Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Am I evil? Yes, I am.

My new appearance on Big Red Potion (episode # 16) is up. Check it out here. This week I was joined with Jared Newman as we discussed being evil in games: how games handle it, the pros and cons of such approaches, and why we do it. I think we all had some interesting discussion on the matter, and as always, I've thought about things I should have said but didn't get around to. So here goes:

I wanted to delve into how moral choices in games need to be less defined as "good" or "evil." It's my belief that most people are either good, or want to be good. If given a choice that's predetermined as being "good" or "evil" no one will pick the evil option unless it's done for comedic effect.

Perhaps that's just me, but I can never take being a dick in Fallout or Fable at all seriously. I laughed aloud in Mass Effect during my second playthrough when Commander Shepard refused to use the non-lethal gas grenades on the infected colonists. Even in GTAIV, where you're supposed to be an antihero, I still found it out of character for Niko to reckless run over civilians for shits and giggles as I was doing. Conversely, this bothers me a lot less in a game like Saints Row 2 where it's never attempting to be serious. Whenever I get into this mindset, I cease to take the game seriously from a narrative point of view, and merely view it as a sandbox. Think Noby Noby Boy, but more violent.

When I try to take a game seriously, however, I always naturally do what I would do in that situation i.e. play good. Though life is never that easy. In my view, most people try to do what they think is good, but end up doing evil deeds without realizing it. We brought up Braid and Shadow of the Colossus as examples of games where you only realize the consequences of your good intentions when it's too late. Both those games, however, didn't give you a choice. I would love to see a game where it would give me a choice and I'd pick the evil option unknowingly. There was a part in inFamous where you have to decide who to save. Sadly, it's very clear which choice is the "good" one and which choice is "evil" (or more accurately the lesser of two goods). Having the same dilemma without knowing how you'll be judged would have added even more weight to the situation.

I think that's really what this comes down to; games need more unpredictable results. If you know you'll gain a certain number of Paragon or Renegade points and be able to purchase certain powers, that'll strongly influence how you'll chose to deal with that particular dilemma. Having situations where you don't know what kinds of rewards or penalties you'll endure is far more interesting.

For example, Joe brought up how he'd accidentally let lose an army of homicidal ghouls into a city in Fallout 3. He thought he was doing right though. I mean, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Too bad Fallout 3 has such shoddy story-telling. Imagine that on a smaller scale more along the lines of inFamous with a fully voice-acted third-person protagonist and it could really create some compelling drama.

Joe also brought up how Silent Hill 2's ending is finely tuned to how you play. That's a truly brilliant idea and I wish more game would do that. How come in inFamous I can play as a good guy, yet still injure (and probably kill) countless civilians in the crossfire with no repercussions whatsoever? I want to make mistakes and accidentally kill people and have random NPCs hate me. Then in return I could hate them back and abuse my powers. That's how people turn evil; gradually and unknowingly.

I feel like because games require so much more active participation than any other medium, they'd make a great way to explore this side of the human condition. How frustrating is it to watch a movie where a character learns a lesson of some kind, but the whole time you're watching you can't help but think that you would have acted differently, making the lesson seem irrelevant to you? If movies and books tend to portray a character learning a lesson, what better way to teach said lesson than have the player be that character and learn it for themselves based on their own choices? That's something games can offer us that other mediums cannot, and we've only begun to scratch the surface in that regard. Amirite?
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