Moral Premise and Gaming

For those of you who have done any screenwriting or fiction writing, you probably know about the moral premise and it’s importance. The game industry is likewise turning to these concepts, particularly with a lot of the current focus on what’s called “fiction-reinforcing game mechanics.” In terms of the moral premise, some may be interested in this (admittedly older) blog post: … l-premise/

I pick that one simply because I think it provides a good introductory style analysis although there is much more recent work on this subject.

In a recent class, we talked about applying the moral premise to a specific game from the Infocom days, “Trinity.” It was quite interesting to see what people came up with. It’s an instructive design approach for textual IF, as well, particularly given the emphasis on the player/reader becoming the protagonist and thus having to participate in the moral premise more actively than is the case in either book, film or stage play.

I like the idea of introducing more complex morality into games, but to a certain extent this works at cross purposes to the goal of player agency. Most protagonists of sufficient age and maturity will possess a moral code that effectively dictates the choices they make when confronted with a decision. “Do I harvest this child’s soul for power or do I save her life?” is not a choice at all for any sane adult. By presenting it as one, the designer is making a game out of morality, not adding morality to the game.

(I should add that the critical analysis of Bioshock in the linked article may be the least cogent one imaginable; the narrative is properly an exploration of the morality and consequences of Andrew Ryan’s choices, and the player’s actions are at best a footnote to this.)

Emily Short’s treatment of morality in Floatpoint is perhaps the high water mark in IF. It allows the player to make a moral choice while requiring him to pass judgment on the appropriateness of that choice. But there the player character is somewhat sparsely characterized, which is all but necessary to keep the choice open-ended. Otherwise the endings would vary from good to bad based on the character’s moral code, rather than the player’s comfort with the decision he made.

As we found, therein lies the challenge for an author.

People who go to movies and read books also have certain moral codes. There, of course, people still participate in the decisions made by the protagonist(s) and in the end an audience (viewer, reader, whatever) has to decide for themselves whether they ultimately agree with the way the story was presented. They don’t even have to agree that they would have done the same thing; they just have to agree with the actions taken by the protagonist given the character that was presented and the situation that the character was in. (So notice how conflating the protagonist/player character and the player in textual IF would be much more at cross-purposes in this kind of concept. This is something I used to talk about on RAIF a lot.)

The moral premise in film or book isn’t about forcing an audience to make moral decisions; it’s about understanding a world view or concept that has moral implications and exploring that as part of a story. Textual IF can be just the same but, as you note, the added level of agency allows for the audience to participate much more fully in the implications. What doesn’t change is the fact that you are telling a story. The fact that it’s part of a game, rather than on a movie screen, in printed pages, or up on a stage, is largely irrelevant when you focus on effective storytelling.

The moral premise is very much an author implanted concept, not one supplied by the audience. In fact, to the extent that the moral premise becomes “visble” then it becomes a “message” and too preachy. Which you generally don’t want in textual IF any more than you do in film or book. I recommend the book The Moral Premise by Stan Williams, which explains a lot of these concepts very well. The reason I think this can be effective in textual IF is because it allows a greater degree of “conversation” between author and reader/player and allows for a much more nuanced form of storytelling.

The challenge, of course, is also making sure you have an entertaining game around that – which is the challenge many game makers are wrestling with. (The latest studies, for example, show that the more interaction possibilities, the less engagement people feel. This has been used to indicate why the Modern Warfare series (part of Call of Duty) is so highly praised for its story elements since the games themselves are basically linear shooters. The same arguments are used for the engagement people have with games like Half Life 2 which, again, is very linear in approach. The same study applies to the relatively recent game Alpha Protocol which had interesting reviews regarding gameplay vs. story or Fallout 3 and the newly released Fallout: Las Vegas.

There has even been some discussions about how “old-style” graphical adventures like King’s Quest or, more noticeably, Police Quest tried to impart some elements of story but no longer work for audiences. These studies found that the stacatto nature of the interaction model was often what doomed them with modern audiences, whereas the continuous interaction level of modern games is what made for more story possibilities. (This goes in with the whole “non-delayed choice points” that some game makers are using these days.) The point here being that if people found the “stacatto-like” nature of even graphical IF was not as palatable to audiences, how much moreso might that be for textual IF, with it’s turn-based prompt?

