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Are you good? Or are you ?

It’s not easy being mean. But hey, what good are superhuman powers if you can’t be just a little selfish?
Image: InFamous
“inFamous," (pictured here) along with games like “Fallout 3,” "Mass Effect" and “City of Heroes/City of Villains” ask players to make a choice: Walk the white path of the righteous or walk the black path of the damned. And some of them explore the murky grays in between.Sony

It’s not easy being mean.

For starters, people call you names. They tell you they hate you and shake their fists when you pass. Sometimes they organize protests against you. Sometimes they pelt you with rocks.

And who can blame them? After all, you’ve just forced an innocent bystander to take a blast of psychotic black goo to the face so that you don’t have to. You’ve also hoarded piles of food while others in the post-apocalyptic city you call home are starving. Meanwhile, you sucked all the life-force out of a wounded person (or three) so that you could recover from your own wounds.

But hey, what good are the superhuman powers you’ve just been granted if you can’t be a little selfish now and again?

Welcome to “inFamous,” a game that gives you a choice — be a good guy who sacrifices of himself in order to do right by the troubled world around him, or be a bad guy who uses his newly found gifts for his own gain.

I happen to be playing “inFamous” as a bad guy, not because I enjoy watching innocent digital people fry at the ends of the lightning bolts I shoot from my fingertips, but because it is the opposite of what I normally do when given such a choice in a game.

“InFamous,” an open-world action game for the PlayStation 3, is just one of several games of late that let you decide whether to play as a saint or a scoundrel. “Fable II,” “Fallout 3,” “Mass Effect” and “City of Heroes/City of Villains” all ask players to make a choice: Walk the white path of the righteous or walk the black path of the damned. And some of them are exploring the murky grays in between.

Saint or scoundrel: You decide
But I confess, I have a hard time being a bad guy, even in a video game. While I know that there’s nothing remotely real about these games, doing dastardly digital deeds still makes me squirm.

When playing “Mass Effect,” I couldn’t bring myself to take the ruthless Renegade path, which would have required me say things like “A lot of people want my help these days, what makes you special?” to characters desperate for my assistance (and much worse). And as for “Bioshock,” there’s no way in hell I could bring myself to harvest (i.e. kill) the Little Sisters.

Clearly I’m not the only one saddled with a conscience susceptible to virtual guilt. Nate Fox, game director at Sucker Punch, says that when they tested “inFamous,” they found that about 80 percent of players decided to play as a good guy while 20 percent embraced the dark side. Meanwhile, Brian Clayton, general manager for Paragon Studios, says that typically between 70 to 80 percent of “City of Heroes/Villains” customers are playing as superheroes.

So what about the other 20 percent? While I’m busy feeling squeamish about extinguishing virtual children, clearly many players are getting a kick out donning the blackest of black hats in a game.

Vince Ste. Marie, a 19-year-old student in Winter Park, Fla., says he’s generally a good guy (his girlfriend even calls him her “white knight”). And yet, he prefers to play a villain online. He’s been playing the massively multiplayer online game “City of Villains” for almost three years and has built up a “level-50 dark melee/dark armor brute” (basically a big ol’ demon in regular speak).

Image: City of Villains

“I grew up watching a lot of Disney movies where the good guy always wins,” he says. “But I would always think ‘what would happen if the bad guy won?’ I don’t find playing the hero’s side as interesting because you know what’s going to happen. You’ll win in the end, everything will be sunshine, you’ll get the girl. It’s all stuff we’ve seen before.”

Joe Morrissey, senior designer for “City of Heroes/Villains,” points out that playing a baddie in a game can be a great way to blow off steam.

“Most people are law-abiding citizens and being a villain allows them to shirk off all of the responsibility that goes along with that,” he says. “It allows them to really escape who they are.”

After a tough day at school, Ste. Marie says a bit of role-playing as a villain “definitely takes the edge off.

