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Weekly Musings #23 - On Being Evil
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: November 29th 2004

Forever and forever, gamers have been inured with one basic premise: when you play a video game, you are on the side of "good." Seriously speaking, only with rare, freak occasions - especially through the Nintendo age, the age of "all games must be family-safe", were characters even morally neutral, let alone deeply, darkly disturbed and evil.

With every other form of entertainment - books, movies, pencil-and-paper games, heck even Chess - this hasn't been the case. It was one of the largely unevolved segments of the gaming industry, that games required the player to be the Heroic Hero out to save the Kidnapped Princess from the Evil Wizard. Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog... it went down the line. You knew what your position was, you knew your goal, and you *knew* that you were on the side of "good."

While gamers were playing Mario, being the good little Hero, they were growing up watching Nightmare on Elm Street. Reliving the Godfather. Enjoying watching Batman toy on the line between good and evil, reading Spawn comics, reveling in the fact that heroes, or at least protagonists, don't have to be clean-cut. Dirty Harry was a hero, but you couldn't pin "noble" or "good" on him easily. The Godfather was decidedly not a good guy.

Even when games had players switching sides, the player never stopped being "good." No, it was always that his side turned evil. In Battlezone II, the player found out that the "aliens" he's been fighting are really exiled humans who've found a better way of life, but the main human government wants to eradicate them. In Deus Ex, your faction was always the "better" faction, until you had to decide which faction was really better at the end of the game.

Thankfully, games evolved. We were given Grand Theft Auto, which started the changes. Star Wars titles which allowed players to dabble in the Dark Side, though usually tending to the Light; still, successive iterations turned out proper generations of Sith Masters, as dramatized today by Gabe and Tycho. Black and White, the ability to train a demigod to be completely evil. The Thief series, with factions of not really "good" characters to play off of each other, and a decidedly non-moral lifestyle as the centerpiece of the game.

Halo has finally stopped giving us a clear-cut universe. The old MO of the first Halo, "run and gun and shoot anything nonhuman", has dropped out as players were given a secondary faction to identify with, with the fractioning of the Covenant. Some players insist this is a bad thing: on the contrary, I think it's good. They can get a lot more headway out of semi-sympathetic former villians who've joined the Humans, than they can of a nameless, faceless enemy who are simply there to be mowed down as fast as possible. It only pains me that you never actually got to FIGHT against humans in Halo 2; at least one level of shooting "your own", before things changed, would have been exciting.

Meanwhile, the upcoming release of KOTOR II (my copy is already on reserve) begs the question - Sith, or Jedi? The last game was quite something, in that it was entirely possible to "win" the game by being evil. Really evil. Evil and nasty and brutal at every turn, evil to the point where your fellows ought to have been completely disgusted. It was an amazing experience, made all the more possible by the fact that Bioware didn't do a mere half-ass Sith campaign; when you went bad, you REALLY went bad. In many ways, joining the Dark Side or Light Side in the original KOTOR was everything that going Evil or Good inside of Fable was supposed to be, but wasn't - it was an enjoyable experience, for more than just the superficial reasons inside the game, and it actually affected the storyline.

Eventually, I'm probably going to try them both. That's what I did with the first one - Jedi once, Sith the second time. It was fun. Especially being able to just let the assassination droid go nuts. In fact, that's why games that allow the players free rein, the ability to be as evil as they choose, come off so well. It's the thrill of being able to set aside conventional behavior, and do the things that you "shouldn't do" to see the in-game results. It makes players actually make choices, real choices, as opposed to the rudimentary choices in a "click through the movie to get back to the level grind" cutscene of games like Final Fantasy.

Without the ability to be Evil, a roleplaying game - any roleplaying game - isn't much of a roleplaying game. KOTOR is my proof; let's hope KOTOR II is confirmation.

Got Comments? Send 'em to Michael (at)!
Alternatively, post 'em right here for everyone to see!

Weekly Musings #23: On Being Evil

Added:  Monday, November 29, 2004
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf


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