Choices are becoming increasingly more important these days, not just in role-playing games, but in gaming as a whole. Some games implement pure black and white, good and evil choices while others play with our intentions and make things a little more ambiguous. Others don't try to present right and wrong as absolutes, and instead ask you to pick a side based on beliefs.
Commander Bobard: The Bob Wolf - by Bob Richardson
Regardless of how choices are packaged and delivered, one thing is certain: they allow us an outlet through which to express our personality, a way to make our mark in these digital worlds and affect the lives of their inhabitants, much like our choices do in real life.
So what do the choices we make in these games say about the people we are? Where do our thoughts lay when we decide to rob the poor family blind or when we sacrifice our lives for the ones important to us? The world is shaped by different perspectives on morality, and the seven pieces below demonstrate that those perspectives are diverse even among a group of like-minded RPG-lovers like ourselves. And that's the beauty of the whole thing: morality is a choice. So which are you: paragon or renegade?
Click each link below to see what seven of our editors had to say about this subject: from paragon to renegade viewpoints and everything in between.
If I were a D&D character, I'd be neutral good. Under no circumstances would I ever inflexibly abide by laws or rules, but I also recognize the need for order and decency. Every time I'm asked to make a decision in a Western RPG, this is the persona I play under – myself. For instance, in Mass Effect, I'll have a large amount of Paragon points, but also a small share of Renegade. I find myself thinking: what if I were hoist into this chaotic world of impending doom? What do the developers have in store for Bob? Will that fortune teller bequeath me goodies or show me her goods? And, the big question, what sort of ending will I earn?
I'm a Big Jerk - by Dave Yeager
A large part of my Western RPG experience falls within this mentality. Shepard is not walking around; I am. Most reward queries are met with a non-materialistic, altruistic slant, unless I really feel like I'm being mistreated, or I just don't like the NPC. In these cases, I'll goad them for more, but I'll never kill them. I rarely mistreat civilians, and I never help evil parties. This may seem like I play pretty mechanically, but the truth is that I approach every interaction as if it were happening in the now, with no rules in mind. I've noticed as of late that I pick the same kind of response options, which either means I'm a bore or the developers are. However, I refuse to detract from my approach, otherwise immersion's nigh impossible. In this way, I feel as if I'm "in" the game, whereas evil-doer players must be looking into the game from the outside.
Although this stance seems similar to Stephen's, practicality is a huge factor in defining the neutral to my good. Yeah, being the hero sounds nice, but I'm not about to sacrifice myself for a just cause, and I'm sure as hell not going to jeopardize the fate of the galaxy for a couple elites that could be easily replaced. When the risks are small, I err on the side of personal loss and altruism, but when the enemy goes all-in and I'm holding a flopped set on a flushed board, caution reigns supreme.
This mentality comes with flaws, though. For instance, if none of the options reflect my true feelings or desired response choices, I'm forced to artificially pick the most benevolent option. The thin bubble of immersion bursts at this time, and actually bothers me a bit. From here, I'm left feeling as if my gaming experience isn't genuine. Shaking the dissatisfaction from my nagging awareness takes some time, in fact. Thankfully, as time goes on, developers like BioWare become increasingly adept at making insightful, multimodal response choices.
Another problem with my alignment rigidity is the protagonist's background. Given a typical fantasy setting, would I ever be a mercenary? Well, no, because money isn't important to me. However, rather than don my adolescent mask, stomp my feet, and declare that I never asked to be born this way, I make the best of it and modify myself to the role. Okay, so I'm a mercenary who's a little broody and has a scar. I'm going to think up my own history for this guy until the game tells me otherwise, and I'm going to mesh all those characteristics together and pretend I've had this history, because under different life circumstances Bob might be a totally different person. In this way, I try to be as empathetic as possible to the plight or luxuries the protagonist might be grappling with or cherishing. The more exposition shoved down my throat, the harder it is for Bob to become that hired hand, but that's part of the fun for my psychologically-attuned brain. Though, with increasingly experienced writing and, hopefully, customizable response choices, I grow ever more excited for future WRPGs.
