I think I hate karma based advancement systems in video games. You know what I’m talking about – that stupid good/evil slider thing that every fourth RPG tries to shove down your throat. Light side vs dark side, open palm vs closed fist, shiny halo vs hooves and horns Basic idea is that you have some sort of a counter. You start at zero as neutral and then for every good deed, you get nice points, and for every bad deed you get negative naughty points. If you always good, your counter keeps on growing and you get access to special stuff available only for good players. If you are consistently evil, the counter swings the other way and you unlock some evil guy bonuses. If you mix it up you stay close to zero which usually allows for flexibility. The exact implementation depends on the game, but the concept is the same.
Every game which has this feature claims that it is awesome because it let’s you play play good or evil player. In most cases this is a blatant lie. If you implement a karma system, you pretty much remove all moral ambiguity from the game, and reduce them to a simple black and white sets of choices. Not only that but you also tie these choices to a specific moral code that you may or may not agree with. Some games such as Fable can be pretty arbitrary with this. Others such as Knights of the Old Republic or Jade Empire actually have a well defined code of conduct, but they don’t necessarily follow it.
Let’s take KOTOR for example – the one game where having this sort of system actually makes sense. The light and dark side of the force are pretty well defined by the movies, books and multiple different sources. The game does a pretty good job reiterating the tenets of the force to you. Dark Side is quick, seductive and usually destructive. Dark Jedi’s power is fueled by raw emotions such as rage, lust, hatred, envy and etc. Followers of this path learn to tap into these mostly negative emotions, which in turn cloud their judgment and make them impulsive, self absorbed and detached from reality. Light side’s power stems from inner peace and it’s practitioners must practice restraint, ward themselves against emotional attachment and maintain zen like state of mind. How does that translate into game play?
Well, if you want to play Dark Jedi you have to be a total jerk to everyone you meet. You must steal from orphans, pus over little old ladies, kick puppies. You get your dark side points up by being a total douche to everyone you need. Curiously, if you really dig into SW lore being excessively altruistic, goody two-shoes can also lead to the dark side because you end up too emotionally involved in their bullshit. Light side Jedi should be calm, detached pillars of serenity who always keep their distance, and never rush into things. But the only way to get light side points up is by helping every NPC you meet, making friends and totally getting personally and emotionally involved in their bullshit.
Jade Empire was the same way. It also had some underlying philosophy to the karma system. The Open Palm path was all about selflessness, altruism, helping others with a little bit of zen thrown in for a good measure. The Closed Fist path had more of an objectivistic bent was about personal growth, and overcoming obstacles and constantly challenging yourself while striving for excellence. It considered charity and altruism to be harmful since by helping someone who was in trouble you essentially robbed them of a chance to overcome their issues on their own and thus made them weaker. It made sense conceptually, but once again the game play mechanic did not support it.
Let me give you an example – you are walking along, and some poor woman runs to you and asks you (the hero) to help her find her missing/kidnapped children/husband whatever. Now if you are playing a Closed Fist character you would politely decline this offer, and perhaps give her a short spiel on personal responsibility, and taking things into her own hands or whatever. But that’s not what happens. You can either choose to help her out of goodness of your heart or demand exuberant sum of money. The poor woman is desperate so she pays you, and then you punch her in the face, and while she is unconscious you sell her into slavery.
Same deal with Fable – and I even hear it’s like that in Fallout 3. You either play as a total saint, or as a criminally insane murderous sociopath.
Not to mention that the evil side usually plays just like the good side, only with slightly different dialog choices. When you are a good guy, all the NPC’s ask you for help and you gladly volunteer your services for free, and they are so grateful that they pay you anyway. This is actually sort of a staple of the genre actually. In any game with karma system you can totally decline a monetary reward because the NPC’s will insist on giving it to you anyway, along with a nice side order of “good guy points” to boot. When you play an infamous evil dude people still ask you for help and you can’t just blow them off. You can try, but usually there are no dialog options for that, or if they are, the writers set it up so that you end up dong the important quests anyway. So you being evil essentially boils down to haggling over the quest reward.
