I find it appropriate that the first substantive post in a long while comes on Dreamcast Day. 9.9.99: NEVER FORGET.
Escapist fantasies be damned: it’s hard to be an asshole in a video game.
I was polling my Facebook friends for good anecdotes about applying the problem-solving skills we learn from video games to real life problems (that’s Quality Research, folks) and got the following from one of my Jiu Jitsu buddies:
“I’ve found in choose-your-morality games like Fallout, KOTOR, or BioShock I have a really hard time playing a bad guy, even in a simulated world where there are no real negative consequences for my actions. I think a lot of the time we like to think of the character as our idealized self in an extraordinary environment.”
Now to be fair, this guy is a genuinely nice guy. Even in a sport that consists of grown men mauling the shit out of each other like wild dogs, he manages to be downright courteous. As in he sent me three apologetic text messages after a practice session where he noticed I was rubbing my neck after he caught me with a choke. However, I don’t think that his nice-guy nature is why he always gets the Good Ending. No, it’s most likely because most games “morality choices” are, well, garbage.
Grand Theft Auto got people all hot and bothered because they saw gamers in a virtual world which looked like they could do anything without worrying about consequences, and given a choice, they ended up stealing cars, doing drugs, fucking prostitutes and shooting pretty much everyone. People who actually played Grand Theft Auto weren’t nearly as shocked about the crimes they were committing because verbs like Steal, Fuck, and Shoot had buttons mapped to the controller. In GTA, being a law-abiding citizen, much less a Nice Guy, would be akin to winning the Evolution National Championships on a gamepad with one working button. It’s easier for Solid Snake to thwart a plot that endangers the whole world without killing anyone than it is for C.J. from San Andreas to drive on the right side of the road. There’s no meaningful choice between good and evil, which is fine, because no one buys a game called Grand Theft Auto to help old ladies across the street.
The Fallout series has a different legacy, however. The tension between Good and Evil is supposed to be a constant element throughout the game; each mission, no matter how small, generally has at least two or three different outcomes that will push your karma in one direction or the other. Unlike GTA, however, I’ve found that the path of least resistance is that of the Good Guy, because the decisions are too moral. Let’s say we have a real life moral spectrum that looks something like this (bad to good, with “|” denoting neutral):
Hitler ———————————-|———Garden-variety Asshole—–Average Joe————–Mother Teresa
GTA‘s looks something like this:
Raging Armed Psychopath——Murderer——|———————Regularly Drives Over The Speed Limit
and Fallout 3‘s looks something like this:
Raging Armed Psychopath—-|—-Guardian of the Wasteland
That is to say, there isn’t really much of a middle ground. Either you’re a saint or you’re shit. For any given quest, the options are Make Everything Better or Kill Everything, and the neutral path consists of Do A, then B. Fix Megaton up, then blow it up. Tell Zimmer who the Replicant is (to get Wired Reflexes) but tell the Replicant first (to get his Plasma Rifle). I could understand this if it were a Star Wars story involving Jedi powers, but then the good and evil actions would be more oriented around whether you prefer Force Heal to Force Choke and less about the morality themselves. Basically, the problem is that the Good Path tends to be more generous with in-game rewards (XP, items, Perks) than the Bad Path, and you don’t risk missing out on any further game content by offending (or killing) certain characters. There are certain NPCs and quests that can only be had if your karma is negative, but from what I can tell, it’s negligible compared to the whole, so everyone plays the game as a good guy the first time. If they really like the game (as in, they like it enough to play through it again with the handicap of having bad karma) then they’ll do it again to see the remaining 20% or so of the stuff that they couldn’t see as a good guy.
To make this a little bit more concrete: I’m playing through the game a second time. Even though I fully intended to play as a Bad Guy the whole way, I find myself choosing the Good option more often than not just because it makes the game easier. This is not a good model of morality. If GTA tells us that people can do incredibly horrible things if they’re just a touch of a button away (think of it as mass-market Milgram experiment), Fallout tells us that stealing a bottle of soda is maybe two steps removed from genocide.
Fallout is set in a post-apocalyptic fucking wasteland. Shouldn’t my do-gooder enthusiasm be rewarded with selfish backstabbing at every turn? For a world that claims to be harsh and soul-crushing, it’s awful easy to be the good guy. Needs more crabs-in-a-bucket.
This is not the good-evil tension I want in a video game, because it bears very little resemblance to the good-evil tension that fascinates me in real life. In real life, it’s less about Good or Evil (because honestly, who thinks of themselves as Evil?) and more about Selfish and Selfless. The Evil we encounter in real life isn’t Hitler, it’s the guy who can’t be bothered to make a new pot of coffee at the office. The lady who willfully cuts you off in traffic. Being good in real life is a combination of the belief in delayed gratification (or karma) and genuine concern over others’ well-being, and being evil is being just enough of an asshole to walk the lines of civil society without crossing them. One of the first moral choices in Fallout 3 comes up right when you leave the Vault, and you have the option of shaking down a lady on the run for her money or delivering her from her difficult situation. It’s a fairly insignificant moment in itself, but it captures the selfish-selfless tension perfectly. You can opt for the money, or you can opt for the good Karma.
I opted for the money.