Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Beyond Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil

Quick moral quiz - as you leave the village an old man comes up to you claiming to have been robbed by bandits in the wilderness. He desperately needs the treasure that was stolen from him and promises to reward you if you get it back. Do you:
  1. Ride to the bandits' camp and fight them all off but let them live once they promise to be nice. Take the treasure and return it to its owner but refuse to accept a reward because you were only performing your moral duty as a generic do-gooder.
  2. Ride to the bandits' camp, kill everyone and loot their corpses. Then go back to the old man, refuse to give him back the treasure but threaten to kill him if he doesn't give you the reward anyway. Kill him and loot his corpse. Then stamp on a puppy. Loot the puppy's corpse.
Depending on your choice here, your Evil-O-Meter will move slightly in one direction or other, also you probably get more money and XP for choosing the second option, it's just a sidequest though so don't expect any kind of lasting consequences.

The above scenario is obviously a simplified version of the kind of moral choices that modern RPGs try to offer, the problem is that it's not simplified by that much. A typical moral choice will boil down to taking the unambiguously "good" option or the unambiguously "evil" option (occasionally with a few neutral options thrown in). As such, the whole moral choice aspect comes down to a decision made right at the start of whether you want to play a good or evil character.

The pursuit of good/evil points also leads to the character's actions feeling forced - a good character will go out of their way to help everyone who asks, even when they clearly have far more important things to be concerned about. Evil characters on the other hand seem downright insane; a truly self-centred person would probably just ignore the majority of sidequests (and maybe even the main quest) because they don't care about the problems of some random peasant. This however will be counted as neutral by the game mechanics so you need to take the quest anyway then throw in some act of gratuitous cruelty to make the point that you really are EVIL!

And this leads us to the biggest problem, the goody-two-shoes and asinine jerk characters clearly have no rights being on the same quest with the same teammates. The game needs to railroad the player and horribly break the plot to provide an excuse for why a character would go on a quest they clearly have no motivation for (generally an evil character on a good quest, although I imagine playing a good character in Overlord causes this kind of problem too). Someone who genuinely wanted to roleplay an evil character might want to take over the first low-level criminal organisation you fight, kill the leader of the good guys, or sell out the forces of good and take a position working for the villain. But these choices goes way beyond the level of variation that is allowed by the script and so either there will be no option to do any of them, or at best you'll get a few extra lines of dialogue giving a hand-wave to force you back onto the main path. Thus you have the paradox of an "evil hero" - a heartless killer who slaughters the innocent while battling the forces of darkness and amassing a team of pure-hearted allies.

And of course these allies may complain about your latest rampage but will never think of abandoning the psychopathic killer they've mistakenly teamed up with. Kill, steal and stab your friends in the back for minimal reward and they'll still follow you right up to the pre-scripted bit before the last dungeon where the two paths finally diverge.

I think a better option would be to abandon the forced attempts to allow both good and evil choices and instead let the player choose between different moral philosophies on the same side of the scale. Take it for granted that the player character is a hero, but let them choose how best to go about saving the world - more like Lawful Good vs. Chaotic Good rather than tying yourself in knots aiming for Lawful Good vs. Chaotic Evil. Do you work strictly within the law or break the rules for the greater good? Sacrifice innocent lives to stop the bad guys or save the civilians but let your enemies get away? Mass Effect tries to use this system, with both Paragon and Renegade being basically good but differing in how ruthless they are willing to be. There are still some cases of asinine jerkiness - anyone wanting to get full Renegade points needs to be highly xenophobic and needlessly rude - but it manages to be one of the few games where both paths make sense.

Taking the idea even further it would be interesting to see a game where there are meaningful consequences for both "idealistic" and "ruthless" actions. Even Mass Effect tended to allow the Paragon to accomplish everything the Renegade could, making the "I did what needed to be done" defence ring hollow. Ideally, both options should have something going for them, both in terms of reward for the player (most of the time, the evil route will lead to more fighting and stealing, hence more loot and XP) and moral consequences.

Making it so that neither path is obviously more "good" than the other, would still give just as much choice as the more traditional good vs. evil dichotomy but since the choices are limited to the heroic ones the story would make more sense and feel a lot less like you were being railroaded. Perhaps more importantly the player would hopefully end up actually thinking about which one they should choose rather than simply going for the one that earns the most points for their alignment. All in all, the story and your choices in it would become a lot more interesting.


Ronan The Librarian said...

OK, so I've only just got round to reading this; but the piece is fantastic. Thanks Prof. =D