A Jerk By Any Other Name

Posted: April 4, 2012 by jerkmagblog in VAULT -- archives

Is there something wrong with me if I happen to have a really hard time being a dick to people who don’t exist?

Perhaps I should explain.

I’m a nice guy. “Don’t be a dick” is one of my Rules For Healthy Living (it used to be “don’t be a jerk”, but that would have been awkward, because…well, you know). I’m really, really big on being patient and open-minded and understanding. Unless, of course, you deserve otherwise and I find comedic value in pointing that out. Then I will happily rip you a new one. I also like to think that I can be clever enough to make you laugh while doing so, thereby causing you to like me all the more. But I digress.

I’m also a guy who plays video games and writes about them. And as video games become increasingly lucrative and complex, they’ve evolved from asking the players to achieve simple goals- save the princess, stack the blocks into straight lines, or shoot everything on the screen- to giving them choices.

Choices like save a town or nuke it to hell (Fallout 3). Or the classic Star Wars- esque light side/dark side binary (any number of games). There’s also my personal favorite dilemma: you can sacrifice yourself to save the world. Or you can father what could be the antichrist in order to do said world saving whilst preserving your own life, you selfish bastard (Dragon Age: Origins).

These games (and many more) give you freedom to play the game as the kind of character you want to be, because at certain points in the story or whilst interacting with other characters, you can choose to be a goody-two-shoes or a rogue badass. And because it’s a game, you can usually save your progress and see how behaving a certain way will impact how the game’s world responds to you.

This allows you, among other things, to be a complete prick in a safe space with no real world consequences. It’s different from, say, locking your Sims in a room with no exit just to torture them- there’s no real consequence or permanence there. Sure, your Sims will die, but at any point you can let them out, give them what they need, and after enough time they’ll be happy again.

No, the choices I’m referring to are moral ones. Ones that have consequence in the game, and affect the way the game responds to you. If you blow that town up in Fallout 3, it’s not coming back unless you decide to start over.

I started to think about this when I started to play the biggest game out this month, Mass Effect 3. I’ll be writing a lot about it in the near future, but the Mass Effect series is interesting, because sometimes it’s much better at blurring that line between “good” and “evil”. While there are two scales, “paragon” and “renegade”, they’re more attitudes than moral alignments.

It’s also very well designed, to the point that it’s much harder to tell the kind of impact your choices will have. You just sort of have to stick to your guns and roll with it.

I’ve made some renegade calls in the Mass Effect games. You never quite know how they’re going to turn out, but in the moment, it just seems right. But many times, I just don’t like it. I have a much harder time divorcing myself from the character I play as than others may- I see games like Mass Effect as an opportunity to insert myself in a world and act as the good guy I like to see myself as. Being a tool, even in a video game, just doesn’t suit me.

But maybe games are all about experimentation. Maybe I should start again, and do things differently. I don’t know if I can be a straight up renegade- but I can shake things up. Next time I play Mass Effect 3, I’ll play as a woman. And be a total badass.

-Joshua Rivera

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