Karma and Choice

You’re alone in the undersea ruins of a metropolis.  Your only companion is the disembodied voice of a man named Atlas.  Ahead, you see what appears to be a little girl, scurrying away from you.  Atlas’ voice tells you she isn’t a little girl anymore—she is a thing that was created by the scientist Bridget Tenenbaum.  If you rip out the parasite in the girl’s body, you can take her beneficial ADAM, killing her in the process, but making your immediately more powerful.  Just then Dr. Tenenbaum makes an appearance on the balcony above.  She tells you to spare the little girl.  You will get less ADAM, but she promises to make it worth your while in the end.  What do you do?

would-you-make-an-r-rated-bioshockThis was the question Irrational Games asked of players in the excellent game Bioshock.  While choice in games has been around for a long time, Bioshock seemed to usher in a new “golden age” of karma-based gameplay and decision making.

Spoiler alert!  I’ll be talking about the plots of multiple games in this article, including the Bioshock, Mass Effect, Fallout, and Infamous series.  There will be MAJOR spoilers!  Read on at your own peril!

Following Bioshock’s excellent example, there has been an influx of recent games that take this karma mechanic and attempt to make it their own.  Games such as the Mass Effect and Infamous series are examples of titles that use karmic choice to different effects and to varied results.

In my opinion, Mass Effect has had the best implementation of the karma/choice mechanic in recent years.  The entire game seems to be built around the decisions you make as Commander Shepherd.  A number of crucial decisions in the first Mass Effect dictate the lives/deaths of many characters—and these deaths affect the entire series!  Spending the extra time to help a squad member deal with some personal issues in Mass Effect 2 could help them fight harder for you in the end.  A crucial debate with a very popular character in Mass Effect 3 could end in disaster.  Even the smaller decisions, like what to say to a news reporter or whether or not you grab some high-quality rations for the crew of the Normandy can set events in motion that you payoff in the end.

Mass-Effect-3-DecisionsIn Mass Effect’s case, the choices you make help to make your character unique.  When you get high enough in the karmic scale (paragon for good, renegade for evil), you can even open up different dialogue options.  If that’s not for you, there are always three or four other options.  I’ve found these options to be a good selection between good, neutral, and evil.  You can answer in a way that makes sense for your character.  You can even perform paragon or renegade actions in the final game of the trilogy.  When a thug is trying to hustle you on the street, you may get a renegade action to shoot him in the face.  If two of your crewmembers are arguing, a paragon action may present itself to allow you to interrupt and settle them down.

These choices are so effective because they affect the story in such a gigantic way—sometimes even instantaneously—and the effects are felt long after you’ve turned the system off.

My first time through a game that features some kind of karma is usually completed on the good side of things.  I’ve found that the good play-through is usually the one that makes the most sense in regards to the story.

For example, if you decide to be a hooligan in Infamous: Second Son, and you get the bad karma ending, you are lead to believe that Delsin will be going to the conduit prison to free everyone and “shake each one of their hands on their way out,” saying he will absorb every one of their powers, becoming some kind of super-weapon against the persecution of so called bio-terrorists.  Also, considering the fact that he destroys one of his tribe’s landmarks and kills everyone inside, you are lead to believe that he will stop at nothing to get what he wants.  In short, he becomes the bio-terrorist that the world was afraid of.  How this will mesh with a possible sequel is yet to be known, but it seems like the developers will have to stretch a little to make it plausible.

On the other hand, if you play with good karma throughout the game, Delsin becomes a kind of local hero, but still a conduit in a society that doesn’t quite trust him yet.  What could this mean in a future Infamous game?  It leaves many possibilities open, including the government using him to go after actual bio-terrorists, or continuing to fight against an oppressive agency that sees him as only a threat.

I think that if I were a developer, I would have to assume most people would want to continue the story as the “True Hero” Delsin, rather than the “Infamous” Delsin, so I would need to craft a sequel that more logically ties to that side of the scale.

After all, nobody wants to be a total dick.  Well, not permanently, at least.

Screen-shot-2013-08-21-at-4.04.44-PMBeing evil in a video game can really take it out of a person.  In the evil ending of Second Son, I was shocked at what Delsin does in the last 30 seconds of the cutscene.  Was it a little badass?  Yes…but, damn!

