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.