Today I wanted to talk about evil and being the bad guy in games. Heroes and anti-heroes are cool, but a well written villain is even cooler. Before I start though, I just want to preface things by saying I’m using ‘evil’ in a very simple, game applicable sense. I’m not really delving into the deeper philosophical definitions of what is and isn’t evil, or whether or not evil can actually exist.
I love games that give me the option to have an evil side or even to be the bad guy. That being said, I have never played a game where I really felt like I organically became the villain. By that I mean that more often than not ‘being evil’ is almost nothing more than an aesthetic choice with a few dialogue options here and there changed based on your good/evil meter, which by the way is a very outdated way to do the whole light side versus dark side thing.
I’ve intentionally used that wording as I believe the recent Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO is one of the biggest offenders of pretending to offer players moral choices. For a supposedly story driven game, the choices you made as a character basically made no difference other than whether or not you chose the jerk option from the dialogue tree or not, but then made no further impact on you or the world around you. Actually, it changed one thing: your position on the light side/dark side meter! You would need a certain number of points one way or the other to use certain powers, and that was it. Terrible game mechanic. You’d end up making choices that were against your play style or character simply to make sure you got the points for the correct side.
But even worse than the fact that the mechanic itself was intrinsically flawed was the fact that you never made a single real decision in the game. You either picked the jerk option or the nice guy option. At best that is one single choice that you made at the beginning of the game and that you’re basically just asked to verify all the time.
The reason I claim that there no decisions to be made in SW:TOR is that all of your options are either blatantly good or obviously evil. A good example is one mission where you can either give some medication to some refugees to save their lives… or not. Wait, even if I was a dark side character I would still give them the medication. I lose nothing and maybe I can sway some people ‘join the dark side’ as it were. Why would you go out of your way to make more enemies rather than possibly recruiting more followers? That’s not evil, that’s just stupid. And that was a huge problem for me; you could either be an unrealistic, altruistic, good guy or a moron. There were no evil characters, just white knights and douche bags.
You know what would have been an interesting decision in that mission? How about that you could take what little medicine you managed to salvage and hand it over to the Republic scientists who could create a vaccine to save countless future lives, but that would mean that these people right now, standing in front of you, begging you to help them and their children, well, they have to die. You don’t have enough to do both and a vaccine or cure won’t be ready in time to help them. That’s a decision. “But neither is clearly good or evil”, the game makers will cry! “However will we give them points to define their morality?”, they will plead! “Our precious, precious points…” will be the last we hear from them as their questions trail into sobbing.
Evil always has a reason, otherwise it’s just sociopathy. The greatest villains are the ones that we can relate to. The ones where we can say, “I may not agree, but I understand.” Star Wars is actually rife with these characters, and the Empire itself is not inherently evil. They just want some order to the chaos that must exist in a galaxy where you have so many species interacting with one another, all with differing goals and ethics. You can actually picture that maybe things would be worse if they weren’t there, but at the same time you think maybe they should tone it down a little. They are the father who is a little too disciplinary, but all he really wants is his child to be safe. He’s worried and he’s scared of the big, dark world out there and the thought of his child being all alone in it terrifies him. That’s what the Empire is: a reaction to fear. And all of us, to some extent, can understand that, even if we don’t agree with it.
Here’s the thing (getting back to games!), I want evil to be meaningful and quite frankly I want it to be mechanically better. The simplest way to make evil a valid option is power. Evil should be easier and better. I would love to play an MMO where the mechanics make the bad guys better than the good guys, and there is no way that I wouldn’t play a good guy in that game! I want to feel the lure of the dark side, a mechanical reason to feel jealous of what they’ve got. I want to feel outgunned by the forces of evil and I want to feel like victory is impossible. But, when it does happen, and the good guys win, it feels amazing!
And the evil in my ideal game needs to have a reason. When you go the ‘bad guy’ route there should be legitimate repercussions and your actions should leave a mark on the world. Look, you want to start a mining colony somewhere? Good guys make deals with local governments and pay workers fair wages, resulting in less profit for themselves, meaning less ability to fund the war effort. Bad guys? Bad guys just enslave the local population and annihilate anyone who stands in their way. No deals, no wages, maximum profit, which equals more power! More soldiers, better training, advanced weapons, and quite frankly the element of fear on their side. But the players have to live with that choice. That game world now has an enslaved population that they made that way, because they wanted to be more powerful. But, if the good guys can somehow free that population, well, you probably have a lot of recruits pretty eager to sign up for the good guys!
If there’s no advantage to being evil in a game, and then you play that way anyway, well I hate to break it to you, but you’re just a dick. To reiterate: not evil, just dick. Which is basically a 13 year olds definition of evil. As you get older you (should) realize that there are always reasons for the things that people do. And, if you give them a chance to explain, you might even find yourself sort of agreeing with them.
On the left side, a villain. On the right, a dick.
Well, that’s my thoughts on evil (or lack thereof) in the current gaming scene, but I did also want to mention quickly that in The Elder Scrolls Online beta I encountered a mission early on that actually gave me a bit of a moral dilemma to solve, with no option being 100% good or evil. I won’t say more since there’s an NDA on the beta. Oh, and if Bethesda wants to come after me for just saying that, then I think they might be the evil ones in this scenario…