Light Path, Dark Path? Pick one.

There has been a fashion recently for games to offer moral choices, well in reality they have done this sort of thing for years but only recently has the trend become fashionably such that they make a big deal about it. I quite like being given the option and will often play the evil path because I am a sadistic bastard. Then I'll play the good path for completeness after that following the evil path again just to make sure I have extracted as much negative karma as possible in a process I like to call sucking the marrow from the bones.

Bioware have done this sort of thing for quite a while even back to the Black Isle days with the classics like baldurs gate and Planescape Torment. More recently they have tried to bring this in to the next generation of action rpg's like Knights of the old republic, Jade Empire, and of course Mass Effect. While I still think their grip on the action side of the action RPG is more tenuous than it should be they are very good at the story telling part if you like that sort of thing. However they still fall foul of making their paths somewhat simplistic. Various others have tried this Bioshock, Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophesy, Fable, Black and White, the Deus Ex games, the Fallout series, Oblivion, Morrowind, and even the new GTA all to some degree had components of choice to them but some were better than others.

Partly the point being able to choose is that choice has some sort of consequence and for some games the promise more than they can deliver. For instance the much hyped moral choice in Bioshock visceral and emotionally loaded though it was (the first time at least) had little or no impact on how the game played out. It didn't influence the story line except to give a different ending in fact in some ways it made the story fall to bits if you played the evil path.

It's also the case that the evil path is somewhat simplistic veering between moustache twirling villain stereo type or as Byrnie phrases it puppy kicking. Then again the good paths are not much better usually being so sickeningly good as to stretch credibility beyond anything like reality. Mass Effect tried to side step this by having the Paragon and Renegade path but it really didn't make that much of a difference it was still basically good and evil path except it was a bit more random occasionally you could do the good/bad thing by mistake. I suppose this lack of grey in these games makes them less believable the true evil path is unlikely to be so obvious the kind of casual violence that they use as a substitute for any more subtle way of characterising an evil path makes things a bit pantomime at times.

I don't mind linear stories in games, some of the best stories in games have been linear, but if I'm promised some sort of storyline that includes choice I'd prefer if it were more complex than "Kill everything" and "Form a Hippy Commune".

So why are the choices in these games usually between moustache twirling puppy kicking socio paths with big neon signs saying "Evil!" flashing behind their head that would soon as tie you to a train track as look at you, and angelic halo wearing sickeningly good pushovers that will do anything anyone asks of them even regardless of the cost often ignoring the greater good (mass effect has a good example of this towards the end).

I guess it is far easier to work in these caricatures than anything more complex. These basic cardboard cut outs are easy for the player to recognise (while a little tough for them to identify with since they are usually vacuums personality wise) and the story can easily be polarised down the good evil axis.

But what about something more sophisticated, people have tried various experiments along the lines of more complex stories but not many of them have worked. Branching story lines is one approach to this problem but tough to do convincingly and time consuming since each branch requires more work so there is a tendency just to make the branches the same or going for the multiple ending option Bioshock took. The Multiple ending approach was very popular back in the heyday of full motion video adventures, one of the early 3d attempts at an adventure game the Pandora directive had 3 different game paths with a possible of 8 different endings including my favourite the main character becoming a down on his luck alcoholic clown. Some of the more advanced almost AI approaches to this sort of thing lack the controls to tell a coherent story.

Of course for the most part those sorts of adventure games only really have their story as their selling point so it is easier to indulge in a little work to make a more complex plot, now that the focus has moved to a more action based approach I guess it is easier to let the story take a back seat or mover to a very clichéd approach to storytelling.

With the whole move towards the open world or "GTA" style of game you'd think there would be more possibilities to have more involving more branching stories. A lot of the content they create in these games (like GTA and Oblivion) is never played they just do the main story and piss about with a few of the side missions then leave the game you'd think they could have invested the time to make all that stuff in making a more complex branching story line using their dynamic city/world as a back drop.

