This post contains spoilers for the Mage origin/backstory in Dragon Age: Origins and for Mass Effect 2.
Good Karma or Bad Karma. Paragon or Renegade. Light Side or Dark Side. Turn Undead or Rebuke Undead. In other words, are you Good or Evil (with capital letters)? This is a question that most of today’s RPGs will make you answer in some form. In some ways, this is a refreshing change from, say, games with more linear storytelling, in which you had to be a hero whether you liked it or not.
Some games are completely linear, and you have no choice but to say and do whatever the developer wanted you to at that point in the game. Syberia is like this; if you’re talking to someone, you can pick different dialogue topics, like “Mission” or “Bird” or “Hans,” but you can’t choose how the conversation on that topics goes. This has the benefit of the developer being able to flesh out exactly who your character is without having to program in multiple choices, but it has the obvious disadvantage of making the player’s actions matter, but not their choices–because they don’t have any choice besides “do what the developers want” and “stop playing.” So this is fine for an adventure game, where you pretty much have to be railroaded because of the puzzle-solving, but not so good for an RPG. Another system I’ve seen, in No One Lives Forever, encourages the player to be a good guy by penalizing you for, say, shooting innocent civilians. You’re still locked into the “heroic” mold, but shooting innocents counts as a small failure on your part.
The “moral choice system” approach of modern RPGs is more appealing because it does allow for some choice, although how much this actually affects the game depends on which game. In Mass Effect, getting Paragon points helps you Charm people (i.e., be nice and diplomatic/convincing) and gives you bonuses to health and First Aid, while getting Renegade points helps you Intimidate people (i.e. be an asshole to get what you want) and gives you bonuses to weapons damage and cooldown time. For Mass Effect, the choice isn’t really as much about good or evil as much as it is “being so nice that everyone does what you want” or “being such an ass that everyone does what you want.” Either way, you still have the same goals and missions, and you end up being a hero either way. Fallout 3‘s Karma system affects your reputation with NPCs, which changes which companions are willing to follow you around. KotOR‘s sliding scale of “which side of the Force are you on?” gives you lower Force point costs to powers on your side of the Force; so a Light Side character has an easier time using Heal than a Dark Side character, who would have an easier time using Force Lightning.
All of these are reasonable options as moral choice systems in their respective games; there are clear benefits to picking a side (although Fallout 3 is the only game I mentioned in which Neutral counts as a side), but on the surface, each is about as beneficial as the other. So what’s the problem?
As Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw put it his Fable review, many of these games just offer “the same choice over and over again, between either mawkish virtue and extravagant malevolence.” For example, in many of the side quests in KotOR, you will go back to the quest-giver to tell them you found their droid/daughter/spice shipment/space monkeys, and they’ll say something like, “Gee, how could I ever possibly thank you? Here, take 200 credits.’ You can either say, “Keep your money. A Jedi needs no reward,” and get Light Side points; or you can just say, “Thanks,” and get the money; or you can say, “Give me 1000 credits, you worthless piece of slime,” and get 1000 credits and Dark Side points. Being evil pays off financially, at least. As it turns out, besides a couple of useful Force powers and having more than 3 of your party members not hate you, it’s more powerful and easier to be evil. I suppose even this is a storytelling tool, since a major part of the story is that it’s a lot harder to be good than evil, but it is kind of annoying. What annoyed me more was that there was no option to say, “Well, I’d really like to refuse your money, but I’m on a mission to save the galaxy right now, so I need all the help I can get. Medpacs don’t pay for themselves.”
That turned out to be a bit of digression. My point was that, in terms of the Dungeons and Dragons (3.5) alignment grid (I’ll get back to this later), your choices are usually either Lawful Good, True Neutral, or Chaotic Evil. Another KotOR example: if you agree to hand over a smuggled shipment of spice that a drug dealer tells you is on your ship, and subsequently follow through on the deal, you don’t get any Dark Side points. If you ask him for more money afterward, you get Dark Side points. Both actions hurt the general population by helping the dealer distribute drugs, but one also hurts the dealer. I would say the first is Lawful Evil and the second is Chaotic or Neutral Evil. Arguably, the Chaotic Evil choice is the less evil one, because you’re diminishing the dealer’s ability to spread drugs. It’s a little silly.
