What do people get out of playing a sadistic character in a videogame? Some videogame protagonists are little more than amoral killers, and yet they’ve become mascots who’ve sold some of the world’s most successful videogames. Do gamers play simply for the visceral rush of a bloody kill, or perhaps just for the novelty of playing the villain? Or is there a deeper issue here, an issue of choice?
Take, for example, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which lets the player take on the role of a Jedi Knight in the prehistory of the Star Wars film universe. KOTOR offers the player traditional RPG design with a twist: The player can choose to embrace the dark side of the force just as readily as the light.
This choice spirals out to affect numerous elements throughout the course of the game. Although the player can freely switch his morality later in the storyline, this system lets him shape a distinct personality for his character throughout the game. His actions as a Jedi Knight or Sith Lord have repercussions beyond basic appearance, and his choices can even doom some of his companions to slavery or death.
The same morality system is used in Jade Empire, which offered a less-polarized moral compass upon which to build a character. In KOTOR, true evil meant that not only did the player need to ruin lives, but he needed to do so with glee. In Jade Empire, the paths of the Open Palm and Closed Fist weren’t necessarily good or evil, just different. Jade Empire again let the player’s chosen morality affect the people around him, and even included unique abilities that only a follower of a given path could choose.
Beyond affecting gameplay, options like this can help create a sense of depth that might otherwise be missed. By inviting the player to help craft the protagonist’s sense of right or wrong, a game can provide a context for gameplay that goes beyond that provided by narrative alone. Playing an action hero is expected, almost cliché. Being given the reigns of a character who saves or dooms the universe as you decide, that’s something else entirely.
The Punisher, based on the 2004 film of the same name, offers a mix of action and stealth gameplay. Players take on the role of Frank Castle, the Punisher, a comic book superhero waging a one-man war on crime. While the Punisher can gun down criminals in any number of ways, he can also stop to interrogate them.
When the Punisher conducts an interrogation, he must maintain careful pressure in order to break the criminal’s will to resist. Too little pressure and the thug won’t talk; too much and he might accidentally kill the suspect. Should the player complete an interrogation successfully but kill the prisoner in the process, he loses points. In exchange for losing these points, the player receives a reward in the form of a gruesome death scene.
This helps to characterize Frank Castle as the Punisher. The Punisher is a vigilante, an anti-hero, but not a sadist. By offering the player the chance to kill a suspect, the game offers him a choice: Adhere to a semblance of a moral code or just play a psychopath.
Each game offers the player a choice: Just how evil do you want to be?
Still, bringing morality into the gameplay isn’t easy. In The Punisher, the point penalty seems unintentional – it has a very small effect on the game system. Still, the choice is there, and it’s in that space that the system works. The developers aren’t strong-arming the player into acting in a specific way. They’re simply offering a choice.
By comparison, Manhunt offers the player no incentive to regulate his villainy. In Manhunt, players become James Earl Cash, a death row inmate forced to commit murder to survive while trying to escape from a madman’s insane film production. The player must kill others, but he does have a choice as to whether or not to do so sadistically. He still has to kill, however, and the game specifically encourages the player to kill in as brutal a way as possible. Not going for the gruesome kill severely hampers the player’s score at the end of each stage. In every way The Punisher didn’t force the player’s hand, Manhunt does.
And yet the problem can be much the same if morality isn’t integrated enough into the game’s basic gameplay. Fable offered the player the chance to not just be evil but also look it. As the protagonist journeyed down the path of evil (or good), his avatar changed to reflect his moral character. But with no other real effect in the game, the choice in Fable was a hollow one. Without consequences, being able to play a total bastard seemed pointless.
To say morality systems work at all might in itself be an overstatement. While compelling, these games demonstrate this gameplay mechanic is still in its infancy. As much as Fable offers no real choice at all, KOTOR doesn’t do much with what it has.
Still, there is some consolation. Players haven’t always had the luxury of choice; the technology just hasn’t been powerful enough – until now. The last few years have enjoyed stunning advancements in game technology, and while that hardware makes our games prettier, it’ll also allow us to do wonders the likes of which we’ve never seen.
We should remember games can be more than just toys. In some ways, the fact that we can choose our morality in a game means we should. Maybe there’s something good we can learn by exploring this choice. Maybe by playing a villain, you might better understand what it means to be the hero.
Alexander Karls is a professional writer, making a living and an opinion on his blog.