Saturday, April 18, 2020

On being "Evil" in video games

This post by Bhagpuss got me thinking about my most recent playthrough of SWTOR, the darkside/ lightside choices that the game offers and artificial moral choices we make in video games more generally.

With this character I decided that one of her major goals was to spread chaos and disrupt society. More out of a sense of childish glee at tearing things down and utter ambivalence about the consequences than out of any moral inclinations.  SWTOR is uncommon among MMOs in that you are encouraged to give some real thought to your character's personality as you play.  
When I start a character in SWTOR, one of the first things I do is decide on a personality and motivation for the character.  I often like to play a character with a different moral compass from mine, just to see how various choices I personally would never make play out in the game.  I conceived of my current character as a walking monkey's paw.  She takes any quest offered to her, but often completes it in a way no sane person would be happy with.  More generally, her goal is to sow chaos and destruction everywhere she goes.  This is someone that wants to see society burn.  Having grown up a slave and becoming a member of the ruling council of the Sith Empire despite it, she knows she can thrive in situations where almost  anyone else would just give up.  A universe where no-one knows what to expect is one where she, and few others, can thrive.  She will also happily burn down a city if it furthers her goals, or even just to see what happens.  She's as close to an Evil character as I have played in a long time.

Contemplating how best to sow chaos and destruction. In Dungeons and Dragons terms I have basically been playing  her as a chaotic neutral character.
Yet even with her, I actually end up making a lot of choices the game consider's light side/ Good.  Her ultimate goal is to disrupt society, and often times the best way for her to do that is to encourage any random weirdos she meets to keep doing their thing.  Killing everyone that doesn't follow society's rules, generally the dark side option, only helps reinforce the rules.  Further, being rude to absolutely everyone also goes against her secondary goal of amassing power.  If she really wants to have enough power to throw society akimbo, she needs allies.  You don't earn trust by being needlessly rude to everyone all the time. Once someone trusts her completely, then they can help with her real work of being a crazy supervillain.

Here she is hanging out with one of the more morally ambiguous NPCs you recruit during the KoTFE storyline. You can tell my character has been making a lot of "evil" choices because of all the sith corruption (e.g., the glowing red eyes). However she did also pick a lot of options that the game considered light-side / "good "as she went along. Primarily helping NPCs get away with things she thought would be more disruptive in the long term than killing them. Not here though. At the end of this story vignette she decided to blow up everything and everyone, much to the delight of this NPC.
This leads to a problem I tend to have with dark side / Evil choices in games that have dialogue trees.  They tend to make very little sense.  It's hard to imagine a realistic character that would kill every single person they can, be rude absolutely all the time, or NPCs that would want to have anything to do with them.  Because of it, picking those kinds of choices over and over again tends to break my immersion.  Further, it's a somewhat shallow / naive depiction of morality.  In the real world even brutal dictators are often capable of being charming when it suites them. To me evil is defined by the effects of your actions and the intention behind them.  It's not really defined by whether you can go 20 minutes without being a jerk to anyone.  That's more a measure of whether you have social intelligence, empathy and self control exceeding that of a toddler.

A random DDO screenshot that seems thematically appropriateDDO also sometimes has dialogue trees, but they are purely for flavor.  They almost never affect the outcome of a quest.
When it comes to doing things in a game that would usually be considered Evil (or at least childish), I tend to enjoy it more in games that aren't specifically set up for it.  Particularly in free form sandboxes like Grand Theft Auto, Fallout, and Elder Scrolls games.  For example, when I was playing Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, I once killed an old woman so that I could take over her house.  I was trying to collect all the books in the game, and she happened to have a lot of book shelves.  I also once killed everyone in a tower and a nearby village because one of the local guards was rude to me. I can cackle gleefully looking back on that senseless carnage, yet I often find it hard to be rude to one of my underlings in SWTOR.  What that says about me I'm not entirely sure.  However I suspect I'm not alone in this.  At least one popular youtuber that has made a whole channel out of torturing video game NPCs in really creative ways, and I find many of his videos really amusing.  Videos of him mashing dark side dialogue options in SWTOR over and over again would probably not be nearly as entertaining.

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