Moral implications of choice structures

Hi fellow IF authors and players. I am doing a little presentation on Mormon interactive fiction next week, and I’m planning to release my presentation as a Twine “game”. I am starting into my analysis work, where I’m trying to draw conclusions about the moral “message” of a work based on its game design. For example, there’s a pick-your-path book set in Book of Mormon times that has a didactic tone (I reviewed it [Rachel (Provo, UT)’s review of Caleb's Quest on Goodreads]). But the choices often aren’t ones where there is an obvious “right” and “wrong”. Even choices that seem “right” don’t lead to the best ending. This seems to be encouraging a more nuanced view of decision-making rather than the obvious “choose the right” taught to children in my religion.

I am interested in if other people have done this kind of analysis on other games. I mean, I know they have, someone mentioned it in a review of one of my games. But are there reviews that come to your mind on this topic? I’m interested in the general trends of IF criticism in the moral ludonarrative alignment and reviews of specific games.


This is really interesting, and I’d love to see the Twine version of your presentation when it’s ready.

This is something I’ve been wanting to explore more, especially for ChoiceScript games. I’ve got a loose idea for trying to create some sort of typology of choices in Choice of Games to better understand the range of kinds of choices that players are asked to make in those games. Many choices are perfunctory (what action should I take next to advance the narrative), some are expressive (how do I feel about something that just happened), and then some are really freighted with moral weight like what you’re describing (how do my actions have an impact on the game world).

I have not done an extensive literature review, but just doing a quick Google Scholar search surfaces some work that’s been done.

I’d also love to hear from folks who are more versed in this area about some of the key pieces that have been written on this topic.


There’s Ultima. It’s not IF but an RPG which presents you two virtues and demands a choice for one of them from you. I think it is at the beginning of the game and are 7 choices. I think it is in game 4 and 9 of this series.

This probably will not be useful to be taken identically to an IF game. But it is an interesting aspect of moral and about more than simple right-wrong schemata. There are choices and both option might be right.


I’ve been thinking about it more, basically, how different narrative structures lend themselves to different moral structures. So for example, the “time cave” or highly branching narrative is often paired with choices being random like in a typical CYOA novel–you can’t figure out beforehand which choice will lead to a bad ending, so you have to guess (the moral being that the story is random and we must submit ourselves to fate so choose whatever you want). However, the time cave doesn’t have to be that way. It could have a mixture of random choices and choices where there is a clear expectation of something being smart or stupid.

The “branch and bottleneck” structure mentioned in the blog post I linked lends itself more to the “small choices add up over time” view of choices. Often these small choices affect variables that, summed up, affect later choices. These are almost always the design used in the Choice of Games designs. I have a hard time with the way CoG implements them though, because it rewards specialization in a way that I don’t like to roleplay. With a CoG game, you’re supposed to think, “I have a choice of physical combat or a chess game, I chose cunning in the early game, so I will go for the chess game.” But somehow I always end up thinking “oh, I need my character to be well-rounded, so they should practice at physical combat” (and I mistake a stat-checking decision for a stat-raising one).

When I use the small choices add up design in my games, I try to make the choices fairly obvious that add to those variables. For example, in Space to Grow, the choices that increase your relationship points with the other colonists are ones that “side” with them. But I also get a sense that for choices to be interesting, sometimes they need to have unexpected results.


Hmm, I’m not sure I know of any criticism exactly along those lines; I might tag in @VictorGijsbers though, since this kind of thing seems up his alley.

Another non-IF game that might be worth throwing into the mix is Bioshock – spoilers for a 15ish year old game:

So there’s one element of Bioshock that maps pretty clearly to choice-based gameplay, which is the decisions around the Little Sisters. These are little girls who’ve been genetically reprogrammed to be able to harvest the biogenetic macguffin-stuff that gives you (and the enemies) their powers; at regular intervals through the game, you’ll face their protectors in tough miniboss battles, and then be faced with the binary option of whether to “save” them – undoing some of their programming, rewarding the player with a moderate amount of XP to spend on your abilities – or “harvest” them – killing them, but giving you much more XP.

