Back when I reviewed Fallout I criticized it’s karma system very harshly. I haven’t changed my mind on this. You can’t reduce morality to a sliding scale between good and evil. It just doesn’t work that way – not even in video games. Even D&D used to have a more complex, alignment system than that. At least before they have turned it into a tabletop version of World of Warcraft with the latest edition. And yet, more and more games include the simplistic good vs evil slider. Why?
Every time a game includes this feature, the designers always point towards it and say “look, our game is about difficult moral choices”. Bullshit! It is not. If you want difficult moral choices, or modal ambiguity you leave the karma system out of the equation. Awarding good/evil points for player choices strips them out of any ambiguity. There must always be an entirely good and entirely evil choice – and they are fairly easy to identify.
The only games that have any business using this sort of system are those based on the Star Wars license because the light vs. dark side is built into that universe. But there is always more to that struggle than meets the eye. The two sides of the force are really just reflections on how the Jedi choose to harness and focus their powers. Light side powers require concentration, and inner peace – and thus Light Side Jedi are usually serene, detached, zen like monk types. On the other hand, dark side is fueled by raw emotion and so the dark Jedi tend to be selfish, impulsive, short tempered and driven by their passions. The more they give into their emotions and urges, the more powerful they become. It is a feedback loop – a light Jedi will gravitate toward state of perfect serenity and enlightenment until he becomes so detached he no longer is able to relate to normal people. A dark Jedi will be on a downward spiral towards becoming a dangerous sociopath. They are two sides of the same coin, and both are dangerous – though the dark side corrupts one faster and is more seductive.
This is beautifully explained through dialogs and cut scenes in the Knights of the Old Republic games. But when it comes to applying this to a game mechanic, even these games fuck it up and reduce this to a standard: “kick the starving puppy vs. feed the starving puppy” scenario.
I’m still waiting for a Star Wars game which would get this system right. How would I do light vs dark side in a video game? I’d allow the player to learn both light and dark side powers. Then in combat I would give them two pools which they could use to fuel their force powers. One would be something like “rage”, the other would be something like “focus”. You’d start the combat with an empty focus bar and partly filled rage bar. Offensive maneuvers would fill the range bar, while the more defensive would drain it and instead fill up the focus bar. Thus a Dark Jedi would gravitate towards reckless violence and high damage output, while Light Jedi would be cautious defensive.
The game would track how often which powers are used the same way Morrowind and Oblivion did. Each time you cross some threshold your power gets upgraded. At the same time the focus and rage bars are re sized – one grows while the other one shrinks by approximately the same amount. The further you go towards one of the extremes, the more difficult it is to use the powers of the other side.
Then I would start modifying the dialog options based on the difference between the capacities of the two bars. Someone leaning towards one of the sides would lose certain dialog options. Dark side characters would grow more self serving and deranged while the light side players would grow more detached and obsessed with maintaining their inner peace.
Of course this sort of system would make a spontaneous, last minute conversion impossible. But personally, I would be fine with that. IMHO, Vader’s sudden change of heart at the end of RoJ was just bad writing. I always felt cheated when SW games would allow me to press a button, and instantly redeem all my crimes or erase all my good deeds in the final act.
But I digress. What I really wanted to talk about is why games use this sort of systems at all. Some, like Star Wars titles use it for unlocking certain powers and/or items. You must be this good, or this evil to wield particular artifact or cast particular spell. As I have shown above, such a prerequisite system could be easily solved mechanically. Simply let the player choose the powers they like, and then see which ones they train. If they go all out on evil powers, then turn them evil. If they choose to study good powers, they become better people in the process.
Other games use it as a quick and dirty reputation substitute. Your karma score is more like fame and/or infamy – and it controls which NPC’s are friendly and which are hostile to you. This is of course a gross oversimplification. A fully fledged reputation system with multiple factions often allied or at war with each other is almost always more entertaining than division on the good vs evil axis.
In fact, I submit that every time you are itching to add a karma system to your game, you could successfully replace it with a faction based reputation system (well, excluding Star Wars games I guess). Don’t believe me? Let’s use Fallout 3 as an example. How would this game look if we divided it into factions such as Megaton, Rivet City, GNR, etc… Most of these major settlements would be allied with each other so each time you increase your reputation with, say Megaton, you also get some small bonuses with all the other associated factions. If on the other hand you blow up megaton your reputation amongst the Raiders and Slavers skyrockets, but Three Dog will probably badmouth you on the radio all day.
Net result is almost the same, but now we are dealing with something concrete and tangible rather than nebulous concept of karma. People love you or hate you for very specific reasons – because you helped them, or helped their allies. It shifts the focus off the shallow good vs. evil choices to political maneuvering and diplomacy.
What is even more interesting it can be used to introduce realistic and complex moral dilemmas that would be impossible with a traditional Karma system. For example, what if the faction you are currently working for is doing something unbelievably bad. Do you participate in their atrocities just because it pays well and earns you much needed reputation? Or do you do the right thing, turn on them and risk severing relationships with all their allies?
How about alignment based system where certain powers and/or items are restricted for certain characters? That is even simpler. Instead of restricting the powerful uber-artifacts to positive or negative karma users make them faction specific. To obtain them, you must achieve certain status among the people who created them. That probably means that to obtain the Dreaded Sword of Violent Debauchery you will have to do some nasty quests for some shady organization. Once again, the end result is the same (character committing evil acts) but you are not shoving your own moral judgment down the player’s throat.
Of course a reputation based system is more difficult to implement. Instead of a single slider scale that goes up and down now you have few dozens of reputation values, some of which are interconnected. So there is a little bit more work involved, but compared to the total effort that usually goes into making a game, switching from karma to reputation would be trivial. Look at World of Warcraft for example – it has hundreds of interconnected factions, millions of players and it has no problems keeping track of all of them. A game like Fallout 3 just needs to track reputation of a single character with a dozen factions. It is completely doable.
Feel free to defend karma based systems in the comments. Maybe I’m missing something here. Perhaps there are circumstances where they perform better than reputation systems. Star Wars is of course a notable exception, for obvious reasons. Are there other exceptions out there?