How Torment: Tides of Numenera Kicks Traditional Morality Systems Aside


I'm completely unashamed to say that I'm extremely excited for the upcoming Torment: Tides of Numenera. I'm hardly the only one - the Kickstarter for the game stands among the highest-grossing to date, and with such legendary names like Monte Cook on the team, it''s hard to see how things could go any more right. I'm not actually here to gush about how incredible the game - and the team behind it is (well, in a way, I suppose I am.) I'm actually here to talk about the issue of moral choice and alignment systems in video games...and how Tides of Numenera throws tradition out the window in one of the most innovative ways imagineable.

The Dichotomy of Choice

Maybe hire an exorcist?Maybe hire an exorcist?

As you all well know, real-world morality isn't actually black-and-white. With a few very rare exceptions, there are actually no moral absolutes in the world: there is no ultimate good, no ultimate evil; no way of definitively telling whether or not a particular person is an angel or demon. What's more, our choices are actually extremely complex: very rarely does it come down to a matter of "one way or the other." While such dilemmas do certainly exist in the real world, they are the exception - not the rule. 

Contrast this to video games, which seem tied to a rigid, stiff railroad of narrative branches. To some degree, this is understandable. The narrative of a game is inevitably limited by its medium, as is all entertainment. To fully simulate a system in which choice- true choice, beyond anything strictly defined by the developers - exists is a physical impossibility. There has to be guardrails. There needs to be some guiding elements, some restrictions on what a player can or cannot do. That is a sad necessity of game development, and a limitation we're not likely to overcome any time soon.

Your choices are "stop" and "go."Your choices are "stop" and "go."

Somehow, I doubt this is an obstacle that even AIs such as ANGELINA - however advanced they may become - can surmount.

Problems in choice systems aren't necessarily a direct result of the limitations of development: instead, they're often the result of poor or lazy writing. Perhaps a writer doesn't leave a choice open that any sane person would make in a given situation (for example, notifying the head of a nearby church that a child is possessed by a demon instead of working with said demon). Perhaps a designer fails to ascribe any real weight or impact to the choices a player makes (sure, one of two characters might die, but why should we care about them?). Maybe the player doesn't have any real agency over the narrative, and their choice is very obviously an illusion. 

Or maybe the restrictive choices are tied to an equally restrictive alignment system. 

The Middle Ground is a Lie

Decisions, decisions...Decisions, decisions...

Moral choice systems - usually hand-in-hand with the concept of dichotomous morality - seem to be the new black in game development (or at least, they were for a distressingly long time). These systems are based on the rather faulty idea that every action you take has an imaginary value ascribed to it. That value will either up your "good guy quotient," making you nicer, more genuine, and more heroic, or cut into your "bad guy quotient," making you that much more of an insufferable twit. 

The problem with these choice systems is threefold: first, they often fail to consider intent. Yes, you killed that citizen who happened to be walking by...because he decided to try running through a stream of fire while you were roasting a nearby demon. Sure, you may have picked off that evil dictator...but only because you really hate competition. These systems don't generally care about such subtleties: you killed the citizen, so you're evil. You brought down the tyrant, so you're good. Karma! 

Second, they're often taken to the point of absurdity. Evil - when well-written - comes in many different shades. Where these morality systems are concerned - and where they so often fail - lies in the fact that the 'evil' path is more like an escaped mental patient than a cold, calculating monster. You're often given points for committing evil acts for evil's sake, without any real goal in mind. 

Sometimes he plays tennis with kittens.Sometimes he plays tennis with kittens.

Villains that behave in such a fashion are very, very boring.

Last, but certainly not least, they represent a very naive view of morality which often punishes people who tend to say on the neutral path.  Not only that, they ascribe to the idea that one's morality can be easily characterized and quantified, that everybody's attitudes and personalities can fit into neat little boxes. 

In short, while it's certainly possible to tell a compelling narrative with the presence of morality systems, they're often more of a hindrance than anything. 

The Tides System

And now we come to what impressed me about Tides of Numenera (among other things). The developers have thrown traditional 'morality' out the window. Instead, their game incorporates a system which they feel mirrors human motivations, rather than trying to ascribe to subscribe to some vague concept of 'good, evil, neutral, and potato.' The Tides - which are directly tied in with the game's narrative - are described as "unseen forces in the Ninth world, forces that have profound and lasting effects for those attuned to their motions." They "represent complicated concepts that aren't entirely definable by language. Currently, we know of five:

Each tide has its own merits and its own pitfalls, and each tide, taken to its natural extreme, is a very, very bad thing. Further - and this is a conscious decision on the part of the developers - the tides take only actions into accounts. Motivations are secondary. Gold thus can represent martyrdom, but it can represent false philanthropy just as easily. The wisdom of the Blue tide can be used to help others, but at the same time it can be used to bring strife and despair. 

There's a lot more to the Tides system, but I think I've already established how it differs from traditional moral choice- and how innovative it actually is from a narrative standpoint. It's certainly not the only reason to be excited for Tides of Numenera, which by all accounts,could well end up as one of the best games made this generation.


May 3, 2013
by Art Outside The...
Art Outside The Lines's picture

sounds like a really cool

sounds like a really cool variation on a part of gameplay that sorely needs some innovation. Well-written article as well, keep it up.