I’m going through the game again as an evil character. I’ve praised the game for strong writing, although I have to note here that the situations surrounding the “evil” path are the game’s weak spot. Sometimes characters bend or break to make room for an evil protagonist. I don’t fault the writers here so much as the approach used in the game.
The main character can follow one of two philosophies: The way of the Open Hand or the way of the Closed Fist. As you can probably imagine, Open Hand involves being nice and kind and generous to others. Closed Fist isn’t nearly as well defined, and its meaning seems to shift throughout the game. Sometimes following the way of the Closed Fist means following a sort of Darwinian philosophy where only the strong have a right to survive. It supports the idea that helping people makes them dependent and thus makes them weaker in the long run. A follower of this line of thinking would try to help people to help themselves, and would refuse to do things out of charity. This could be an interesting way to play the game, since it doesn’t necessarily mean being evil. However, the game doesn’t always stick with this concept. Sometimes Closed Fist just means being an evil jerk, being sadistic, or harming innocents and friends for trivial amounts of money.
The main problem for the “evil jerk” type options is that they don’t fit with what your character is doing within the context of the story. If I was really some cruel killbot that cared nothing for the troubles of other people and enjoyed hurting others, then I wouldn’t team up with all these nice people to go rescue my master. The game is trying to allow you to play a character that doesn’t fit within the gameworld.
Here is an example situation:
You stumble into a den of slavers. There is a brute of a man here who is in charge of “breaking” new slaves. He has some men with him. As soon as you enter they attack and you are obliged to make with the punching and kicking until you convert them into XP. Once the battle is over only two people remain: One is a slave owner, who was here in the hopes of buying himself new slaves. The other is a young woman who was about to be “broken”. You’ve already met her mother, who asked you to rescue her.
When the fight is over, a conversation begins. You have three choices:
- Free the woman. If you choose this, the slave buyer leaves while you stand by and do nothing. The girl is saved, but the slave owner lives on.
- Sell the girl and her mother. Having killed her previous “owners”, you can claim them for yourself and sell them to the slave buyer.
- Make the girl kill for her freedom. You can give her a knife, and tell her she can go free if she will stab the slave owner. She is horrified by this proposition, but you give her only two choices: Kill or be enslaved. She chooses to kill. Then this seemingly kind, timid girl turns sort of psycho afterwards, saying how it “felt good” to kill someone. The idea here is that you’ve turned this gentle young woman into some sort of stab-happy nutter. Personally, I think this outcome is a cop-out and rings false.
This option is a lot more interesting to me than simply selling her into slavery. For a character that really believes in the Closed Fist philosophy, this was the proper thing to do: Make her more capable of defending herself. According to this way of thinking, just freeing her would be a disservice to her, because it would teach her to rely on others to survive. I don’t agree with this philosophy, but it is much more interesting to me as a character choice as opposed to just being a selfish jerk. It stems from an actual philosophy and not from naked greed and callousness. However, the game treats this option as the most “evil” of the three. The character Zu (an NPC companion) openly supports the idea of selling the girl and her mother into slavery, yet balks at having the woman kill the man who was trying to buy her.
There are several problems here with trying to let the player walk the “evil path”. One is that there is no option to just walk away from the slave owner and the woman, which is probably the most likely action for a self-serving person who is busy with other, larger concerns. There is no option to kill the slave owner and let the woman walk away, which is a reasonable thing to do, even for nominally good characters. It doesn’t make sense in the context of the overall plot that you should be able to sell them into slavery. If the main character was that callous, then he or she wouldn’t be on this quest to save Master Li. Even if the player comes up with their own rationale for this, the player’s in-game companions wouldn’t stand for it. Most of them are good, and should be so sickened and enraged by such behavior that they part company with the player. But they don’t. Everyone has to break character for the player to act this way.
The writing on the Closed Fist path of the game is often muddled like this. Someone really following Closed Fist (as a philosophy) would refuse most quests, (and perhaps the core quest as well) by suggesting that people should help themselves. But when it comes down to actual gameplay, being Closed Fist means accepting the quest and then screwing over everyone and anyone for your own amusement or gain.