It’s obvious from the way this is framed that saving the Little Sisters is the “good” path and harvesting them is the “bad” one, which determines whether a player gets a corresponding “good” or “evil” ending, but when the game was first released, I remember many players were surprised and a bit upset to learn the exact rubric that was used: instead of it being a calculation based on whether you saved more Sisters than you harvested, the game just gave you the bad ending if you harvested a single one.

This of course makes obvious moral sense – and the reaction to this mechanic doesn’t say great things about gamers circa 2007 – but it occurs to me that the structure here, of repeated dilemmas where a single lapse irrevocably sets your path, is consonant with a Manichean worldview that rejects the possibility of redemption or grace (not to say that I disagree with such a stance in this instance, given that we’re talking about child-murder, but of course one could deploy the structure in more ambiguous contexts!)


This really makes sense when you consider the content of the “good ending.” IIRC, the little sisters gather around your death bed as grown women, basically standing in as loving caring daughters, implying they formed a relationship with you in the intervening years. If, as a child, a man spares your life, but sucks the life juice from some other little girl, you consider yourself lucky that it wasn’t you and feel no gratitude to this man. If, instead, you know he systematically saved every child he encountered, that’s an entirely different thing. It’d be weird for these children to form a relationship with someone that they knew to kill children. In that light, I find the way the ending was determined very appropriate and logically consistent with the motives of the people involved.


Oh, 100% – this is why in retrospect the controversy is just completely bizarre. Like, I am no expert in criminal defense law, but from my understanding “look, your honor, let’s go over all the people I didn’t murder” is not considered an especially strong argument!


What surprised me about those reactions to the end of BioShock was the emergence of a new kind of hero who only kills children when he really, really needs to (rhetorically speaking. I’m sure nothing is new anymore).

I think a problem with morality in video games is that it is almost always transactional. Behaviors that have no concrete, real-world effects still change a character’s experience of themselves. That’s fleeting, though.

Levine’s decision to end the original Bioshock the way that it ends is the thing I like most about that entire series, honestly (I was disappointed but kept going back for more!), but even that morality is transactional. It’s just that the nature of the transaction is concealed. What would non-transactional morality look like? I think that Fallout: New Vegas has some good instances of consequence-free choices with stark moral implications.

This is an interesting subject to me. Most of the content I look at predates this kind of player agency (at least as a widespread, recognizable thing).


Just posting one link that came to mind immediately (I can’t post more extensively at the moment). Emily Short once wrote about a series of CYOA novels that are supposed to teach teenagers to make ‘Christian decisions’; the structure being that you either do the right thing, or get preached at. So basically the opposite of what the OP describes.


I have done a little more research (thanks for the right keywords from @ccpost!).

There’s a a chapter on player agency called “Agency in Meaning and Intent: Limitations of Morality Systems in Interactive Narrative Games” in Territories of Play by Lindsey Joyce. Essentially, she agrees with @kamineko that the way that most games quantify “good” and “bad” choices and report them to the player place moral authority with the game, not the player:

After the player has made a choice, the feedback system reports back to the player whether the choice she made was a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ choice, and thus the system asserts itself as the authority on the moral value of the player’s choice. The player is not given the ability to assess and evaluate the moral outcome of her choice because the system decides it for her.

Joyce further criticizes how transparent the options are in terms of which options are good and which ones are evil. “[…] rather than maintaining meaningfulness and purpose, the player is abusing the predictability of the system in order to gain a preselected outcome.” (82)

I also found a relevant section of the interactive fiction entry by Emily Short in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media (she uses “interactive fiction” to refer to parser-based text adventures). If you’ll indulge the long quote, it’s relevant to our discussion:

One approach [of games to explore player agency] is to sharply constrain player agency and to make that constraint an important part of the message of the story. [spoiler]By making a "win" state impossible,[/spoiler] Adam Cadre's Photopia [spoiler]reproduces the denial, bargaining, and acceptance of grieving as experienced through the player's attempts to replay the work for a better ending and the inevitable failure of those attempts[/spoiler].Ramses (Stephen Bond, 2000) uses a similar conceit of failed player agency in a character study of an unhappy teenager. [spoiler]The protagonist's neuroses prevent him from following through on many of the player's attempts to guide him to a happier social outcome, meeting each suggested action with a resentful of self-serving explanation of why that choice cannot be performed.[/spoiler]

