The most despicable, awful and down right evil thing I’ve ever done in a video game was during a Dark Side playthrough of Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic. At the end of the side quest Honest Debt, you convince a man to either spare or gun down a rather horrible chap who wronged him greatly. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about that - I’ve encountered the same thing dozens of times in games - but what comes after is a real doozy.
Not content simply with nudging the fella into giving in to his worst impulses, I then proceeded to persuade him to wipe the very memory of his nemesis from the galaxy, up to and including hunting down his friends and family members. Bastilla Shan, noted Jedi do-gooder, pointed out that neither she nor the Jedi council would approve. I was giggling like a schoolgirl.
Armed with that anecdote, it may come as some surprise that I cannot stand being mean to people in games. I’m not talking about other players, but the NPCs in single-player games. I recently started a game of Cyberpunk 2077, determined to be the worst kind of ice-cold, selfish corpo bitch. I failed miserably. I can’t be mean to Judy, I can’t tell Panam that I’m only helping her for the eddies. I certainly can’t tell Keanu, a man I have adored since my early exposure to Bill & Ted, to bog off, even if the character he’s portraying is a narcissistic douchecanoe.
It’s not like either of these are exceptions to a rule. I’ve never been able to stomach a full Renegade playthrough of Mass Effect, but I’ve revelled in being a murderous chick-cruncher in Fable. It’s a strange contradiction at first glance, but after some serious thunking time, I reckon I have reached the juicy truth nugget at the centre of the problem. Playing a villain is a fun power fantasy, just as legitimate as playing a hero. Media is awash with compelling baddies and it’s clear that the folks involved in their creation, from writers and designers to the actors portraying them, are having a blast. The appeal isn’t even about being bad, it’s about freedom and agency, being able to thumb your nose at societal expectations, the powers that be and do what you want to do. And doing it from your awesome volcano lair, surrounded by loyal minions in futuristic silver jumpsuits or whatever.
Playing a villain is a fun power fantasy, just as legitimate as playing a hero. Our media is awash with compelling baddies
Conversely, no one dreams about being mean to people they care about. There may be some who are totally down with abusing the poor and downtrodden, but they don’t need to be catered to by video games, they have politics. With that being the case, why do so many RPGs that claim to offer meaningful choices instead merely make Arsehole Simulator Mode one of the major options?
To answer that, we need to go back to the early days of Bioware (other RPG developers are available, but Bioware’s popularity and ubiquity makes for easy comparison.) I’m talking the time of Baldur’s Gate and the aforementioned KotOR. There was a lot of talk about how RPGs presented a very simplistic, extreme moral binary. Do you give the beggar some gold or fireball him for his insolence? You’ve caught a criminal, make her your BFF, or ten thousand years in a dungeon? Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, but only a little.
It’s a fair criticism. It’s always irritating when a game forces you down a particular route, especially when it’s a game that specifically invites you to inhabit a character. Having two options that feel wrong is barely better than no choice at all. At the same time, there’s only so many options a video game can provide. We’re still some way from being able to replicate the experience of a human GM.
By and large, the response to the criticism of binary decisions has been to simply adjust the decisions a bit. The Witcher is a great example of games doing a darn good job of this. Look at the choices you’re confronted with in the series and you’ll see that there are generally two options, but instead of clearly signposted good vs evil, CD Projekt have much more tangled moral conundrums. It’s frequently a case of choosing the least worst option, often with limited information available. Even the first game forces you to pick between oppressive, racist authority and freedom fighters whose tactics often veer into out and out terrorism on a regular basis. The binary nature of the decision making is still there, just deliberately skewed in order to make the choice much harder. On top of that, the consequences of your actions are rarely immediately obvious. It’s much harder to reload a save when you’ve discovered you made a “wrong” choice if that doesn’t become apparent until a couple of hours later.
Bioware, on the other hand, have fared considerably less well. Both Dragon Age and Mass Effect offer the choice between playing the hero or the pragmatist, though it’s more explicit in Mass Effect’s Paragon/Renegade system. Save the princess/kill the princess has become save the princess/kill the princess because if you save her billions of people might die! On the surface, this is a perfectly valid approach, but it falls apart as soon as you realise that there’s rarely, if ever, any consequences for taking the moral high ground.
In Dragon Age: Origins, you’re confronted with a boy who has been possessed by a demon. Do you go get an exorcist, risking the demon taking control and slaughtering dozens of people, or do you solve the problem with a quick stab? It would be a tough choice if there was any chance of the worst case scenario happening, but one peak behind the curtain (something that’s guaranteed to happen if you’re replaying an RPG to see how different decisions play out) and it’s clear that there isn’t.
The result is that the alternative to playing a hero isn’t some anti-hero getting their hands dirty for what they think is the greater good, it’s being a misanthropic bully who uses violence and intimidation to get what they want and that, in my humble opinion, isn’t a fun time. It doesn’t even properly address the original complaint about simplistic moral choices, since you can still be a shiny hero doing the right thing all the time and everything will work out okay. And if that option is still on the table, why not bring back truly villainous protagonists?
It’s not controversial to say that the world has been in a fair old state these past few years and I can’t be the only one who has thought about burning it all down and starting again, or taking it all in an iron grip and remaking it in my image. I would love to see more games giving me that option again. The real world has enough shades of grey, we’re surrounded by instances of paralysing moral ambiguity. Heroic power fantasies are a wonderful form of escape, of relief, but so are villainous ones, especially when it means giving players the means to exercise power and affect change when we often feel powerless in the face of stagnation.