When You're Evil

by Wardog

Wardog reveals she plays far too many computer games in an exploration of moral dilemmas and evil options in computer roleplaying games.
Picture, if you will, the scene: Zarthaar, lawful evil necromancer, and his band of magnificent bastards Halfdan the Bloodstained, Toerag Twoblades and Grug the Kitten Killer pillage (as best as the game engine will allow) their disreputable way across the Sword Coast until "Please, please," whimpers a small boy, "find my lost puppy." Eyes aglint with malice, Zarthaar turns to his companions, "Well," he hisses, "we do need the XP." Sometime later, the Band of Magnificent Bastards return with the puppy stuffed in their strangely accommodating backpacks. "Oh thank you!" cries the small boy. Zarthaar surveys the dialogue options available to him. His evil nature recoils from: "I was just glad to help!" and, again from "I think I will kill you." As he explains regularly to Toerag down the local tavern, he's Machiavellian, not pointlessly psychotic. With a weary sigh, he opts for the only alternative: "I would like five gold pieces for the safe return of your puppy," he says, doing his best to infuse the words with sinister malice. His alignment shifts slightly towards evil.

The problem of evil in CRPGs (like in life), is, of course well documented. The days when Being Evil mainly consisted of slaughtering people for no reason or demanding extra money for helping them out seem to be drawing to a close. Most modern games that aspire to the title of serious RPG (as opposed to action-RPGs which are frivolous hybrids unworthy of the name) at least go some way to supporting an evil route through the plot I would even argue that the evil ending of Knights of the Old Republic far surpasses the goody-two-shoes alternative for sheer coolness, although you have to do some pretty nasty stuff to get it. Nevertheless the evil route is generally the least supported part of the game if quests have multiple solutions, one of those is usually flagged as The Evil Option. So, whereas the virtuous can solve the plot the default way or, perhaps, charm or bluff their way to the end, the mercenary and self-serving are usually reduced to screwing people over for the sake of it because that's their only option. Variation in virtue is permitted, but villainy remains essentially the same. This is becoming less of an issue as story-telling and game design have gained complexity and sophistication but, now that the need for alternative moral paths through a game has been recognised, this has essentially split computer game morality down a jedi/sith style opposition. We have good and we have evil and, generally, nothing between them.

For example, in Bioware's latest, Jade Empire (which is actually a PC conversation of a two year old Xbox game) you have two moral/philosophical choices: the way of the Open Palm and the way of Closed Fist. The game goes to a lot of trouble to try and convince you that the way of Closed Fist is not evil per se but since it generally involves using and/or killing people who have the misfortune to get in your way it's a bit of a tough sell. To quote from the Bioware website: "The Way of the Closed Fist teaches that strength is power, that power is desirable, and that all things bow to those who know what they want. The Closed Fist is not concerned with consequences or with balance; personal station means nothing to one who would murder friends and family to reach his heart's desire." Right. Call me staid but I find it difficult to encompass murdering one's friends and family as merely a different set of moral values.

And, as in Knights of the Old Republic, the game rewards you for extremism. Being overtly Open Palmed or Closed Fisted gives you access to exciting kung-fu styles, just as being particularly light side or dark side gave you funky powers in Knights of the Old Republic, as well as access to special classes. Throughout Knights of the Old Republic II, Kreia attempts to teach you the benefits of neutrality (and there are even some very effective moments when her words and warnings do make you think about your decisions, for example I was genuinely quite shaken my when disgustingly light-side character gave money to a beggar only to witness him set upon and killed by thugs) but, in game mechanical terms, there are no benefits to neutrality at all.

Furthermore in both games, your careful alignment choices are rendered pretty much meaningless because everything hinges on one in-game decision. Make a certain choice near the end and you'll plunge balls deep into Closed Fist territory, regardless of how many peasants you've petted over the course of the game. And vice versa, make the other decision and your friends-and-family-killing-psychopath will suddenly be the paragon of open palm virtues. I can see the advantage of such moments: it means that, as a player, you are not barred from certain outcomes by the moral decisions you have previously made but, nevertheless, it does mean the game has semi-arbitrarily placed a moral weight upon certain actions as compared to others. Does being nice to ten peasants equal a major plot decision? Does forgiving an old enemy carry a greater moral value than helping a small child find their lost dog? In Fable, notoriously, the most evil thing you can do is eat ten pieces of fried chicken in a row. Similarly, according to that game, it is less evil to beat your wife to death than get a divorce. And, although this is true in several major religions, I'm not sure a computer game should be espousing it.

