Friday, January 29, 2010

Good and Evil in Video Games

If you fallow the RPG world then you are probably as sick as me of the whole "good or evil" paradigm. I haven't played every game but I have played some major ones. Primarily the BioWare RPGs (Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Mass Effect) and Fable. KOTOR was the first game I ever played (or so I thought) that allowed players to follow the light side or dark side of the force. I remember thinking it was kind of neat but my first character was light side for tradition's sake. Then I tried the dark side, I found it to be terribly boring and predictable. The most shocking was how little it effected the story. Since then I have payed close attention to games that implement this and I have hated it every time. It never makes any sense, and it does not make for interesting gameplay.

I remember reading an AD&D Dungeon Master's Manuel once that although it's possible to run an "evil" campaign, it is not recommended. The D&D fantasy world is meant to have a few powerful heros fighting hordes of evil monsters. These are pretty much the people who invented role playing. It just feels more natural to play a hero than a villain. The story is more believable and the writing can be more interesting. You want specifics? Very well, spoiler alert.

Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) as I said was the first game that let you be evil (or so I thought!) in this game you play a regular shmoe who finds himself in the middle of a Jedi struggle. You are rescued from disaster by Carth, a military pilot. You and Carth need to then rescue goody-two-shoes jedi Bastilla. Then the three of you escape the planet and you discover that you have the force. So the goody-two-shoes jedi train you to be a jedi. This game contains a light/dark side meter in the character screen. All the characters have one. When you do evil things like threaten people with bodily harm to get your way, or use the force to force people to do what you want you get dark points. Also some quests have two solutions the typical solution is logical and good, while the other is usually very contrived and maniacally evil. Here is an example that really stand out with me. In KOTOR there is a woman who lost her robot (C3-PO type) and she asks you to get him back. You find the robot in a field being attacked by some beasts. You can kill the beasts and engage the robot in conversation. There is a little more to it but basically your choices are "Come with me back to your owner" or "Kill him." Why would you kill this robot? What purpose does it serve to your agenda to kill him? Just blatant murder? Well i'll tell you why, if you murder him for no reason you get evil points, if you don't murder him, you get good points. See in this game, and all the BioWare games you are rewarded with evil points for committing evil deeds. The more evil you get the more evil quests are unlocked and the more powerful your powers become. But the evil acts are so poorly written it really dumbs down the plot of the game. Also when I first started going down the evil path I was excited thinking maybe I can join forces with the end boss, and have the ending play out totally differently. Nope the ending is the same. The only difference is, instead of killing Malak to stop him from destroying the universe, you kill Malak in order to take over his roll of destroying the universe. The game plays out exactly the same except for the final cutscene. Yawn. STILL! this isn't my biggest problem. My biggest problem is this, it doesn't make sense to the story of the game for the player to be evil. Your closest allies, Carth and Bastilla would NEVER allow you to commit cold-blooded murder. It would be like Han Solo and Obi Wan standing by while Luke Skywalker just cut down a bartender because he asked to see his ID. They would fight your character to the death instead of allowing him to threaten and murder people because you can look at both of their "Light/Dark" indicators and see they are both 95%+ light side! In the LEAST they would refuse to travel with you, and go thier separate ways. Which actually would make the game really cool. If you commit enough evil your allies turn on you and you have to fight them but no. They just chime in with "Using your force powers like that is on the path of the dark side..." Gee thanks Bastilla. The other funny thing about this game is, before you even get any jedi training, it's possible to build up a pretty solid evil reputation, so by the time you meet the jedi council you are pretty obviously evil, red-aura and all. The five jedi elders will still give you jedi training and give you a light saber and ask you if you "Understand the jedi code" to which you can reply "yes." "no." and my personal favorite "(Lie) Yes."

Jade Empire shares the exact same problems with truly good allies that stand by and do nothing as you insult and torment defenseless villagers. It also included contrived over the top evil quest solutions.