It’s been an interesting time to be back in the game industry, whether as tester, designer or developer. I’m definitely happy to see that there has been a much greater emphasis on storytelling aspects, so much so that screenwriting and fiction writing concepts are now not only more widely recognized but also seen as integral to providing an experience.

I’m going to pick up “The Moral Premise” on this recommendation. The notion seems to capture what I am trying to do with my own IF WIP :slight_smile: I can also recommend Miguel Sicarts “Ethics in Computer Games.” It provides both a theoretical framework for analysis of successful implementation of ethical design in computer games, and contains interesting analyses of modern games, “Bioshock” among them.

Thanks for the thread/thoughts.

I’m not at all sure that the staccato-effect will be at all as pronounced in textual IF. In the graphical adventure game you choose something for the protagonist to do, watched him walk over the screen and perform some action on something and you felt that was when things happened in the game. Then you had to sit watching the protagonist/yourself scratching his head or tapping his foot or seeming generally bored, till you came up with something else for him to do. And those times you felt (you actually saw) the game coming to a halt.

That contrast, I think, must have contributed to the staccato-effect.

Playing/reading IF is quite another experience to me. The necessity of more slowly building your own mental model of the game world (rather than having it instantly presented to you visually) do make the turn-based approach different from modern graphical games – but sufficiently different to forestall judging IF game flow by first person shooter criteria.

In IF game actions are certainly quite discrete, but that usually does not give you (or at least not me) the feeling of broken flow in the game (unless at times when I’m stuck).

It seems to depend on whether you are participating in textual IF as a game versus as a story. In other words, audience data seems to suggest that the level of (perceived) storytelling mattered. So if a work of textual IF is trying to tell a very engaging story and trying to get the player/reader to identify with the protagonist, then the turn prompt often worked counter to that. You bring up a good point in relation to this:

The difference is that it was continuous, visible motion/action on your part. You could click and have the protagonist walk over but you could also immediately click and have them walk elsewhere. (Games that “stopped” all further processing until the protagonist got to the screen location were found to be even worse for the stacatto-like effect, in terms of audience perception. In a sort of crossover approach, consider how King’s Quest would let you type but the character would keep moving as you typed.)

Not necessarily. In some games, there was background sound or background animation. That’s part of the full experience from a game player’s perspective. Those elements give audiences perception that the world is continuing – just as the real world does – and thus, again, a continuous experience. That’s often brought to focus in more modern games like the aforementioned Modern Warfare or Half Life 2. Even though you are basically bolted to a linear railway as a protagonist, enough is going on around you that the experience is continuous and thus engaging, which is partly why both of those series often get high marks from players regarding their stories even though you could argue that their stories are a bit thin on the ground in some cases. Grand Theft Auto is a perfect example of this type of immersion in an active, continuous world – even if you are standing still and doing nothing. Yet to a certain extent players do want a bit of railroading and that’s been found to be effective for storytelling. Witness the recent study done on the Wing Commander series – and only partially (and confusingly) reported on in the latest issue of PC Gamer. There players responded to the story being more effective in the games where player action was continuous – but more constrained, as opposed to later games in the series which broadened out the possibilities for interaction, thus (perhaps counter-intuitively?) making the action less continuous, and thus reducing the impact of the story. (A good example of a game that’s widely considered to have “failed” in this category was the first Kane and Lynch by way of counter-example to some of the other shooters I’ve mentioned, even though many people felt that the initial setup and the characters were fascinating.)

Even better examples are the audience reaction to games like The Force Unleashed – both the original and the recently released second in the series. Granted, these games are marred by bugs and various porting problems. But when you get beyond those, notice what people are saying about the engaging story but then notice how that’s often said to be marred by the game mechanism. Contrast that with the level of storytelling (and gameplay mechanisms) present in the games Dragon Age or Mass Effect.

