Why can’t I let myself be a bad guy in games?

What's the point of dialogue wheels and morality systems if I'm perennially boring?

There are a lot of things to love about gaming: the stories, the worlds, their people, and shooting anything that moves, of course. But of everything gaming gives us, the ability to shed your skin and step into someone else’s tops the list for me every time.

It’s an escape I suspect we all pursue, through all manner of media, be it books or movies or music or treading the boards at your local am-dram society. Sometimes it’s for that clammy confirmation that yes, someone else, too, has felt as desperately miserable as you. Other times, it’s the thrill of watching life pass through someone else’s lens. And while sure, you can empathise with alternate points of view in films, and better appreciate a character’s motivations in a book, I posit that nothing gives you agency – that peerless freedom to think, feel, and act like an entirely different person – like gaming.

You’d think given such freedom, I’d jump at the chance to experience life – even an imaginary one – as an alternate me. I mean, you can be happy and healthy and utterly content with your lot, but does that mean you’d baulk at the opportunity to live a bit differently for a brief while? To step away from our everyday woes – kids and pets and work and partners and deadlines and did I mention kids? – and live someone else’s life for a bit?

The initial frisson of excitement for me comes from living life when you’re not housed in an ageing, sagging, chronically asthmatic prison of a body. To experience speed and fluidity and racing through fields and grappling up mountainsides without stopping because you had a stitch or need an emergency puff of your Ventolin is a sweet, sweet dream I’ve never realised in my actual life. I don’t know what it’s like to power a magnificent machine of a human body because my machine is neither magnificent nor in tip-top working order (that’s partly due to a manufacturer’s fault, and partly the owner’s carelessness) so racing through the world as Aloy or Geralt or a Spartan Supersoldier is peculiarly liberating, if entirely unrealistic most of the time.

Horizon Zero Dawn 2 sequel co-op playstation 5
‘Horizon: Zero Dawn’. Image: Guerrilla Games

It goes further than that though, doesn’t it? It’s not just the freedom of your own physical limitations, but your morality, too. I mean, we all do our best, don’t we? We try to do the right thing. We try and pay it forward. I doubt anyone reading this intentionally goes out of their way to be a 24/7 cockwomble, but… well, I reckon even the best of us succumb to a little cockwombility from time to time.

That’s where the real magic of video games lies for me. I not only get to visit incredible places and meet incredible people, but I can do so utterly unshackled from ego and self-doubt, too. Well. In theory.

My problem is, the bullshit strings that tether me in life – most of which are infuriatingly tied to a gargantuan conscience that still frets about the honourability of actions from two decades ago, like that time I was exceptionally cold to an online friend when we met in person because I was cripplingly shy and didn’t know what to say to him – tether me in games, too. It doesn’t matter how often I tell myself that this is it – this is my chance to play the villain and have some fun… inevitably, I slip back to my default position as a wokey snowflake and chronic overthinker.

No, not all games ship with dialogue choices and ethical principles, but a lot of them do, and I struggle to step out of my un-comfort zone even in the games that actively invite you to be a dicksplash. I feed myself the same lies every time, too; okay, play as the good guy this first time if you need to, Vik. Get the “real” ending. And after that, we’ll have some fun. Punch some journalists. But I never bloody do.

A new ‘Tomb Raider’ game is coming, made in Unreal Engine 5
Tomb Raider. Credit: Crystal Dynamics.

It’s such a weird, stupid dilemma, too, because I don’t hesitate killing people in these bloody games. Even living life as the antithetical “good guys” Nate Drake and Lara Croft – explorers who ostensibly only want to recover treasure but can mow down 300 ne’er-do-well bad guys without breaking a sweat – I seemingly have no issues there.

But make me choose between incriminating Tali’s father or hiding the data in Mass Effect, and I’m a mess. I mean: what if I choose wrong? (spoilers: I did). What if it’s a decision that comes back and bites me on the arse half a game later? (spoilers: it did). Why can’t I just cut loose, revel in depravity, and enjoy being the badass bad guy in games I’m too boring to be in real life?

Vikki Blake is a freelance journalist and regularly columnist at NME. 

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