More thoughts on karma meters and personality profiles

This is a follow-up to my earlier post on Karma Meters, inspired by several games I’ve played, thoughts I’ve had, and articles I’ve read in the meantime. Two particularly influential¬†treatises have been this article on problems faced by interactive storytelling and this one on the three types of RPGs. When writing this post, I mainly had the narrative RPG subgenre in mind (since other subgenres don’t really profit from such sophisticated morality/personality subsystems), but I imagine they can be of interest in other story-based video games.

The most important observation in Mr. Adams’ article is, in my opinion, that the player is just as responsible for the quality and coherency of a video game story as its designer and writer. As part of their implicit contract, the designer promises the players that they cannot accidentally break the story rules, but the players, in turn, cannot and should not expect the game to tell a meaningful story if they deliberately try to subvert it. Furthermore, Mr.¬†Adams also argues against the obsession with giving the player as much freedom as possible and trying to account for every possible interaction. While I am not entirely sold on his solution, I am all in favor of limiting the scope of the player’s actions in a manner that makes sense in-story.

Long story short, Mr. Adams’ arguments made me realize that my earlier ideas were focusing too much on giving the player the freedom of action and too little on reasonably limiting the player’s actions within the story framework. Therefore, I now feel the need to review my old writings and offer some new solutions to the old problems.

My main beef with the karma meters has always been that it treats morality the same way it treats physical and skill-based character stats, like strength, swordsmanship, alchemy, etc. This way of thinking has two problematic consequences:

  • Morality of a character is equated with her reputation, a cumulative result of her past actions–and them alone. Reputation, like physical and skill stats, is a consequence of external effort: you cannot raise or lower it by an effort of will, but have to act on it to overcome the current state of things, e.g. people’s opinions or own incompetence and body’s limits. Morality, on the other hand, is about motivations, not outcomes.
  • At any time, the only meaningful/beneficial change of a physical/skill stat is upwards, because you rarely find yourself in a situation where you don’t want to get better in your trade anymore (at least, not in video games). Similarly, in many games, only maxing out the Good or Evil score brings the most gameplay and story benefits.

To me, the key difference between physical abilities/acquired skills/reputation and the internal values of a character in that the latter are self-reflected, while the former are not. In other words, a person has the ultimate control over his or her inner values, while the external qualities (including those of their physical body) are ultimately limited by nature and society. Of course, that philosophical notion can be argued ad nauseam, but I think everyone can agree that unless some fantastic external force (like the corruptive Dark Side in the Star Wars universe) is involved, each person is the master of his or her own values.

Thus, it appears illogical to me that an RPG character’s morality should be shaped by and only by her actions, without any chance for her to reflect on them and ask herself the ultimately human question: “Do I want to be the person who’d do that?” Or even simpler: “Is this the person I want to be?” Conversely, I find it detrimental to a story-heavy game that the player is even offered behavior options that the character has clearly shown no inclination towards in the past. More often than not, I think, it is used to create an illusion of multiple choice where no alternative solutions to a dilemma are really offered.

I therefore believe that it no longer makes sense to speak of a “karma meter” in video games that aim to engage the player with their storyline (specifically, the narrative RPGs; less story-heavy games will probably be fine with the trusted old formula), and instead to consider the idea of a personality profile for the main player character. The key difference is that instead of a single or dual scale representing the PC’s standing between good/evil, order/chaos, idealism/pragmatism, etc., the personality profile is a collection of relatively static numeric values representing the multitude of a character’s inner values and beliefs (e.g. on property, free will, murder, the supernatural, etc.).

Such a personality profile was already described in my previous post, and some parts of that concept I still consider important, e.g. that the player must create one at the beginning of the game, so that the main character doesn’t start off as a blank slate; and that all dialogue options should be weighted in relation to relevant personality values. However, the “rewarding good role-playing” part of my previous concept needs to go completely. Handing out XP for story-relevant behavior, as I now realize, mixes up two different aspects of role-playing experience, Gamist and Narrativist. The Gamist approach revolves around maximizing the character’s parameters, while the Narrativist one is about harmonizing the character and the story. Gamist rewards are given for beating challenges, but the narrative is not a challenge in the same sense, and a reward for a well-told story is the well-told story itself.