You can argue that the Sith-ahem-closed-fist philosophy is not evil, it is just about succumbing to passion and acknowledging hunger for power but every time you commit a sith-ful act, your character glows red and gets a bit scaly-looking. Despite occasional attempts to prove otherwise, it is a well known literary fact that scaly, ugly people with red eyes and the ability to shoot lightning bolts out of their withered fingertips are unlikely to be good guys. Similarly, whenever you are nice to somebody, your character lights up with a blue halo. Your character stands a little more righteously in their portrait, light streams from behind them. Instant moral feedback: the game itself has become the arbiter of a meaningless moral code. As a player, you never have to think about the actions you take or the responses you make because you are immediately told whether what you have done is good or evil. And if you've been good when you meant to be evil or evil when you meant to be good you can shrug and re-load.

The alignment system in D&D based games at least theoretically offers a more complex approach, in that you have the intersecting good-evil / lawful-chaotic axes instead of the basic good/evil opposition. Unfortunately in real terms the only alignments actually supported by the majority of games are Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil. Chaotic Good occasionally gets a look in (chaotic good: will lie for a good cause) as, for that matter, does Lawful Stupid but behaving in consistently True Neutral or Lawful Evil fashion is nearly impossible. Part of the difficulty, of course, lies with the nature of the D&D alignment system itself (how the hell would a true neutral person actually behave? No, don't get your copy of the rules, they won't help) but the crux of the problem is not, in fact, the inadequacies of the system (which, yes, is unrealistic and often just plain silly but realism isn't the point here) but the infuriating way that games like Neverwinter Nights (1&2) track your alignment.

For example, in the first chapter of Neverwinter Nights 2 you either have to work for the City Watch for the Thieves Guild. My chaotic good Drow bard (oh stop laughing) was a bit peeved to have to support authority but Caleb, the Guild contact, was such an offensive brute that we threw our lot in law and order without much fuss. Attempting the game again with a less risible character build, my lawful evil warlock ran into problems. The idea was to join the Watch (seriously, Caleb is the worst advert for the Thieves Guild you can possibly imagine, he leaves no room for any kind of moral maneuvering whatsoever, only an utter bastard would consent to aid Caleb in anything) and take advantage of the many opportunities for corruption within; unfortunately, despite being the bentest city cop this side of bentville, the game still saddled me with a hefty alignment shift.

Morality even D&D morality is complicated and just as instant feedback undermines any moral decision you may make, having your decisions evaluated by the game is just as dissatisfying. To return to the example at the beginning of the article, let us say that Sir Gallant the Unbelievably Righteous is hot on the heels of the Band of Magnificent Bastards. His mission is to prevent Zarthaar the lawful evil necromancer from fulfilling his master plan of world domination through bureaucracy (which probably involves assembling the thirteen pieces of the Doohickey of Wossname, and then filling in Form X26C). So, off gallops Sir Gallant, or rather off jogs Sir Gallant because mountable horses have not yet been implemented, and, lo, a peasant approaches. "Please please help me!" she cries. "My kitten is stuck up a tree." As Zarthaar's trail goes cold, Sir Gallant surveys his dialogue options. He resists "Yes, of course I will help" because he's a 10th level paladin out to save the world for pete's sake. Surely there's somebody else in the village capable of climbing a ladder. Unfortunately there's no way to turn down the quest with grace. It's all "Give me 5 gold pieces for rescuing your kitten" or "fuck off and die and scummy peasant." "Yes, of course I will help," intones Sir Gallant, trying not to roll his eyes.

What this example is meant to illustrate is that players will often have their own quite complex reasons for making their characters behave in certain ways. A lawful evil warlock will join the city watch in the hope of gaining power through its corruption. A lawful good paladin may be too focused on higher goals to help with a trivial problem. A kitten-loving chaotic evil character may have a momentary change of heart when hearing a pitiful mewling from above. But virtue (or lack thereof) isn't cumulative: rescuing one kitten because you happened to have a kitten when you were a budding psychopath won't balance out the six peasants you robbed and slaughtered. To have your decisions simplistically interpreted by the game engine robs them of any meaning at all and encourages players to weight up their behaviour not in terms of its appropriateness or its moral dimension but whether it's likely to lose them their character bonuses. Ultimately, despite the additional complexity that could theoretically be provided by two intersecting axes, it just gives the game two opportunities to impose an arbitrary judgment upon the player instead of one.

