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.)