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Finding it hard to be bad in video games

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.

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.

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.

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?

Kim View All

Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.

33 thoughts on “Finding it hard to be bad in video games Leave a comment

  1. Normally good. The interesting one for me as an aside was the morality system in mass effect 2 which had a tangible consequence like fable of having glowing red scars like an evil terminator if you made the bad decisions.

    Until you brought the medi bay upgrade in NG+ removing any constraints in your actions if you wanted to act like a D without any visible consequences.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting… do you think the medi-bay and removal of those visible consequences encouraged more players to try a ‘bad’ playthrough? 🤔

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      • I feel there was probably an element of that involved. It removed any visible repercussions to your actions. For the majority of the game personally I opted for the paragon choices but certainly when I healed myself at the start of the game it did afford the opportunity to make a few…saltier decisions. The poor fella in the high rise building for one…

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  2. Really interesting! I usually stick to decisions I would take in real life, too – at least in a first playthrough (but even in a second one, I’ll have a hard time playing the “bad guy”). Also, I started your post thinking about Fable, lol. I vividly remember how hard it was to keep making bad choices in order to try the evil side *shivers*

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    • I was adamant I was going to meet the requirement for every Demon Door, but I felt so bad at some of the stuff to do… eating those crunchy chicks… 😭

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Awesome article! I’m always good the first time and then take note of any annoying characters to screw over the next time I’m a bad guy. 😂

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  4. When it comes to an RPG game, I’ll tend to do the first playthrough just making decisions how I think I would make them in real life, then on following runs I might try an all-bad/all-good playthrough just depending on what the morality system is like I guess. Mass Effect 2 has been mentioned already; you can be a dick and punch reporters and make reckless decisions; Fallout 3 is another good example of just how evil or good you can be… Curiosity got the best of me and I went in for a second playthrough doing all the evil things I could, as horrific as some of them were 😄 these days I guess I play more as a good(ish) character when I can, but still picking the moany/irritable dialogue choices now and again haha

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  5. A very interesting read! I don’t mind upsetting the NPCs, however, I can’t bring myself to kill baby animals (the adults are fine, otherwise I’d never ever get a quest done in any game). I squee over the babies and when I do my fiance murders them 😛 Just to spite me. He definitely has zero qualms about playing an evil bastard.

    Also just so you know your link to your character creation post is broken 🙂

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    • That’s weird… I’ve checked the links this morning and they seem ok. WordPress was having some issues last night though and I kept getting ‘server maintenance’ errors when trying to access some of the functions, so maybe that had something to do with it. 🙂

      I feel your pain when it comes to the animals. I always warn my other half not to shoot at them if there’s no need to, and you can pretty much guarantee he’ll do it the second before we leave the area just to get a reaction!

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  6. I think you started an interesting point there with the “grey morality” part. True, life is not always strictly good or bad, and there can be consequences, but I feel like about 99 % of those games are just as “bland” as the good vs evil scheme. In these games, every single thing is made out to be this huge decision where, no matter what you do, someone will get fucked.
    “Do you want tea or coffee with your breakfast? But beware, if you choose tea, the family of the coffee plantage worker will go without food for a whole month, and if you choose coffee, you’ll destabilise the whole tea market. The (big bad) investment bankers will lose a lot of money, but there’s no way of knowing how many innocent people will suffer because of this!”

    And this is just as unrealistic as good vs evil. Sometimes, these games will even (which is the point you hinted at, but didn’t quite make) seem to actively punish people for making the good decision. If done well, a “you meant to do good, but fucked everything up” moment can be powerful, but most of the time it feels like the game just says “What? Little baby wants to be a good player? Well, tough luck, because I tricked you! You now did even worse. Muahahahaha!”

    Why can’t games combine these things? Some decisions are just good vs evil, others have no meaning at all. Sometimes you maneuvered yourself into a bad position and can only choose the lesser evil. Other times, you cannot do a wrong thing, because it will always work out in the end. Decisions can be small, and affect only you and/or your party, wheres others can decide the fate of the world.

