Sometimes, having a system that measures your actions and dishes out content in response makes a game all the more enjoyable. Such was the case for these titles which are the best nine games with a karma or morality system. *Warning: Spoilers Ahead*
The Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3 is a cruel and harsh place, but that makes it all the more rewarding to adhere to whatever moral code most fits you in whatever degree you choose.
While killing and looting are a must for any prospective survivor of the apocalypse, most every other part of the game allows you to weigh the consequences of your actions and make choices accordingly.
Do you save dozens by disarming an active bomb in the center of a thriving settlement, or do you rig it to blow for a lump sum of cash?
Do you work with a camp of ruthless slavers for their connections and resources, or do you help its prisoners stage a daring escape and bring its overseers down in a hail of gunfire?
Or, do you walk the middle road, avoiding affiliation with anyone or anything to ensure your hands always stay clean?
Whichever choices you make, some will revere you while others will despise you, leading to different encounters and paths open to you as you wander the ruins of society.
Throw in the special abilities afforded to you based on the choices you make, and you’ve got a game where your decisions carry weight the whole way through, adding an extra layer to gameplay that’s hard not to love.
Infamous Second Son
While other entries in the series may have had karmic choices with more visible impacts on their worlds, Infamous: Second Son provides the most thematically satisfying karma system from the series to date.
In a world still reeling from the chaos caused by conduits during Cole McGrath’s tenure as the protagonist, newly-born conduit Delsin Rowe is forced to set out into a government-controlled Seattle to find a power that can save his tribe from death.
Depending on how players guide him through this journey, though, they can leave a lasting impression on the world around them for the better or the worse.
Playing as a hero and saving the city’s citizens with Delsin’s powers will lead to support being garnered for conduits. Players and their allies will be greeted more openly by the people of the city, and government agents will be easier to confront as a result.
On the other hand, playing as a villain who attacks people indiscriminately will lead to people fearing and oppressing conduits more openly.
Granted, players will have access to stronger powers to offset this more hostile environment, but it will do little to bring the world together and disprove the fears the government has spread about conduits.
It’s a very organic approach to the karma system presented in previous games, and with one’s actions governing two distinct outcomes for Delsin and the city, it makes sticking to one’s choices all the more gratifying.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Given how deeply ingrained choosing between good and evil is in Star Wars, Knights of the Old Republic had plenty of source material to go off of in the implementation of its karma system.
It didn’t disappoint either. Throughout their adventures as a Jedi or Sith in the making, players were faced with a variety of choices and dilemmas they could approach as benevolently or maliciously as they saw fit.
When a former ally reveals themselves to be a threat to the player’s goals, they can choose between working together with your allies to save them or killing the traitor and anyone who tries to help them.
Likewise, after discovering their secret identity as Darth Revan, players can choose to embrace a better life and walk down a more righteous path or to fall back into their old habits to once again rule the cosmos.
It’s all up to the player, and with small choices littered throughout the game for them to make, there was ample opportunity to tweak and adjust one’s standing in the universe as they saw fit.
This was all topped off with special abilities tied to sticking to the light side or dark side, resulting in a gameplay experience that truly felt like players were shaping their own destinies as force users.
Since its inception, the Fable series has always prided itself on showing players the consequences of their actions both in the world and the player’s aesthetic. However, no entry in the series did it better than Fable 2.
As players embark on a quest of vengeance against a mad lord, each of their actions are tallied and contribute to their karmic score titling toward good or evil.
Some actions are straight-cut, with killing or sparing an opponent netting players good or bad karma, but other factors, such as one’s diet or how often they irritate others, could also play a role in their moral standing.
All of these actions would, in turn, alter how one’s character looked. A righteous hero with an appetite for meat would resemble a bulky angel, while a vegetarian slayer of men would start to resemble a lean, mean, horn-bearing devil.
Each of these actions would likewise impact the player’s standing with the inhabitants of the world, garnering them a reputation as a benevolent hero, a ruthless villain, a greedy mercenary and several other identities in-between.
This allows for an experience with plenty of variety in how one’s actions shape their character, and even in the years since, few games have managed to reach the same level of personalization in how their karma systems impact players.
Dragon Age: Origins
Though it might not have had a set karmic system like other games, Dragon Age: Origins provided a world and characters that responded to players’ morality in a way few other titles could, or can, match.
As a chosen hero, players must accrue allies and unite the land of Ferelden in order to stop the spread of a demonic scourge known as the Blight.
This is easier said than done though, as several factions within Ferelden have opposing desires that must be satisfied to join the player’s cause.
An order of powerful Templar knights might wish for the annihilation or subjugation of the land’s mages, while Ferelden’s massive army could demand a show of loyalty via a traitor’s execution that will put off your allies and companions.
