Murdering children does not grant you magical powers – More thoughts on good and evil in games

I started to write this as a postview of one of my favorite games, Beyond Good & Evil, when it occurred to me that there has been a lot of talk over here at videolamer recently about, well, good & evil. Shota seems annoyed both that so many games are overwhelmed by universe destroying, Pure Eeeevil, and also about the preponderance of good characters that restore our faith in the good ol’ dependable U.S. of A. and its various institutions. I largely agree with his frustrations, but this post is an attempt to complain and moan about the recent spate of games that ham-handedly try to explore good & evil within the plot and structure of the game: such as KOTOR, Fable, and Bioshock. Also, I’m going to propose a better way of doing it.

Most of the games mentioned above (I’m not sure about Baldur’s Gate since I unfortunately never finished it) take a pretty cut-and-dry approach to good and evil. If it’s against the law in the US, or the Geneva Conventions, it’s probably evil. Murder a little girl to gain an advantage in the game? Evil. Help an old blind man out find his lost son? Good. But unfortunately out in the real world decisions about what is morally or ethically responsible or “correct” are less obvious.

“I killed like 427 town guards. I’m so totally evil.”

Furthermore all these games provide an artificial impetus to being either good or evil. In real life killing a little girl is not going to give you some fancy magical powers. If you do it, the only benefit you’ll receive is due to your fucked-up head and it’s malfunctioning chemicals, and you are unlikely to be able to shoot flames out of your hand as a result. The motivations for evil are more complicated, as is – often – the reward.

One thing that is barely touched on in these games is the often blurry lines between what gets the G and what gets the E. I think that often something gets classified as good or evil based on what our society, government, or media tells us. Saddam Hussein is evil because he gassed and tortured people, but from what I recall he was a pretty ok guy while he was in the process of doing so, because many of those people were the Evil Iranians. Our nation, on the other hand, is always on the side of Good, even – perhaps especially – when we are dropping napalm, cluster bombs, and depleted uranium on civilians halfway around the world. When it is suggested that 9/11 might be a response to our waging of war, everyone gets all mad. Clearly a rational motivation for Al Qaeda is complete and total nonsense. No, our enemies are simply Pure Eeeevil.

In most of the games mentioned above, there isn’t a whole lot of discussion about the ambiguities concerning the classification of actions as Good or Evil. Most acts are simply one or the other. In my opinion, one game that gets this whole topic correct is the GTA series. Regardless of whether the hero character in any of these games makes the city he resides in marginally better, there can be little doubt that his rise to the top involves a lot of really bad stuff. I, for one, never give a crap who I run over, mug, or shoot to death in my rise to the top, and yet I find myself hard pressed to consider the protagonist of these games to be “evil.” I’m not sure why, but in all likelihood it’s because I am control, and therefore identify with, the probably evil “protagonist”.

While it is often hard to define what’s good and what’s bad, for the most part people consider themselves to be the good guy, and think that the bad guy is the one opposing them. This is the case – I think – whether you are a social worker or serial killer.

While Beyond Good & Evil rarely discusses topics that are, well, “beyond” good and evil, it does have a fascinating end sequence (sorry to spoil) in which the main character sort of has to play against oneself as a result of being possessed (or something) by the main evil force. I think that this direction, and the one GTA takes, is the best way to approach this philosophical quandary. Most acts of evil aren’t committed by some sinister deity or sadistically greedy man, they are committed by people too lazy or apathetic to fight back against – or simply work for – an evil system.

Baldur’s Gate 2 offers morally ambiguous decisions such as – should you join the evil clan of vampires?

I think the best way to approach morality in video games is to provide a protagonist who is largely evil, and allow him to commit evil acts that are repulsive to the gamer’s sense of morality, as opposed to having these acts affect the player only in ways that alter his ability to finish the game. Either that, or the results of the evil acts could be depressingly underrepresented, the way that casualty figures give us no real understanding of the horrific suffering that each individual death entails. This latter approach could point out how easy being evil can be. The end could be ambiguous, with the game universe not being substantially better than when the game started, if it is better at all.

Of course this is easier said than done. I’ll leave it to one of the numerous game designers who regularly read videolamer to flesh it out. Good luck with that.

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13 years ago

Fallout 2.

13 years ago

Nice piece, Derek. I need to think on it a bit more to post a full comment. Your idea about the nature of systems vs nature of individuals is tickling my brain.

@ Jay. That is an awesome picture of Bohdi and if you ever poke fun at BG2 again I will eat your children.

13 years ago

Ever played Vampires: Bloodlines?

13 years ago

I was impressed with the karma system of Baldur’s Gate(the original PC versions). The game provided varying levels of good and evil, reflecting not only the intentions of the character, but how they went about achieving their goals.
Differentiating not only between good and evil but between an evil person who would kill everyone in their path, vs. an evil person who would spare the women and children, and even a person who would avoid all bloodshed of the innocents but still have evil intentions. Or the good intentions of someone willing to kill anyone who gets in the way, and the one who runs around rescuing kittens as well as saving the world. While it was a bit out of place to pick your moral alligance prior to the start of the game, it made for an interesting addition.

I’m not sure how the system worked in the original BG pen and paper version, so it may have played a greater part in the game play than the video game gave it credit for.

13 years ago

This is something that always bothered me with alot of morality “choice” games, the most recent of which being Bioware’s Jade Empire & Mass Effect.

You constantly run into situations where your dialogue tree looks like this:
-Aww, your predicament sucks. Take my entire inventory of money to aid your cause.
-Fuck you! I hate you and am going to eat your children. (Press A to eat children)

I would go so far as to say they’re too far removed from real moral choices to be even called that. It’s almost like the games are written by extremists.

13 years ago

I very much agree Wesley. It’s really rare for games to actually treat on issues other than the most black and white morality, and even rarer for them to make the “good” morality what would pass for good in most modern societies. Most of the time it’s okay to brutally slaughter people just because they’re “bad guys”, and it’s really rare to find a game which penalizes you morally or socially for attacking an enemy before they’ve taken a swing at you. (Thank you fallout and arcanum)

The greatest moral dilemma I’ve encountered in a video game so far might have been the one developing in Shenmue, actually. The series did not have you kill anyone, and emphasized the fact that your highly trained martial arts skills allowed you to subdue enemies without having to resort to murder. It also did not allow you to initiate combat, you had to wait for someone to attack you – even if you mouthed off at them and kind of asked for it, especially during the angst-ridden days immediately following your father’s death. By the end of the second one they were starting to hint that the man who had killed your father in front of you at the start of the series had only pursued this violent, murderous lifestyle in order to get revenge for the killing of his own father. Soon you would be faced with the necessity of abandoning your quest for revenge because you realize that killing – even out of vengeance – was immoral and corrupting, and it was not what you had trained for as a martial artist. _That_ would have been a hard moral choice.