Video games have long allowed you to take on villainous roles, but there's a difference between playing a monster and becoming one.
Do you defuse the bomb and save Megaton? Or let it explode and take the town with it?
Fallout 3's big decision is memorable for its stark simplicity and big consequences. It should be an easy choice and it certainly seems open-and-shut on the surface. What monster would let a city, and all the people in it, burn? Well, the wages of sin is wealth. Defuse the bomb and you'll earn 300 caps and an apartment in Megaton. But let it explode and your haul increases to 1,000 caps, plus a luxe penthouse in Tenpenny Tower where you can kick your feet up.
Even with incentives, though...
"I could only bring myself to do it once," said Dan Shafer, associate professor of Film and Digital Media at Baylor University and author of Moral Choice in Video Games. "The feeling you get after blowing up the town for the evil Tenpenny is terrible. And, to make it worse, when you go back to the crater where Megaton once stood, you encounter ghouls, former townspeople who weren't killed in the blast, but were turned into mournful zombies. It is gut-wrenching."
Shafer isn't alone in his discomfort. Many players are hesitant to become death, the destroyer of worlds. Early last year, John Ebenger, a former cinematic designer at BioWare, that only 8% of players chose the Renegade options in the Mass Effect games. Mass Effect's Paragon and Renegade choices don't map perfectly to the Good versus Evil of the Megaton choice, but other developers of choice-based RPGs have observed a similar split.
"That's consistent with the numbers I've seen," Carrie Patel, a senior narrative designer at Obsidian, said, citing one of The Outer Worlds' defining moral choices--whether to turn against the scientist who rescued your character from cryosleep and join forces with the monolithic, hyper-capitalist Board--as an example. "The vast majority of players side with Phineas."
Stephane Beauverger, narrative director on Dontnod's Vampyr, echoed that sentiment.
"According to some statistics we had while working on the project, we learnt that when facing a moral dilemma (invited to choose between a 'good' or a 'bad' decision), about 75% of the players prefer to take the morally high road," Beauverger said via email.
But... why? Video games have famously invited us to rampage. There's even a famous video game called Rampage. So why the unease about making bad choices? Do certain kinds of games evoke guilt? And what kind doesn't? How does the Jaws-simulator Maneater, for example, make it feel effortlessly fun to massacre innocent human beings? How does Carrion's limb-ripping carnage sidestep guilt in favor of glee? By contrast, why do choice-based RPGs--which often ask us to do small unkind acts in the name of roleplaying a villainous character--often leave us with pangs of regret? And how do skilled developers coax players over the moral threshold?
To answer those questions and more, we need to take a closer look at the work developers do to create compelling games, and the work psychologists and academics have done to help us better understand the engines that power moral choice.
Humanize The Monster, Dehumanize The Humans
In 2020, the games industry produced a bumper crop of titles that cast players as literal monsters. Maneater, Carrion, Destroy All Humans!; each cast players as human-killing creatures and gave them permission to go wild. David Sallman, who worked as lead game designer on Black Forest Games' remake of Destroy All Humans!, in which players take on the role of a hilariously murderous extraterrestrial, laid out a simple roadmap for getting players to identify with humanity's adversaries.
"Reducing humans to caricatures, basically dehumanizing them, is a first step to do this," said Sallman. "Another step is to then humanize the aliens.... Giving alien protagonists depth and taking it away from humans helps establish the congruent goals between the player and [alien protagonist] Crypto from a ludonarrative standpoint. Humans that are portrayed with some extent of depth are almost exclusively evil, giving the player a justification to go after them."
In other words, sometimes being a member of the same species isn't enough to get on a player's good side. In fact, players often naturally develop kinship with the character they're playing, even if that character is a massive red blob of teeth and tentacles.
"I think it's actually easier than it sounds. Just by giving the player control over the creature or the villain, you automatically kind of start being somewhat sympathetic to the character, at least to some extent," said Krzysztof Chomicki, game and level designer for Phobia Studios' Carrion, in which players control a tentacle-slinging blob creature that eats people to grow larger and more dangerous. Chomicki recalled experiencing something similar while playing the Alien versus Predator games in the early 2000s.
"Mostly because I was allowed to play as the Predator, I formed this kind of bond [with] that character, which doesn't happen when something is just the villain. When you just go around shooting xenomorphs, you may think they are cool, but you don't necessarily feel sympathetic towards them. I guess this is kind of what's going on in Carrion: just by giving players control of the blob-like creature, they automatically start caring for it. It becomes this kind of Tamagotchi."