Another common method is to center the interactive power of the work on the question of what the player is willing to do or make the protagonist do. Infocom’s Infidel (Michael Berlyn, 1983) opened this question with a protagonist who is ultimately punished for actions taken during the game, and subsequent IF has delved into the possibilities of an antihero or tragic protagonist. Several authors, notably Victor Gijsbers, have used IF to challenge the player’s moral preconceptions, presenting branching narratives in which each decision articulating a particular moral principle leads to an outcome further challenging that stance. By confronting the player with a situation in which a morally dubious action is necessary to make narrative progress, such IF encourages the player to consider whether he is willing to be complicit in advancing a story. Aaron Reed’s maybe make some change (2011) applies this technique to contemporary events, modeling several scenes from the lives of American soldiers in Afghanistan in order to reflect on complicity in military atrocities and the difficulty of finding moral clarity in wartime.

I think every game that has good and bad outcomes for the protagonist is making a kind of ethical or moral statement (even “your choices are meaningless” is an argument for fatalism). But the player doesn’t feel responsible for it if the game tells them what’s good or bad.


This is fascinating to me. Please bear with me as I work through this:

I’m a Wayne Booth Rhetoric of Fiction kinda guy. I assume that any narrative presents a moral universe, and the author naturally pours into that universe a moral authority over the characters and their decisions within it. So, yes, the game has moral authority. I don’t think that’s unusual or particular to IF. I’m not even sure it’s a limitation (in the sense of a failing).

However, while a story may present itself as the moral authority over the characters and their decisions, the reader is permitted to negotiate the moral interpretation.

So I’m confused when Joyce says “the player is not given the ability to assess and evaluate the moral outcome of her choice because the system decides it for her.” But the player is free to assess and evaluate. The game could even attempt to incorporate that assessment into the game by permitting the player to respond in some way. (Perhaps the confusion is that Joyce is using “player” to mean “player character,” and not the actual reader of the text? I haven’t read Joyce, so I’ll tread lightly here.)

Again, I’m not sure that’s true (and this could be a terminology issue). I could agree with this if the player feels railroaded into making the choice, or if the result of the decision feels forced or unbalanced (as some “cruel” video games are wont to do). If it’s a free choice and the outcome is organic to the story, I think the player will still harbor a sense that they have a certain responsibility for it. Part of the “suspension of disbelief” with IF is that one’s choices are free-ish to make, even if the game can only offer a constrained set of responses.

I think that’s true, but it also points to the goal-oriented design of so much of our storytelling, traditional and interactive. Mysteries revolve around a notion of justice; romances end in marriage or coupling; RPGs and their stat-based characters leveling up; and so on. Even literary fiction has this element to it, but it usually involves healing a psychic wound or repairing a relationship.


I’ve been doing more research on the subject of when a player feels like their decision is meaningful, and it is more nuanced than Joyce says. But a certain level of “instrumentality” comes from choices that are overtly tracked by the game–for instance, if it will make the game easier if you make a certain choice. The rhetorical framing of the decisions is also important. In FPSs, people don’t feel bad about shooting almost everyone in sight because they’re framed as enemies. Contrast that with if you had a knife in Life is Strange–you would feel bad about randomly killing someone (if that was an option) and other players would probably get really upset at you for it.

I wrote a bunch more on the subject in my presentation, which I should be posting tomorrow.


Here’s my Twine presentation that is really more of a website about interactive fiction, moral decisions, and player agency, with a connection to the Mormon concept of agency as expressed in the Book of Mormon. I’ll be online briefly to talk about it at the online Association for Mormon Letters conference over on YouTube under “forms of Mormon genre” around 7:45pm MST. But personally, I don’t really like video lectures, which is why I made this presentation to be standalone in its Twine form. Thank you to everyone here who contributed and helped me to think more deeply about the issues of moral and ethical gameplay in interactive fiction (and please feel free to continue this conversation).


