• December 3, 2021

Why Is It So Hard to Be Evil in Video Games?

Interestingly, there was no significant difference in how much people enjoyed the game whether they took the good or evil path.

Courtesy of Obsidian Entertainment

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Anti-Hero Escapism

While some people might struggle to go full-on Vader for a whole game, there is a middle ground. You can emulate the roguish Han Solo (I’m talking original-cut Star Wars here) and shoot first from time to time. Lie to make a little more profit, steal things you want, insult unlikeable NPCs, and even kill characters who seem to deserve it.

“These are, of course, not things you can or should do in real life, but they are actions that can provide a sense of catharsis or stress relief,” Starks says. “Your brain can act out a situation that would otherwise be too dangerous or detrimental in real life, or revel in a power fantasy if you’re feeling trapped in a society that maybe doesn’t give you a lot of power.”

Most of us have been conditioned to choose the good path, especially by game developers who have traditionally bestowed the biggest rewards and best endings on those who don’t go on a murderous escapade. But that’s definitely changing. You don’t have to be the white knight. Sometimes the protagonist is a bit of a dick, like Kratos in God of War, or a flat-out psychopath like Trevor Phillips in Grand Theft Auto V, and it can feel good to shed the stress of real-life consequences for a few hours. Much depends on how things are framed.

“All options presented in a choice, at least the more significant ones, should be balanced by either having consequences to each or benefits to each (or both),” Starks says. “And sometimes if there is a correct or incorrect choice with a certain character or faction, it needs to depend on the preferences and morality of that specific character and faction versus a larger sense of right and wrong.”

You Decide

Too much choice can lead to choice paralysis for me. I try to resist the urge to scan online gameplay guides and forums and find out if my choice is going to have terrible consequences later in the game, because I know it will ruin the tension and break immersion. And in games like Prey, The Witcher 3, and The Outer Worlds, there are many moments where the right thing to do is debatable even when you have all the facts.

“Not everything can be high-tension, high-stakes, world-changing decisions all the time,” Starks says. “We try to make sure we provide enough low stakes, entertaining moral choices without larger consequences as you explore the game’s world. Those are like soaking in a soothing warm bath, so that when you do get to a big moral choice moment with impactful consequences, it’s like a shock of cold water that really grabs your attention and marks itself into your memory.”

This makes me think of Fallout 4. With multiple factions holding incompatible world views, the game eventually forces you to choose who to side with. But this agonizing choice doesn’t come until near the end, after you’ve gotten to know characters and battled alongside them, which makes betraying and murdering them a bitter pill to swallow.

As I rampaged through the Brotherhood of Steel’s airship slaughtering my old comrades, I felt a hot flush of shame. It was tough and emotional, but it certainly made for a memorable ending. We may crave the moral certainty of good versus evil, but it’s rarely that clear-cut in the real world.

Perhaps having more morally gray choices is a sign that games better reflect our lives now. I appreciate the added complexity in modern games, but, like a lot of great art, the choices I make can be challenging and, sometimes, upsetting.

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