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Karma systems in games – inviting choice rather than intention

Are you really being yourself?

Karma systems are a unique feature in many games, which takes into account the player’s actions, inaction and their decisions, and shapes the world around them as well as their narrative as they progress. These systems can be overt and interactive, or very subtle instead. There are tons of games out there with karma systems – and some are done with more thought and nuance than others.

I love a good karma system. Having my choices carry weight really works to invest me more into the game I’m playing. Fallout and inFAMOUS have some of my favorite karmic systems, and there are a few more good examples – which I’ll save for another time. Today we will just talk about these systems in general.

Choices need options, but options invite deliberate action…

My favorite way to act in games is just walking the line between being an asshole and still being the hero. I’m like an anti-hero but with less wanton murder… err, I guess more if I’m playing FalloutThere I just turn into an absolute bastard.

I’m not like that in real life – I hope – but sometimes the fun choices are just the ones that make you out to be a bad person. Sometimes they’re not even really bad choices. They don’t make you perform an objectively evil action; sometimes you’re just being a little sassy or fiendish. Karma systems come into play when these decisions – be they sassy or outright despicable – start to play out in the game world around you.

Infamous Second Son Eugene
One of the many choices you can make in inFAMOUS Second Son

Karma systems can take different forms. There’s decision-based morality systems like in inFAMOUS, follower-specific morality like in Dragon Age: Origins, town-specific like in Fallout New Vegas – and so on. Each type gives the player options to affect the world around them with their actions. But each one has its own way of reflecting the player’s deeds back at them.

The problem with these kinds of systems steams from how most of us choose to use them. When given a choice, we usually go and explore all the options. Sometimes it’s done out of curiosity, but sometimes it’s done for the same reason as save-scumming. You’re just trying to get the best possible outcome for your story. 

In a game with options your choices may not be genuine

Karma, branching paths, dynamic stories, and so on – they’re all meant to illicit a genuine response from the player. “What would YOU do in the given scenario” is supposed to have a real impact on the game you’re playing. This choice is meant to spur the game forward in new and sometimes unexpected directions. But rarely, if ever in my experience, has this happened the way it’s supposed to. Having the knowledge that I influence a story gives me too much power. I inevitably end up seeking the outcome that I desire, rather than the one I would reach by playing normally. 

I will usually do at least two playthroughs – one for the “good ending” and one for the “bad ending”. If a game has multiple endings – well then I guess I’m f**ked. Kidding, usually I’ll play through trying to pick answers that align most with my desires. I’ll usually fail and cave under the weight of my inner bastard or stupid-ass, and end up getting some generalized ending. 

Sometimes choice is futile, and sometimes it doesn’t play out how you want anyway

Sometimes – if done right – even the futility of choice can be a powerful asset. I’m mostly referencing a specific moment in inFAMOUS.*spoilers ahead*

You find protagonist Cole Mcgrath’s ex-girlfriend Trish hanging from a tower. A group of doctors are also being held on an opposite tower. The choice you have is either to save Trish, or save the doctors. As you can probably tell by my earlier statement, it literally doesn’t matter what you do. Trish dies regardless of what happens, and you may very well have just let a group of doctors fall to their deaths. It’s meant to be a bit of a gut punch in any playthrough. The good ending sees you saving the doctors with Trish being dropped anyway. The bad ending sees you attempt to save Trish only to find out that it was a bait and switch. The game gives you choices all the way through, and while every decision you made held some sway over the events unfolding – this one didn’t.

A mistake that devs can make with a karma system, is to program choices that neglect progress the player has made in the game. Making a choice just to have the game not take the player’s experiences or inventory into account hurts immersion. Say I’m playing inFAMOUS – and I make the choice to do one good deed in an all evil playthrough. Locking off the option isn’t the best decision, but it does stop this issue. A better way to handle it would be to have NPCs mention how the action goes against the character’s personality.

Ultimately I don’t think I’ll ever play a game and make my own decisions. Usually when a game gives you a choice, you base it off your feelings at the time, or the result you want. 

You know what it means if Arthur dreams of wolves in Red Dead Redemption 2

My ideal version – that may never be made

Ideally, the karma system will offer subtle choices heading to greater effects down the line – like in Until Dawn. Mix that with a rich and immersive story like Red Dead Redemption 2, and throw in a dynamic and reactive world that gradually but subtly changes in relation to your character – and in turn – reacts to you. I want to realize and feel my effect on the world when it becomes too late to fix. I don’t want a big, in your face reflection – I want the world to tell me how I’ve acted.

RDR2 does this pretty well – showing you a Wolf or Deer depending on your outlaw status near the end of the game. inFAMOUS actually changes your character’s color scheme and style based off of good or evil. Metal Gear Solid V gives you a bloody character and a growing horn. Each game has its own way to reflect your character’s karmic alignment – and I actually really like a lot of them. 

Will we ever get a game that can satisfy my oddly specific views on how a karma system should work? I doubt it. But everyone has a different opinion on morality in gaming, and that’s totally fine. What doesn’t work for me may be really loved by someone else. You can’t satisfy everyone, and games aren’t meant to be some kind of morality-based Rorschach test anyway.

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Kevin Dewan

Writer for SQUAD, runs after things a lot. Won't BM you to your face. Okay with losing as long as it's funny.
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