Fight This T-Rex wrote a blog post a while ago all about the fact that moral choices all kind of turn into economic transactions, which is oddly parallel to a quick comment in a post on Speaking Natalie that points out the same thing regarding the primary moral decision in Bioshock.
At some point later, I added to the pile with a rambling post about Tabula Rasa main characters, and how the unwillingness to assign personal characteristics to characters without the player's input turns “moral choice” into a ridiculous parody of actual choices.
Clearly, at least some people out there agree with me that this is a problem, but I don't see much of this opinion in most of the industry blogs that I read. Maybe it's been so well established that everybody takes it for granted, or there was a two-month flurry of posts on the subject (Like Braid reviews) that I just happened to be in the can for, and am now behind on my collective internet knowledge, but it seems unlikely.
I've already said my piece, so I won't shove it down your throat again, but I think the problem is that the ultimate creatives behind a game need to trust that a well written game will drive home the magnitude of a moral choice that you make. KotOR featured a bunch of items that could only equip if you were good, because they didn't want the game to be harder for someone playing as a light side Jedi, and they needed something to make up for all the extra money and experience you got if you were evil.
I can't tell if that sprung from a misunderstanding about how difficulty interacts with enjoyment, a misunderstanding about the IP of Star Wars in the first place, or a misunderstanding regarding the motivations for ethical behavior in the first place.
Maybe it's just because it intersects with something I already feel strongly about, but I can't help but be suspicious that it's at least partially the last one. Why does a fictional character engage in ethical behavior? (The “What is ethical behavior?” discussion is for another time)
I see three main reasons why characters in the media engage in ethical behavior, and quite frankly, I haven't been satisfied with any of them for a long time.
1. For personal gain: Rarely is this ever particularly overt, but in a game like KotOR or Fallout 3, your character only has the personality that you give him/her. If you make a moral choice because you think the rewards are better if you do the right thing, isn't that just engaging in ethical behavior for personal gain? It's rarely ever addressed as such, and when doing the right thing for personal gain is addressed in games, books, movies, or television, it's usually painted in a negative light, but when it's not explicitly addressed, it just sort of hangs there, and the implicit message is carries varies from just “Don't worry, life is fair, we proimse” to “Why you do something doesn't matter”, neither of which I can make myself endorse.
2. To avoid punishment: This is great for “Dora the Explorer”, but it's also pretty much the only motivating factor in ethical behavior in any sitcom ever. The “Aww...” moment at the end of every sitcom you've ever seen is based on the bumbling husband wanting to do something nice for his wife so she stops being angry at him because of the stupid thing he did at the beginning of the episode. Not to mention the fact that it seems to do a decent job of describing the childish understanding of Christianity that only exists in the heads of nut jobs, its detractors, and the mainstream media, but that's another issue for another post.
3. A commitment to doing the right thing: This is the most amorphous and boggling to me. Maybe it's short sighted of me to think this way, but you know that conversation in a serious movie where somebody is struggling with a difficult moral choice, and the supporting character leans in and says, “You have to do the right thing”? There's always a niggling thing in the back of my head that asks, “Why?” If the “right” thing is the thing that you should do, then saying that you should do the right thing is... unhelpful, to say the least.
Without building any kind of a consensus and establishing an underlying principle to ethical behavior, or at least pointing at the grey areas surrounding most actual ethical issues, that whole avenue of inquiry is narratively bankrupt.
Or maybe I'm just a big jerk.