Developed by Jeff Vogel and Spiderweb Software, Geneforge is five games that tell the story of an empire of mages, called Shapers, who create monsters to do their bidding. In each game, the player character is a member of this society of mages who has been thrust out into the wild, dangerous world, for one reason or another, and must battle, explore, and persuade their way accross the land, trying to solve the mess that the empire has gotten itself into this time. As the games progress, matters get worse and worse for the empire, until by the fifth game it's a full-blown civil war.
Matters spiral out of control because of the nature of the shapers' work. The monsters they create are frequently imbued with human-level or near-human levels of intelligence, but are held in bondage anyway; to many who live under the thumb of these mages, this practice is cruel and arrogant. It is also prone to disastrous failure, as a powerful creature with great intelligence rarely has trouble escaping its bonds. You'd think the shapers would learn, but always there is the lure of power. One theme of the games, then, is what happens when an entire society falls into the trap of believing that its creations are obligated to serve it.
The gameplay mechanics are fairly simple. You battle various creatures, usually rogue creations of shapers, and gain experience; powers and skills are gained through a point-buy system in the manner of tabletop role-playing games. With your power you are able to create monsters to serve you, although the number and power of these creations is limited by your own skill in magic. Said creations gain experience and skills in the same manner as your own character.
The gameplay storyline, on the other hand, is fairly complex. That is because the storyline is, in a way, a gameplay mechanic. You speak to various people throughout the land, and, in choosing from a list of responses, you try to say the right thing to gain their favor. Not as easy as it sounds, for even if you've put many points into leadership and persuasion, you might have curried favor earleir with a faction the person you're trying to talk to doesn't like. Each game involves a decision on the part of the player about who to side with, be it the forces of (arrogant, corrupt) order or the forces of (dangerus, liberating) chaos -- OR to eschew alliances entirely and be neutral. Be warned, though, that beyond the first two games, neutrality will bring about the worst ending possible.
This open-ended, complex storyline is one of the reasons the series remains playable, years after the final game was made. It is the closest videogames have ever come to a functioning morality meter. Instead of having the developers decide which actions are good and which are evil, they decide which actions each faction likes, and leave the player to decide which faction is good. It's hard to say. The forces trying to destroy the empire make very good arguments about the cruelty of enslaving creations and the arbitrary rules; on the other hand, said forces are full of madmen and scoundrels. Everyone has good reasons for their actions, and yet too many of thse people have dark secrets. In the end, the choice of alliances is yours to make; the developers will not make it for you.
The graphics of the series have changed little from when the first game debuted. They are simple -- spartan, even, in an age of lifelike 3d and lush landscapes. The graphics are thouroughly subservient to the story. Not that they add nothing -- especially in the first game, the ambient sounds and isometric field showing an open wasteland contribute to a profound sense of isolation, whenever your character wanders beyond a town. Many games are scary, but there are few that are so melancholy and lonely while being engrossing.
And then terrifying, when your character is slain by a swarm of monsters that are too powerful for you to handle yet. The player character can travel from one area to another without impediment, which means that the game must employ a brutal method to make sure you stay on the beaten path until you're ready. Through all the moral murkiness of the games, one thing is certain: you will die frequently.
As you grow your monsters and you make your way through this world of woe, exploring ruins and gathering power, there are no good decisions: only better and worse.