The lights are on
We’ve all been there: The game is paused, the choice menu stares you in the face. Do you return the lost pet to the grieving old lady, hold out for a better reward, or punt the puppy across the street for sociopathic kicks? If you want to build the most powerful antihero you can, you better warm up those size 12s. That digital dog is getting booted.
I grew up in an age where games didn’t hold back on the challenge, and scraping every advantage from the environment was a must. Rogue doesn’t care that you don’t like eating meat; you’re chowing down on that giant rat you just killed or dying of starvation and starting over. Those old games didn’t pretend to pose any moral problems – you eat raw rat or you die, simple as that – but they did imprint in me a deep-seated need to optimize my capabilities in a video game in any way I can.
Perfecting your build, creating the right mix of abilities to enable your ideal tactics, or recruiting just the right party members are activities intrinsic to many genres. Ever since the technology could support it, developers have experimented with every method they could think of to gate access to those gameplay options. Completing a side quest unlocks a hidden character. Finding a secret room offers unique loot. Choosing an advanced class grants specific powers.
Kicking a puppy increases your dark-side points* and improves your lightning-shooting skills.
If you’re like me, the draw of increased power trumps any role-playing aspects of a decision. Call it a character flaw,** but I almost always find myself setting game mechanics above narrative when the two conflict. I could toss my power level to the wind to pursue a path based on role-playing, my personal morality, or any other criteria – but I don’t.
The problem is that I love games that give players some level of control over the narrative or the game world, no matter how illusory. But when I need to max out my do-gooder score because it makes my healing spells cheaper to cast, I might as well be playing a Boy Scout simulator for all the tough choices I have to make.
This precise reason is why I was so excited when Mass Effect’s morality system was revealed forever ago. It’s not perfect in practice – I still found myself going full Paragon for whatever the stupid bonus is for getting to the final tier – but I adore the idea of a fuzzy system that demands players do whatever they can to get the job done.
Dishonored is another step in a positive direction that doesn’t quite land. Your targets in that game are (spoilers!) terrible people. The rank-and-file enemies in your way are at best unwitting pawns of a brutal state and bloodthirsty thugs at worst. I love how the game doesn’t cast any judgment at the player, no matter how they resolve situations. Still, Arkane felt the need to include the asinine end-of-level score screen that assigns a high- or low-chaos score the level. At least you’re not directly rewarded or punished for your narrative decisions, though Dishonored does do some unfortunate behind-the-scenes enemy-spawning that makes things harder for more violent players.
I’d be much happier if the impact of narrative decisions was contained to the story. If you absolutely must tie different powers or other gameplay options to choosing whether to kill an NPC or help an out-of-luck farmer, at least make the optimization fuzzy enough that I can pretend that getting a healing spell is just as useful as shooting lightning out of my fingers.
And for the love of all that is good and right in the world, don’t make me search out innocent puppies to kick so that I can be the best galaxy-conquering badass I can be.
*(Star Wars is its own side-discussion thanks to Lucas’ infantile black-and-white view of morality, but the larger point about tying gameplay to narrative decisions stands.)
** (I had to take something at creation to balance out my stunning good looks.)
I'm really curious to hear you talk about KotOR 2 then, considering it's a deconstruction of all this while being a sequel of KotOR, a game very guilty of this sort of morality.
I don't mind my powers being tied to my morality, but you have a great point Adam about the linearity of game's choice-making systems. All too often, we're presented with too many black-and-white choices that go along the lines of "either or." That's better than most games that only present us with one choice of killing everything in sight. Still, more shades of gray would make a whole lot more sense as games actually try to be closer and closer to real life. Excellent editorial.
Way to miss the point with DisHonored that "unfortunate behind-the-scenes enemy-spawning" if you cause chaos life is harder
When it said lightning shooting, I thought they were referencing inFAMOUS.
Great article sir. Couldn't agree more. I also love when your morality affects your appearance and how people view you
I normally just do whatever I'm feeling at the moment. I try not to kill characters though; I want to hear whatever it is they have to say, get the full experience, and even if they no longer serve a purpose, I can't bring myself to kill the named ones (like in Fallout 3/NV or Skyrim). Every generic NPC is fair game, though.
I feel your pain Adam , there's a lot of times I wanna get certain powers or whatever from a certain side but too often they just aren't the choice I'd want to pick .........which is why I normally end up in that grey area n say heck with it
I like choosing the good side in games that give me the option. I always choose light, I always do good, and I always tranq guards in Metal Gear. I'm a good guy. Sue me. But calling black and white morality "infantile" is way beyond the pale. Did it ever occur to you that some choices are that simple. Kill or don't kill. Steal or don't steal. I like games that don't exactly reward you for going dark. MGS 4 rewards a boatload of death with Snake puking his guts out and a drop in his psych, which leaves you vulnerable to attack. Not a bonus. Has everyone else lost their minds. Bad guys are bad for a reason. Most people choose light-side because it's in their nature, and that takes courage. It is NOT infantile.
Wow, this is an insanely shallow approach to narrative. Choices should matter, and you should feel the weight of them. I'm now certain I will never buy Mass Effect and my desire to buy Dishonored has also dropped, which saddens me because it still looks really fun.
I grew up watching heroes save people and so now when presented a choice I will play the hero and save the day. There are exceptions if the game is really compelling I will play both good and bad to see how the story plays out but my first run through an RPG will be good guy.
"Stop Making Me Kick Puppies To Shoot Lightning" - no, I refuse
Screw good morality in games, KILL THE PUPPIES!!!
5 stars just for that second asterisk explanation.
I usually play a game based on experience, and generally, I find it more enjoyable when I pick the "good" or "Paragon" path. I mean, if I got a damned "healing spell" as you put it, no thanks, but being an overall Dick doesn't appeal to me.
Now, if the game MAKES me be a villain or whatever, fine. But given the choice, I don't really care.
In fact, as of late, I haven't given a *** about the "morality system" most games impose. I just sorta... play it how I'm feeling. If I'm pissed off at the guy, his neck goes to my blade. If I'm trying to sneak around or talk my way out of a situation and it goes awry, no reloading my saves, I've gotta fight my way out of it. I find it's much more enjoyable (or immersive, if you prefer) that way.
You're right. To go full dark side in SWTOR you have to do some ridiculous things. There were a couple of times I just couldn't do it so it took longer to go up a rank.
I always like to play Good first. I feel it is harder to make the good decisions and limit wanton destruction. On the second play though I ramp up the difficulty and lay waste as a evil force of rampant destruction.
Well said article. When games give the narrative choice of good or evil, the anti-hero's storyline, I think, suffers the most due to credibility. When you're evil, sometimes the game just makes you be a jerk, and evil isn't just petty crimes. Evil also isn't black and white. It's an issue I do not have the solution to, but I know when the time comes to be a hero or a villain, I know which story is going to be more rewarding.