Certainly I would agree with this. But no one is judging game flow here; at least not on its own. What’s also being “judged” is the ability to have a story be told and have the audience engage in that story and identify with a protagonist in a game setting – whether graphical IF, textual IF, or first-person shooter. In this case, it’s not just having a story being told but having one that readers/players/viewers emotionally respond to similar to how they would be emotionally engaged by a film or a book.

Agreed – not broken game flow necessarily. But story flow can be a different thing entirely. Mind, this isn’t a problem solely in the realm of textual IF; graphical IF or any other medium can have the same issue. That was actually more my point in that I think textual IF could benefit from authors looking into how these issues are handled in other game formats, in written fiction, and in film. The moral premise is, so far, one of the most approachable techniques I’ve found to getting a grip on this.

Incidentally of the games I’ve mentioned above, the moral premise concept (in various forms) has been specifically utilized in Mass Effect (both the first and second), Dragon Age, and Modern Warfare. As it turns out, some of the best sellers and most hightly regarded by many game players. This matches films that tend to make a great deal of money based on their use of the moral premise. Some of the those whose directors were advocates of the moral premise were The Incredibles, The Dark Knight and Inception. Again, very high-grossing films that people often tout as “great stories.” My only point there being that, for me at least, the evidence is there – across various entertainment media – that effective storytelling approaches can make a huge difference. What then matters are the implementation details, which is where the “stacatto-like” effect became interesting as one side area of study.

What do you even mean by broken story flow? Of course you don’t find out what happens next until you type the next command, just as you don’t find out what happens next in a story until you read the next page.

(Of course we are digressing from the moral premise.)

This seems sort of distressing; I’m interested in IF and storytelling in games mostly because of the promise that player can affect the narrative. Otherwise I’d just concentrate on read-only fiction (you know, what usually you find in books and stuff).

A good example in film is if the pacing is way off from the nature of the events being shown. A good example in written novels is the same thing except this is usually due to things like overlong chapters, ineffective use of scene weaves, meandering dialogue, etc. In games this is where the thrust of the story – the events that keep propelling the player (and the protagonist) – gets lost in the mechanics of the game.

Half Life 2 and Modern Warfare get high marks for story and often this seems to be because the player is forced along a linear path. You must experience the story and largely at the pace the authors (game makers) intended. At localized points, you can affect bits of the narrative – but not the most important bits. Fallout 3 was said to suffer a bit in comparison for this on the marks of story, if not on gameplay. It was very expansive but players reported that sometimes it felt as if the quests didn’t really matter or weren’t acting towards the main story line at all, even though the game was apparently fun to many.

The point here being that the game flow complements the story flow. A particular story is being told. You, as player, are being allowed to participate. However, if you, as the player, are allowed to do anything, then obviously the story (as the author wants to tell it) could be circumscribed. It would even be circumvented if too much freedom is allowed. Then you don’t really have the story at all because effective stories operate with a theme (which is one part of a moral premise) and they do so with a physical “spine.” The extent to which the flow of a story can be modified and altered but still tell the story you want to tell is a major challenge for authors who want to tell a story in the context of a game.

Not necessarily; at least not in the sense that the moral premise complements the physical premise (or “physical spine”) of the story. That means the flow of that part of the story matters very much in terms of whether the moral premise can be part of it.

Being able to affect the narrative and being able to change the story being told are different things. Imagine if you have the game The Godfather. Let’s say you, as the player, want to make it so that Michael Corleone never goes into the mafia. Never takes over the family business. Never kills anyone and, in fact, turns in members of his family. That’s definitely affecting the narrative – because you’ve undermined the entire story. That’s not the story that Mario Puzo was trying to tell. Michael’s morals modified severely as he realized he placed family far and above his other duties.

