In Fallout: New Vegas, there are certain factions that, regardless of the circumstances, you gain karma by killing. The Legion and Powder Gangers both suffer this fate. Patrolling, sleeping or guarding an outpost–it doesn’t matter. They have been designed this way and therefore any method of punishment you can dispense is legitimate because, clearly, they are evil.
The game manages to get around this by making all of these enemies legitimately loathsome. The Legion rapes and brutalizes women and the Powder Gangers are prisoners that have escaped and decided to wreak havoc upon the countryside. That’s just scratching the surface of their atrocities. Neither cause is sympathetic by design so it should come as no surprise that eliminating them would give a karma boost.
But as the Supreme Court hears arguments on how different groups believe they should treat the sale of violent video games in California, there has truly never been a more apt time to opine on the state of morality systems in gaming. When you think of a time when someone else was telling you what is good and right, video games should never be far from mind.
In the real world, we explain to folks that not all Muslims are terrorists but generalizing is still alive and well inside video games.
Game designers have been telling us what is good and what is evil within the context of video games for years, often ignoring the various complexities of situations and generalizing on a large scale. This can sometimes be conflated with the distinction between problems and choices, but virtually every known karma system functions in the same manner; a point on a line that shifts from light to dark, good to bad, paragon to renegade.
The problem I have with this simplified stand on morality is the same one I have with the Supreme Court ruling on supposed moral quandaries. Our dichotomous society tends to view things as the two ends of a spectrum when there is actually a rainbow. Ambiguity is much harder to deal with because, by nature, it’s a slippery thing. It is much easier to paint things in stark, drastic tones and go from there.
This is why the flawed karma system, as presented in games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, continues to propagate and spread. It works, from the game designer’s perspective, because it allows for them to insert harder-hitting questions from reality into their games. Unfortunately, situations that occur in the world outside of video games tend to be less cut and dry than designers might wish them to be and thus a single point on a line doesn’t quite cover it.
To make things yet more confusing, to return to the example of Fallout: New Vegas, there’s actually one single Powder Ganger inside the NCR Correctional Facility that is not necessarily evil. In fact, talking to him, he’ll let you know that he doesn’t much care for the other escaped prisoners and would prefer to serve his time. You can even go so far as to set him up as a local sheriff for one of the towns in the Mojave.
By assigning static values of morality to each NPC in the desert, Obsidian Entertainment removed all doubt from the player’s mind. It is at this point that the problem versus choice debate rears its ugly head. In New Vegas, it is almost certainly best to play a morally good character and defend the weak, destroy the evil and earn the respect of the public in general. This becomes a problem to solve because, at this point, you know exactly who you should and should not shoot.
One possible solution to this would be to merely refrain from updating the player on their actions. Keep a sliding scale but not clue the player in on how their specific actions affected the outcome. In a way, this is only sweeping the problem under the rug and not dealing with the fact that it exists. In a perfect world, the entire bar would be eliminated.
Luckily, Obsidian already provided a perfectly suitable replacement for the traditional karma system with the inclusion of faction ratings. Depending on your standing with certain factions, different paths might open up to you. If the NCR idolizes you, you may receive new dialogue options at various NCR outposts and be able to trade with some of their more stingy quartermasters. This is not a new system but is merely one that is very slowly gaining traction in development circles.
World of Warcraft has had faction ratings for years now. In fact, they have even had you pick one faction over another to “grind rep” for in the past. Due to being an MMO, though, it had very little impact on the actual gameplay. Even if the Gelkis clan of centaurs loved you and the Magram despised you, it didn’t really matter. Desolace played out in similar ways regardless. Perhaps the good folks at Blizzard realized this as they’ll apparently be reverting to simple hostile mobs in the new expansion.
That is not to say that Blizzard hasn’t been without their subtleties or moral complexities. For example, the Bloodsail Buccaneers are hostile when you first interact with them. Chances are that any given World of Warcraft player will never bother learning more beyond the fact that they’re hated by most of the other factions, especially goblins. There’s no real reason to suspect there’s more underneath the surface of these pirates.
But that’s only because video games have trained us to consider the enemy of choice as something other than a sentient being. After digging a little deeper, those enemies suddenly become much more human. If the player wants, they can anger some goblins and begin raising their reputation with the Bloodsail Buccaneers–it’s even a feat of strength known as Insane in the Membrane. Once they no longer attempt to kill the player on sight, the pirates can be approached like any other NPC in the game and have their own unique set of dialogue. And so it dawns on the player that all of those “enemies” they were so bloodthirstily murdering not so long ago have their own stories to tell.
Overall, however, the system was implemented unevenly at best.
Fortunately, this reputation system made the natural leap to single-player role-playing games and no game represents this philosophy better than Dragon Age: Origins. In the game, the only karma-like system available is entirely based on how your companions perceive your actions. In effect, this is a faction system limited to a single person each. One action may raise Wynne, Leliana and Alistair’s opinion of your character but at the same time lower the opinions of Zevran, Morrigan and Shale.
It’s also important to note that neither World of Warcraft nor Dragon Age: Origins includes the traditional karma system of good and bad represented as a sliding bar for your character at all. WoW excludes it for obvious reasons and pitches both the Horde and Alliance as sympathetic in their own ways. Dragon Age, on the other hand, molded the typical karma system into their very own version of the faction systems present in other games.
Either way, it seems like the industry is growing ever-so-slowly towards replacing the old, outdated karma system model. If nothing else, some developers are at least increasingly being more subtle about it and refraining from bashing the player over the head with the knowledge of just how moral their last action was.
Quantifying morality only leads to creating problems, not choices, and while both are viable tools for a game designer, one single tool is not always useful in every situation. Ironically, this is also a matter of perception. When you have a hammer, all you see are nails.