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The RPG Scrollbars: memories of evil and wickedness

The meek shall inherit NOTHING!

So, a confession. My plan for this week was to talk about Obsidian's Tyranny [official site] - the game, not any rumours of Feargus Urquhart openly stealing puddings from the company fridge no matter how well labelled! Unfortunately, that plan hit a tiny snag... I haven't had a chance to play much of it yet. A shame, simply because the genre is well overdue a game that, to quote, Kakos Industries, Does Evil Better.

This week then, a tribute to and call out for the games that at least did evil interesting.

Ultima VII: Baking Horror

Honestly, the whole of this game is a psychopath's toybox. Exploding barrels, endless magic spells, poor jail construction and of course the Armageddon spell equal good times had by all. However, the most infamous act of evil - unless a shared hallucination, since it doesn't work in the Exult engine that everyone uses to play this game now - involves a certain bucket of blood found at a grisly murder scene at the start of the game. That blood comes straight from the arteries of the town blacksmith, whose son Sparks joins the party for both comfort and revenge-seeking.

Where's the evil? Here's the evil. Ultima VII lets you make your own bread and isn't too fussy about what liquid you use. Cue the Avatar of the Eight Virtues, paragon of righteousness, hero of the realm, part time Space Ace and future Titan of Ether... feeding a kid bread baked with his own father's blood.

Tsk. Whatever happened to the noble hero who both saved the day and spent ages juggling the party after meeting up with a prostitute so that Sherry the Mouse could finally get laid?

Vampire: Bloodlines: Heather Poe

Vampire: Bloodlines generally does evil very well. You may not have a huge complicated scheme going, but you've only just been Embraced, and everyone around you has at least five to be getting on with. Typical quests involve hiding knowledge of the supernatural world from the mundanes, handling monsters less for ethical reasons as convenient ones, and of course, getting your own ghoul, Heather.

Generally, Heather gets brought up to talk about the dark relationship between the two of you - how trying to push her away is deliberately difficult, and it doesn't take long to realise she won't have a happy ending whatever you do. But, if you prefer, you can go the complete opposite way too, ordering her into slutty outfits and praising acts like kidnapping a guy for your dinner instead of being the most easily shocked vampire this side of NosferatOOOH!

Fallout 3: Megaton

A modern classic, I think, if one that the rest of the game struggles to live up to. It's not simply that you're asked to destroy an entire town. It's the fact that you're asked to destroy an entire town because it gets in the way of an old rich man's view.

Other great Fallout 3 examples include sabotaging a woman called Moira's dreams of creating the ultimate wasteland survival guide by completely bullshitting everything she asks you to research, with the possibility after that of doing the nuke and leaving her a radioactive ghoul - an eternity of broken dreams in the wreckage.

Knights Of The Old Republic: Mission: Kill Mission

Mission Vao is a young Twi'lek girl recruited early in the game, along with her Wookie companion Zaalbaar. Not too shockingly, he owes her a Wookie life-debt. But here's the thing. You can press him into your service in much the sane way, and then order him to murder his former ward. True, it requires a little Force Persuasion to get him over his moral problems and persuade him that the life debt is more important than silly little feelings... and later, he regrets it and betrays the party... but hey. The Dark Side doesn't need quitters.

Undertale: Killing Papyrus

...you dick. An act second only to making the aquatic warrior Undyne chase you into the lava and fire of Hotland until she collapses, then going to get her a cup of water from a handy nearby water dispenser, and pouring it out on the ground in front of her face.

The downside of all of these of course is that aside from personal amusement, none of them exactly benefit your character long-term. That's obviously the draw for Tyranny - that while you might be a bad guy for the sake of order or a bad guy for, well, the sake of it, you're in a situation where bad guys rule. It's an ongoing challenge for the genre to find stories where, say, a Neutral Evil mage can be as free to express themselves as the more typical Chaotic Good fighter, without just coming across as a crazed psychopath or the Joker without the sense of humour.

Personally, I'd prefer we just not think in those terms. It's what leads to the other kind of necessary evil path - the path that's deemed necessary, just to give the player choices. But it makes no sense for many games. The Witcher 3 for instance is no worse for the fact that there's some stuff Geralt simply won't do.

I far prefer Mass Effect's approach to morality - where Shepard is always a hero, but one who favours diplomacy or fists - to BioWare's early karma systems in Knights of the Old Republic, where falling to the dark side was mostly about coveting the cool powers and black underpants rather than a philosophical matter, or the attempt at something more subtle in Jade Empire's open-palm and closed-fist system, which was an interesting attempt at providing moral equivalence until you realised that the designers kept forgetting.

Quite a few designers currently favour a similar but slightly different spin on things, with the idea that for every decision, it's good to have the safe path, the refusal path, and the wackier path, catering to that desire to be a bit odd or deal with an obnoxious character in a fun way, without going all the way evil. It's probably a better model for most RPGs too, being a good middle ground between the goodie-goodie traditional party and the classic "So You Recruited An Axe Murderer".

That being said, I think we can all agree that there's no better playground than the neutral worlds of somewhere like Britannia or Skyrim or Divinity: Original Sin, where it's not the designer's idea of how to have fun on the dark side of the alignment chart that allows for psychopathic good-times, but your own ability to break the system as well as breaking faces. The discovery that you can put a pot on someone's head to prevent them seeing, then walk off with all their stuff, beats any official design option to try and take over the world instead of saving it. Sure, you might spend a little time in jail now and then, but I hear even Arkham can be quite relaxing for its inmates.

And so, to finish off - what are your favourite evil acts committed in games, from the scripted ones above to anything crazy you might have set up for yourself. A long line of exploding barrels for Chuckles the Jester for instance, or - and please pardon the link to The Other Place - cutting loose with the power of the God of Madness or the great rat plague. Mods are acceptable! It might be cheating, but if evil can't cheat, who can?

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Richard Cobbett