They already wrote the story in which the hero is an altruistic angel who helps everyone on his way. To accommodate someone who wants to play a self serving or even a malevolent person would have to pretty much rewrite the whole plot from scratch? Why? Because an evil guy will simply opt to skip all the side quests that involve saving orphans, helping downtrodden peasants and etc. And since this is likely 80% of the game content, they they just massage the dialog options to somehow explain why a super-evil guy would give a flying fuck about someone’s missing child, lost broomstick or whatever. Usually, it’s cash reward which the character will demand up front.
So when you replay the game as a bad guy, it’s essentially all the same content – you just spend all your time insulting people, and trying to rip them off or steal from them. But in the end, the quest rewards are usually exactly the same for both character types, no matter what they do.
This is a bit silly. Why evil translates into “dick” in these games? Back in the day my friend used to play an evil Necromancer in Wahammer Fantasy RPG (the real, pen and paper one). WFRP did not have a grid alignment system like D&D – it had pretty much had an axis that went Lawful, Good, Neutral, Evil, Chaotic. It was slightly more limited than the D&D system, but the game was also very lax about how one should handle the alignment. It consisted from rough guidelines: elves are good, dwarfs are neutral, chaos cultists and are chaotic, witch hunters and religious zealots are lawful. The rest was pretty much up for interpretation.
Anyway, he plaid an evil necromancer – do you think he was an ass to all the NPC’s? Hell no! His character actually had the highest charisma in the company and he fucking role-played it! He was the nicest, kindest, most polite person in the world. But he was also unmistakably evil, since he always had his own personal agenda, and had no qualms about murdering and torturing people, or stealing from them. But only when it was appropriate or if it could be justified.
The thing about explicit evil is that it doesn’t really fly in most societies. If you are openly an evil bastard, others will quickly identify you as such and will treat you with contempt. Even someone is position of power should be careful about revealing their evil streak. Most openly evil overlords fall, because their subjects eventually get fed up with the oppression and general duchebaggery and overthrow them. On the other hand a secretly evil ruler, is much more difficult to topple. If he is beloved by the populace, there will be no uprising. If the ruler is benevolent and kind in public, the heroes of the land cannot openly quest to remove him from power – at least not the lawful ones.
So if you are playing an evil character it is probably in your best interest to act as if you were lawful good with the distinction that your actions are driven not by the kindness of your heart, but by your personal agenda and your dark urges. Best type of evil characters are ones who do not reveal their true nature to anyone. Sometimes you meet NPC’s who are like this. But almost no game with a karma based system will ever allow you to play one. In most cases, choosing to be evil will prevent you from ever being polite, charming or even civil to other people. You are doomed to walk the earth as a total dick, who can’t resist the urge to hurl insults at anyone in sight.
This is not evil. This is chaotic-stupid, and it has to go. So if you are designing a game, and you are thinking a karma based system is a good idea, then stop. It’s not. It is almost impossible to get this thing right, and you will most likely limit player choices in the process.
The funny thing is that the only games that really allow me to play an evil bastard are ones which do not have the karma system. Games like Oblivion or Morrowind allow me to be super charming to an NPC, milk him for information using nothing but my charisma, then rob his house or kill him while he is sleeping. I mean, really – why do we need a slider or a counter to tell us how morally corrupt out character is at any given time.
A karma counter makes moral choices simply a matter of balancing an equation. Let’s say you killed bunch of “younglings” – that’s the sort of fucked up thing to do that ought to haunt you for the rest of your life. In karma based games though, all you need to do to redeem yourself is to go and give some money to a beggar, give out bottled water in the street, or donate money in the temple and you are in the clear. It’s a bit silly.
Karma based systems suck – period. Of course if you can come up with an example where it was executed properly and actually added complexity and choices to the game instead of reducing them, I’d love to know about it.