Reputation vs. Karma

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?

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11 Responses to Reputation vs. Karma

  1. A true “difficult moral choice” would be a ethical dilemma, which doesn’t have a clearly defined “good” or “evil” response. The player would have to choose a action in a multi-directional conflict between several of the player’s own moral imperatives. (This is the bread and butter of TNG, and much of scifi)

    You are contacted by an alien from a species with three sexes, all necessary for reproduction, and its sex is considered slaves to the other two in its culture. Gets no education and is only used for reproduction. Do you help it? Ignore it? Try to influence their culture to change? Force their culture to change? Destroy their entire species for their own good?

    A charismatic traveler stops in your village for a few days to rest. Just as he is about to leave two separate parties show up and demand that you hand the traveler over. Each is led by a father, who has each dragged his reluctant daughter along, and a band of guards. Each claims that the traveler charmed and impregnated his daughters and should therefore marry her. Do you pick sides? Help the traveler escape? Hand the traveler over and let them fight it out? Lots of possibilities with no obvious answer.

    That’s what I like to see in games. Oblivion managed to toss in a couple of these in, I think. There was the paranoid guy that wanted you to kill his alleged stalkers, who obviously weren’t stalking him at all. Turn him in? Kill him? Kill the “stalkers” for a profit? Or another time a man hires you to recover an important dagger (I think) for him but it turns out the dagger was originally stolen from the queen. Returning it would make the town happy, as it’s a famous artifact, but you have an obligation to the one who hired you. The player has a choice to make.

    I think a multidimensional moral slider could cover a wide range of responses fairly well. As you mentioned, D&D has its two-dimensional scale, and it turns out to be very applicable, even outside of tabletop games.

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  2. Square UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    The only game that has ever given me a difficult choice is Fable 2; not throughout the whole game, but one portion. I’ll try to spoil it as little as possible.

    There is a point in the game in which you become essentially enslaved, and you must choose between resistance or compliance. Compliance saves you, while resistance drains you of your skills and experience. It’s not all thrown into one choice either – It’s presented in blocks of time in which you must sit and experience your choice taking place. Even better, you can comply in any given scenario at the last minute only to save what little of yourself you have left.

    The outcome of the game’s world heavily depends on your character’s morality as well, so it indeed does matter. It worked great, and I actually felt as if I had been broken down to the point there was no other option but to comply.

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  3. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I am of the opinion that “good” and “evil” can never be represented properly in games. My idea of what’s good may be different than the one interpreted by the game.

    Plus, in most games, the motivation of choosing all good or evil options is usually because the best stuff (items, powers, etc) are for the end of the spectrum, which seems to satisfy the “look-at-me-I’m-uber!” crowd. Plus, there is usually no reward for a neutral character, and this bugs me more. Why can’t there be a third option: feed the starving puppy, kill the starving puppy or leave it as it is (you got more important things to do).

    I like to see a game that provides me with choice and motivations for each choice I make. It need not define if those motivations are for good or evil; it can let the player decide. Probably the reason why I’m waiting for Age Of Decadence. It’s supposed to be a game about choices and how those will impact the world around you. Sounds better than “make the good choice and get The Great Bow Of Justice” or “make the evil choice and get The Great Gun Of Malice” kind of choices.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Chris, I like those scenarios. I wish more games would use stuff like that. :)

    @Square – Well, Fable 1 was sort of the poster child for a bad karma based system. I haven’t played the sequel but maybe they polished that formula to something better.

    @Mart – Oooh, that game looks old school. :) Nice! I also see they are using a reputation system rather than flat karma thing which bodes well for moral ambiguity. :)

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  5. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I generally agree about the faction based “karma” system. The more factions the better. But in the end, Good and Evil are just two factions amongst others, and Neutral could also be one (like in Mart’s example). One could see Good, Evil and Neutral factions as “religions” (not per se socially organized). These factions would give you bonus, extra quests, objects and so on, based on your advancement on them. And, just like other factions, they don’t need to be mutually exclusive, just opposed. One could be a member of the Good, Neutral, Merchants and Spy Guild factions, for instance. This would not prevent him from being also Evil and a Thief Guild member, but make the situation a lot more difficult for him (with conflicting quests and situations). I agree that everything is in the motivation. Each Evil quest should present clear rewards, easy gain, selfish power and so on. And each one should be subtle enough to push the player to fulfil them by doing something evil.