What would a decent approach to the whole good evil path thing be would having more appropriate shades of grey help where you can be just a bit of both or more manipulative than really evil. Maybe some of the problem of not being able to be a believable bad guy stems from the hero obsession either the games are written for you to play the hero with the dark path tacked on afterwards or the whole single hero theme really works against an intelligent bad guy. Maybe a game where you are the heroes sidekick/advisor would work better where you are there to sway their judgement and either betray or defend them for noble or more malevolent goals. I'm not sure anything like that would sell though which is the other problem most of the genre of games where this sort of thing fits is somewhat niche (or nitch as the americans say).

Will we ever see a game that intelligently handles the good evil path, I hope so. Until then I've got a moustache that needs twirling and a crate of puppies that need a good kicking, MWHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!


I disagree with moustache twirling.

Good start eh?

The rest of your evil choice description I'm fine with, but they're not moustache twirling. That sort of bad guy is almost comically shortsighted (Dr. Evil is the benchmark here). I can play moustache twirling.

I find the evil path in those games unplayable. To gain evil points it seems the only option is mindless sadism and constantly telling people to fuck off, I don't care.

I don't think GTA style games will amke big inroads in this area - to have good/evil make much difference you need a stong plot. GTA is a sandbox with a discrete sign saying "Plot this way (optional)".

I think an example of evil done well was Dungeon Keeper ;)

byrn's picture

I guess what I mean by that is more I think there is more scope to do a branching plot in an open world than there would be in a more traditional fps or level structured game. The hard work of a flexible environment to set the story in is already done.

Dungeon keeper was more pantomime evil like overlord though it was fun.

Evilmatt's picture

True - that's what I mean by moustache twirling :D

Yah, I wonder if the problem is that most good/evil games use dialog choices. Black and white was a bit more gradiated (I realise the irony of this sentance :D)

byrn's picture

It still had the lack of memory that afflicted KOTOR in that you could destroy an entire nation with fire and lightning but then a few heals here and there and suddenly you were the messiah

Mass Effect fixed that a little by separating the good bad trees so you can't cancel out the bad though I'm not sure they made the most of that mechanic maybe in mass effect 2 or 3 they might.

Evilmatt's picture

On the black/white divide between good and evil, its pretty common in most forms of modern media to have very obvious divides. Films are the obvious choice for reference. Most films have obvious bad guys, and obvious good guys. It helps the viewer identify, and it makes for easier storylines.

Its only really in long media forms (books, some episodic TV series) where there is time to fully build out the "shades of grey", and even then its a risk, with a mixed bag being the result at best. It needs a good storyteller to avoid the chiches, while still giving the viewer/reader/player a strong and compelling storyline. From a videogame perspective, its much easier to do a good and evil skin, while keeping the content near as dammit the same...

WoW has achieved a good/evil that works for both sides (Horde/Alliance), by effectively building 2 content sets, and then having the interaction between the 2 sides outside of the story content. Guild Wars did a siilar thing (though with slightly less success, as it was linked to the weakest storyline of the 4 they did) with the Kurzuiks and Luxon...neither are nessacerily good or evil, but have positives and negatives which ultimately oppose each other.

babychaos's picture

While I'd generally agree that two parallel content sets is pretty much the only way go (emergent stories just don't work, so if you want to have a good plot in your game, the only option you have is to write a good plot,) I wouldn't really say that Alliance/Horde is a good/evil thing. Not just because Blizzard go to such lengths to insist that the Horde aren't evil (just "misunderstood",) but because, for terms like good and evil to make sense there has to be a sense of character, or of overall narrative. WoW more or less completely lacks both. Certainly there are quests, each of which kind-of has a story, but what quests you do are determined more or less solely by what level you are, and what loot they give as a reward - I can't imagine it ever coming down to a moral decision - and there's no continuity either narratively or morally from one to the next. One minute you're gathering medicine to treat a dying little girl, and the next you're assassinating an important enemy politician and bringing back his head. Later still you find yourself slaughtering hundreds of innocent (and non-aggro) centaurs to gain your side a political advantage in the area. Then you're back to the medicine gathering. And that pattern is consistent whichever side you play. Basically the two sides exist to give a context to wide-scale, persistent PvP, and the choice of which one you play is down to which character models you like the best, and which side your friends play. In fact, my experience has generally been that Horde players are more polite and considerate than Alliance ones - even to Alliance players (on a PvE server.)

