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Welcome to The Hard Problem, a new column where I’ll tackle a hard problem in game design and then solve it before your very eyes. Or at least take a good shot at it.

This month, I want to talk about Good vs. Evil. In games like Knights of the Old Republic, BioShock, and Fable II the developers attempt to expand your choices beyond which weapon to shoot by offering your character moral dilemmas. In general, I think such attempts have largely failed to deliver, and it’s usually because the story’s needs are in conflict with the game design’s needs.

The most obvious failing is the notion that choosing between the game’s version of good and evil is a moral dilemma in the first place. It’s not. What these games offer really is the choice between humanity and psychopathy – will you choose to be a human being or a murderous thug? That’s not a dilemma. That’s the difference between functioning and nonfunctioning brain chemistry.

In our civilization, choosing between good and evil is no dilemma. The choices we make have more to do with things like selfishness versus selflessness, determining when truth is kind and when it’s cruel, and whether it’s okay to cheat to achieve your goals. A real moral dilemma is truly a dilemma, not an obvious choice. It involves equally weighted good or bad outcomes. Reasonable people could come to different conclusions based on their individual values or level of investment in the dilemma without either person’s being evil.

By contrast, look at the Knights of the Old Republic games. Their Star Wars IP is preoccupied with good and evil. You make moral decisions incessantly, and evil ones consist of being a sneering bully who steals, kills, and extorts openly and continually. But in the movies, the consideration of good and evil is much more nuanced. The Emperor, the story’s baddest bad guy, spends years posing as a good person, slowly manipulating his way into power and gathering allies. No doubt he gives heavily to charity and passes legislation to fund hospitals – good acts performed for secret evil motives. He’s a killer, but he’s a far cry from the kind of murderous thuggery that represents the Dark Side in the KOTOR games, which has you mind-controlling people to walk off of cliffs and barking haughty, threatening insults at everyone.

Another major failing of current games that explore moral choices is how your character starts as a blank slate. From the first moments of play, your character is equally capable of rescuing a princess or murdering her. What kind of person is so vague that he’s capable of flipping between such extremes?

By comparison, consider Luke Skywalker, a kind but impulsive farmboy raised by good foster parents. From the get-go, he’s a specific character with a specific personality. When he takes his first step into a larger world it’s not as a blank slate who evaluates good and evil as equal choices, but as one who naturally gravitates toward the Light Side. It’s only when forces prey on his impulsiveness and compassion that he moves at all Darkward. But the movies never pretend Luke is ever one decision away from murdering children; instead, his choices are part of a long moral path, and his mentors explain that if he keeps making reckless decisions driven by his passions, he will eventually embrace the Dark Side. The key word there is “eventually” – Luke never even gets close.

Therefore, a better storytelling approach relies on a defined character who is already on a clear moral or immoral path. The premise of the game establishes what forces drove the character onto this path, and the action of the game consists of embracing or resisting those forces.

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Grand Theft Auto IV provides an interesting example. You play as Nico Bellic, a murderous thug. You start the game hoping to escape that life and start over, but your hope is undermined by your desire for bloody revenge against someone who betrayed you. Your position at the low end of the economic spectrum and your hapless, gambling-addicted cousin Roman don’t help matters either, pulling you toward the violent life you’re trying to leave.

Nico is already a bad guy, but he’s made sympathetic by his struggle, and the player has opportunities to have him make moral choices. Consider the story of drug dealers Playboy X and Dwayne Forge, drug-dealing allies separated when Dwayne goes to jail for ten years. When Dwayne gets out of prison and wants to rejoin the gang, Playboy X first welcomes him. But Dwayne is out of touch with how the gang has developed, and Playboy is afraid Dwayne wants to take over. These two old friends have grown apart, and eventually they each decide the other needs to die. Both of them turn to you to do the job. As Nico, you must decide if you’re going to kill Playboy, a successful gang leader who has given you a steady stream of paying work, or Dwayne, a struggling ex-con trying to get his (criminal) life together. Either way it’s a betrayal. As a criminal, Nico should probably kill Dwayne and keep the lucrative relationship with Playboy. But as a human, Nico clearly relates to Dwayne’s struggle while Playboy is just another swaggering jerk. You make the choice. And while that choice doesn’t seem to have much effect on Nico’s larger story, it does affect how you see Nico and how you make the rest of his choices. That’s a much more credible and engaging scenario than BioShock‘s, where you survive a plane crash and promptly have to decide whether to rescue little girls or murder them.

So let’s design this feature.

We’ll start with a narrative premise. You’re a sheriff in the old west. Previously you were a cowboy and even rustled some cattle, so your hands aren’t clean. Lately you’ve worked as a ranch hand and bagman for Jake Villain, a cattle baron who is the richest and most powerful man in the valley. Last year the sheriff died in a gunfight, and Jake convinced you to run for election as his replacement. Jake financed your campaign, so while you want to be a good sheriff you also want to keep Jake happy.

You can see where this is going. You owe Jake just about everything, and he knows it. He believes you’re still working for him and that the badge changes nothing.

Is he right? Answering that question is the point of the game. At the end, one of two things happens. You help Jake suppress the townsfolk and get elected to the state legislature, with Jake backing you the whole way, or you turn on him and send him to prison-and wear your badge with pride.

At the start of the game, everyone in power assumes you’re on the bad path. They know you’re Jake’s man and treat you accordingly. But now you’re here to help. And when they ask for help, they expect you to give it.

