Good, Evil, and other Genre Conventions

I always play good characters in games. I have never set out to be evil just for the sake of it.

When I murdered the child in Redcliffe (in Dragon Age) it was because I was saving the world from a worse evil. If that’s not heroic then I don’t know what is! If Mrs Spinks kills the odd few hundred people in Tarren Mill, it’s to protect her homeland. And it isn’t as if she hasn’t helped to kill a lot of dangerous dragons too, even though she totally could have forged a sick note and got out of it.

Or we could just say that I like dark fantasy which involves murky noir-esque moral setups. So when I have a choice, I lean towards the in-game faction or options which let me tell stories in that genre.

I wonder if all good vs evil choices in games really do boil down to letting the player pick their genre. Even a game like KOTOR, in which playing as evil involves scheming, betrayal, random nastiness, and power grabbing for personal gain is just a more hardcore version of the dark fantasy. With some Randian philosophy thrown in for kicks.

The problem with good or evil in games is that either people complain that the choice doesn’t matter, or else there’s one clearly superior option, so it isn’t much of a choice. i.e.:

1. It’s just colour. Or flavour. It might affect what race you play or which faction. It may affect the twists and turns of the story. But your choices are so restricted in other ways that you can never really go all out evil, or all out good.

2. One side will usually have the game mechanics behind them. For example, if a game strongly encourages cooperation then the side which can best cooperate will always win. If a game encourages selfish, backstabbing behaviour, then the side most prone to do this will always win.

It is a dilemma that can be solved. But the game would need to be focussed on playing out the conflict between the different philosophies. Give them different but balanced game mechanics and then see who wins. I’m jonesing to try playing Anti-Monopoly someday, because this is exactly the approach that the designers take. You can either play as a monopolist or as a free marketeer. The mechanics support both. And then fight it out on the board to see which philosophy wins.

But to do that, we need to get away from ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

Alignment and Alpha Protocol

Given these genre musings, I was intrigued at the approach with Alpha Protocol, the upcoming spy action game, takes. Instead of letting you loose to pick good or evil, players can instead pick between Bond, Bourne, or Bauer. Three different genres of black ops style storytelling. Each with its own definition of good or evil.

For example, you’ll never see James Bond court-martialled for fraternising with the enemy. But you’ll also never see him in a situation where he’s in an actual no-win situation where he’s forced to make dark moral choices either.  Other genres could take you deeper into different types of stories. And as a bonus, people who are fans of the genre will know who Bond, Bourne, and Bauer are, so it’s a meaningful choice for them.

I’m not a fan of action games so I won’t be trying this one. But I find the approach far more interesting than just being asked to pick good or evil.

The Alpha Centauri Angle

Alpha Centauri is one of my favourite games of all time. It’s like Civilisation set on a new space colony, with an underlying storyline and where each faction has a very distinct philosophy which is underlined by the game mechanics.

The game itself is sheer genius. You can pick your philosophy by picking the faction which shares it. And then you can use it to conquer the world. Military supremacy? Mad science? Economic win? Be one with nature? There’s some very very clever game design going on in there, and it works brilliantly.

And again, there’s no clearcut choice between good and evil to be made anywhere at all. Instead, you get to choose how you will define good and choose how you will define evil. And to my mind, it leads to a stronger gaming experience overall.

My hope for SWTOR is that Bioware will have learned from previous outings that good vs evil isn’t really interesting enough to stand alone. And instead, when you pick a class, you will really be picking a genre for your space opera. And any good vs evil choices you get to make while playing are more about letting you tailor that genre to your own preferences.

Do you like games where each faction has a distinct philosophy? (Warcraft kind of manages this for Horde, but not so well for Alliance in my view.)

11 thoughts on “Good, Evil, and other Genre Conventions

  1. Is there such a thing as Evil?

    I mean from the perspective of being it? I’m not talking about a few mentally ill people or metal fans trying for shock value. I mean even the rank and file party member in the Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Communist party could and did delude themseslves that they were on the side of the Angels right up untill the end. The shades of grey may get pretty damn dark…

    I think the Horde in WoW, especially the undead are a great example. Agreed on the alliance however…with the exception of some if the SI 7 plot lines its all a bit ‘meh’.

    I wonder what Cyanide will do with ‘A Game of Thrones’? Now there’s shades of grey for you! Of course if their rendition of it is anything like the BloodBowl game then it’ll be a example of twisted broken genius all on its own….or do I just mean ‘French’?

  2. By pet peeve is that quite a few games with morality systems have only three settings at most: Altruistic gullible friend of all living things, disinterested seen-it-all mercenary and a puppy-kicking jerk.

    Also, quite a few systems rely on everyone in the world magically knowning every sordid detail of your exploits. If you kick a puppy in the middle of the desert, the townfolk won’t let you in. That’s not morality, it’s loss aversion.

  3. So by the argument in the first paragraph, Arthas made the right decision in the Culling of Stratholme? It eventually led to his downfall. I can see both sides of that argument but morally, in my opinion, he was wrong. It was an evil choice. Something in him, sure he can justify it till the tauren come home, but something in him was evil, and he paid for it. What bothers me is that in books, movies, games it’s all the same. The bad guys win throughout most of the story, until with a last ditch effort, good is able to gain victory. How come good never kicks evils ass before they cause so much destruction? Good is always playing catch up. Just once I would like evil to rise up and say WATCH ME TAKE OVER THE WOR.. *WE INTERRUPT THIS BROADCAST TO INFORM YOU EVIL HAS BEEN BITCHSLAPPED BACK TO REALITY*

    • Arthas was just too hasty. After my experience with WoW, he could just have sent a handful of hunters and they’d have easily kited the whole of Stratholme to victory…

      Then again, the undead are not particularly tasty.

  4. “When I murdered the child in Redcliffe (in Dragon Age) it was because I was saving the world from a worse evil. If that’s not heroic then I don’t know what is!”

    That’s what Arthas said after he razed Stratholme. 😉

    • Which, of course, is the point. If it were a black-and-white good vs. evil choice he’d be far more of a 2-dimensional character in my opinion. It’s that moral ambiguity that makes it a memorable moment in the lore. Thus, an interesting choice in Dragon Age with the child.

    • I think the key part of the Stratholme things is Arthas’s motivations, rather than the end result.

      It’s around the point where he decides that he’s always right and his ends are justify whatever means he decides to pursue. Hence all the unpleasentness that comes later.

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