Peacefully Paragon - by Kimberley Wallace
I've heard it said that people like to play violent video games to "blow off steam." I used to think I tended to play the Renegade side of a story because it provided a nice outlet to engage in obnoxious behavior and keep that behavior away from my friends and family.
Well, it turns out that is probably not the reason why. For one thing, it's not like I have a very stressful existence that would require much "blowing off steam" in the first place. And no matter how many video games I play in a given day, week, or month, if I'm honest with myself, I must admit that it doesn't really change the way I interact with my friends or family.
For another thing, the prevailing psychological research suggests that "blowing off steam" or "catharsis" is actually a myth
: modern experimentation suggests very strongly that repeatedly venting your frustration through catharsis just leads you to do it more often. In other words, venting doesn't actually help you in any way – it actually just makes you want to vent more.
So when this idea for a feature was proposed, I really had to sit down and think. Why is it that on the first playthrough of any game with a moral compass, I always decide to play the biggest jerk possible?
The latest answer I've come up with is that to me, the story tends to be more interesting on that side of the moral spectrum. We play the hero in our own lives every day in the narrative we construct for ourselves. We're familiar with all of the classic elements of a hero's tale. On a personal level, I usually find it much simpler to relate to the sensibilities of the "paragon" point of view – I like to think that given the powers and abilities of the protagonist in these video games and faced with the same situation in real life, I'd choose the paragon path.
So when I "play," I like to play at something I'm not. Perhaps I play at renegade for the same reason I enjoyed theater as a younger lad, or the same reason I have played tabletop role playing games every single week with friends for decades now. Maybe it's not cathartic or healthy in any way – maybe it's just fun to play at being something I'm not.
Or maybe I really am just an asshole without self awareness. :-)
I have a confession to make: when I watch a movie for the second time on television, I change the channel when something bad happens. I can't put myself through the emotional stress of the situation – I don't want to see somebody in danger, defeated, distraught, especially when I've already seen it once. Given that, it should be no surprise that when I play games, I always choose the role of the "paragon" over the "renegade." For years, friends have been trying to get me to turn to the dark side, yet I can't force myself to do it. I know it might sound crazy – these games aren't real, but to me, even a simulated world and its inhabitants are more than just polygons on a screen. It grows more and more difficult as games and scenarios become increasingly realistic; worlds are coming alive right before our eyes. That's even without the virtual denizens, who are usually fully voice acted with realistic mannerisms for every situation. It's no longer just reading text on a screen – it's a virtual reality in which I've become fully immersed.
Naturally Neutral - by Kyle E. Miller
I've been faced with plenty of choices that I never really know the right answer to. In Mass Effect 2, Zaeed's loyalty mission wreaked havoc on me: I wanted the loyalty of every squad member to ensure their safety, but something interesting happened when I stepped into Zaeed's mission – I realized he wasn't exactly that great of a guy. His thirst for revenge meant more to him than the life of innocent people, and so I was faced with a choice: help a selfish man to make sure he wouldn't be a casualty in the upcoming suicide mission or punish him for treating the lives of others like they were nothing. In the end, I didn't gain his loyalty... but this mission really made me think about my actions in games and what they say about me. And I'm okay with people thinking I'm a big softie – I want to do what I feel is right, so I don't have to face harsh consequences.
It seems that this tactic doesn't always work, though. I think Fable III was the first game that ever punished me for being too giving. I know you can still save your kingdom as long as you bank enough of your own money, but I didn't have the patience for those minigames. So when Fable III was telling me I should build a brothel instead of an orphanage because it would bring in more money, I couldn't let that happen. I didn't want to be a corrupt leader and, in the end, because I didn't raise enough money on my own, the whole kingdom suffered. This was the first time I ever saw the repercussions for being too generous and it still irks me to this day. But the fact that video games are making me question my own morals and take a look at my own beliefs is simply astounding.