This can leave players in tricky situations, where siding with one faction ties them to the faction’s reputation and moral standing in the eyes of the rest of the world, thus impacting what type of person they’re believed to be.
At the same time though, enlisting their help could make or break how successfully you fend off the Blight, and whether the needs of the many can be met in exchange for the needs of the few.
It’s a pragmatic, less clear-cut take on karma and morality that most games don’t do. As a result, players choices could lead to a variety of endings and outcomes, all impacted by the choices small and large players made along the way.
For all of the contention Dishonored may see among stealth game aficionados, it’s undeniable that the weight it puts behind player choice and morality is expertly done.
The premise behind it is simple enough. As the wrongfully accused royal bodyguard Corvo Attano, players must uncover the conspirators of a plot to besiege the city of Dunwall with plague and assassinate its empress, clearing their name in the process.
How they do so, however, is up to them. They can stealthily sneak through compounds and fortresses without taking a single life; or, they can charge in guns blazing, leaving a trail of death and carnage behind them wherever they go.
Either will take them one step closer to their goal, but the repercussions of each are notable.
Those who walk a more peaceful path will see the city slowly recover from the damages done to it, with the citizens able to return to its streets without fear. Guards will likewise become laxer and less hostile, making later levels easier to complete.
For those who choose more violent methods though, the city will instead descend further into chaos. The citizens will be replaced by shambling infected, while guards will arm themselves with greater numbers and more deadly equipment.
Needless to say, it’s a brilliant design approach. Few games show players the rewards and consequences of their actions through the world’s design like this, and the drive to see what one’s next action will do to the world is a great motivator to keep playing.
Mass Effect 2
One of the most important aspects of a good karma or morality system is for it to carry weight throughout the whole game, and few titles exemplify how to do this well like Mass Effect 2.
Set against a plot of putting together a team for a suicide mission, the game’s story sees Commander Shepard faced with decision after decision that impacts not only their moral standing but also how their team views them.
Choosing to save or spare an enemy race could improve one ally’s trust in their leader, but doing so could also lead another ally to be suspicious of how much their interests are really weighed in the Commander’s decision making.
This is all in addition to whether or not they want to work with the commander based on their moral beliefs.
Even if players make choices that could be in favor of a character, it could all be for naught if they were to ruthless or pacifistic in other matters for a character’s liking.
This gave a much-needed sense of gravity to every choice the player made. Every action they took, good or bad, would have consequences, and would, in turn, lead to playthroughs that players with different play styles wouldn’t see.
Even if it didn’t have the same reach as choices in later entries in the Mass Effect series, this karmic system still stands as a pinnacle for what the more intimate impact of player choices could and should look like.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Even with all of the stunning detail and immersive gameplay it provides, Red Dead Redemption 2 wouldn’t be half as good as it is without the karma system it applies to players’ choices.
Every action players take as the lifelong outlaw Arthur Morgan is judged by a simple good or evil karma meter.
Actions like helping a stranded homesteader reach a nearby town net the player good karma, while more malevolent actions like robbing and killing accrue evil karma.
All of this is tallied by the game, and the further into the title players get, the more it matters. Certain NPCs will only interact with Arthur based on his karma rating, and some story beats will only be revealed to those who have acted righteously or viciously.
This all culminates in the narrative itself, with players getting one of three endings based off of their choices: They either get to see Arthur die mired in greed, put out of his misery or fight to his last breath to save others.
Admittedly, each one leads to a similar end, but whether they provide a true redemption to Arthur can – and does – carry impact for players who cared enough to guide him through dozens of hours of gameplay.
It shows how a somewhat linear karmic system can be implemented beautifully and has set the bar high for other games that wish to do the same.
Undertale is held up as a be-all-end-all of how to do karma and morality in a gaming format, and for good reason.
As a young child who has fallen into a world of monsters, players must make a choice with every creature or opponent they encounter: They can either show mercy to them and talk their way out of danger, or they can ruthlessly kill them for more power.
This is made all the more impactful by the fact that the “enemies” you encounter are the inhabitants of the world, defending themselves against what they view as a threat invading from above.
Attacking and killing these inhabitants, or choosing to strive for a more peaceful solution, thus reverberates through the world, giving you a reputation either as a friendly ally to all living things or an unspeakable threat to anything that moves.
It’s a novel concept, especially given its traditional RPG format that would normally encourage killing anything you encounter without much thought.
What really puts it over the top, though, is that playthroughs vary drastically based on players’ choices.
Even one show of violence, or one show of mercy, can drastically alter the story players see, with nothing said of what happens when they stick whole-heartedly to one path or the other.
It’s a reigning champion of games where player choice matters, and likely will be for a good long while yet.