Or consider Anakin Skywalker on his path to becoming Darth Vader. Let’s say you decide, as a player of some putative game, that Anakin just isn’t going to do that whole “Dark Side thing.” He turns in Palpatine/Sidious. He gives up his marriage to Padme Amidala. He becomes a good Jedi Knight, following their tenets to the letter and becoming the most powerful Jedi ever. So here the story is in some ways the same outcome: Anakin as the most powerful Jedi to ever live – but the narrative path, and thus the story, is far different. You have Anakin’s moral premise moving from a desire for control (and thus power to get that control) to a desire to let go of attachments. Two hugely different stories. Both viable from an authoring perspective. But to pull off an emotional engagement with both in the same story/game is difficult.

Michael Corleone couldn’t be both a criminal and a law-abiding citizen. The moral premise he was operating under forced him to choose a path. Anakin couldn’t be both a Sith and a Jedi. Likewise, his moral premise forced him to choose a path. In both cases here we have a tragedy of sorts. You could make a game where both possibilities are available – but those games historically tend to have very little engagement from a story perspective.

The trick is … how can game makers incorporate those elements into a game? How can it be made to matter what you actually do? How can it be made so that audiences will emotionally engage with a protagonist, experience the story as the author wished to tell it, but still have some freedom on how the ultimate outcome is met? A good example from the past is the game Blade Runner which does allow you to make various moral decisions, although I would argue not enough impact was paid to them. The first Deus Ex tried to do this with its various routes to “success” depending upon what state you wanted the planet to be in at the end.

With all this said, some game companies are realizing that it may be possible to tell two very different stories in one game – thus allowing the player to choose – but then even more emphasis must be put on the storytelling and effective writing. Going back to “Star Wars” games, in most of the released games, choosing between the Dark Side or the Light Side is really not all that major of a thing. If you do certain actions, you go one way or the other. But none of it really matters from a story perspective. Further, there’s often no real character arc to speak of. Even further, players really aren’t asked to identify with the protagonist in terms of the consequences of actions taken (or not taken). As an example, let’s say Anakin wants to join the Sith, but you (as player) can’t bring yourself to kill the kids in the Jedi Temple. So you have to hide the consequences of that non-action from Sidious. BUT – if the story narrative requires that Anakin start becoming more and more of a monster, how do you tell that story in a game and still allow the player to not do certain actions that would carry him further towards his monstrous behaviors?

It’s a huge challenge. On the one hand you could argue, don’t do all that. Just go read a book where that story can be told. Let me have my freedom in a game. However, game makers are responding to the fact that games with highly effective stories tend to sell much better than those that do not. This is obviously not an across-the-board sort of thing. But they go on aggregate sales and look for what seems to work and what doesn’t. As just one timely example, that’s why Call of Duty: Black Ops (the most recent game in the series) decided to go with the storytelling approach (including flashback sequences) that were so popular in the Modern Warfare branch of that series. Yet, in those games, you can affect bits of the narrative – but the overall story is still very much told as the authors/game makers wanted it to be told. Grand Theft Auto is a prime example of this as well, where players are now more often complaining if the main storyline is bad rather than whether there are not enough side challenges. Rockstar, in fact, is doing L.A. Noire, which is based on a lot of what they claim they’ve learned about storytelling in a fictional game world.

More to say later when I have time, but I feel like we’re discussing “moral premise” without having defined it (been grading philosophy papers so I’m particularly sensitive to undefined terms), and the original linked post is tl;dr, so here’s an excerpt from it which I think defines the issue:

This does suggest that the moral premise involves multiple play paths; but it seems to lead naturally to the morality slider/karma meter approach which many people seem to find unsatisfying.

Yes, there has to be a subtlety to it. Maybe IF just has to pass through a crucible of moral obviousness to figure out what tools it needs to break through to the level of multivariate long-lived moral complexity, but I prefer to think not. Unfortunately new starkly-obvious-single-moral-choice game experiments keep popping up despite my preferences, but I don’t begrudge them for existing — maybe in the final analysis they will need to have existed. Literature certainly didn’t escape that stage, although it would be nice if we could take some early cross-media lessons and find some ways to do a little leapfrogging.

BTW this has been a fascinating discussion in this thread.


