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Like many of my co-workers here at The Escapist, I’ve been playing the absolute crap out of Star Wars: The Old Republic. The gameplay’s fun, the combat intuitive, and story line is incredibly well-written and engaging. But there’s one particular aspect of SWTOR that just seems to keep getting under my skin.

A recently played story mission for the bounty hunter (mild spoilers ahoy) tasked me with destroying a target’s weapon factory to draw them out of hiding. Cue myself, as a Rattataki hunter, blasting my way through the factory’s security forces with gouts of flame and dozens of well-placed rockets, stepping over the bodies of the fallen with nary a second glance as I place remote charges on power generators and computer terminals.

However, as soon as the last of my charges is placed on the main computer, an in-game conversationkicks in and I’m faced with my big moral dilemma of the day. Some idiot enforcer disabled the “Run like hell, we’re under attack” alarm, so all these civilian techies and engineers are still working their posts, oblivious to the fact I just murdered my way through their rent-a-cop buddies. Now a scientist is pleading with me to give him just a few minutes to help get all the non-combatants get clear of blast zone.

So, in true Sith form, I could say “Too bad,” kill the scientist and watch the whole place burn, innocents and all, from a comfortable and safe distance. Or I could hold off on blowing the place sky-high for a few minutes while the scientist organizes a quick evacuation before things start getting rather explosive.

Invested as I am in the story, I decided that well, I’m really only on this planet to kill my target. I’m only blowing up one of his facilities to get his attention, and I doubt he really cares enough about his underlings that he’ll get angrier with me for slaughtering the janitors as well.So I pick the honorable path, give the scientist his five minutes, then like all cool guys, don’t look at the explosion as I walk away. Not that I can, though, as I really only hear things go boom when I leave that in-game instance, but I digress.

This mission is one of the examples of the morality system in play throughout SWTOR. Most of my quests, like my mission to destroy the factory, have pretty straightforward objectives, but how they differ from your standard MMO fare of killing 10 space walruses or collecting five bear pelts is you often have to decide how evil or good you want to be within the context of the quest, and this affects what kind of rewards you’ll have available to you.

Kill a bunch of rogue soldiers who murdered a man’s family and you’re then asked to either encourage him to continue his quest for revenge against the soldiers’ families, or take peace that the killers have been brought to justice. Follow the “evil” path to execute an Imperial officer’s wife because she had a one-time affair and then frame her as a traitor, or tell her to get off planet because her husband’s a nut bag in the “good” option. Moral quandaries are thrown at you left and right and it’s an interesting game mechanic to experience in an MMO, especially since it ties into the lore of the Star Wars universe itself.

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Most of the characters we’ve come to grow and love in the original trilogy have all gone through a tough choice of what side of the moral line to be on, from Han (albeit off screen) deciding to come to the Luke’s rescue at the end of the first film to Lando Calrissian at first betraying his friend then trying to recover him from Boba Fett, to Darth Vader ultimately having to decide to obey the Emperor or save Luke from electric death at the Emperor’s hands.

However, much like Vader, I’m finding myself facing an internal conflict of how exactly I should engage in some of these moral choices, or at least in the sense of SWTOR‘s game mechanics. You aren’t really rewarded by the game for being neutral, slightly good or slightly evil. Every good action you take is countered by the evil, which (via a number scale) subtracts every dark side point you earn through from your decisions. If you have positive numbers, you’re considered light, and with negative numbers a member of the dark side.

So unless you fully commit to the light side or dark side option every time, you won’t gain any of the rewards or specialized in-game items available only to those who’ve gained enough points in being an honorable, forgiving saint or sadistic, merciless killer. The karmic balance system sometimes makes it hard to role play your character or get too heavily invested in the story when you realize that your moral actions are just a mechanic for a sliding scale of numbers. Going back to my options for killing everyone in the weapons factory versus giving the innocents time to flee, the act of choosing from those two options has less weight if I’m thinking more about which one will finally let me equip that awesome dark-side armor I’ve been eyeing the past week.

For those who have played tabletop RPGs, games like Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons all have multiple moral alignments that characters can follow, letting players who want to be morally good but are still willing to throw down with the best of them be Chaotic Good, and others who want to exploit others but stay within the rules be Lawful Evil. It’s true that in the Star Wars universe there are very few neutral characters, and most of the heroes and villains have all committed to either Light or Dark and stuck with it. However, those characters have made major, life-changing decisions with permanent ramifications, and the kind of weight that Vader decisions to forsake the Dark Side once and for all in final moments of Return of the Jedi doesn’t really feel like it translates over into some of SWTOR’s quests very well, especially if I can undo murdering a rival in cold blood with letting another retire peacefully, only to blackmail a scientist later, and so on and so forth.

So how come there isn’t a more detailed system in place other than the current binary light/dark options? Well one obvious answer is that it’d be complicated to implement but that still doesn’t mean you can’t introduce something that at least lets players be as Lawful or Chaotic (or as Light, Grey and Dark) as they’d like on a 4-axis grid rather than a scale of 1-10. As we’ve seen in countless games before like BioShock, a binary moral system really doesn’t work too well, especially if it just comes down to rating you on a number scale. And for an MMO that’s much more expansive and with a heavier focus on story, it’d be nice to have more flexibility in how I play my character.

All hope isn’t lost though, as SWTOR‘s developers did recently announce they’re looking into “neutral alignment” gear for those of us who like to be a jerk just as often as we like to be a nice guy. But until that comes out, I’ll keep hunting down bounties with my main character and seeing how the other side lives with my newly-minted Republic Trooper, and wondering what could’ve been if I had access to a more detailed in-game moral compass.

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