One of the best things about Grand Theft Auto IV is that it improved some fundamental elements in its design by poaching design ideas from other games. Like Metal Gear Solid 4, it implemented Resident Evil 4's over-the-shoulder camera viewpoint and a Gears-of-War style cover mechanic, to good effect. The combat, long a deficiency of the series, is greatly improved. These are elegant solutions to managing shooting in the third-person perspective, and I believe they will come to be so widely adopted in future that they will just become how things are done.
It also adopts another design concept that is becoming fashionable recently, the integration of moral choices into the narrative. At certain junctures in the game's missions, the game explicitly prompts you (via on-screen text) to make a choice between killing and sparing the life of certain characters. I am not certain of the full repercussions of these choices, as I have yet to finish the game, but it does seem that these choices have some effect on the overall narrative. (MTV's Multiplayer blog has in interesting feature where it asked several well-known game designers about one of these choices.)
This has been a common device in role-playing games for some time, but its inclusion in the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Bioshock has renewed interest in the idea of moral choice in video games. There is an important resource in the game that you need in order to improve your character, and the only way to attain it is by taking it from the “Little Sisters,” a group of eerie-looking little girls with glowing eyes who wander the underwater city collecting it from dead bodies. When you manage to defeat the girls' guardians, you are presented with two options: “harvesting” or “saving” them:
Doing the former kills them, but it yields a greater quantity of the character-improving resource. Saving the girls gives less of the resource, but spares their life and seems to free them from whatever causes their eyes glow. The choice also affects the ending of the game; you got the “good” ending by choosing to save all or a most the little sisters. This aspect of the game played like an economics experiment designed to test the limits of the players' willingness to subordinate self-interest to morality. (The game even produced some sensible knaves who calculated how many little sisters you could harvest without incurring the bad ending-- free riders on the moral system. Charts are involved.)
Now one of the things I like about games is that their narratives, unlike those of other forms of art, can reflect the player's choices. However, the recent interest in presenting the player with moral choices has mostly failed at producing works of moral significance. Most “moral choices” in video games, like the choice in Bioshock and the choices in Mass Effect, are binary choices between a clear “good” option and a clear “bad” option. While these choices give the player some chance to craft their own character, these choices don't really challenge any of the player's basic moral intuitions or force them to think about moral questions any differently. We think art should do this, and so if we want games to have the same stature as other forms of art just asking the player whether he wants to be a badass or a goody-goody isn't gong to cut it.
One way is to make some sacrifice an intrinsic part of choosing “good” actions in the game. The choice would have some bite if it required something that would make accomplishing my other goals in the game more difficult. (Clint Hocking wrote an excellent critique of Bioshock, faulting it for failing to present a real conflict between virtue and self-interest. It is really worth reading.) Make the player who wants to be “good” face a gameworld that is more hostile towards his aims and goals.
Another way to make the choice have some actual moral charge would be by introducing a greater degree of moral ambiguity into the choice, either by forcing the player to choose between to apparent goods or forcing him to make the choice without giving him all of the relevant information. This is true to a certain extent in the case of the “little sisters,” because there is some conflicting information given to the player about whether the girls are real human beings, but the game's way of representing your choice makes it clear that there is just something unmistakeably wrong about harvesting children for resources.
Let me give an example of how some progress could be made in making games worthwhile pieces of moral imagination: In an interview with Newsweek's N'Gai Croal, David Jaffee (designer of the God of War series) described a game he once proposed for the PSP called “Heartland.” The game cast the player as an American citizen defending America from invading Chinese soldiers. Jaffee said that he wanted the game to make the player realize the parallels between his character's situation and the plight of Iraqi citizens under American occupation. In the later portions of the game, the player joins a militia and take part in a roundup of Chinese-American citizens meant to evoke the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. This would be a game that actually had something of substance to say, not because it discusses a pressing moral issue of our day (the limits of Patriotism) but also becase it would present the character with situations that are morally ambiguous. Jaffee has backed off his desire to tackle these sorts of ideas in his recent work (he's become something of a game-aesthete adopting the Le jeu pour le jeu attitude.), but I wish someone would make games that manage to engage issues in this way in the context of a game that is also enjoyable to play.