The joker or the stoic. Aggressor or pacifist. Hero or villain.

Video games allow us to mould a character in our own image, or at the very least an image we are prepared to spend a prolonged amount of time with.

The mould can come in various forms, invoking player choice in different ways. Perhaps the most obvious is aesthetic, as graphical advances allow the most minute of features to be shifted and rearranged. Playable characters have become entirely malleable, hunks of clay waiting for a chisel. The possibilities are near endless—although in my case, the resultant creation always seems to end up as myself if I at least entertained the notion of exercise. Still, muscle-bound male fantasies aside, character creation is becoming more in-depth, more extensive and more of a conduit for who the player wants to play as.

Where player choice doesn’t seem to be progressing quite as well is within the gameplay itself.

infamous karmaThat’s unsurprising, as the art of making a character talk and act like an empathetic, spontaneous and emotive human is foggy and nebulous, and certainly far more subjective than making them look like one. And mapping out pathways for each character, pathways that diverge from a succession of meaningful choices, is foggier still.

And so we have karma systems.

A mechanic occupying the odd confluence of the clamour for expansive realism and the pragmatism of a work-life balance for game developers (see No Man’s Sky for more information), karma systems are on the surface an elegant solution to effectual player choice. Not every decision can be life or death—or at least not until they finally make that Midsummer Murders game that we’re all devastatingly hyped for—so we need a way to make those littler choices impactful: The good of giving a beggar some coins versus the bad of telling them to ‘get a job’; the righteousness of defending a village from goblin attack versus the malice of giving them directions and optimal pillaging strategies; the heavenly splendour of opting for full-fat milk at the shop versus the debased horror of skimmed. We can quantify it all with karma.

So that’s great. We have lofty player expectations married harmoniously with developer achievability, a very rare thing indeed. Can we not just leave it there?mass effect 2No. Sorry, but as a writer about video games, the only thing I hate more than fun is undue harmony. Karma systems are imperfect at best, laughable at worst, and often put a severe dampener on otherwise great games.

Without wanting to become embroiled in that age-old ‘why don’t we have realism in video games’ argument, there’s something a little too contained and unexplorative—not to mention plainly incorrect—about a binary system for morality. When any concession is made toward those who play a mixture of good and bad, it usually takes the form of a bland ending—a punishment for being a dithering fence-sitter, as opposed to a recognition of a play-style which understands the complexities of each situation and acts accordingly.

Perversely, these mechanics often limit player choice. Take Dragon Age 2, a game that I adore but which commits the crime of forced choice disguised beneath the thin veil of character development. The basic formula is thus: the NPC offers a choice, and the game gives you the option to say ‘yes’ in three different ways because it’s vitally important you take this quest/party member/MacGuffin because we paid the writers a lot of money to come up with this shit, and you’re going to fucking enjoy it. The character can then say “Yes, thank you very much. Also, can I clean your windows while I’m here?”, “yes” in a funny voice, or “yes” before punching the NPC in the face and kicking a nearby puppy—all according to their alignment. The result is the same, and variances in how you get there seem perfunctory in the extreme.

A great morality system in games is, in my opinion, an undefined one. It needn’t be programmed in, and it needn’t be represented by a slider between a happy and a sad face.life is strange maxBehold, Life Is Strange. A game which I hold close to my heart and a game which is as close to perfect as games are ever likely to come. Life Is Strange exemplifies unspoken morality perfectly. Never does the game distinguish between two different versions of Max Caulfield; never does it set up a framework to guide your thoughts. In this instance, a karma system would be an easy out, cheating almost. Life Is Strange encourages you to grapple with your decisions, giving you the time to think it through and even the ability to undo them if you don’t like the immediate outcome, and it’s excruciating and heartbreaking and wonderful.

Video game narratives are uniquely positioned to exploit player choice in a way not open to other media, beyond choose-your-own-adventure books. But by shackling players to a pre-defined karma scaffolding, we detract from choice rather than expanding it. We need to move away from the black and white morality, and start looking at some of the other karmic colours on the karmic spectrum. And if you’re thinking that’s a strange form of mixed metaphor, then wait right there because it’s about to pay off.

Only then can we truly become…

Karma chameleons.

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