It's a clich to talk about Fallout as the answer to all CRPG ills but Fallout and it successor, with their multiple imaginative ways of being all kinds of a bastard, at least made an attempt to support a range of possible behaviour and motivation. In modern CRPGs designers seem to be asking themselves "what is the evil option here," in Fallout 1 and 2 the emphasis lies upon the range of possible alternatives, not their moral content. Although the sliding karma scale is no less artificial than alignment, the use of titles (child-murder, grave-robber etc.) at least encourages you think of your actions in real rather than game terms ("oh my God, I've become a Grave Robber and all for 3 credits and a condom!").

Furthermore, karma rating actually only impacts the game in very specific cases, for example certain NPCs look for certain reputations or threshold Karma values. A random shopkeeper on the other side of the map isn't suddenly going to think less of you because he happens to have access to an abstract value the game has assigned to you. Of course, if you've been raping and pillaging your way through his town he will but the town reputation tracker remains invisible which means that you tend to behave the way you want to behave, rather than trying to second guess what the game will reward you for doing. And consistently tongue-in-cheek presentation of the karma rating ensures its main function is to please the player. It's fun to open up your character sheet and discover you're a the Scourge of the Wastes.

To explore a specific example, in Fallout 2 you have the option of the joining the slavers, shutting down the slavers or ignoring them completely. If you decide to join them, you take a karma hit and you receive the reputation tag "slaver" which translates into the Fallout world as a tattoo upon your forehead so that everybody knows you're a shameless evil scumbag. The people you encounter react not to the abstract value of your karma or even to the reputation tag on your character sheet, they react to the tattoo. Their responses, therefore, feel both real and justified and the decision has a significant impact on the game and your place in the game world. Because of this it possesses two moral dimensions which makes it marginally more sophisticated than the save the kitten / eat the kitten style dilemmas one usually encounters. In the post-nuclear wasteland of Fallout, the strong survive and the weak perish, resources are scarce and people do what they can and must to get by: although becoming a slaver is not a morally righteous decision it is one that could be made by a range of people, not all of whom are sadistic psychopaths. Additionally it forces the player to ask range of questions, not only "do I want to do this evil thing" but also "do I want everyone in the game world to know I've done it."

Gothic 3 also has a reputation rather than alignment based system for designating your place in the world. Gothic 3 is something of a gaming tragedy: an excellent game with a lot of courageous and interesting ideas that has the misfortune to play like a three-legged cow in stilettos. In it, you, the nameless goatee-sporting hero from Gothics 1 and 2, have returned to your homeland of Mrytana only to find it over-run with orcs. The world itself is vast, like Oblivion only more detailed and less pretty, encompassing lush forests, harsh deserts and snowy wastelands. There are various factions you can join. You can become a human mercenary working for the orcs, or you can work for the Hashishin, human slavers from, I'm tempted to say "the east" but I don't have the game map so I'll just say from another direction and there are the rebels who are camped out in the woods attempting to free their people from the yoke of their oppressors. The orcs, far from being green and mindless brutes, are proud and noble warriors, a bit like the Klingons actually and the rebels are plagued with corruption and in-fighting, so it's far from an obvious decision. Yes, the orcs have invaded your home but the war has essentially already been lost, continuing the fight surely leads only to more bloodshed. Furthermore, your ship has been inconveniently wrecked, stripping you of all the cool stuff you accumulated in the previous games so you're stranded with very few resources, hardly any skills (oddly enough those got washed away with the treasure, too) and no real allies.

You can throw your lot in with the rebels immediately and rampage across the map liberating towns, butchering orcs and singing songs of angry men but, although that's possible, it's just not sensible. There comes a point, of course, when a final decision must be made but, for the early part of the game, the most interesting options come from the occupying the middle ground. You need information and resources, and the last thing you need to be is Public Enemy Number One because there are a lot of orcs and humans in the world, and if enough of them want to kill you on sight you're in big trouble. Most of the quests have multiple solutions. Do want to deliver a letter to the rebel leader or betray him to the orcs? Do you want to capture an escaped slave, or will you take him to the relatively safety of a rebel hideout. Do you want to help the orcs increase the efficiency of their farms? Do you want to free an imprisoned paladin and risk the wrath of the orc leader? They're all represent quite interesting compromises and there are enough quests and enemies in the game that you can refuse to do things without feeling as though you are a denying yourself much-needed experience. Of course, gold is another matter. Just what are you willing to do to buy a set of heavy armour?