Accordingly, my earlier idea that the personality profile values should not affect the character’s dialogue options has to go, too. In fact, that’s exactly what personality values should do: if the player character is strongly opposed to murder, an option to execute the villain would not even occur to them (unless–and this is important to interactive story-building–it is suggested by someone less humanistic in their party). Of course, these limitations should not be restricted to the dialogue mode of gameplay. A character with a strong belief in private property would make a poor thief because she wouldn’t be able to pilfer NPCs’ items into her own inventory; an opponent of murder must always attack to subdue and refuse to strike the final blow; a wizard who believes in free-will and self-determination is barred from using mind-controlling magic in combat, etc., etc.

In my previous post I have also mentioned a “nice to have” option to slightly modify the PC’s personality profile throughout the game. This feature becomes absolutely crucial with the removal of XP rewards, as it remains the only way to deliver feedback on the player’s actions. That particular subsystem, in a way, becomes the player character’s conscience that shows the player a rundown of her actions (e.g. at the end of every chapter) and outlines the differences between her current profile and a profile that those actions suggest. The player is then free to tweak her personality values within those boundaries, unlocking new dialogue and gameplay options (and most likely locking others), or conversely, to revise her in-game behavior to better conform to her declared personality. The limitations imposed on the player character’s actions by her own personality values should, of course, give her enough leeway to take actions that sway her values slightly in either direction–but not to go completely against her current personality (unless special circumstances apply).

This approach brings not only the self-reflection aspect I mentioned earlier into the role-playing video game experience, but also enables the player to effectively write a dynamic character arc for their character, e.g. starting the game as a hardcore misanthrope and slowly learning to appreciate others. This character evolution can and should be noticed in-game, e.g. by NPCs reacting with surprise to the PC’s actions that would have been barred to her by her initial personality profile. The player is, of course, not forced into this, and it is equally possible to create a goodie two-shoes who remains that way throughout the game. It probably wouldn’t be as interesting a character arc, but that’s what the players’ freedom is all about: the ability to ruin their own experience.

Some questions remain open in the new approach, however, such as whether the player character should be reimbursed for turning down quests that go against her personality. The short answer is “No.” Turning down such quests is necessary to harmonize the story, so no further reward is in order. It does not, of course, mean that certain personalities should have access to less content than others: the game should offer appropriate side quests and story branches for all possible personality profiles.

Continuing that line of thought, it is entirely possible that having a certain personality profile may restrict the character to a singular course of actions in certain situations. While it seems like an unnecessary infringement of the player’s freedom, it makes perfect sense in the story terms, since it treats the player character as a human being who cannot go against everything she believes in on a whim and, simultaneously, shows respect for all of the player’s past decisions. Such situations are particularly appropriate in the endgame, where the player’s previous moral choices can non-interactively determine the ultimate moral choice the player character makes (only one game I know of features this).

This is the core of my personality profiles concept. Some interesting extensions would be an addition of gameplay mechanics based around (supernaturally) screwing with the player’s character values, or the game’s plot dynamically adapting itself to the her values in order to tempt her to go against them, but I really haven’t given those much though yet.

EDIT 05.05.2014: I have discovered a game that goes in a similar direction as I proposed above–at least, as far as player characters having multiple personality trait sliders. It is called Divinity: Original Sin and has an enormous potential for true role-playing.

UPDATE 26.08.2015: The personality trait sliders seem to be catching on in contemporary RPGs. Pillars of Eternity uses Dispositions–a hybrid reputation system (which I am still not entirely sold on)–in two interesting ways: one, from Act II onward, high Disposition levels can be used in lieu of stat scores in persuasion attempts (e.g. if you’re known to be Honest, people will more readily believe you); and two, having certain Dispositions and not having others is actually rewarded for classes whose powers depend on how well their conduct corresponds to their stated devotions, specifically, priests and paladins.

An entirely unrelated game, Seven Kingdoms: The Princess Problem, in the meantime, uses an even more nuanced personality profile (13 pairs of opposed traits) to actually restrict your in-game choices, automatically picking a dialogue option for you if all alternatives clash with your personality. It even implements the self-reflection moments I spoke of, allowing you to reflect on your recent actions at the end of every week and adjust your personality meters by either embracing your decisions or regretting them.

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