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.