Perhaps I just take my games too seriously. I'm one of those people who gets completely immersed, to the point where I form deep attachments to the characters. It's not something that's good or bad, but I can't act like the people who like to be the opposite of themselves in a game – a totally malevolent asshat. I just don't like seeing bad things happen to people. There's enough negativity in this world, and if I can prevent bad things from happening in games, I'll happily do it. Besides, I know that I won't ever do something as heroic in my lifetime as the characters in the RPGs have, so maybe it's my time to shine as a hero, with my strong morals intact so I can hold my head high. Paragon for life!
Ruthlessly Renegade - by Liz Maas
In games with binary morality like Mass Effect, I usually try my hand at both paths, particularly if the two paths provide significantly different experiences. If a game is too long or crummy to play twice, I used to revert to playing the good guy for reasons I've never really probed before now. Only a few games have actually made me feel true regret for an evil act, so I don't have some inherent hero complex. Dragon Age: Origins challenged my pity and compassion most effectively and memorably, and it didn't even have a morality system with mechanical consequences; it had realistic characters and powerful scenarios. In games I dislike and in those with unlikeable characters, I often slide into evil before the end of the game because I just don't care. A game's storytelling merits (or lack thereof), therefore, can help make the decision between good and evil.
Aside from games in which I want to try both paths and those in which the story manipulates me, I often try something else. I just act like myself. This isn't due to any absence of imagination on my part; I merely enjoy using RPGs as a sort of ethical survey. In real life, am I Jedi or Sith? Paragon or renegade?
Turns out I'm neutral. Every one of these experiments has yielded a similar result: neutrality. I might steal to survive, but help an ailing elder. And then I'll expect a reward. In the end, my little good deeds and sins even out, and I become neutral. In games without defined systems, such as The Witcher, the result is similar, if unrecorded. I remain impartial to groups and guilds and causes and naturally take the role of neutral party through my actions. Like Geralt the monster hunter, I stay out of politics and find folly in every side of an intense argument. If there were a side I seem to lean toward, it would be good. I was just in the blue in Knights of the Old Republic 2. I believe the old Infinity Engine D&D games called me Chaotic Good. Then again, that might have been Chaotic Neutral. I can't quite remember.
So, is all this telling of my personality? To a degree, but RPGs just aren't the best priests or parents or Santas or whatever else you use to determine if you've been good. I've promised myself to stop this nonsense and start playing a role outside myself, which I succeeded in doing with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim recently. I've learned a few things about myself through these experiments, but I've learned more about RPGs and their morality systems. My repeated neutrality led me to question
the morality systems used in games, and I await the next RPG that tries something new.
I'm not the nicest person you'll ever meet, but that doesn't mean that I'm unpleasant to others without a good reason. Fortunately for me, although getting too angry with people in real life – be it acquaintances or strangers – can have real repercussions, doing so in video games does not. Perhaps you'll lose a teammate's trust, or perhaps they will die in the final mission and you'll miss an achievement in the process – these are things that can be fixed by loading a previous save, or at worst, doing your next playthrough differently. That's not to say, however, that the lack of true consequences stops me from becoming immersed in games.
My Adventures in Love Adventures - by Neal Chandran
The protagonists we play in RPGs are often portrayed similarly; the ideal hero. Selfless. Giving. Always trying. And let's face it – these guys and girls at times put up with a lot of crap, usually with little to no complaint. I'm not just talking about from foes – allies and NPCs can grate nerves easily too. How often have you wanted the main character to backhand someone who wasn't an enemy? True, not every main character is meant to be "you" the way a lot of Western RPG heroes (and a few JRPG ones) are. But for too long we've had "decisions" in RPGs that were meaningless – saying no to most characters joining your party, for example – so it's nice in this age of gaming to actually have a legitimate choice.
And it's refreshing to be able to play an atypical hero, one that will push back when at their limit and take an unorthodox action. Being too nice doesn't always pay off. You get walked all over, you don't get taken seriously, people won't listen to you. And even though this wasn't the case for paragon Shepard, it's not how I wanted to be in-game. It was, after all, my version of the character. Moments such as the renegade interrupts in Mass Effect were downright satisfying to me. Many times they were hilarious, beneficial, and – as terrible as this is going to sound – felt natural. It's an indulgence and an outlet; you get to act out in ways that would get you fired, imprisoned, or just plain shot in real life.
