Games have learned to give us a heady experience of power, freedom from restraint both physical and moral. I spent hours a day for weeks hijacking the tank in Grand Theft Auto 3 so that I could roll down the street crushing cars and people and shooting fire trucks with 10-inch shells. Mayhem plus impunity brews a strong potion. Being a badass is about drinking deeply, f*cking sh*t up and not caring about the rules. This is wonderful. But it is not everything.
Exultant amorality does not exhaust the range of the moral sense, and games should aspire to explore more of that range. The now-popular 'morality systems' promise to help us explore moral experiences, but that promise remains unfulfilled. These systems attempt to explore morality through choice and freedom. They often fail because they are poorly executed. But they also fail because they are conceptually limited.
The truth is, choice and freedom are overrated. By focusing on them, developers embrace a kind of vulgar liberalism, a notion that morality consists in choice and consequences and no more. Whatever its virtues as a political morality, this model fails to capture many dimensions of the human moral experience, like what the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. The richest moral experiences in games have been achieved without branching storylines or 'karma,' in titles like Shadow of the Colossus.
The most common mistake in morality systems is that the choices are too easy -- They are not dilemmas at all. They feature a clear good and a clear evil option, and few people would make the evil choice and really mean it. This shatters the dream of identifying with the character you play. If you are immersed in the reality of the game experience, you will not ordinarily choose to do something horrifyingly evil; if you choose to do something horrifyingly evil in a game, you probably do not believe in the reality of the experience. Ironically, this works against one of the great virtues of player choice: Choice is a powerful way to make the player identify with the character, and own the character's actions. But ridiculous choice has the opposite effect.
A game with free choice can only meaningfully explore those choices that a player will make. The regret of evil is a potent moral feeling -- look at Crime and Punishment -- but it coexists uneasily with choice. In Final Fantasy IV, a key theme is Cecil's atonement for being the Dark Knight who massacres the village of Mist. The game does not allow the player to freely choose whether to destroy Mist. Instead, the player's hand is forced by the linearity of the game, and by deception, as Cecil is not told that his actions will destroy Mist. A player knowingly making that choice would not be taking the morality of the game seriously, and so the struggle of regret and atonement would not be felt. To make the player participate in Cecil's regret, the game must make the player own Cecil's sin, but player choice is the wrong tool for the job. Sometimes adding choice can only constrain a game's moral palette.
The problem is only compounded in those games (like Infamous) where 'good' and 'evil' player characters develop different powers and appearances. Moral choice becomes more like a tech tree or class system. You can choose to be good or evil, just like you can be a Barbarian or a Sorceress in Diablo II. This might be cool, but it doesn't engage the moral sense. Instead, it recreates the amoral experience of a GTA, giving you the choice to be good or “badass.”
The little-recognized secret of Shadow of the Colossus is that it is morally deep because it is moralistic. Shadow lets you identify with its protagonist, tempts you with power, and then punishes you for overreaching -- for the crime of striking down the majestic beasts and unleashing an ancient evil. Each Colossus battle is a microcosmic version of this morality play: You begin low, at its feet; you climb and dominate it, and revel in your strength as you strike it down; and when it collapses in death, you are pierced by a tendril of black and are laid low.
The larger arc of the game bends the same way. You begin as a weak human, but as you slay each beast you gain in strength, tenacity and endurance. As this happens, your onscreen avatar becomes progressively more grotesque until you are a hollow-eyed wraith. This represents the game taking a stand on your moral character: Your gathering power to yourself is a vile act.
In the game's conclusion, you are possessed by the demon you unleashed, and grow into a powerful Colossus yourself. The player directly commands the black beast, smashing the tiny figures of the shaman Emon and his guards. Unlike in GTA, though, this power rush is fleeting. The player is immediately robbed of his strength, literally diminished to boy-size, and forced to struggle futilely against a mighty wind. Eventually, he falls into the temple pool, where he is destroyed.
This is punishment for hubristic selfishness. The player has been set to a series of killings, and has gradually learned to glory in his power over the majestic Colossi -- and for this, he is made to fall. What sets Shadow of the Colossus apart, then, is not simply that the player behaves in a way that is morally wrong -- that's true of run-of-the-mill power fantasies. Rather, it's that the game sets out to recognize and punish this wrongdoing.
The games that identify morality with choice lose out on the richness Shadow of the Colossus harnesses so well. A vulgar liberalism says that a deed is right or wrong regardless of whether it's punished; Shadow of the Colossus knows that punishing and diminishing the player-character for his sins is a way of stimulating the moral sense, helping the player understand that he has sinned in the first place. In pre-liberal societies, it was understood that rituals of punishment did more than simply punish wrong, but helped to define wrong. Shadow of the Colossus also understands. Most modern developers do not.