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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Opinion: Why be bad?

I just came back from some fetch quest, possibly with a can of dog food that’s highly valued in whatever apocalyptic world I’m visiting. I meet with the woman who gave me the quest and I have two options: I give her the can of dog food she asked me for and receive a small reward, or I kill her and feed my own dog. I’m an “evil” character in this playthrough, so I decide to kill her, keep the dog food and take the reward she promised me.

Wait, what?

Role-playing games (RPGs) have a long history and a large fanbase, and they are usually very large in scale. With all this going for them, it’s a wonder my only option after my 18th fetch quest from this same girl is to give up my hard-earned dog food, or kill her.
That’s how these games work, though. You’re given the choice to be either a gallant hero or a violent menace in the cloak of a truly evil villain.
Sure, I can altogether avoid speaking with the woman, but killing her is my only method of increasing my “evil” notoriety — because killing the defenseless old lady, who is only concerned with keeping herself and her dog alive in her small shack out in the middle of nowhere, is the best way to tell the world who’s in charge.
I have come to the conclusion that the “evil” path included in an increasing number of video games is added for the sake of children who happen to play. Often, the evil choices consist of killing anything and everything that crosses your path, and going out of your way to kill things not in your path — all in spite of people’s eagerness to help you in your journey and your lack of motivation for violent action, except a small boost to experience.
It turns out the great “evil” we attempt to explore is simply anarchy: mindless killing and an every-man-for-himself mentality in a world full of people offering help.
Bioshock introduces us to a real dilemma early in the game. After killing a Big Daddy we are momentarily given power over the fate of the Little Sisters they protect: orphaned children made overly pleasant and slightly creepy by exposure to a substance important to the plot of the game. We plainly choose to save or kill the children when we encounter them.
The protagonist is a man trapped in an underwater city after a plane crash. His overall goal is to survive and escape. And yet as an “evil” character, he feels compelled to murder the harmless, puppy-eyed orphans (an action which adds no real weight to the brilliant Ayn Rand-inspired story; seriously, you should play this game if you haven’t yet).
Most of the time, an interesting story is left nonsensical in light of the choice to be unambiguously “evil.” The main character in inFAMOUS has plenty of reasons to be pissed at the people of the city who blame him for an explosion and plague, but the plot of the game forces him to help them — with no underlying evil scheme and no plan for an overthrow of leaders or the ultimate destruction of the city.

His anarchistic decisions (made by the player) are largely ignored in the course of the game for the sake of story progression and at the cost of coherency.

Story crafters for video games turn a blind eye to evil actions and motivations, elements which are meant to be a whole 50 percent of the story due to the lack of ambiguity in actions. To keep the overall story linear while keeping the impression of player influence on the world presented in the game, game designers tack on “evil” actions that amount to mischief and mayhem, themes that are generally only popular for players from ages 4 to 14.
In video games, evil is a very adult theme that lacks an adult execution. Most real-life decisions are complex and evil itself is often a matter of opinion. For the difficulty of exploring evil, games are left to add only universally evil decisions to make the options feel balanced.

Videogame evil is a failure, only to be saved by the simple decision of exploring the gray area and ignoring the extremes.

NICK FREDERICI is tempted by the dark side; tell him where he belongs at nrfred@ucdavis.edu.

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