My goatee-sporting hero started out filled with righteous indignation but, as the game progressed and the rebels bickered ineffectively and were obnoxious to him, he gradually came to respect the martial traditions of the orcs. Of course, he was reluctant to collude in the enslavement of his own people so he refused to work for the Hashishin and liberated slaves wherever he could but every quest I accepted began to feel like another downward step on a slippery slope, which I enjoyed very much. I was genuinely unsure whether what I was doing was right or wrong, or whether I was making too many moral compromises, I was just trying to do my best in a difficult world.

Part of the reason Gothic 3 is so effective in this way is due to the fact that the game world reacts in quite realistic ways to your actions, or at least creates the illusion of doing so. Liberate one town and the next you come to will be agog with rumours of a dodgy goatee-sporting bloke and the orcs will be more suspicious of you. Liberate that town and the next will be even more reluctant to trust strangers. Liberate that one and the next one will have got you sussed. I've read several reviews in which the reviewer felt that closing off aspects of the game in this way was frustrating but it does feel as though your actions have genuine consequences. Although the part of me that wants to discover everything there is to discover doesn't like to have avenues closed off, the part of me that isn't anally retentive understands that choices feel like real choices only when they lead to different outcomes.

As you complete certain quests and behave in certain ways, your reputation with the different factions changes over time. There is no grander evaluative scheme so, ultimately, the only moral arbiter of your decisions can be you. Which is exactly the way it should be.


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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 13:08 on 2007-03-17
I've come to the conclusion that computer RPGs - and tabletop ones at that - should *either* have a single-axis alignment system, or just go with attaching reputations to the player instead of tracking a pre-chosen Lawful Whatever alignment.

I'm of the opinion that the D
Arthur B at 13:14 on 2007-03-17
Oh feck, ampersands also eat comments.

As I was saying - I'm of the opinion that the Dungeons and Dragons game really needs to lose an alignment axis - or at least present both of them, but not deploy both of them. Computer game designers and DMs find dealing with nine possible interpretations of someone's actions frankly too much work to bother with, and from a computer game angle trying to write nine unique and interesting and exciting dialogue options - one for each alignment - would be insanely difficult.

KOTOR's alignment system works well for me for two reasons - 1) it's plain good and evil, no ambiguity, and 2) if you want to be good, you should act like a reasonable human being, and if you want to be bad you should be horrible. This fits the films, where the good Jedi are flawed human beings who nonetheless make the right choices in the end, whilst the Sith are hissing villains.

The classic, non-Advanced D
Arthur B at 13:17 on 2007-03-17
Whoops, another ampersand.

The classic, non-Advanced D and D game - before AD and D lost the "A" and the original D and D line was discontinued - only had a Law/Chaos axis, which worked great (especially when it became more nuanced and wasn't just another term for Good/Evil). Under that system, your corrupt cop would have been fine, while your thief could have said "oh well, at least I can try and make them more enlightened from within". Or, you know, just stayed independent (unless that wasn't an option). It also means that the 1st level Detect Evil and Detect Good aren't the most powerful and useful divinatory spells in the game.
Wardog at 14:24 on 2007-03-22
Hmmm...perhaps I'm wrong, and I don't have your experience, but surely with tabletop RPGs there more scope more complex morality systems, not less? I mean, you can always turn round and say the players and the GM: "I'm doing this for this reasonably well fleshed out reason" whereas there's no way you can have that dialogue with a computer. It's like in the last Weapons of the Gods game when my Taoist killed the demon scholar - Dan was all "take a deed in force" and I was like "no way dude, I'm taking righteousness because I was restoring balance under the heavens." I guess Weapons of the Gods works quite well that way because the virtues and the corrupt virtues don't *necessarily* carry a moral weight - being ruthless is just another way of getting stuff done. KOTOR I don't mind as much as D
Wardog at 14:27 on 2007-03-22
WArgh! The ferretbrain ate my comment, alas for ampersands. I was saying I didn't mind KOTOR as much as D and D or Jade Empire because the whole Star Wars world is set up with the jedi / sith opposition in mind. But in Jade Empire, for example, the Open Palm / Closed Fist opposition feels shallow and artificial. I think the difference is that Star Wars has always been, well, sort of a fairy story? So a direct good / evil / fresh-faced young boy / withered guy in a hood axis seems perfectly acceptable. But some worlds pretend to be more complex, but their attempts to model a more complex morality can't support it.
Arthur B at 18:50 on 2007-03-22
I think you're right that a GMed game has more scope to deal with complicated alignment systems. I'm not convinced they're necessarily a good idea, however. Dan pointed out out to that the D and D Law/Chaos/Good/Evil shebang is a good way to generate nine archetypal modes of behaviour you can use as a shorthand for declaring your character's outlook on life, which is true, but I'm not convinced that it's any good for passing judgement on the way a character behaves in-game, as CRPGs tend to do and as most iterations of the D and D game encourage the GM to do.