You may have to look hard to see it, but my characters aren't completely devoid of the giving attitude that everyone loves. I'd feel guilty if I let an injured person die knowing I could have saved them, and if I expect others to willingly accompany me into a gravely dangerous situation, I'm going to have to show that they can trust me. I couldn't break up a squadmate fight in Mass Effect 2 without losing one's loyalty because despite being at 100% renegade, I also had too many paragon points. In the end though, sometimes you have to remind your allies who is in charge and show your enemies why they should cower in fear.
It's no secret that I'm a fan of the Japanese love adventure and dating sim genres. Some of my favorite games include Hourglass of Summer (Natsuiro No Sunadokei) and the Memories Off series; and I still itch to play a Tokimeki Memorial game in a language I can read beyond an elementary school level. I have loads of fun playing these kinds of video games and I definitely see their appeal. I'm sure all of us geeknerds have entertained the fantasy of dating an anime character at some point in our lives and Japan has created entire genres of video games allowing us to indulge that fantasy. But I wonder if some genre fans take love adventures a little too seriously and in their efforts to always make the right decisions and please the girl, they miss out on a good portion of what the game has to offer. Personally, I think it's more fun to make the wrong choices, embrace my inner bad boy, and explore the hidden dark side of love adventures
Savior by Sacrifice - by Stephen Meyerink
In love adventures, you are a protagonist going through a Choose Your Own Adventure type story where each choice puts you on the path to a good or bad ending with a particular archetype of girl. The way I usually play the first time is that I just pick whatever choices feel the most natural and instinctive to me, and let the chips fall where they may. I don't overthink my decisions, so good ending, bad ending, it doesn't matter as long as I had some fun. Subsequent playthroughs are when I make decisions that will either piss off the girls and/or send them running off crying. I do this because that is often where the most amusing and over the top dialogue comes from. Making stupid or boneheaded decisions is great, because what's the worst that can happen? A bad ending? A Game Over? It's not like these relationships are real, so any consequence is miniscule. It's just a video game, and bad endings are fun.
In short, I love to tease the tsunderes! They're hysterical when they get, well, hysterical!
I understand that emotional investment is built into these games due to the extensive writing and the engineering of archetypes to play on gamers' nurturing "lovey dovey" emotions. Generally that's called "moe" in Japanese, but other archetypes like "tsundere" (a tough girl with a soft side) could be considered a type of moe as well. I have been affected by some of the more intense plotlines I've seen in the genre. However, some people find it difficult to disambiguate being a foolish jerk in the game and feeling like a heel in real life. Not I. Just because I play a lousy boyfriend in a video game doesn't mean I'm a lousy boyfriend in real life.
However, there are some genre fans who would be mortified to hear that I anger tsunderes, make timid girls cry, and would decry that playing that way makes a mockery of the genre in some way. How could I consciously make such poor decisions? How could I be so inconsiderate of these girls' feelings? How could I knowingly upset poor Miko (or whatever the heck her name was) to tears? How could I prod Asami (or whatever the heck her name was) knowing that she'd fly off the handle? How could I just sit there with an evil grin and laugh while Miko's crying and Asami's shouting? How could I be so uncaring and heartless? Sorry, but I don't agonizingly pore over every last decision like it's a ticking bomb. I don't try to do everything just right like some shining knight. If I piss off a girl in a video game, I piss her off; I don't get profoundly affected if she gets upset and starts sobbing uncontrollably or yelling.
I've heard that many folks were put off by Memories Off: 2nd because the game starts off with the protagonist at a crossroads in his relationship: does he work things out with his girlfriend or go cavort with other girls (one of whom is the girlfriend's older sister)? The more obsessive player would be ashamed to be put in that scenario. How could he be called upon to destroy relationships when the whole point of the genre is to cultivate and build them? The indignant would say that's just not fair to poor Sayori (or whatever the heck her name was).