“You come home, you log into ‘City of Villains’ and you run into a crowd of guys, sweep them to the floor and just laugh,” he says. “There’s nothing like a cup of butt-kick coffee to put you in a good mood.”

Mwwaa ha ha ha ha!
It all sounds so tempting. And so I decided to give up my goody-two-shoes ways and see how the other half lives.

Along with games like “Fallout 3” and “Mass Effect,” “InFamous” uses a karma system — an omnipotent score keeper that tallies your good actions and your bad ones. The character you play — Cole MacGrath — and the world around him change depending on the choices you make.  And Cole — a bike messenger given electrical superpowers during a mysterious blast — is beset with tough choices from the get go as he tries to figure out what’s happened to him and his city.

“Our objective with ‘inFamous’ was to give people the feeling they were going to be a modern day superhero,” Fox says. “But it strikes me that if doing the right thing is easy, it doesn’t mean much. We wanted to make sure that people had the choice to be less than heroic so that when they were heroic, it really meant something.”

Having gone over to the dark side, when I was given the choice to do things like attack the bad guys by myself or involve innocent bystanders as a distraction — I did the selfish thing and let the peons be my human shields. During battle, I blasted away without worrying about the innocents who got between me and my target. When people asked for my help, I ignored their petty pleas to pursue my own goals. I killed when I could have healed. And all around, the city grew more chaotic, its inhabitants grew more hatful and my character took on an increasingly cruel appearance.

I admit, freeing myself from the confines of being a good guy was, well, kinda fun. It was a relief not to tiptoe around all these hapless saps, it was freeing to consider nobody’s needs but my own. But I confess, I still felt that pang of guilt when I overheard one of the city’s desperate citizens whimpering that he couldn’t go on living in a world like this.

The grays in between
Perhaps I sound like a goody-goody, but I don’t think my inability to completely rid myself of the moral compass I use in the real world is so strange.

Earlier this year at the Game Developer’s Conference, game designer Will Wright (creator of “Spore” and “The Sims”) said something interesting.

“One of the most emotionally powerful games I’ve ever played was when I first started playing ‘Black & White,’” he said. “I was just harassing the hell out of these characters, and they were crying and bruised, and I actually felt guilty. I never felt guilty watching TV, or a movie.”

Image: InFamous

Fox puts it this way: “Video games are really cool because you don’t generally say ‘oh Cole went through the Reaper tunnel and beat the boss.’ You say ‘I made it through the tunnel and beat the boss.’ You project yourself into the main character. You are having these experiences.”

It’s interesting to note that even the most hardened black-hat players — when pressed — admit to having their evil breaking point. Ste. Marie says that a mission in which he had his villain turn a kindly teacher over to a gang to be horribly tortured did get to him. “My conscience was yelling at me the rest of the night,” he says.

Meanwhile, what happens when good and evil aren’t so easy to tell apart? Paragon Studios recently announced a forthcoming expansion to “City of Heroes” called “Going Rogue” in which players will find their heroes and villains involved in situations that aren’t so black and white.

“‘Going Rogue’ allows players to really explore that grey area between being a villain and being a hero,” Morrissey says.

With “inFamous,” it’s easy to know whether you’re making the “good” choice or the “bad” choice at the beginning. But it doesn’t stay that way. Things get muddier, Fox says.

(Warning: Spoiler ahead!) For example, Cole eventually finds himself faced with a choice — does he save the life of someone very close to him and by doing so let six doctors die, or does he let the person he cares about die and thus let the doctors live?

“It isn’t a black and white choice, but that’s what makes it a good one,” Fox says.

I think he’s right. It’s all fine and good to play a game as a good guy or as a bad guy, but video games really start getting interesting when they ask players to make decisions that are not so easily made — decisions that insist we consider: What does it mean to be bad, and what does it really mean to be good?

No matter which path you choose, often you can’t help but wonder: What would I do if I was actually in that situation? You can’t help but stop and think.