Mass Effect does a much better job. None of the "Renegade" quest solutions seem contrived or overly evil, and all of them can be justified with logic. I applaud Bioware for getting it right in this game. In Mass Effect you take the path of a Paragon or a Renegade, which pretty much means Captian Jean-Luc Picard or Worf style. It's like this, lets say there is a terrorist who has the remote control to a bomb in his pocket, and the bomb will kill 1,000 people. He is holding a woman hostage saying let me out of here or I will kill her. Worf would just shoot a bullet through the woman into the terrorist because saving 1000 people is more important than one woman. Jean-Luc would probably let him go and secure the woman's safety first and then find another way to stop the terrorist. This is a wonderful way to treat a game because you are never doing anything blatantly evil and out of character. You decide your preferred way of dealing with a truly interesting situation. However this game too pressures you to maximize your paragon or renegade points, and seems to dissuade you from playing a more balanced character. An unfortunate choice. It uses these paragon and renegade points to adjust your alignment and then rewards you with additional dialogue choices if you have acquired enough of these blue or red points. But only a finite number of these point are available total, so it's not possible to be granted all of the options without committing to one side. Also the paragon and renegade specific dialogue options are color coded blue and red (the colors themselves are tacky) and it makes the whole idea feel overly gimmicky.

The other game that really hyped it's morality choices is Fable. In Fable you go to a place called the Hero's Guild to train and gain missions. I guess villagers go to the Hero's guild and place requests for heros to help them stop giant beetles, or evil wizards. The weird thing is, bandit groups and criminals ALSO post requests at the HERO'S GUILD! Asking for help raiding towns and murdering villagers. Yeah that makes sense. All of the hero's guild emplyees, and the GuildMaster himself are clearly good guys, but they allow bandits to put in a mission called "Massacre Oakvale" how fucking stupid. The best way to become evil in Fable is just to go around murdering everyone you see for no reason. Being evil in Fable gets you horns and a demonic looking face and people run from you. Once again it has no effect on the plot of the game. The actual evil quests are totally shallow, and not all quests have evil solutions. Basically the evil path of Fable feels rushed, almost like a throw in. They should have just left it out. One of the problems in this game that makes it so shallow is the guards in the town can't stop you. You can walk into a town, murder all the guards and then have your way with the entire town. It doesn't even matter what level you are, the guards can't stop you. BioWare games do a better job with this, in those games you simply can't attack anyone in a town unless it's an activated event. So you can't just kill merchants. Fable doesn't have this balance and you can just go killing. I am fine with killing, look at my happy face when I am going on a spree in Grand Theft Auto. But in GTA if you get 5 stars on you, you are a goner. The cops will own you. In Fable you own the cops. Where is the fun?

It wasn't until I starting thinking about this stuff in depth that I realized there was one game that did it right. Fallout. I have never played Fallout 3, only the old school 1 and 2 so will be refering to those. There are several reasons why doing evil deeds worked in Fallout in a way it doesn't work in other games. I think the world itself is the best reason. It's a world that is mostly devoid of laws and doesn't have a strong sense of morality. The Starwars universe doesn't allow for any ambiguity, there are Jedi and Sith it's clear cut. Even Mass Effect has the galactic council and evil terrorists. In Fallout there is only your people, and everyone else. It's true that Vault 13 is an organized and civil community, but people on the outside world are savages and mutants. It's easy to consider yourself and your quest to save your vault more important then the petty laws of the outsiders. In Fallout you can deal with situations any way you see fit, for any reason you want, and no one is going to judge you. You can bust into the crime bosses building, kill all the guards and kill him just because you don't agree with what he is doing. You can even kill all the gamblers playing in his casino because you don't agree with that. You can join the crime boss and help him do some minor jobs, or you can help eliminate the law enforcement just because crime pays better and you need money. You can even work for the crime boss to gain his confidence and bring some hard evidence to the law enforcer to bring the boss down the legitimate way. The best part is, it doesn't matter! Nobody cares except for the immediate characters involved. You don't get a good/evil reward, just a feeling of accomplishment in whatever way you decided to do it.

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