AggroBoy's picture

A(nother) great post!

[WARNING] Ripping off my own RPG [/WARNING]

I think one possible solution is not to use Good/Evil with linear/branching plots at all.

Instead, have a few properties, call them say 'Deviants'. It's a balanced set of personality traits. For a GTA game, you might have:

Sadist --|-- Caring
Greedy --|-- Generous
Foolhardy --|-- Cautious

At any time, your state might look:

Sadist |---- Caring
Greedy ---|- Generous
Foolhardy -|--- Cautious

which is someone who is a generous sadist with a foolhardy twist.

Rather than have a linear story, you have a series of events or missions. Each mission takes your deviant as an input. People might react to you differently depending on the state of the deviant. As a result of the choices you make in the mission changes your deviant. If you are keen on a big ending then that can depend on the combination of deviants.

This idea is not new, other games react to the things you've done in the past, I think it could be improved by better denoting what grey areas are.

Just a thought.

brainwipe's picture

I have seen systems that used various stats to determine conversation choices, pretty much all the D&D based games do this to a degree and the bioware games kotor etc have a similar system things like fallout and arcanum had their own brew from their special system. It tends to alter side missions or micro plot within missions but very rarely the main storyline.

As to the horde Alliance thing A lot of MMO's (SWG, Everquest2, Horizons, Planetside, D&D Online, Dark age of Camelot and probably many more) have used the two or more factions approach so they can have realm wars but it is more of a cosmetic choice than a moral one. You can't start off horde and then decide "I want to be a good guy", at least not without rolling a new character.

I think you can still make your good and bad guys clearly delineated without making them cardboard cut-outs which is what all game moral choices seem to resolve to. Either you are a sadistic bastard or a flower child peace loving hippy never anything else.

Evilmatt's picture

In the context of MMOs, it's worth differentiating between 'factions' and 'realms'. It's a bit pedantic perhaps, but realms are the wide organisations you choose at character creation, that can't be changed (as in DAOC, SWG, WoW, or to an extent EQ2,) which are often used as the basis for RvR variants of PvP. Factions on the other hand are NPC organisations that you have a popularity (or 'faction rating') with, which can be shifted during play through your actions. Most RvR games have these as well (to represent your popularity with organisations within your realm,) but so do many games without explicit realm choice, for example EQ1, Horizons, DDO and Vanguard. In Everquest it really was possible to create a Dark Elf and through your actions win the trust of the High Elves and end up welcome in their cities.

But I'd reiterate that it's still not a moral choice. There's nothing to differentiate good from evil in any MMO I've played. At best they're just tags that are applied to one side or the other in a game where everyone is doing the same basic thing anyway.

AggroBoy's picture

I've only really played SWG to the depth to get involved in the RvR conflict stuff and in that the nomenclature for each side was factions and then faction points gained to improve your rank and buy pets (ATST was a favourite for a while as it was almost invulnerable plus it was a change from all the rancors). Come to think of it you could change sides in SWG, you were essentially neutral at character creation, though by swapping you lost all your stuff accrued in the other faction. Of course swg changes it's entire game system every 3.5 seconds so it may be radically different now.

Evilmatt's picture

With EQ2 you can change sides however you change class too so your Goodly Paladin becomes a Shadowknight. It does mean you can play a Dark Elf Paladin. Least thats how it worked when I last played it.

Dwain's picture