The idea is that effective stories demonstrate a moral premise. More specifically, they demonstrate a particular statement that encodes the moral premise. So your post is basically showing that. Here’s the formal structure of the moral premise in two formats:

[Vice] leads to [defeat], but
[Virtue] leads to [success].

[Vice] leads to [undesirable consequences]; but
[Virtue] leads to [desirable consequences].

It might help to think of the “defeat / undesirable consequences” and “success / desirable consequences” parts as the physical goals of the protagonist. That would mean the “vice” and “virtue” parts are the psychological goals of the protagonist. The reason I bring that up is because there’s usually a “physical” arc of the story. That’s usually the outward journey of the protagonist, That physical story arc is paralleled by (or, some would say, is a metaphor for) the psychological story arc. That’s the inner journey, which gets into things like motivations.

Lately many have taken to reformulating the moral premise statement like this:

[Psychological vice] leads to [physical detriment]; but
[Psychological virtue] leads to [physical betterment].

So here are two examples of a moral premise statement:

Selfishness leads to isolation; but
Selflessness leads to community.

Unbridled passion leads to risk; but
Reasoned discernment leads to safety.

The two phrases here should be understood to be almost exact opposites. In some way, these phrases need to describe the decisions and actions of both the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). Why? Because the idea is to allow the theme of the story to be contrasted. (The theme being one half of a moral premise.) A moral premise is fundamentally focused upon a dichotomy of right and wrong, which is why the statement embodies a vice and a virtue.

I’ve found the most resistance to the idea of “right and wrong” from people who haven’t experienced this stuff before because the issue comes up: right or wrong for whom? Suggesting what is right and wrong (or what is a vice and what is a virtue) is what humans do in their search for truth and meaning. That’s a fact. People often turn to fictional stories for meaning and structure. That’s another fact. Those same people tend to enjoy those fictional stories that “explain the world” emotionally rather than analytically. Part of connecting with someone emotionally means there is a shared value system of sorts, making moral identification possible. (This does not mean people the same value system in all particulars or share the exact same set of morals. It simply means that there is a way for people – author and reader, in this case – to map between their two systems to find out what is and is not shared.) As a writer, you need to allow your audience to achieve moral identification with the characters of your story. This is a structural aspect of storytelling.

It’s important to know that the “moral stance” of the author does not necessarily have to be that of the protagonist. Further, it’s up for debate (at least to me) to what extent the notions of “vice” and “virtue” for the author and for the audience have to coincide. Certainly they have to do so for the context of the given story, so that the reader can support the protagonist (or to know when they are going down the “wrong” path). Yet with this notice how people could – with my previous examples – more root for Michael Corleone than Anakin Sykwalker because Michael was, at least, attempting to preserve his family and, in many ways, his actions (though illegal) did do so. Anakin thought he was protecting his family but his actions (though reprehensible) did NOT do so. Yet there was also sympathy for Anakin because he was fundamentally doing the wrong things (morally) for what he thought were the right reasons. Michael Corleone was doing the wrong things (legally) but the right things (“morally”) for his premise that family comes before everything. Both Anakin and Michael put their immediate families above all else; above all other codes of behavior.

In both cases, the protagonist’s inner journey is shown to us in the protagonist’s outer journey. Anakin destroys himself (the moral person he was) just as he destroyed his family. Michael destroys himself (the moral person we was) as he preserves the family. (Or does he? Think about what happens in The Godfather. Michael is actually a lot like Anakin in many ways. That’s because while the thematic elements are different, there is similar moral premise lurking.)


Only if each path is written as if it was a story told for just that purpose (meaning, that it encapsulates the moral premise). That’s why I stuck with Michael Corleone and Anakin Skywalker for this post as well, because what I was trying to show is that if you had “multiple play paths” with them, and if those paths were fundamentally different in terms of the ultimate moral premise, then you have a different story altogether. Anakin not becoming Darth Vader is fundamentally different than the story where he does. Can you tell both stories in one game? Maybe. But then both stories had better be equally as well told, with the moral premise front and center because, otherwise, you end up with decisions that simply don’t matter.