Most other games that allow good / evil actions have this problem as well: They have to bend characters and situations to allow for an “evil hero”, a selfish bastard who somehow manages to fight evil and gather reasonable, good-hearted allies. There are countless possible player behaviors between Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil, and it just isn’t reasonable to attempt to allow for them all in a story-driven game with prerecorded voice acting and established plot. If the main character was really sadistic enough to sell a mother and daughter into slavery over modest sums of money, then he’s not going to waste time on this stupid quest. He would use his physical prowess to bully his way into one of the crime organizations in the game and then work his way to the top in short order. He would abandon the quest and the story would end.
I’m sure a player who wants to be evil would find the game frustrating, because in many cases the game just can’t let you take the evil path. Sometimes it can’t offer the evil option, and so an evil player will rightfully feel railroaded. There are many dialog options like this in the game, where someone proposes a trade, and you either don’t have the option to kill them for what you want, or the option is there but there is some excuse as to why you can’t. So, you end up following the same path as the good player, except you’re rude about it. I noticed an awful lot of dialog is wasted on these dead-end / cul-de-sac conversations where you can try to wiggle free of the restrictions of the plot and just start killing people. You usually can’t, or you can do so only in petty little ways, and I doubt it feels very satisfying to people trying to walk that particular path.
In these sort of games there is nothing governing choices except the whim of the player. There is no DM trying to enforce “in character” behavior, as it were. So for one quest you’ll climb the highest mountain to pick a flower to help cheer up someone’s depressed turtle, and the next minute you can shiv granny and steal her five bucks. This makes no sense at all, and there is no way to really have the other characters in the game react to you in any sort of sensible manner.
I think a better system would be to abandon the awkward, forced attempts at giving the player little evil detours on their highway to heroics. Assume the player is a hero from the outset, and then let them choose between idealistic mercy (sparing foes whenever possible) and brutal justice (as with the Punisher, who kills the bad guys by the busload but who is still doing good in his own way) at various points in the game. Instead of trying to accommodate the range of behaviors between Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil, narrow that down to Lawful Good / Chaotic Good. (Or perhaps both follow “Lawful” Good, but each would have different sets of internal “laws”.) It would be best if both paths were enticing to some degree, and forced the player to really think about their choices and the consequences. In the above example, freeing the slave would be a given. The player choices would revolve around how they treat the (non-violent but still evil) slave owner and if they will accept a reward from the rescued.
Instead of following “good” and “evil” the player could adhere to “mercy” or “justice”. Ideally, neither path would be “best”, in terms of player rewards. (In most RPGs, evil characters tend to fight more and steal more and thus can accumulate more XP and money.)
In some cases the path of mercy just allows an evil foe the chance to do more evil, and plot revenge. In other cases it allows an evil man the chance to reform. To keep things interesting, both paths should be tempting. In one case, you might meet a foe who does both good and evil deeds, like the mobster who is generous with his money. If he is destroyed his thuggery may end, but perhaps he’s acting as a bulwark against a greater evil. In another case, it may be interesting to have a foe who is a major annoyance to the player. He causes setbacks and is endlessly taunting, yet when he is at last cornered he begs for mercy. He’s caused a lot of trouble, but he hasn’t killed anyone. Do you kill him?
When you fight your way to the top of a criminal organization, breaking their power and destroying their assets, do you show mercy to people involved who never drew blood directly, but who kept the evil machinery running? Do you kill the mob’s accountants, as it were? And finally, when the organization is ruined and the leader surrenders and begs for mercy, do you let him go on his word that he’s going to reform? The possible permutations are endless.
This means the game world would still be reactive to the actions of the player, but those reactions would be more interesting because the player’s options would be limited to those that fit the established story. Right now you go through the game making all right turns, then go through again making all left turns to see the evil path. But those left turns just circle around and rejoin the right path after taking you past some ugly scenery.
I would like the Mercy vs. Justice choices much better than the Good vs. Confused vs. Neutal vs. Evil vs. Asinine Jerk choices we get now.
An additional curiosity: Anyone normally embrace the “evil path” the first time through a game? I imagine some do, but I’m curious how common this is.
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