Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Being the Good Guy

While working on an article about morality systems in games yesterday, I came to the odd realization that I am apparently an unswervingly virtuous individual. This was especially odd given that I consider modesty and humility chief among my many, many virtues.

It's true: I can't make my character evil. I just...have to be the good guy.

Whether it's subconscious compensation for latent post-Catholic guilt, or a more esoteric drive to see myself, via my avatar, as a beacon of righteousness: when given a moral choice, I just can't let my characters embrace the Dark Side.

The rampant killing of virtual human beings and destruction of pixellated property isn't the problem. Like most of us, I've been slaughtering sprites since I was in grade school. And it's not like I haven't committed mass murder many times over in probably 50-75% of the games I own. Assassin's Creed II, whose very title makes clear that the professional extinguishing of life is the player's goal, was one of my favorite games of the past year. Even if Wolfenstein 3D hadn't thoroughly desensitized me, I got over any remaining squeamishness about video game killing when I first chopped a dude in half with Kung Lao's razor hat.

Besides, in most games, there's some kind of loose conceit that justifies, or at least explains, the casual homicide of enemies, human and non-human. I'm a scrappy survivor forced to slaughter tens of thousands of zombies? I consider that a public service. I'm a Sith apprentice rooting out the Rebellion for Lord Vader? You and your Ewok friends can enjoy a lightsaber to the face. I'm the protagonist in any GTA game? Well, you get the idea.

No, what truly trips me up is the games that presume to give you a choice, the games that have a morality system that tracks your progress toward angelic goodness or pure malevolence. The article I'm working on examines these morality systems in more detail. Suffice it to say, my issue isn't that these systems are generally simplistic black-and-white affairs - although that's a problem, too - but that for whatever reason, I just can't bring myself to go down that bad boy path.

Maybe it's just a matter of removing myself from the game world, of taking the whole experience less seriously. The first thing many of my gamer friends do at the character creation screen - after naming their avatar Sir DeezNutz Taintface - is distort him to look like Ugly Shepard. Me? I don't even want to give my guy a handlebar mustache.

I failed in Fallout 3. I failed in both Mass Effects. I'm failing miserably right now in Dragon Age. But I promised myself, after finishing the brilliant Mass Effect 2 in a whirlwind couple of weeks, that I had to force myself to be evil. I had to go back for a second playthrough, this time as a Renegade. I owed it to myself to see how the experience would change, what new story avenues and character relationships would emerge.

We'll see how long those scars on Shepard's face last.

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