Interesting project!

It might come down to personal gaming taste, but I disagree with some of the analysis on moral choices. I’m personally not a fan of “wicked problems”. I also like the idea of instrumentality running counter to moral choices - i.e. you choose an ethical choice, but it comes at a cost to your strategic goals within the game. To me, this reflects true altruism.

Example: In Tex Murphy: The Pandora Directive you find a lost wallet with cash in it. You can pocket the cash, which comes in handy later, or you can return the wallet to its owner. Taking the high road is harder, and your reward only comes at the end with the epilogue you receive based on the choices you made over the course of the game (good, neutral or evil).

I call this mechanism “Trial by epilogue”, and I try to implement it in my choice-based games whenever I can.


so, to me, I feel like I can usually tell when a game is going to have choices that are harder in the game, but result in a “better” ending for other characters. So what you are really measuring is if a player is willing to work harder at mastering the demands of the game in order to feel like a good person. Maybe that’s a worthwhile goal?

Example: I didn’t realize that you had to play through Undertale first before doing a pacifist run, and after I killed one or two monsters, I decided that I didn’t want to kill any more. But of course, it is a little more difficult that way, and I was never able to beat the final level. Does it make the “good” choice more meaningful if it makes the game harder? Some “good” choices in real life make your life easier. Why should they be so predictably bad for you in a game?

Interesting point. I suppose it does come down to personal gaming taste - and also type of game. In choice-based/point and click games whatever route you choose you can always navigate successfully to the end, it just might take longer. In a more dexterity-based game, increased difficulty may mean some are not able to finish, which obviously sucks for those people.

On predictability - I totally agree. I think ideally the rewards of good actions are not predictably good or bad. In PoV, I really wanted the player to experience tension around taking on noble side quests - as it generally means taking risks that might compromise your central quest. In some ways choosing to play it safe and keep your head down does make the game easier… but you also sometimes miss out on things that can help in your quest later (as well as story content). This also reflects my own beliefs that to some extent morality is a luxury - and a much easier choice to make if you are in a position of wealth and strength, versus if you’re in a place of poverty and vulnerability (e.g. in the game, you don’t have any money or lives left).

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RE: Bioshock

Per IGN you actually can harvest one, which makes sense. Players who are just learning the mechanics and might not understand the morality spectrum might harvest one experimentally and be horrified to learn what they did in the cutscene and then vow never to do it again. So there’s a wee amount of “learn from an initial mistake” wiggle.

There are two possible endings for BioShock that depend on how you treated little sisters throughout the game. If you choose to “harvest” more than one little sister, you will get the bad BioShock ending. If, however, you “harvest” no more than one little sister but “rescue” the others, you will get the good BioShock ending.

It kind of reminds me of the scene in CONTROL where the staff asks Jesse to try to use her abilities to “cleanse” one of the floating office workers possessed by the Hiss. It goes badly and they’re scientifically unremorseful like “well, we had to try…” I always felt bad for that particular employee, but I guess if there’s no coming back from their condition it didn’t matter. Although they seem pretty content being essentially weightless WiFi signal repeaters for the Hiss message… Maybe they’re having a blast up in the air and Jesse ended that one’s trip!

Random off-topic thoughts about CONTROL

CONTROL always struck me as a unique experience where any other developer would have probably made it a flat out horror game - and some of the enemy models in that game are terrifiying body-horror monsters - it’s almost weirder and scarier that you never are close enough to get a good look at them since they disintegrate into colored smoke when dead*. And there’s some absolutely bonkers SCP-style cosmic horror but the characters and story never really fixate on it, assuming a sort of X-files understated “well, that happened” reaction to most weirdness. I guess when your job is working with anomalies…

The actual scariest thing is probably the fridge that must be stared at or bad things happen? I was also fascinated by the clock which invariably duplicates itself after a set number of hours (I don’t know if there’s a remedy for it) but there’s a whole mall-sized section of the Oldest House where they just leave the clocks to pile up to the ceiling since they don’t know what to do with them and either cannot stop it from duplicating or find it too labor-intensive to deal with! Mountains of accumulated clocks!