Friday, February 25, 2011

Good Cop, Bad Cop


Like, I suspect, most players, when I play a game that offers two moral paths to follow, I inevitably follow the "good" path by default. While I may try the evil path in a subsequent playthrough, I've traditionally kept my characters on the straight and narrow for my first and "true" path through the game. Though some mistakes were made, my first time through Mass Effect 1 and 2 was with a full Paragon female Shepard. The mistakes I made such as accidentally missing a side quest or fumbling some dialogue and causing a less than optimal outcome in a conversation made for a richer role playing experience. My Shepard was good, but she wasn't perfect. We didn't always know the consequences of our actions, and sometimes those consequences were sobering.

I decided to change up my usual pattern for two RPGs, Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising, and the BioWare classic Knights of the Old Republic. Ostensibly a real-time strategy game, Chaos Rising eschews the traditional base-building/management gameplay of most other RTS's for a highly tactical squad-based role-playing game. For those who don't know, Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) is a Star Wars game using Dungeons and Dragons rules for its combat and leveling. Both games allow you choose a good or evil path based on your actions.

In both cases, choosing the evil path has made for an almost clinical experience while playing. Being evil in these games means killing people who don't deserve it, or simply standing aside and letting innocents die. While Chaos Rising allows you to gain corruption from the gear you equip on your squads, there are still active choices made in missions that make a large impact on your squads' corruption level. From what I've played of KOTOR so far, your dialogue choices determine whether you gain light side or dark side points. In that regard, it's more personal than Chaos Rising. Nonetheless, I have to shut off my empathy towards nearly every character I encounter. It could be allowing allied soldiers to die, or killing a woman who had a bounty on her head because she injured a man making unwanted advances on her. The protests of my squadmates or party members are ignored, along with those of my trembling victims. I have to focus more on the fact that I'm playing a game and that these digital characters aren't real. It kind of makes me feel like a sociopath.

Because of this, the experience for me is much more passive. I'm no longer inhabiting a role where I'm trying to be the hero who saves the day. Instead, I'm choosing the bad dialogue option and watching what unfolds. Since I can't empathize with the character I'm playing, I get the same feeling I would get from watching unlikeable characters in a movie or book do something horrible. I'm not invested in the characters, so I don't really care what happens to them, other than a vague hope that they get what's coming to them.


All BioWare RPGs (ok, most blockbuster video games) are heavy on the combat, so getting up close and personal to cut a guy up with a sword isn't a big deal, whether I'm playing a good guy or bad guy. The dialogue sections and combat are segregated enough that they're two experiences. The story telling and dialog in Dragon Age: Origins were good enough that I effectively connected with my surly, emotionally damaged city elf. In Mass Effect, the dialog wheel and, more importantly, the interrupt ability in Mass Effect 2, added a nice bit of interactivity that made me more invested in the conversations. KOTOR, unfortunately, is old enough that dialog trees feel static and there's not much in the way of nuance or shades of grey between light and dark side conversation choices (at least in the starting area I'm currently still playing). In some ways it's more thematically appropriate for the Star Wars universe, but it still feels limiting.

Chaos Rising integrates the choices you make in a more interesting way. Certain items such as weapons or armor add corruption or redemption levels to your squads. Capturing key structures in some missions will redeem your squads, while some one-time use items will add significant amounts of corruption or redemption to your squads. One of my favorite aspects of the game is the idea of items that are worn as penance to redeem a squad. Completing a mission with that item will reduce your corruption, but the effects in the mission are harsh. Redeeming armor may actually have a negative defense rating, making it likely that the squad wearing it will die frequently. Penance should be painful, after all. As you move down one moral path or the other, new abilities will also unlock. There are constant choices, large and small, with consequences reflected in both the story and the gameplay. Unfortunately, the impact of those choices is undermined by the Warhammer 40k universe the story takes place in. Dawn of War II presents its characters and world as deliberately bombastic, over the top, and campy. It's an extremely fun world to live in for a few days, but there's no nuance or subtlety. Your squadmates aren't people you connect with. They're caricatures of soldiers whose personalities match the types of guns they carry. Having no experience with the table top wargames or the legions of novels set in the Warhammer 40k universe, I can't say whether or not that's always the case.

While it's been interesting being the jerk for these games, I think I've gotten my fill of it for the foreseeable future. I'll of course finish my run through KOTOR firmly on the dark side of the Force, but in the future, games such as Dragon Age II will see me firmly ensconced in the warm embrace of the light. This taste of evil is sour.

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