The appeal to open-world RPGs is that you get to play a character almost any way you want. These games can be accompanied by some sort of in-game morality system that lets you know if you’re a super-helpful guy or an evil prick. These systems, in my experience, tend to be way too polarized. The Witcher 2, for example, is particularly good at giving the player morally ambiguous choices and avoids this pit fall. Skyrim‘s moral choices also come from aligning with factions. Even though the experience of choosing a faction may leave something to be desired, any game that gets away from a good/evil spectrum that causes your character to shift one way or another as he/she makes choices is a step in the right direction.
Fallout 3 is still my favorite game of this generation, and I’ve put a metric buttload of hours into it since launch. But man, the karma system really undermines the weird and ambiguous nature of the Fallout universe. I understand the karma system has been a staple in the Fallout series. I don’t want to be the guy who shits on tradition, but allow me for a passing moment to drop trou and shit on tradition.
In case you’re not aware, here’s how karma works in Fallout: choices that benefit others reward you with karma, and things that take advantage of and hurt others remove karma points. Makes sense; karma isn’t exactly a new concept. This system gives you the freedom to play a good, evil, or neutral denizen of the wastes.
My problem is that any choices that might align you towards being evil (blowing up an entire town upon the request of a rich man in a tower, for example) aren’t that rewarding. And this isn’t because helping virtual characters is intrinsically more rewarding than blowing them up. It’s because the evil choices a player can make are evil in a way very few people are evil.
There is a difference between self-serving and evil. This distinction gets lost in games with morality systems similar to Fallout 3, such as Fable and the Knights of the Old Republic series. Extorting cash from someone and throwing a lady into a river of lava are both morally bankrupt actions, but they are not the same thing. The best a game with such a system can do is provide some mathematical equivalency: 6 NPCs victimized by extortion equals one lady hurled carelessly into molten rock. The former provides you with cash to further your in-game goals. The latter is just psychotic.
The spectrum alignment mechanic can work, though. It just needs to be more specific than good v. evil. Both Mass Effect games make players choose from options that shift them towards “Paragon” and “Renegade” alignments. Paragon choices are diplomatic and treat NPCs with respect. The Renegade options, on the other hand, allow the player to intimidate and guile their way through the game. If you play as a Renegade, you play as a dick, but you are (and this is important) a dick with an agenda. And that’s not to say games where you play the role of the villain aren’t rewarding. Games like Evil Genius and Dungeon Keeper are a blast, but that’s because being evil is the entire point and doesn’t feel like an inferior way to play through the game.
I tried doing an evil playthrough in Fallout, and I hit my limit after 4 hours. As fun as it was to kill random passerby with a sledgehammer (mainly because I played Triple H’s entrance music as a I did it), I couldn’t get through the game that way. To my disappointment, a neutral play-through was similarly unrewarding. I found myself spending way too much time worrying about balancing my good acts with thievery and douche baggery. When I talk to people about games we’ve both played, the conversation ultimately lands on player choices. We talk about whether we decided to save the Little Sisters in Bioshock, or if we tortured the sex wizard in that game that doesn’t exist.
From a design perspective, I understand it’s helpful to inform the gamer that he/she has made a ”good” or ”evil” choice. It lets the player know where they are starting to situate themselves in the game’s world. However, most gamers will actually take the time to think when presented with an in-game moral choice. When a game immediately informs you whether your choice was good or bad, it compromises that thought process. If we want RPGs to be immersive, why would we want to be reminded that we’re playing a game after every dialog option?