And, as Bill Munk, game director on Tripwire Interactive's Maneater, points out, games don't exist in a vacuum. Players take to controlling the murderous, human-chomping shark in Maneater, in part, because they have internalized the popular mythology of the shark as communicated by Discovery Channel's Shark Week and films like Jaws, The Shallows and Sharknado.
"In a way, we have popular shark fiction to thank for making Maneater's main character so effective," Munk said. "When players have spent so much time sharing their fear of sharks with the characters they see in movies and TV, and then they are given the chance to become that shark they've spent so much time fearing, they naturally unlearn [that fear] because we've presented them with the opportunity to detach from that fear and step into the shoes of the monster that's creating it."
"In the end, killing humans isn't the fun part of the game. Killing humans is a vehicle for the fun part."
"The idea of Maneater being a hilariously narrated nature documentary that emphasizes the real beauty of sharks contrasted with the hateful views of the shark-murdering villain, Scaly Pete, does a lot to also remind players that, in real life, we are more of a danger to sharks than they are to us. It flips the script a little bit and allows the player to start to empathize. Then we make Scaly Pete kill the player shark's mom, and suddenly everyone is out for blood."
In action games, players are accustomed to accepting that they have to kill all the bad guys. Often, those bad guys are other humans. The justification for why you have to kill them all may be good (they're Nazis and they're shooting at me!), or it may be flimsy (they're in my way!), but humans are and have basically always been a common enemy type in video games. It doesn't seem to make much of a difference in our moral calculations if our own avatar is human, too.
And in action games like Carrion, Destroy All Humans!and Maneater, it helps that developers don’t leave the decision-making up to us.
"Paradoxically, you are free to go on a rampage if you do not have a choice," said Sallman. "It does help absolve one of guilt, although in the end it's just one factor among many."
Make It Fun
Of course, the moral calculus of ripping and tearing through unsuspecting beachgoers, shrieking scientists and trigger-happy 1950s farmers is unimportant if it isn't fun. If the violence is satisfying, though, players are often willing to ignore any moral qualms they might have with their role in it. But as game developers know, fun is often elusive and finding it takes up a significant portion of development time.
We often speak about video games as power fantasies, and games that cast players as the villain are fulfilling that fantasy.
"[The monster is] not exactly overpowered, but you have the feeling of being extremely powerful and [that] nothing can really stand in your way as long as you're using the properties of the monster; all of its abilities and its physicality and the tentacles," Chomicki said of Carrion. "You're super powerful, and I think that sheer feeling of power and the power fantasy here is very strong, so I guess that's what makes it fun to annihilate everything."
Outside the realm of straightforward action, the fantasy of being able to cut through red tape--of being powerful at work--is one way of paying off more villainous dialogue choices. Patel cited these bureaucracy bolt cutters as one of the key appeals of playing Renegade in the Mass Effect series.
"Aside from the space racism Renegade answers, the rest of it is actually really fun because there's something really liberating and cathartic to being like, 'Well, I'm the Shepard who doesn't deal with office politics, I'm the Shepard who says exactly what she thinks,’” Patel said.
Sallman emphasized this aspect, too; the way that games allow us to do things we couldn't otherwise do is part of their appeal.
"Inside of a safe context, conflict and challenges are inherently fun. Just look at the stories in books, movies, and games in general," Sallman said. "Dressing that as physical conflict, i.e. combat, is the simplest method to achieve this. We can abstract the killing in the same way as kids playing cops and robbers understand that they are not actually committing murder and larceny, and that playing chess is not war.... In the end, killing humans isn't the fun part of the game. Killing humans is a vehicle for the fun part."
"Just by giving the player control over the creature or the villain, you automatically kind of start being somewhat sympathetic to the character."
For Sallman's team, the fun was already there in the original 2005 version of Destroy All Humans!, and updating the game for modern audiences was, primarily, a process of accentuating existing elements.
"All of this was already there in the original game. We simply made Crypto and the world more responsive, enhancing the player's capabilities and how the environment reacts to their acts of destruction," Sallman said. "For example, something as simple as leaving scorch marks on the ground after you blasted it with the death ray."
Sallman's comment emphasizes an interesting truth about "finding the fun." Fun isn't the result of one big decision. It's the result of small choices--like rumble or audio feedback or "scorch marks on the ground."
Right And Wrong
While action games turn rampages into romps by making them fun and helping players empathize with otherwise-monstrous protagonists, the consequences of evil decisions are rarely as immediate, visceral, or satisfying in choice-driven RPGs. Chomicki points to this lack of immediacy as one of the challenges RPG developers face, which he was able to evade in making an action game.
"In RPGs, it's done mostly through dialogue or at least your actions are somehow summarized through dialogue," he said. “It's hard to make the consequences of your evil deed feel satisfying because, unless you're kind of a psychopath by nature, it's hard to make you feel good about messing someone's life up."