    In fact, I can’t think of a single game with a dedicated morality system that works even half satisfactory. Mark Brown (GMTK) or Adam Millard (or both) have a video about how morality systems actually make us more immoral. I think, the games that work best are those where morality comes from the players themselves, and the game only hints at possible scenarios. If you wiped out the bandit camp, did you do it to make the world a better place or did you just kill unfortunate human beings, with lives and families? If the game hammers one outcome or the other right in your face, it loses its impact a lot of the time. If you’re unlucky, it goes against whatever you were sure you were doing. If the game tells you that you basically slaughtered innocent people, then you don’t think “Oh, no. I’m a monster!”, but you think “Okay, time to reload. If only I had known that sooner…”

    One of the worst cases of this, in my opinion. was in Spec Ops: The Line, where you had to do a certain thing in order to progress (I don’t want to spoil anything). You know that it’s the fucked up thing to do and what the consequences probably will be. But you have to do it to progress. Sure, the character in the game may be morally conflicted about it because he has the free will to do something else. But for the player it is mechanically impossible to decide anything. It’s not even good vs evil or grey vs grey. It’s play the game or don’t…

    Okay, I could rant for quite a while about this topic, but I’ll leave it at that. 🙂

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  7. I normally choose to make what I consider the good or right choices. Although sometimes what that is in reality is difficult to ascertain. I’ve recently been playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses and choose Black Eagles for my first play through as a I liked Edelgard as house leader. This game definitely drew me in, although to say why it was difficult to determine right and wrong would be a massive spoiler… I also chose to marry a very interesting character at the end.

    Usually in games I design the lead character to be like me, however for some games I choose not too and try and make a character that fits in more with the setting – recently in Digimon I decided not to use my own name but to try out an alternative personality. I’ve also been playing a lot if games recently where you are not able to change the lead character and I’ve really been enjoying this – games such as Spiritfarer and What Remains of Edith Finch.

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    • I must admit, there can be something quite liberating about playing a game where the protagonist can’t be changed – I guess for the same reason I’m drawn to games with linear narratives. You can’t make any bad choices that have consequences for the world or the character outside of what the developer intended, and that lack of pressure makes it easier to relax and simply enjoy the story.

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  8. A very interesting post! I often find myself playing the goodie in these types of games too, as I start to feel really unsettling guilt when I’m bad. It’s funny to think that there are lots of people out there who feel the same way as me.
    It’s weird considering I never really try to make my characters look like me, so I don’t know why I expect them to follow my moral compass…

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    • Yeah, that is interesting! Based on the articles I read for a bit of research for a few posts, it seems most gamers make characters who don’t look like themselves when they intend to do a ‘bad’ playthrough. I’ll almost always make characters who look as much like me as possible, so I can’t bear to see them behaving horribly to any NPCs. 😆

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  9. I tend to make more bad/evil decisions if I don’t like a quest. In Elder Scrolls Online I tend to generally do what is best for my alliance and pick the best option for them, but if I’m engaging in a quest that makes me feel bored and unentertained I’ll often do a bad option to spice things up for myself.

    Sometimes in that game bad options are just too fun! Like one time I pushed a guy down a well (where he presumably died from starvation) because he refused to credit his dim-witted assistant for some of the research he had conducted. I mean he was bad too, but probably not ‘push down a well where he will certainly die’ levels of bad.

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    • Actually, now that I come to think about it… I believe I’ve picked the ‘bad’ option occasionally in ESO, whenever the character giving the quest has annoyed me in some way. Maybe it’s because there are never really any far-reaching consequences and it’s my way of getting my own back. 😆

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  10. Hey, there’s that headline I was waiting for aha 😉 Yeah I find it tough to be bad in games, especially on a first playthrough. If I do go that route, it is usually on a second (or further) playthrough, so I can justify it as “the possible other route” haha! For example, Catherine: Full Body most recently, where there is so much content hidden behind those other choices, and I would have felt as though I was missing out on a lot of the game otherwise.

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    • Yeah, you knew it was coming! Thanks for kicking off the inspiration to write this. 😄

      I’ve only played Catherine once and yup, you guessed it: I went for the good options. There are so many people who are able to jump back into a game for a second playthrough so they can make different decisions, but I don’t seem to have the patience – I’m always so eager to move on to the next one. I’ve touched on this briefly before but maybe you’ve inspired another post! ha ha

      Liked by 1 person

  11. If it were up to me, I’d leave all the useless princesses sitting in their damn castles 😂 And oh my god… I just realized I kinda have something in common with the wannabe hero Snow from Final Fantasy XIII 😬

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  12. As I have got older I have become a lot less evil in my gaming. In my teens I had no problem running through street loads of pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto. Now in, GTA 5 I find it hard to even drive through a red light.

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