For the first part of the game, we don’t want you gunning people down without good reason. You may be in Jake’s pocket but you aren’t a vicious thug. Early missions establish the situation and include a few favors to Jake that you can sidestep without serious consequences. Later missions introduce a gang of outlaws secretly working for Jake. How you handle them is the second act of our story and lets you get deeper down either path without forcing a confrontation with Jake, whose involvement is a secret until the end of the act. The final missions are where your choices really pay off and you begin working actively for or against Jake in the context of a range war between him and some rival families.

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So our narrative has a basic three-act structure. Onto that structure, we map an escalation of moral choices. In the first act, you make small, incremental choices that serve as input to the game logic. These choices tell us what kind of character you want to play and what path you want to pursue. But these are still small choices, so they don’t have huge repercussions and you still have time to change course. In the second act, we take that input and offer missions accordingly. The choices you make in this second act drive towards the dramatic resolution of the bad-guy gang but also represent a hardening of your path. It’s going to take a lot more work to change your path after act two. In the final act, your path is pretty well set. But in the climax we throw in a twist that gives you one last chance to ditch your current path.

How? Let’s start with act one.

In act one, we give you a wide variety of missions with which to make choices. Let’s decide to track four moral traits about your character. Each one has a positive and negative aspect:

Selfish/Selfless
Vicious/Peaceable
Manipulative/Plainspoken
Vain/Modest

During the first act, each of these traits is represented numerically on a range of -10 to +10, where -10 is the negative aspect and +10 is the positive aspect. A given mission may let you alter your position on any or all of these traits by 1 to 5 points. If the schoolmarm complains that the town drunk is disrupting her class you have the opportunity to beat him up, or you can talk him into taking his drinking someplace else; that would move you 2 points in one direction or the other on the Vicious/Peaceable trait.

(Why four traits? A simple Evil/Good trait would be easier. But it’s important to let the player express how they see their character with more shading than that. Practically speaking, this approach also gives us a clear guide for content creation. Our writers will construct missions that play to these four different traits instead of each mission’s just being a hero/bully test. That approach is far more interesting and provides more choice for the player.)

Each mission in the game can be turned on or off based on your values for these traits. During act one, we always keep plenty of 1-2-point missions available so you can push these traits as you like. But whenever one of your traits reaches +/-5, we turn on a couple of missions that are worth 3-5 points for that trait. This gives you the ability to max out any given trait by taking a more extreme mission.

The end of act one is triggered by your completing some important storyline missions and reaching +/-10 in at least two traits. You’ve now given us clear guidance about how you want to play this character and we’re ready to move to act two.

During the second act, these same traits now run +/-100, a tenfold increase. We turn off all the 1-2-point missions because they’re not worth enough. But we keep the 3-5-point missions and turn on new ones worth 10-50 points.

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In addition, we skew missions so that the ones we turn on mostly reinforce the direction you’re trending towards. If you’re mostly on a negative path, we make sure you have plenty of negative-reward missions and have fewer positive-reward missions. Once you start walking down a particular path, that path is magnetic and you’re going to have to work hard to change course. We take this magnetic approach because we’re trying to give you more of the content you’re implicitly asking for. This selection of missions also colors your world. The more you push in one direction, the more the world’s characters and stories seem to resemble the path you’re choosing.

Since the missions escalate in value, they also escalate in drama. If you wandered down the negative path in the first act with small choices, you’re now making more overtly negative and unpleasant choices. Some players will see this escalation, realize what they’ve been doing, and change course. Others may embrace it.

As you conclude missions and get a couple of traits maxed out (positively or negatively), we trigger the beginning of act three. Those traits now run +/-1000, and again we disable the lowest-end missions and turn on a bunch of new ones that take you towards the climax. At this point, it’s very difficult to change course. And, frankly, if you did change course the story would probably get a bit disjointed as we shut down the negative plotline and spin up the positive one, for example. That’s because it’s impractical (and expensive) to provide transition-buffer missions for every moment in act three. But that’s okay – I’m willing to make that tradeoff at the endgame because I expect most players to stay on the path they’ve chosen so far.

The only thing left is the twist. The idea is that for each path we’ve constructed a twist that explicitly dramatizes your chosen path and highlights what would happen if you made a different choice. Let’s say you’re on the negative path, working for Jake Villain and helping him win the range war. The twist could be that Jake sends you and a posse to gun down a group of rustlers who turn out to really be one of the rival families on a peaceful fishing trip. The posse is made up of Jake’s thugs, who know what he wants. Do you gun down this family in cold blood, believing that there is no way out for you now, or do you turn on the posse and protect the family? This puts your choice in stark terms and gives you one last chance to pick a different outcome. Importantly, this mission is probably the most violent in the entire game. This late in the story, it makes sense for the stakes to be high and for your choices to be dramatic. Had a mission like this appeared in the beginning, when your character’s morality was less defined, it would have trivialized him or her by forcing such a powerful dichotomy onto you before you’d morally earned it. Now that you know who you are, we’re ready to hold up a mirror and show you.

That’s one way to do good and evil right in a game. There are definitely others. I think this approach gives a stronger dramatic structure, produces a more credible narrative and character arc, and gives the player an experience tailored to the choices they use to express themselves.

Now I just hope somebody makes a game like this. Any takers?

John Scott Tynes thought the Gray Jedi robe he found in KOTOR2 meant the game actually supported a light-dark balance as a valid endgame choice. He was wrong.

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