Playing through these evil campaigns makes me feel equal parts badass and horrible person.  Sometimes–as was the case with Infamous: Second Son, I come away from an evil action or playthrough with a deep feeling of regret.  These types of games affect players on an emotional level.  It’s even more effective with a choice-based game because I made the choice that lead to the action.  Sure, somebody else wrote, designed, and scripted it, but the player is the catalyst–the player makes it happen.

In Mass Effect 3, you have the option of curing the Krogan genophage.  You head to the Shroud, a giant tower that pumps atmosphere into the sky of the planet Tuchanka.  Coming along for the ride is your old buddy Mordin Solus, who is determined to cure this affliction to make up for releasing it in the first place.  There are some in the galaxy, however, who do not want to see the genophage reversed, namely the Salarians.  You can allow Mordin to redeem himself in the eyes of the Krogan, and gain their support in the coming battles, or you can side with the Salarian government and allow their sabotage to the Shroud to go undetected, and thusly receive their support instead  As is the norm for this series, you are given a choice.

My first time through, I was playing as a Paragon (the good playthrough), so I helped Mordin release his remedy, telling him of his government’s plans of sabotage..  Unfortunately, the damage caused by the Salarians has doomed the tower, and would require somebody to stay behind to manually adjust the temperature to make sure the cure is released correctly.  Mordin heroically sacrifices himself to help the Krogan people.  It is a well-written, very poignant scene in which one of Mass Effect’s most popular characters meets his end.

The second time, I played through as a Renegade, and I can say for certain that my heart hurt through the entire scene.

Eventually, Mordin figures out the sabotage and Shepard has to stop him from trying to reverse it and still release the cure.  He tries talking him out of it, but Mordin refuses, he will not be stopped!  Shepard draws his gun, and as Mordin continues on his path, you are given a Renegade action.  Almost sick to my stomach, I pressed the left trigger, and I watched as my character gunned Mordin down.

It’s one thing if it would have stopped there, but we are treated to a heart-wrenching scene in which a mortally wounded Mordin crawls on his hands and knees, trying to reach the button that would send the cure into the planet’s atmosphere.  He loses his strength just short of the console, and he is consumed in fire as the tower explodes around him.

Granted, there are ways to avoid this confrontation and convince Mordin to leave, but I was playing true to the Renegade playthrough, so I didn’t want to shy away in the moment.

Maybe the emotional response is the reason I played through on Renegade and made all of those decisions.  After all, I had just shot a good person in the back.  I suppose it’s good that elicited a negative response.  Not only was I able to witness the story from a different perspective, but I received some feedback that validated my opinion that I am a good person!

While the karma you gain and the choices you make in a game like Mass Effect affect the gameplay and the story, some of these choice mechanics just seem arbitrary, almost as if they were tacked on to be part of the new fad.  In Infamous: Second Son, the type of karma you accrue is mainly used to determine the abilities you use.  Apart from some slightly different missions and a bit at the end, it felt like the decisions carried no real weight.  This is the same in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas.  You need certain karma to get certain abilities, and sometimes you can’t enter a settlement if you’re too hated, but besides seeing a different ending, the choices seem to be mostly superficial.

I’m not saying these are bad games–I’ve really enjoyed Infamous and the Fallout series, but I wish the decisions we make in those games would shape the world more.  New Vegas definitely took the series a step in the right direction by giving so many different questlines to follow, so I’m hoping they continue that trend in their next game.

Sometimes, as well intentioned as game developers can be, the choices they offer can be limiting.  Mass Effect does a decent job of giving players the flexibility to choose what they want to say, but some selections are grayed-out, and they can only be picked if your Renegade or Paragon karma is high enough.  Wouldn’t it be best for the player to unlock those options from the start?  If that were the case, I could play a character the way I wanted to.  I could loan the Hanar businessman the money he needed to get out of a debt, but I could still become an “exclusive” spokesperson for three or four shops on the citadel.

The best characters in literature, movies, TV shows, and, yes, games, are complicated and flawed.  That’s what makes them so special to watch.  We cheer their successes and regret their mistakes.  As gamers, when we are handed a virtual blank canvas like Commander Shepard, maybe we should be allowed to paint it as we see fit.

So what do you like to see in games that offer you choices or a karma system?  Do you think it’s overused?  Do you like playing the good path first, or the bad?  What are your favorite games that have these kinds of systems?  Let us know on Facebook or Twitter!