Consider a more recent film, like Avatar. To me one possible moral premise of that film is:

Embracing new viewpoints leads to salvation; but
Stagnating in old viewpoints leads to destruction.

The humans needed to see the viewpoint of the Na’vi (with their planet) and not just as an exploitable resource. On the other hand, the Na’vi needed the infusion of humans (Jake and Grace) in order to give their own culture a boost to deal with threats and to look beyond themselves. (Incidentally, it’s not coincidental that Grace’s name is … Grace. As in “seeking grace.” Another film that did this was Jim Carey’s Bruce Almighty, where his girlfriend was named Grace.) So could you make a player embrace new viewpoints in the context of a game? Take actions not just because they have to in order to win but because they feel they need to in order to at least explore the story to its logical conclusions (even if they don’t agree)? The trick is providing an experience, just as all good fiction does. The other trick is looking at how to graft a more interactive element to that experience onto the story.

So how does all that apply to textual IF? Well, that’s part of what I’m investigating. Textual IF that is focused on a story will have a protagonist. There will be an antagonist (or multiple such). Right there you have the primary ingredients for every other type of fiction: a protagonist motivated to reach a certain goal, usually including overcoming the antagonist. That’s your physical element: the path through the game. What’s often not modeled well in textual IF (in my opinion, at least) is the psychological element, which is where a lot of consideration has to be made regarding how the protagonist and the player are meant to “interact”, as it were.

To be clear, I was saying that Kimball’s argument about the moral premise (in the originally linked post) suggests multiple play paths; he explicitly says “The use of a Moral Premise naturally leads to games that allow multiple play paths.”

Sorry for the terseness of my responses here; I’m trying to process it (also still grading those papers).

Kimball later goes on to add: “A solution and one that applies to all games that use the Moral Premise on purpose is to allow multiple narrative paths that match the multiple gameplay paths.” This is wrongheaded and naive.

Naive because even AAA titles don’t have the budget to support four distinct paths through a story, with all the additional voice-acting and cinematic work that would entail.

Wrongheaded because it completely misses the point: to provide a single lens through which players can contemplate the actions and motivations of the characters they play. Bioshock would not be a better game if it accommodated four premises instead of one. It would be the same muddled mess that most shooters are, where morality is supplied by the player and largely inconsequential to the experience.

Bioshock’s theme is “A man chooses, a slave obeys.” In moral premise form: choice builds identity, but submission destroys identity.

Moral premise and theme can be useful tools in defining what sort of experience the player ought to have. It’s not about imparting a message; it’s about making sure the story withstands some degree of scrutiny, and thereby encouraging the audience not to dismiss it as shallow, obscure, or meaningless.

Sounds like it’s “especially” AAA titles, not “even.” Another thing that interests me about IF is that it might be easier to explore multiple paths when that doesn’t mean shelling out four times as much for voice acting and cinematics.

I can’t speak about how wrongheaded it might be right now, because the Kimball post is the only definition I’ve been given of the moral premise, so if he gets it wrong I’m in the dark. :wink:

I think he gets it pretty right.

Very briefly, I’m going to come at this from the other side. I agree that games in general could would benefit narratively from more consideration of the moral premise: it would vastly widen the palate of possible stories from the current hegemony of hero-defeats-evil-and-gets-girl (“fun games”) and rape-revenge-fantasy (“dark games”). However, for me, structuring around the moral premise - around, effectively, prescriptive ethical dichotomies - is still a horrendously simplified approach to storytelling. It’s noticeable how many of the games, films and books mentioned have been blockbustered: that’s because this is the kind of thing which is taught to writers to ensure commercial success, to ensure a smoothly-running story that doesn’t confuse anyone too much but that has enough bite not to be boring. Bioshock, for example, as someone has already mentioned, is ethically utterly facile: while the story outstrips the majority of other blockbuster games (and the storytelling is some of the best we’ve ever seen anywhere), the moral exploration is pretty dull and simple.

