Violent? Sure! Evil? No thanks.

With the announcement of Fallout 4, I’ve gone back to play the shit out of Fallout: New Vegas . . . again. I’ve almost completed the main storyline as an independent, having taken out Mr. House and completed as far as I can go in the Legion storyline before I’m asked to do something I’m not willing to do.

And I should be willing to do it, because it’s just a game right? I even restarted the game in order to play through the Legion storyline, but I have a real hard time doing it. I mean, I shouldn’t be worried about spoilers, but there comes a time when the character is asked to start removing factions the new Caesar considers threats. Given that I have generally made alliances with at least one of these factions, I don’t really enjoy pushing forward with that. I’ve delayed it as much as I can.

It reminds me of playing in an “evil” campaign back in high school. I was okay with it when we were being naughty – thievery, extortion, even a little assassination of other bad NPCs – but at some point it actually got evil. I walked out of the game when the crew were talking about raping the princess. I made some comment about not understanding how anyone could find this fun. The response that it was all just a game just didn’t cut it for me.

There are those out there that enjoy that kind of thing, and perhaps there is some actual value to it. My parents could never understand why I enjoyed movies with extremely foul language and graphic violence. I kind of follow the Aristotelian idea of catharsis (or at least, the generally accepted interpretation of Aristotle’s reference to catharsis in his Poetics) that it can purge the mind of emotions linked to the subject. I once read an interview with John Woo, who is a very mild individual by all accounts, in which he said that the movies allow him to examine violent encounters without the need to resort to actual violence.

I can understand the desire to play criminals and badguys. I did, after all, author Sword Noir: A Role-Playing Game of Hardboiled Sword & Sorcery. I find that desire very different from playing in an evil campaign. In most cases, these criminals and badguys have lines they will not cross. Tony Montana loses it all because he won’t allow the murder of a mother and children, and kills to protect them. Henry Hill gets in trouble because he dabbles in drug-dealing, originally off limits to Good Fellas. The Killer is basically a knight errant out to kill other badguys, but unwilling to harm innocents. These are the kinds of “evil” campaigns I could deal with.

To me, there’s a big difference between assassinating bad people and killing innocent “civilians.” If your campaign was the Silence of the Lamps, would you want to play Agent Starling or Buffalo Bill? I know some of you want to answer Hannibal, but in the movie he is more of a sage than a figure of evil, and his violence in that movie is reserved for a faceless (sorry, couldn’t resist) cop and the violence is perpetrated off screen. Were Hannibal to be murdering characters for which we have sympathy he might not seem like such a great choice.

But then again, to some he might. This is what I can’t understand.

I can understand stealing from the rich, even if you aren’t giving to the poor. Even if an individual gained wealth through hard work and perseverance, the individual has more than enough to meet a person’s needs, and taking a percentage of that doesn’t seem like a real harm. Stealing from the poor? This isn’t fun to me.

I can even understand extortion. Imagine you live in a realm in which the resident lord has absolute power over you, in which you fear opposing the lord’s minions as they break laws and ignore tradition. Now imagine you could fund a police force that could protect you from predations. Some would argue this was the infancy of the Yakuza (Japanese organized crime). It might still be extortion, but it’s easier to swallow if you are honestly protecting innocents for a reasonable “donation.” And our badguy Yakuza thugs would never have to shake anyone down – they’d be busy defending the villagers and protecting property.

Extorting shop owners and burning down their shops if they don’t pay doesn’t seem like fun to me.

The difference for me between role-playing violence and evil is that violence can be used in the preservation of the good or for the protection of innocents. Violence need not be evil. The extreme violence in Hong Kong heroic bloodshed movies, such as the aforementioned the Killer or something like A Better Tomorrow, is never directed at the innocent. Badguys gun down worseguys and avoid collateral damage. When collateral damage occurs, the heroic badguys are devastated by this and attempt to make amends or seek redemption.

I don’t run or play in games in which the violence targets the innocent or the good guys. I had a really hard time accepting the violence directed against the police in GTA IV – the first GTA I had ever played. I messed up one modern campaign in which we were specifically criminal hitmen when my character stated: “No cops. No civilians.”

And perhaps I am belittling a valid gaming choice. I honestly don’t know. Can this work as catharsis? Can we explore the motivations and drives of evil? This would seem to me to be justification for an evil campaign. Just as literature or movies can give us unsympathetic but fascinating characters, I would expect RPGs could do the same.

I just likely wouldn’t want to play in such a campaign.

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