Last month I asked readers how they approach character creation in video games. Do they make a protagonist who looks just like themselves, one who appears completely different, or maybe even hit the randomise button and see what they end up with?
The most popular answer in the poll was ‘somewhere in the middle’ at just over 40%, but that’s not the most interesting trend I noticed from everybody’s responses. It seems their character’s appearance is also influenced about how they intend to play the game. Most people said they would make a complete badass who looks dangerous if they were going down the evil route; but the protagonist would look more like themselves if they were trying to be the hero.
What are you most likely to do when presented with a morality system in a video game, during a first playthrough? Aim to be...—
Later Levels (@LaterLevels) March 26, 2021
This got me thinking about my own gaming habits further. As I wrote in that last post, I’ll spend ages getting each slider on the character creation screen just right and trying to make my female avatar look as much like me as possible (but with a post lockdown haircut). And then I’ll always try to imagine myself in each situation and base my in-game choices on what I would do in real-life, hardly ever performing a completely aggressive or reckless action and preferring to stick to the paragon path.
That’s kind of weird when you really delve into it. Here we are, presented with millions of digital lands where there are opportunities to be whomever we want to be. We can turn ourselves into the evillest villain we can dream up and do all those things never allowed in real life, knowing they’ll be wiped away when you turn off the game and that the only consequences are inside of it. So even when I’m given those chances, why do I still find it so difficult to give into the temptation to be bad?
The morality system I’ll always look back on fondly is in Lionhead’s Fable, released in September 2004. It was the first time I’d seen anything with an alignment mechanic and this fascinated me because it affected everything to do with my Hero of Oakvale: his looks, the titles available to him, the actions he could do and the way others responded to him. I spent the entire game trying to become as good as possible and felt pleased when he grew a halo, had butterflies fluttering around him and villagers cheered him on.
I went back in for a second playthrough some time later with the aim to do the opposite: make the protagonist so terrible that his eyes glowed yellow and a malevolent haze circled around his legs. But I just couldn’t do it. I got tired of having to sort out the attacking guards every time I entered a location, as it pulled me out of the story and broke my immersion. There was also the fact that I felt a pang of guilt whenever I killed an innocent bystander or stabbed a chicken.
Brink (@brinkofgaming) March 26, 2021
Morality systems have matured and evolved considerably since Fable was published almost 20 years ago. It’s not just about being straight-up good or bad any longer; video games have introduced more shades of grey and started to ask their players to really think about the results of their actions. Instead of your only option being to rescue the princess, you can now decide to leave her sitting in the castle in favour of another non-player character (NPC) – or even go in there and behead her yourself.
We’ve grown to expect that the decision which appears to be the most virtuous on the surface will usually have a far-reaching consequence we didn’t see coming. This brings an added pressure to gameplay and it’s definitely something I felt watching Pete play Until Dawn for Halloween in 2019 or playing Detroit: Become Human myself for last year’s GameBlast challenge. I wanted to keep every character in both release safe and felt so bad at the unintended outcomes of some of my choices.
As I’ve written before, I do sometimes struggle with choice-based video games. The two sides of my gaming personality – being a perfectionist and not wanting to replay titles – don’t always exist together happily because there’s that niggling fear of failure in the back of my head, along with the feeling that I’ve got to make it to the ‘best’ ending in a single playthrough. I sometimes seek comfort in linear narratives because knowing I’ll arrive at the same end point as everybody else can be liberating.
Maybe this has something to do with why I’ll always choose to be a good protagonist whenever I can. Although things have changed since the dawn of video games, the most compelling endings are still usually associated with heroes and so that’s what my inner perfectionist constantly wants to achieve. There’s that guilt I feel when mowing down innocent villagers or defenceless chickens too; I know they’re not real, but it seems both reckless and pointless doing away with them when they’re not causing any harm.
Ashley (@roboheartbeat) March 26, 2021
Ultimately though, and this goes back to the point raised in my post about character creation, it’s to do with both challenge and escapism for me. I want to see what I would do when confronted with a difficult scenario or a choice where there are no right answers: would I be up to the test and able to save everyone? I can find out the answers in a situation I’m never going to come across in the real world, and where the only consequences are in my save file.
It appears many people have a similar preference but for their own reasons, as over 80% of those who voted in my recent poll said they’re most likely to aim to be good during a first playthrough. Some like Ellen from Ace Asunder want to be the hero; others like Luke from Hundstrasse just can’t seem to commit to being evil; and there are those like Nathan who feel the paragon path makes for better character growth. Heather from KiaraHime is similar to me in that she doesn’t like upsetting the NPCs.
My other-half is the complete opposite to me though. Pete is one of the kindest people I know in real-life but stick him in a video game and he’ll be the one doing the double-crossing, blowing up their spouse and killing defenceless creatures (rest in peace, Rubbish Dog). Maybe he’s of the same opinion as Frostilyte from Frostilyte Writes: unless there’s an obvious advantage to being good, sometimes it’s fun to do the evil stuff you can’t get away with in everyday life.
I guess your preference once again comes down to your preferred form of escapism. Some people enjoy seeing themselves in games and finding out what they’d do when confronted with an end-of-world situation, their desire to be the hero and save everyone. Others want to completely forget about any aspect of real-life for a while and aim to behave in the opposite way, leaving a path of destruction in their wake and killing every NPC who so much as looks at them in a funny way.
So what about you: are you good or bad?