It’s time for Ask Kotaku, the weekly feature in which Kotaku-ites assemble to deliberate on a single burning question. Sometimes a serious one, other times less so; mostly it’s just a nice opportunity to talk more about video games. You down?
This week we Ask Kotaku: Do you typically play as “good” or “evil” characters?
I always role-play good characters. It’s a weird tic of mine I can’t seem to shake. Video games aren’t real life, and yet my real-life anxieties, guilt, and hunger for approval filter into them. I can’t stand in-game characters hating me, and since most morality mechanics in games remain binaries around upsetting the “good” characters or the “bad” ones, time and again I find myself reading the in-game room and going with the crowd. This made me very poor in The Witcher 3, and extremely boring in the Mass Effect trilogy (minus that time when doing the right thing allowed me to shoot Ashley to save Wrex). Despite the good storylines, I still can’t bring myself to play an imperial spy in Star Wars: The Old Republic. The prospect of role-playing as a homicidal fascist just feels less appealing than ever.
Despite this weird hangup, some games have helped break me out of my rigid moral ways by offering more multi-dimensional choices. One of the things I appreciate most about Disco Elysium is that it manages to dispatch with the usual pat chains of moral casualty in most RPGs and focus more on the interesting narrative and aesthetic consequences that flow from the things you choose to say and do. Lots of games use morality plays to build out player agency and character role-play, but Disco Elysium, through its disjointed and unpredictable storytelling, let me craft a personal story without feeling judged.
Whenever a game gives me the option to be bad or good I often think about playing a bad character. You know, the type of dude who shoots innocent people, steals, lies, and does anything to win. And then I don’t play that way and instead, play as an honorable and good person. I wish I could be evil in games, but I can’t. I’ve tried, but quickly I start feeling guilty and go back to being a regular Captain America.
Well mostly good. In games like Fallout 3 or Red Dead Online, I will occasionally do something nasty if it helps other people or helps me. But I always feel a pang of guilt the moment after I do something evil. So I’ll often quickly do some nice and good things to balance everything out. In Red Dead Online my honour is fully positive, so if it ever takes a small hit after I kill a few annoying lawmen, all I need to do to get back to full, good honour is clean my horse and I’m back to being an angel in the West. And as long as the game says I’m a good person, it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve done terrible things. Right?
AD&D would probably consider me Neutral Good, and I have never successfully shed this baggage in any video game. There are a couple reasons.
For one, it feels like most games with morality systems have a “default/right way” and “less right way” to play, and the “good” path is almost always going to be the default. Maybe that perception is a result of my wiring, but it also feels like creators seem to lavish the most care and resources on developing that good path. (I’m sure there are exceptions; I know renegade Femshep is great. And Disco Elysium is still in my backlog.)
Also, choosing more destructive or murderous paths just… bothers me. Plot-related morality choices like in Mass Effect are one thing (gotta be good!) but stealth games manifest the good/bad binary directly in gameplay. In Deus Ex I feel a double aversion to lethal options: Killing is “wrong” (in conflict with my disposition) and somehow, in the game’s context, “easy.” So if I shotgun some guards I’ve “taken the easy way out” and denied myself the full breadth of (sneaky, likely more challenging) gameplay I’d have experienced otherwise. That Deus Ex and similar games tend to have listless-feeling gunplay probably strengthens this missed-out, did-something-wrong feeling.
Moreover, it’s easy for me to stick to these habits because most stealth games make knockouts super overpowered, hence abusable. This lets me turn every level into a safe zone, and I do. If there were a tougher risk/reward calculation to make — like if enemies woke up after a few minutes, perhaps dangerously alerted — maybe I’d suddenly start finding lethal force more tempting, “morals” be damned. (C’mon game designers, push me into sin.)
Lastly, a practical reason behind my virtual virtue: I rarely have the time or continuing interest required to replay a game I just finished, so that first run, in which I’m inevitably ms. goody two-shoes, is usually my one and only go at a given game. I’ve got no time to be bad!
At the risk of sounding like a liberal arts freshman who read one chapter of Kant in Intro to Philosophy, sorry, but there’s no such thing as a “good” route. Face it, folks: Player characters in video games are usually bad people. They lie. They steal. They manipulate others. And don’t even get me started on all the wanton summary executions! Just because this reprehensible behaviour is acted out in the name of moral righteousness doesn’t make it good.
The only truly good routes, I suppose, are no-kill runs. You can pull these off in games like Dishonored or Deus Ex. But it’s considerably more difficult to do things that way than to just take out everyone in your path, so I usually just do that. Yes, it feels good to be good, but it’s so much easier to be lazy.
So, in short, I don’t tread the path of “good” or “evil.” I take the path of least resistance, whatever moral road it takes me down.
I like to role-play. I prefer it to combat in Dungeons & Dragons and I have more than a handful of characters on World of Warcraft’s RP-PVE servers. I like the idea of “acting,” of being someone else with a life more exciting and richer than mine — like a monster hunter or a space marine — who is also still me because I’m the one guiding and steering them. As such, whenever I’m presented with a choice in games I always choose the one that best fits the question, “what would Ashley do?” More often than not, the answer to that question leads to me making the “good” choice because I’d like to believe I am a good, kind-hearted person.
Except the “bad” shoot-the-fuel-tank renegade interrupt in Mass Effect 2. I choose that one every time. Eat shit Clan Weyrloc.
How About You?
Kotaku’s weighed in, but what’s your take? Are you a virtual goody two-shoes, or do you enjoy the opportunity to break bad? Have your say. We’ll be back next Monday to deliberate and debate on another nerdy issue. See you in the comments!