Few things mar a game, especially a role-playing game, like being sold on creating a complex, even unique character and then being presented with tendentiously noble or evil choices to build out that role.
Knights of the Old Republic was a four-star achievement in role playing games, but I do agree with Richard Naik at GameCritics. The choices you faced—even in the dialogue—lacked a lot of subtlety as to what they said about your character. It might have been a lot to ask of a game at the time, but you were still presented with a binary good/evil character, and games still have not evolved much more into shades of grey since then.
Naik brings inFamous, KOTOR, BioShock Mass Effect and Fallout 3, all of them acclaimed games, in for some criticism. The choices in inFamous were simply about power acquisition, he argues. Mass Effect let you be either a paragon of virtue or a belligerent jerk. And he even says the choice outcomes in BioShock “barely change the game at all,” although I disagree with that. Fallout 3 is the most open ended, but it leaves Naik wondering when, or if, a game will allow true open-ended decision making, and then react to that. Or has one already?
Decisions, Decisions [GameCritics, Sept. 16, 2009.]
The original Knights of the Old Republic is, as of the time of this writing, my favourite product of the Star Wars franchise. And its choice system generally serves the game well, but even a well-done implementation of choices such as this still leaves a somewhat odd aftertaste. To go down the evil path I have to make many choices throughout the game that lead me to the dark side, eventually leading to me becoming a cold, cruel, and calculating Sith Lord. But here’s the thing-would such an intelligent Sith Lord (as dictated by the game) really waste his/her time with senseless acts of brutality such as common mugging? I would imagine that an up-and-coming Sith Lord would try to use his victims to their fullest extent, then dispose of them when they no longer had value. Instead I found myself being a run-of-the-mill asshole, and that somehow led to me conquering the galaxy. The moral extremes of sainthood and belligerent sadism were extremely stark and awkward despite the quality of the story, leaving me to wonder how the ideal choice system would actually work.
Mass Effect (which has been getting lots of discussion time on this site lately) does a better job here, but the problem of moral extremes is still evident. Most of the time the evil choice is represented by a simple act of aggression instead of a more subtle cruelty or self-serving action. Now to be fair, such acts are more believably associated with the character of Commander Shepard rather than my character in Knights of the Old Republic. However, the basic problem still exists-I can’t be the scoundrel with a golden heart, only a universally loved hero. I can’t be the insidious mastermind, only an arrogant bully. While Mass Effect does present a better moral middle ground than many of its ilk, that path is largely dull and uninteresting. In order to access more conversation options I have to go towards one extreme or the other, meaning I have no real reason to toe the line in the middle. So now that we have an area between the two extremes, what next?
[…] Where does the evolution of player choices go from here? Someday I’d like to see a game where I can make virtually any choice in any situation within the bounds of the game world’s reason, and be rewarded or punished appropriately for it. Am I being too greedy? Is this impossible with currently existing technology?
– Richard Naik
Weekend Reader is Kotaku’s look at the critical thinking in, and of video games. It appears every Saturday. Please take the time to read the full article cited before getting involved in the debate here.