So while we can learn from moral premise work, I think it’s limited how far it will take us. It doesn’t take us into the realm of real ambiguity, uncertainty and questioning which is at the heart of the best of our stories. I don’t want to come out of a story with a barely-nuanced argument for the author’s moral fetish; I want to come out of a story having experienced the world anew, with far more ideas about how to live in it, each more uncertain and speculative than the last.

Agreed; but that’s not what the moral premise is meant to do. It’s a guiding element for those other things you mention. What takes you into the realm of ambiguity, uncertainty and all that is the level of writing that’s woven around a thematic concept that’s manifested by character, dialogue, setting, and so forth.

In a fictional story, the idea is that the protagonist has a choice: embrace the truth of the moral premise or reject it. From an authoring perspective, this gives you a certain technique in the form of an approach:

• If the protagonist embraces the truth, it means they understand the truth (to some degree) and they try to apply it to their situation.
[list]o If their application is successful, they understand the truth even better and they achieve their goal.
o If they embrace it but do not understand it, and thus don’t apply it correctly, perhaps they don’t achieve their goal. (But then do they still gain the better understanding? They might. Even in failure – sometimes especially in failure – we can learn.)
• If the protagonist rejects the truth, they obviously don’t try to apply it and, presumably, they don’t get to their goal and, worse, they may never understand why.

The “identification” aspect is important because when the audience sees a given protagonist struggling with the difficulty of making some tough decision, that audience will start to identify with that character and in some sense try to make the choice for them. (In other words, the audience engages with the character and thus the story.) In textual IF, you, as player, literally get to make the choice for them.

These choices that the protagonist wrestles with are ultimately difficult because they often deal with dilemmas involving unclear moral rights and wrongs. This is essentially the nature of complications in a story. The protagonist will go through a series of actions and decisions that will, often in equal measure, challenge and even compromise the journey. So the protagonist has something at stake; and if the audience identifies with the need – with what’s at stake – then they’ll root for the protagonist to make the right decision. (Or, at least, the decision they believe is right.)

In textual IF, the audience (the players) gets to make the “right” decision – the one they believe is right. If they go down the “virtue” side, they will agree with the author and experience the positive side of the moral premise. If they go down the “vice” side, they will disagree with the author and experience the negative side of the moral premise. The key is that the author has to have done a good job in presenting both arguments, as it were.

So if the author has put all this in front the audience effectively, then that audience has a window to the protagonist’s mind. That means the audience’s involvement in the story turns on the protagonist’s ability to make the right moral decision that moves the plot and story into a direction they’d like to see. In film or book, you as reader just have to go along for the ride. The same applies in textual IF, except that you do have a little more control over the ride. But that puts much more onus on the author to provide an experience.

I think you’re partly right, and your expansion of your thinking in the last post is useful; however, I do think that working from moral premise structures, because they are dichotomous, tends to make writers work with moral binaries rather than introducing moral subtleties.

So if the basic equation is:

[Vice] leads to [undesirable consequences]; but
[Virtue] leads to [desirable consequences].

We’re likely to leave out the possibilities, which exist in the real world, that:

[Vice] leads to [desirable consequences];
[Virtue] leads to [undesirable consequences]; or
[Somewhere between Vice and Virtue] leads to [a mix of desirable and undesirable consequences];

or, indeed that possibility that:

Faced with a difficult choice between vice and virtue, the protagonist suffers moral paralysis, leading to either disaster or enlightenment through non-action;
The protagonist does what they think is virtuous and then realises they’re actually acting viciously (actually, this is quite common in blockbusters, though its inverse is rarer: it’s just that it’s usually introduced as a childish “plot twist” rather than a moral conundrum);
The world is too complex that making moral choices seems impossible;
The world is too complex, but the protagonist tries to make moral choices, leading to any of desirable consequences, undesirable consequences, personal fulfilment, personal anxiety, utopia or a totalitarian state;


Incidentally, is there a term for the syndrome in which the author distracts themselves from writing by contributing posts of IF theory?