was clearly saving herself up for the big ending, which might work for books but isn’t usually a great plan for games.

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