As for me, I happily indulged my love adventure dark side in that game. I thought it was great that the game actually put players in an uncomfortable scenario like that. To me, the love adventure is merely a video game. Video games are fun, and not meant to be taken so seriously at all. Playing the jerk or acting the fool are more fun for me than the safe, boring, and predictable "proper" good ending paths. In Memories Off: 2nd, I had no problem going behind the girlfriend's back and then bumbling my way through whatever girl's path, oftentimes pissing them off too. I wasn't going to let some stupid sense of video game morality prevent me from seeing a good majority of the game. The break-up scenarios are as much a part of Memories Off: 2nd as the good ending scenarios (and more interesting, in my opinion), so why not experience them? Love adventure scenario writers often put some of their best writing in the scenes following rotten choices anyway, so why let that go to waste? And as a gamer, the paths to the good endings feel too safe, boring, and predictable for me. So if a video game allows me to play it a little unsafe, why not indulge that? We all have a dark side, an "alligator in our souls," as Stephen King puts it, and it needs to be fed every once in a while.
So what am I trying to say here? I'm saying that people shouldn't be afraid to explore the nether regions of love adventures. Part of what makes the genre fun is that you can make bad decisions and face minimal repercussions. Upsetting a girl in a video game doesn't make you a reprehensible person. Making a wrong choice is not the end of the world, especially in a video game where the consequences are practically nil, a slap in the face doesn't sting at all, and you always get multiple do-overs. Video games are great fun, especially love adventures, but should never be taken too seriously. So lighten up, embrace your dark side a little, go tease a tsundere, and see if you don't have more fun.
I like to play the hero. I've made no secret of this in the past, and it's something I've always thought a lot about. I tend to get heavily invested in the narratives of the games I play, and like Kim, I end up caring about the characters and what happens to them. Because of that, it becomes tough for me to do something like punch a guy in the face. Sure, the mean guy options can be funny, but I'd much rather play the nice guy than the colossal jackass.
I guess it has something to do with my desire to see a selfless hero. I don't take rewards, because I didn't help out to get something out of it. I won't suffer collateral damage – I'll get smacked in the face by a car in inFamous rather than risk the lives of innocents. I'd never take the ADAM from the Little Sisters. And those small, throwaway conversation options you run into with people in town? I can't even be a jerk in those. Even those small decisions give me pause, because when I'm playing the role, it's the role of the hero. There are enough people in the real world willing to put their own personal gain ahead of the general good (just ask a politician!), and I have no desire to role-play as one. That's why the story in Radiant Historia resonates so much with me: the final moments of that game and the selfless decisions Stocke makes are an excellent summation of the morality of my play style.
I don't like to break from that role, even if it means giving up some gameplay incentives. That's why a game like Skyrim throws me off – one minute, I'm striking down dragons and saving people's children and just being an all-around nice guy, and the next, I'm murdering people for the Dark Brotherhood and getting people sent to prison wrongly so I can join the Thieves' Guild. There's no moral compass. Sure, you can do it all, but what's the point of helping one person recover their stolen goods if you're going to steal something for someone else?
So yeah, I love to do the right thing. But it's the mark of a truly great game when I'm given decisions that challenge the notion of what the good guy would do. Take the final decision in Legion's side-mission from Mass Effect 2: between a mass-brainwashing and a mass killing, which is truly the "heroic" decision? And, thinking forward, this is a decision that will affect the rest of the galaxy as the war with the Reapers looms and Shepard prepares to seek out allies for the final battle. I agonized over this choice for quite a while, and sat staring at the screen thinking about what I would do – and I delighted in that, because it really made me consider my morality.
Ultimately, I like to tell myself that my proclivity for playing the nice guy role stems from a desire to act out my idea of the ideal hero – some selfless savior willing to go against all odds and make the world a better place, one small bit at a time. We've got plenty of selfish people in the real world who are doing their best to trash the place, so why would I want to muck up the world in the game?
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