The example of the paladin is probably illustrative here. From the d20 System Reference Document:

"A paladin must be of lawful good alignment and loses all class abilities if she ever willingly commits an evil act.

"Additionally, a paladin's code requires that she respect legitimate authority, act with honor (not lying, not cheating, not using poison, and so forth), help those in need (provided they do not use the help for evil or chaotic ends), and punish those who harm or threaten innocents."

Now, while at least in a tabletop RPG a paladin's player can talk over their actions with the GM to explain their motives and so forth, but the problem is the paladin's player has to *constantly* do this. The DM can't really let up, because the paladin is so ridiculously powerful it needs this restriction to balance it out. And then there's the perennial arguments over whether the paladin's code of conduct applies to the other party members - can a paladin knowingly condone un-Lawful actions on the part of his/her comrades, or does he have to punish those as well?

That's my problem with the D
Arthur B at 18:52 on 2007-03-22
and D system: for most characters, it's completely irrelevant. For a small minority, it's *insanely intrusive*. For the cases where it's intrusive, deciding whether a particular course of action is Good or Evil/Lawful or Chaotic would be a lot easier than arguing that an action is Lawful Good as opposed to Neutral Good or Lawful Neutral or something.

Weapons of the Gods' system is nicer because a) your character isn't be ruined if they get a corrupt Deed every once in a while, and b) it applies to everyone equally.
Wardog at 16:38 on 2007-03-23
I hear ya. But then I play very little tabletop so most of my comments about tabletop versus computer play were basically rhetorical potshots from a position of no authority whatosever. I think we're both agreeing that the D and D alignment system is ... well ...non ideal, in CRPGs and tabletops but surely that's because the game isn't particularly interested in deep moral philosphy it's interested in wandering around dungeons killing monsters and taking their stuff. Which, I suppose, suggests the game'd be better off without it.
Arthur B at 00:14 on 2007-03-26
I'm not convinced that *any* game can really set out to discuss deep moral philosophy with its players. Computer games certainly can't, because you can't have a meaningful conversation about morality with 2 gigabytes of code. As for tabletop games, moralising through game mechanics ends up depending so much on the judgement of the GM you get to a point where you may as well scrap the mechanics and let GM and player decide things between themselves, since that's what you're doing anyway.
Wardog at 13:31 on 2007-03-26
Indeed - on the other hand CRPGs often make big of the fact that they offer moral complexity and moral freedom so forth. I wasn't trying to say that they *should* I was just trying to explore if they *did* - and what I found unsatisfying in the current trends. Doesn't Dogs in the Vineyard claim to be about moral judgements (as well as riding around being wild west mormons?)
Arthur B at 22:00 on 2007-03-26
Dogs claims this, but it tries to achieve this by *never addressing morality through the game mechanics at all*. In fact, it explicitly forbids the GM to make a call on whether the characters have done the "right thing" or not: it's meant to be down to the players' conscience.

I'd go on to talk about whether this is actually successful but Dan was considering writing a review for Ferretbrain and I don't want to steal his thunder.
Wardog at 09:22 on 2007-03-29
I think the fact that he doesn't think it suceeds is what made me think of it but, you're right, let's leave that for Dan...
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