Despite the fact that roleplaying games are just games, players often have a hard time deciding to do things they consider immoral. Félice van Nunspeet, assistant professor of Social, Health and Organizational Psychology at Utrecht University, said that social conditioning affects the range of choices we feel comfortable making--even in a virtual setting.
"Psychological research shows the utter importance for people to socially connect to others: to be accepted, respected, to belong to a group (or actually several groups, depending on what social identity is emphasized)," van Nunspeet said in an interview via email "'Doing good' is a way to become or stay part of a group, to be socially included; with 'bad' choices, one risks the chance of exclusion and disapproval and that hurts. Social neuroscientific research even shows that our brain responds in a similar, yet intensified, way to social exclusion versus monetary losses."
"It's important to note, however, that 'doing good' usually means people are inclined to conform to the norms of the group they want to belong to--regardless of what that normative behavior is," van Nunspeet said. [In other words], what can be considered 'good' behavior in one group/from one perspective, can be considered 'bad' in/from another. Think, for instance, about protecting one's own group members at the expense of others (e.g., killing enemies). If a virtual environment is where we can be the best version of ourselves, then it may be no surprise that even in such a setting people are motivated to avoid bad (behavioral) decisions that can cause disapproval from others."
So even though video games do provide a safe place to do bad things with no real-world consequences, most players are hesitant to check their conception of right and wrong at the door. Even a longtime RPG player like Leonard Boyarsky, developer of the original Fallout, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines and The Outer Worlds, has a hard time bucking the norms when he tests one of his role-playing games.
"Speaking personally, I always have problems," Boyarsky said on a video call last fall. "I love including the evil path, but even when I'm trying to test it I have to force myself to remember I'm testing the evil path, because my natural inclination is to want to try to go the good route."
According to Shafer, the author of "Moral Choice in Video Games" and who, you'll remember, had a similarly difficult time deciding to bomb Megaton, this is normal.
"I think most gamers instinctively play their avatars with a great deal of themselves projected into them," said Shafer. "There are exceptions, of course. There are gamers who tend to be evil just to go against the grain. But yes, I would say that most people want to be good in games. We want to be heroes and act heroically. That usually involves goodness and righteousness on some level. One reason we play games is to transcend our daily lives; transcendence is an important eudaimonic response. We don't usually want to be worse than we are in real life; we want to be better, and that is reflected in our gameplay."
What's The Point?
That's unfortunate for the developers of choice-based RPGs, who often work to include just as much content paying off bad choices as good ones. But it does raise questions (and provide the opportunity to offer answers) about the role evil choices were designed to play.
"I think it's interesting to consider: what is the point of the evil path? And sometimes I think it's just to have a counterpoint to the more heroic path. You're only making a choice if there's something else available for you to do," Patel said.
So the choices that a game offers us, ideally, will tell us something about the breadth of characters players can roleplay and something about the world that the developers have designed for us to inhabit. In Obsidian's Tyranny for example, the player is cast as a high-ranking officer in service to a dark lord in a kingdom where evil has already won the day. As a result, players' choices are limited to "bad" and "worse." We understand the world, and the role that we have to play in it, through the dialogue options that are offered us.
"We don't usually want to be worse than we are in real life; we want to be better, and that is reflected in our gameplay."
Similarly, for Beauverger, moral choice was an opportunity to shape Vampyr players' conception of the monster they were inhabiting. In the 2018 action role-playing game, players take on the role of Jonathan, a doctor who has been transformed into a vampire during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. While the character’s morality dictates that he should “do no harm,” his newfound bloodlust tempts him to feast on the people of London. The player is incentivized, too, as they gain experience points for drinking an NPC's blood. And, if they spend the time to get to know a character before feasting, the rewards increase.
"I believe it was easier to invite or incite the players to become mass murderers, since they are playing as a mythical creature. As bloodthirsty and killing predators, vampires traditionally also are romantic figures, much more than werewolves, zombies, or any other classical monsters," Beauverger saud. "It is often seen as 'cool' to be a vampire, to lure your victim and savagely kill it in a dark alley. So we carefully crafted our game design trap: use that bias to incite the player to kill to become stronger a vampire… and then confront him [with] the consequences. But make no mistake: Jonathan isa monster, and the real fight he has to pull is against himself, and his appetite, throughout the game."
Jonathan may well be a monster. And games will, undoubtedly, continue to entice us to follow in his footsteps. But to overcome our social conditioning, developers' techniques will need to continue to evolve. While roleplaying games are successful at convincing us that they are telling our story--that we are the hero saving Megaton or the villain destroying it--maybe we're better off as victims, caught in the trap as it springs.