With the the upcoming Mass Effect remaster coming (March?), it brings back to mind an interesting stat that 92% of people played the Paragon line of game. I think it somewhat obvious, but if 92% of people do something, then it’s not really a choice. Or at best, it’s an un-interesting choice.
I think this is a general problem with RPGs, in that the “evil” path is actually more like “hard mode”. In many cases, the Paragon choice keeps all options on the table AND rewards you. Like taking out a group of bandits terrorizing a village. Side with the village and you get the bandit loot and more village quests. Side with the bandits, and you get the scraps of the village and nothing else from the bandits. It’s not so much bad design, as years of training.
Look at any list of best RPGs. Do any of them provide a viable evil path? The only one I can think of is New Vegas. Even Divinity 2’s “bad choices” have bad outcomes. Every time you take an evil decision, you reduce your rewards, or add some sort of difficulty marker to the game. Maybe townsfolk all attack on sight. Maybe you can only walk around during the night. Whatever it is, you’re making a trade from safety to unknowns.
Which, if reality is any comparison, is a fair view on the choice. Or rather, we hope it to be. (It would be great if bad choices came with costs to powerful people, huh?). Yet this only works in a world of absolutes, of binary cause and effect. The world is more complex than this, and only a few games accurately reflect they natural grey of reality. Stealing bread is bad. Stealing bread to feed a starving kid, not so bad. Stealing bread from a millionaire who’s hoarding bread in order to feed a starving kid, that’s good. The context matters.
Short tangent here, but this is what really gets under my skin when looking at WoW. It does a really poor job at building grey characters. In nearly 15 years, it has two. Illidan and Saurfang. There were other attempts, I can grant that. But they ended up as pure good or pure evil (what they did to Garrosh still irks me). At no point would anyone ever argue that the Alliance was the bad guys and the Horde the good guys. That ~75% of the player base is Horde is a different topic I can get into.
Back to main topic. The concept of good/bad choices is inherently flawed if the game reflects normal life. It works in Star Wars, because that world is entirely focused on the dichotomy of the world (at least until the Mandalorian came about). Lucas, in all his wisdom, posited that to achieve full power you have to commit to one side or the other. There’s very little grey, and in turn, that makes everyone the bad guy. How many times do we see the “good” Jedi make insanely poor decisions because of their rules?
Instead the games where we find the most attachment are the ones that live in the grey. Where hard choices are present, where it’s often the lesser of two evils. Outer Worlds has tons of these quests, where the choices are really not obvious at first glance. Energy stolen by rebels who don’t want to live under company oppression? Someone is gonna die, no matter what you do. Ghost of Tsushima starts with the obvious good/bad choices, but as you progress you realize that these choices get harder and harder to make. The sacrifices you have to make to combat an opponent with no morals.
Tyranny is a game which is great because it explores the complexity of implementing order after the bad guys win. With few exceptions, there are no lawful good choices to make, and a couple chaotic evil ones as well. Since there are no “good guys”, everything is pretty much the lesser of two evils. And the impacts of those decisions have long term consequences. Areas become hostile, entire quest lines are changed, and your final list of options to close the story are changed. There’s no obvious answer to any of them, as they are more ethical than power based. How do you see the world going? That’s way more important than saving the puppies.
I’d be remiss to not mention Red Dead Redemption 2. You’re a crook from the start, but focused more on survival than anything else. There are no decisions to be made here, as they are all scripted, but the story does an excellent job of showing the snowball effect of bad decisions and not accepting the consequences. That final bank shootout seems really black and white, but the context leading up to that situation is really the juicy bit.
As more games come along, our palettes are also expecting more nuanced and complex storytelling. Not to say that grade school storytelling doesn’t have value…. there’s plenty of room for that. It’s more than the potential for great storytelling is at an all-time high, and if a dev wants to put a feather in their cap on that thread then they have a much higher bar to reach. I for one, greatly appreciate it!