Another problem is that the developers’ idea of morality may not match your own. In Mass Effect 2 (spoilerspoilerspoiler), there are some geth (artificial intelligence robots, for the uninitiated) who hate organic life and want to wipe it out, but most of the geth regard them as crazy heretics. You are given a choice between brainwashing the heretic geth faction into becoming peaceful or just killing them outright. My first reaction was “brainwash them, of course, it’ll save more lives,” but is that really a “good” option? One way, the geth die, but with their identities intact; the other way, the geth live, but without free will or their own thoughts in their heads. That’s pretty much a choice between two bad options, and it makes for a very compelling story. Unfortunately, that was somewhat undermined by the fact that the developers decided that brainwashing the geth was the Paragon answer and killing them was the Renegade answer. Although it was a moral/ethical/philosophical choice, it wasn’t really one that was encapsulated by the simplistic Paragon/Renegade scale. I’m not sure there is a scale that you can use on something like that.
So, what are the alternatives to the Good/Evil moral choice systems we have now? I saw a game demo called DarkStarOne that dodged the morality issue by making your actions affect your reputation with different groups, like “Pirate” and “Bounty Hunter” and “Smuggler”, each of which had its own ideals and ways of working. Another option in the Dungeons & Dragons v3.5 alignment system, which has two axes: one for Good versus Evil and one for Law versus Chaos. Good vs. Evil is fairly self-explanatory. Law vs. Chaos is the degree to which the character honors laws, societal norms, contracts and “their word” as opposed to being inclined to defy them. A character can defy authority and steal, but still be on the side of Good (Robin Hood, anyone?), and likewise somebody who upholds the law can still use it do to evil (slimy politicians, for example).
This whole thing came up in my mind because I started playing Dragon Age: Origins yesterday, and the presentation of choice is very interesting (spoilerspoilerspoiler). My character is an elf mage, and after going through a rite of passage that involved a rather severe penalty clause (if you fail, we’ll kill you. Yikes), and some exploration, I was dragged into a disturbing conversation with one of my character’s friends. He was in a forbidden relationship with an initiate in the pretty-much-all-powerful, human-dominated Chantry (it’s very similar to the medieval Catholic Church in terms of influence, if you couldn’t guess, except with a disproportionately large number of heavily-armored badasses), and they had learned that he was going to be forced to undergo the Rite of Tranquility (which removes all emotions, dreams, and connection to magic) because of the rumors that he was practicing blood magic (whatever that is. Seriously, they won’t tell you). He wants you to destroy the phlactery of his blood that was taken when he joined the magi so that they won’t be able to track him down and kill him when he runs away with his lover. Your choice is between helping them, or telling the head of the Circle of Mages about the plan (who tells you to go along with the plan in order to get back at the Chantry, since their initiate was the one who told your friend about his fate). In short, this is a terrible choice. It’s between betraying the people who just promoted you, possibly aiding a dangerous criminal, or betraying your friend, who just wants to live a normal life with the woman he loves. This probably won’t affect the game much, but I was pleasantly surprised that they included such an ambiguous choice so early in the game (and then I was very frustrated, because I still haven’t decided which action to take). It sets of the environment of the game as kind of a “crapsack world,” particularly if you’re not in power, which adds a further dimension to the moral conflict; I’m pretty sure that the “right” thing to do is turn in the lovers, but the Chantry oppresses magic-users (for, sadly, quite understandable reasons) and they seem to be jerks, so I’m tempted to not tell them just because of that. Here’s hoping the positive trend of characterization continues.
[Featured image: Order of the Stick.]