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nekobun avatar 11:37 AM on 11.27.2009  (server time)
Do The Wrong Thing: And do it right, for once.

If there's one thing that really bothers me about The Wrong Thing in games, it's that it's almost always THE Wrong Thing. Evil (and good, for that matter) are always so cookie-cutter, it takes no effort to figure out how to make your character a bad guy. This can be a boon in some cases, especially when the whole point of the game is being the bad guy, and you start as such; Overlord and Dungeon Keeper are great examples. When it's made clear from the start that you're the meanest sumbitch in the forest, and your job is to keep things that way, I have no qualms with being made a stereotype. The trouble is when games try to inject a flimsy element of "choice" into matters.

Before I go any further, I should mention that Here Be Spoilers.

The implementation of right and wrong as a linear, sliding scale tends to be a rather frustrating cop-out. Rather than exploring the nuances of no-goodness, most games are content to slap a yin/yang dichotomy onto a player's options, and allow little to no deviation from one of those two courses. For starters, Bioshock is a great example of some of the problems with this sort of system.

For starters, you're locked into one of two ending options right from the start. Either you'll get the "bad" ending, where you take over the world with your newly befriended splicer army once Atlas is out of the way, or you become a Big Daddy in a different sense than just putting on the helmet when you take all the Little Sisters under your wing. If the choices of Saint or Bastard wasn't enough, said "good" ending is only achievable if you spare the lives of every single Little Sister. There's no room for error here. Should you extract the slug from one girl, be it by an absent-minded button press or fear of what may happen if you let her live early on in the game, you're branded That Guy and locked into an outcome with no chance of even partial redemption.

Would it have been that difficult to crank out one or two more cinematics to cover the middle of the spectrum? Say one or two Little Sisters passed, but you saved the rest; who's to say Jack didn't adopt the remainder and spend his life mourning alongside them for their lost siblings? Or, if you only left one or two living, would it be such a stretch that they stayed with Jack in Rapture for a lack of other places to go, but resented their new guardian for the remainder of his life? A lot of potential for moral exploration was thrown out the window with the adoption of such a shallow dichotomy.

Adding insult to injury was the fact that your choice of paths, be it salvation or consumption, had little impact on gameplay prior to the ending. Sure, you got Adam a bit faster by harvesting, but the gifts recieved by letting the Little Sisters live evened out, if not came out a bit ahead of the "wrong" option, in the end. Of course, that evening out comes long after another plasmid or two would really matter, so all in all, the matter of moral choice in Bioshock ends up being pretty pointless.

Fable was another great example of botching a chance at a great morality system. Granted, Lionhead did a better job of providing options and a broader range of alignment variants, but once again it comes down to shades of black or shades of white. Depending on a choice between killing your sister or letting her live in the end, combined with your alignment, gives you a choice between all of four different endings. Four endings differentiated by nothing more than what you say to the aforementioned sister (or her corpse) at the end of the same sequence. You spend the entire game working your way toward being a paragon of virtue or a scion of chaos, and all you get are a pat on the ass and some slightly different lines. Good job.

I give Molyneux some credit for having the game itself acknowledge your alignment choices openly, through both character appearance changes and interaction with NPCs, but it still suffers from dichotomy issues in that the actions that make you good or evil are either blatant or completely frivolous. Killing innocents is bad? I never would have guessed.
Helping old ladies will move me a little closer to an unblemished complexion and a halo? No way! Tofu will make me a better person, but eating these Crunchy Chicks will make the masses frown on me? ...wait, what? I'm sorry, but unless your game features judgmental vegans or you're exploring the merits of Swift's Modest Proposal, your choice of dinner shouldn't have much impact on your karmic standing.

I have to hand it to the Grand Theft Auto series for taking baby steps toward addressing one key issue when it comes to in-game morality: good and evil are in the eye of the beholder, and in many cases, circumstantial. None of GTA's primary protagonists since the third numbered game have been the biggest bastard ever, at least to start off; in most cases, your guy starts down the path of dickotry solely to get by.

Claude, in GTA III, is just looking for due revenge for his betrayal at the game's beginning. Niko Bellic comes to America looking for a new life, not necessarily a criminal one. CJ's out to avenge his mother and help his former friends, and Tommy... okay, Tommy Vercetti is already a convicted hitman, so he doesn't count so much. Sure, all their goals quickly take a turn for the absurdly illegal and murderous in due time, but much like Travis Touchdown's body trail in No More Heroes, refraining from such activities would more than likely lead to ignoble, messy deaths at the hands of those out to stop them. The issue of survival can set quite a spin on anyone's moral compass.

And it's not as if all the destruction in any given Grand Theft Auto is entirely evil, even at the height of things; even without the flimsy stayin' alive excuse, the enemies you eliminate and infrastructure you're out to destroy are, arguably, a great deal more menacing and harmful to the local populace than your character could even hope to be. This sheds a somewhat altruistic light on things, and makes one reconsider just how selfish the mission objectives really are. Certainly, painting everything in shades of grey like this can be just as bad as keeping things monochromatic, but at least Rockstar is dabbling in the middle ground.

Three things need to happen for in-game morality to move beyond its current status as a frivolous sidequest. Most importantly, the box that wrong (and right, while we're at it) has been limited to needs to be busted wide open. The church itself managed to come up with ten commandments and seven deadly sins to tell people what was wrong, and a certain mister Alighieri created an elaborate work of literature defining specific levels of hell based on those deadly sins, so why can't game creators put a little more effort into exploring the evil that men do? There are many, many flavors of wrongdoing out there. Sure, you've got your murderin', bombin', and rapin', but what about political corruption, manipulation, or betrayal? Instead of a singular continuum of positive and negative forces, why not implement a multi-point bastardry/goodnik spectrum, not unlike the stat diagrams of the RPGs of yore?

Secondly, adjust things through the lens of the game and the character's circumstances. Labeling Link a thief in Link's Awakening if he steals from the shop made sense, because making money in that game, while tedious, is simple enough to not justify burglary. On the other hand, taking up with the purported enemies of society, a la Jade joining IRIS in Beyond Good & Evil, was completely vindicated once the Alpha/DomZ collaboration was revealed. Final Fantasy's Cecil and Celes are both good examples of people who thought they were on the wrong side, but were forced to change once their visions of wrong and right were turned on their heads. Applying an objective, divinity versus damnation meter to everything just isn't realistic, and needs to stop.

While you're at it, try flipping that lens now and then, and letting the player see things from several sides of a game's core conflict. Sure, the Holocaust and Nanking were abominable, but how do you think Germany felt about Dresden, or Japan about Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Just what is wrong when things escalate to that point?

Finally, make it matter. The straw that broke me with Fable, regardless of the rest of these issues, was the fact that your actions for good or for naught are just as easily reversible. Redemption or condemnation are easily achievable, should you be leaning a way you'd rather not, by throwing money at the church or sacrificing your friends and loved ones in the dead of night. With such quick fixes for your moral dilemmas, why bother petting or harassing the local livestock? Lock the player out of certain skillsets, subquests, or character interactions if they choose moral paths that conflict with them. Make party members stay or leave based on their compatability with you. And while I'm against completely locking a player into one track based on their choices, make major shifts appropriately difficult. Word of mouth and public image are just as (if not more) powerful as(/than) personal drive, and no one got off the registered sex offender list just by volunteering at a bunch of bake sales and hugging some kittens.

Games have come quite a long way, but it's still far too infrequent that wrong gets done right.

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