Why Is It So Hard To Play The Bad Guy?

I was rereading an old Penny Arcade comic about Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and it got me thinking about how very hard it was for me to play an “evil” character in that game.  BioWare’s been championing the movement back to RPGs where your decisions have consequences instead of mere rewards, ultimately shaping your character into “good”, “bad” or something in between, and that’s something I’d love to see a lot more of in my MMORPGs (which rarely give you a choice during the quest or any varying consequences of your character’s action).

I’ve noticed that I’m not alone when it comes to a twinge of moral uncertainty when it comes to playing the bad guy in a game where I have a choice to be good or not.  Sure, a lot of those games tend to be extreme — your character’s actions are either angelic or demonic — but it really makes you think about the actions you’re performing, and you start to feel empathy for these completely fictional characters whose lives you’re impacting.

Having that good/bad choice gives a game strong replayability, and yet I’ve seen over and over again people deciding to play the “good” path first, and then kind of wimp out when it comes to replaying it through a darker character.  “It’s just a game”, to be sure, but we still bring ourselves into them when we play them, and unless you have an iron disconnect between fantasy and reality or you’re a clinical psychopath, it can make you feel squeamish to be the bad guy: selfish, murderous, vile.  We find ourselves at odds with our morality — for some, it’s kind of liberating to be a jerkwad when you’re the nicest person in real life, and for others, it’s a betrayal on a subconscious level.

It never seems to be an issue when you pick up a game that forces you to play a homicidal tool, because you’re absolved of a choice there — you’re just the messenger boy (or girl), doing whatever the puppet master asks.  But to have a game turn around and let you decide how positive or negative you want to be, then the onus is on you.  When I played through KOTOR as a dark Jedi, it was a much tougher experience.  It went against my RPG nature to constantly be helping NPCs out and making their situation better, and here I was exploiting or killing them for my own gain.  I’d actually wince when characters would plead with me for mercy or nag me afterward for being a heartless jerk.

Star Wars: The Old Republic promises to bring this feature back — giving you choices that will have long-lasting consequences for your character, consequences you can’t ignore or erase by going to an earlier save.  I really wonder how many people will find themselves repulsed by evil decisions in that environment, knowing they’ll have to live with whatever antisocial decisions that they’ve picked for as long as that character exists.

7 thoughts on “Why Is It So Hard To Play The Bad Guy?

  1. Werit January 26, 2009 / 1:02 pm

    I grew up watching 80’s action movies. So I find myself wanting to be that sort of hero (a mostly good guy). Maybe that’s the reason, not sure for me 🙂

  2. Tipa January 26, 2009 / 1:15 pm

    I played KotOR on the good path first, but then I went back and redid everything with evil choices. And guess what? Same game. Sure, the plot changed, but you DID the same things.

    So what was the real choice there?

  3. Jay January 26, 2009 / 4:20 pm

    KotOR is the best example I have at hand, but there is one point there that sticks out for me. While the main plot points were similar, it was very different as far as how you could play. This mostly effects combat options. I found it much more fun to walk into a room and force lightning everyone than to come in and use the stun/lightsaber combo. And apparently I do have a strong wall of separation, because I always enjoy playing through those games (NWN, NWN2, Fable, etc…) with both good and evil characters. It keeps the experience fresh.

  4. Capn John January 26, 2009 / 5:13 pm

    In the GTA series I had no qualms unleashing hell on the general population. In fact to blow off steam at the end of hard day (or even just to unload on Vice City’s finest) I’d sometimes use the Cheat Codes to give myself an assault rifle, a sniper rifle, a rocket launcher, and a bunch of ammo, then just go nuts and see how many Cops I could take out before they eventually (inevitably) got me.

    Sometimes I relate to Dexter, and when I interact with my coworkers I sometimes have to remind myself not to be purely clinical but to engage in the niceties of life, small talk, how was your weekend, etc., before getting down to business.

    And then there was Fallout 3.

    I played through F3 making the “good” choices, and I beat the game, then try as I might I just couldn’t bring myself to play it through again as a “bad” character. Although a “bad” character in Fallout 3 is not really bad, but really just more of a jerk. (Except for that blowing up Megaton gig, that’s not a nice thing to do). But during conversation, almost all of the “bad” responses seemed to be more just rude than Evil! Mwah hah ha!

    Thinking on your observation that players need to be able to separate themselves from the game in order to make the “evil” choices, it’s comforting to me that as Dexter-like as I might see myself IRL, I’m not comfortable making the conscious decision to cross to the Dark Side in a video game.

  5. shadowwar January 28, 2009 / 2:54 pm

    I’m with you on this. I’ve never replayed the KotORs as a Dark Jedi. I just can’t do it. My morale compass prevents me from making those decisions, even in a game. Maybe that’s why I’m playing the good guys (or more appropriately, the better guys) in WAR. I had no problem as Horde in WoW, but they were “the misunderstood savages” type, so it wasn’t an issue.

    Huh, I may have just had a gaming epiphany.

  6. Gauldar January 29, 2009 / 4:25 pm

    In WoW I prefered Horde over Alliance. There was no good or evil on either side, each had bad apples of their own. I think if you want to go darkside, and each time you are faced with a decision look at a sticky that you placed on your monitor with the words “What would Jesus NOT do”?

  7. MasterM February 2, 2009 / 12:18 am

    If you’d like to play a game that choices mostly aren’t good vs evil try The Witcher.

    Realy great storyline to support it as well.

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