"Is the dark side stronger?" "No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive."
Maybe it’s because I’m currently spending my days at home playing peekaboo with my seven-month old daughter, but it took me all of about two seconds to go with the rescue-the-adorable-moppet option. Which is odd, because whenever I’ve been given a morally questionable gaming alternative in the past, I’ve leapt to the dark side without a moment’s hesitation. Usually while cackling.
And lately I’ve been given that choice in an awful lot of games. In fact, it seems almost as if the whole good-or-evil branching plotlines approach has spawned an entire mini-genre unto itself. For me, it started back in the golden age of PC RPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Fallout. I remember firing up Baldur’s Gate, telling myself as I stared at the (seemingly endless) installation screen that I would venture forth into my new virtual world as a paragon of decency, charity and kindness. Five minutes later, there I was, pilfering gold pieces and leather armor from a friendly innkeeper.
A few years later, the consoles caught up and suddenly the shelves at the local gaming emporium were filling up with black-or-white morality plays such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Fable, Jade Empire and Deus Ex. Even the MMO juggernaut World of Warcraft allows you to side with either the nasty Horde or the noble Alliance (again, I chose the dark side, logging many hours as a troll voodoo priest, an undead warlock and an orc hunter).
So what’s the appeal? Obviously, having a “good” storyline and a “bad” storyline in the same game makes for some serious gaming value. Play it once as a helpful sort, then go back and do it all again as a total dick – it’s like getting two games for the price of one!
But I think there’s more to it than simple replay value. Games are at their best when they offer the illusion of freedom and choice. And for most games, this usually consists of little more than the choice between using a shotgun or a sniper rifle. But morality play-esque games take that sense of freedom and apply it to the realm of ethics and decision-making to (ideally) create a substantially more complex world that gives your choices real and meaningful consequences.
Of course, the sad truth is that even within this mini-genre, the choices usually come down to oversimplified nice/nasty duality. You can be a choke-happy Sith Lord, or a zen-like Jedi Master, but that’s it. Nuanced shades of grey have no place in these black or white cookies. That seems to be changing with games like Bioshock and the upcoming Mass Effect, but for now, there’s not a lot of subtle ethical gaming dillemas out there.
Nonetheless, I still find these styles of games vastly more interesting than your average linear offering – if only because they allow your decisions to guide the story and have an impact on the wider universe within the game itself. And it’s this idea of “impact” that really resonates with me. A game like Oblivion offers up a huge amount of surface freedom. You can go where you want and do whatever you want – but I found that the world of Oblivion rarely reacted to my actions, except in very obvious ways. Sure, if I was caught pickpocketing, I’d get tossed in the clink, but the wider game world went about its business in pretty much the same way, no matter what my choices were. On the other hand, Fable – for all its (many!) flaws – managed to give the sense that your actions had reprecussions on those around you, even if it was as simple as having people run in fear when your badass self wandered into town. Maybe this is sheer ego – the idea that my actions should have a impact on everything and everyone around me, but it seems to me that if there’s no discernable widespread reaction to your actions, why bother putting in the effort to either toe the line or step right over it?
But that doesn’t really explain why I like playing the bad guy so much. It could be that the appeal of making a dodgy moral choice is based on the idea that we play games as a way to experience something that we can’t experience in the real world. We spend all day following the rules of society – picking up our garbage and saying “excuse me” – so maybe the ultimate in otherworldly fantasy isn’t dispatching dragons with a fiery bastard sword, but instead, being a rude jerk. In other words, if you can’t indulge your inner asshole in the real world, might as well do it in a vitual galaxy far, far away.
Then again, it might just be that the bad guys always get the best storylines. I’ll guess I go test that theory – it’s time to tackle Bioshock again, and this time, those Little Sisters better not be hoping for any mercy…