The Nature of Evil in Computer RPGs

...as in, How can you tell any special difference, anyway?  It’s a surprisingly knotty question to answer. Objectively speaking, most regular playthroughs of a computer roleplaying game (RPG) -- even by ostensibly ‘good’ characters -- will exhibit behaviors and activities that in real life would get the committer of them arrested, convicted, and possibly “shot while resisting arrest.”  This is an old, old, old complaint about video games; but fear not. I’m not going to go down the far-too-usual twin routes of willfully misunderstanding the nature of escapism and ascribing out-of-game ethical consequences to in-game decisions.  Instead, we’re going to talk about how evil is consciously portrayed in computer RPGs, and maybe a bit on what limits there are for players to have their characters go along with said portrayal.

The easiest way that games handle Evil in computer RPGs is to make the whole thing rather linear.  Consider, say, Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy: there’s no real attempt to present both sides.  The Reapers are flat-out horrible; here’s some body horror to justify that moral judgment; now go shoot everything that presents itself as a target and don’t worry about whether you made the right call. Easy enough -- and effective enough, given good writing. But it’s made clear in that kind of dichotomy that there’s an invisible ceiling there when it comes to morality on the player’s part: Commander Shepard may as be nice or mean as she can manage while she’s fighting the Reapers, but she doesn’t get to switch sides. Similarly: the Knights of the Old Republic games will let you be a Sith.  They’ll even let you kill your companions.  But you will still be a Sith that fights the main villains.

Of course, a large number of more nuanced Good vs. Evil plot-lines in computer RPGs could more accurately be described as “Us. vs. Them.”  The first example that comes to mind on this would be Troika Games’ Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, which is largely about which particular set of inhuman predators with fairly arbitrary checks on their behavior would continue to rule over Los Angeles (note: the repaired version of this game is amazingly good). There’s also the Imperials vs. Stormcloaks Civil War questline in Skyrim, where the fact that the Other Side has Nazi Elves / virulently xenophobic racists working for it only comes up under very carefully controlled circumstances, and never to the point where it might actually interfere with the main character’s life in any possible way. Or, really, a lot of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed games; as the company itself demonstrated in Assassin’s Creed III, the game concept works just as well if you’re playing a Templar instead of an Assassin.