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  6. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Well, Fallout 2 implements a reputation system on a per town basis, and there are towns at war with each other so helping one stop the leaking power plant might anger the other, depending on how you do it.

    I don’t mind karma meters as I simply ignore them. Fallout3 is annoying as it popups each time you do something, but usually in games it’s just a stat somewhere you can afford to forget. What I enjoy are the saint/psychopath choices that are often so over the top that I couldn’t have thought of it myself. One particular example I’ll always remember is in KOTOR: when you kill one the planet’s species god, they want to ban you but you can blackmail them into revealing their weakened state to the sith, so they have to let you visit the city as you see fit.

    @Matt: the “leave it alone” option is usually present, but you miss out on XP, experience, possible loot, possible follow-up…

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  7. Hello, I am Travis ;)

    I believe that Fable 2 really does a great job with the Karma system, and it really changes the game dramatically with each choice you make. Now of course there are still clear cut decisions you must make but you never have to be hardline good or hardline evil. Actually to successfully conquer the entire world (to buy every piece of property, etc), you must be both.

    I was evil because I enjoyed slaughtering towns of people… Who doesn’t?

    Now you could say that this reduces morality to black and white, but maybe our culture has added too many shades of gray to our style of life? I come from the mindset of something is either “right” or its “wrong” 1+1 ALWAYS = 2 and robing someone is ALWAYS bad.

    Though there was one spot in the game where these ninja type guys tried to attack me in front of my house and me being the brute man that I am… was protecting my family and while I was attacking these guys I accedently killed my wife. I was intending on protecting her… but I killed her on accedent so they took away my child (which is okay I didn’t love him much anyway). But then again, I shouldn’t have had the attack everyone option turned on… I don’t know where I was going with that… other then I killed my wife protecting my family.

    I mean I guess they could add more rounded ways of doing things in fable meaning that you could still complete a mission being both evil or good… you just have a different way of doing it (and there are some missions like that, but there COULD be more)…

    I find that the simple Good/Evil counter is perfect in the game because its what it is all about… though there are really 4 paths in Fable 2 there is Pureity and Corruption, Good and Evil and it is possible to be pure and evil, or Good and Corrupt.

    I somehow managed to be corrupt even when I was trying to be good :( Maybe thats just a part of me ;) ;)

    I am kinda rambling, look at the timestamp for reasons why.

    I like how one of the morrowwind games did it, where you could either go up to the guy, and he would send you on a mission accross the desert that you had to walk forever accross, OOOOOOOOOOR you could just kill him and have all the town guards after you… but both yeild the same result. This does not influence any type of “counter” its just simply your actions have a result.

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Travis McCrea wrote:

    Now you could say that this reduces morality to black and white, but maybe our culture has added too many shades of gray to our style of life? I come from the mindset of something is either “right” or its “wrong” 1+1 ALWAYS = 2 and robing someone is ALWAYS bad.

    How about Robin Hood who was robbing the corrupt rich elites to feed the poor starving peasants? While the act of robbery itself is considered disreputable and evil, Robin Hood tends to fall in the gray area. Most people tend to view him as a positive hero type.

    Re: Fable – I haven’t played Fable 2 but in the first game the wives were sort of interchangeable. They had no personalities, and they all used the same 3-4 models so you could easily find replacements. So I didn’t really care for them that much.

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  9. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I am currently testing Gothic II (I know it is an old game) and I like the morality system. It is fairly simple: you never know if you are doing something good or bad, but the consequences are going to hit you behind the head quite soon. I mean for instance: a NPC offers to help you sneak in the city in exchange for a “small service in the future”; of course, the service is not small at all and involves sending someone in jail under false accusations; the threat if you don’t comply is to rat you to the police as an intruder. What will you do? By the way, as far as I have seen until now, none of the factions is particularly good. The Paladins are a bunch of arrogant people who boss everyone around and starve the peasants. The peasants have organized a militia to defend against them, but this militia terrorize the people to chose their side. There seem to be a thief faction and a priest/mage faction too, but I doubt they are any better.

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  10. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Luke Maciak wrote:

    Travis McCrea wrote:

    and robing someone is ALWAYS bad.

    How about Robin Hood who was robbing the corrupt rich elites to feed the poor starving peasants?

    If you look closely, Travis was actually talking about robing people, and I agree entirely that putting a robe onto another person without their consent is a villainous act of the highest order

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