One of the great joys of gaming is the opportunity to be someone else. Hard-boiled detective, savior of the world, psychotic race car driver who shoots turtle shells at fellow competitors - I'm looking at you, Mario!
In most cases, your path is set. Your story beats are the same as the millions of others playing the same game. The ending you get is the same as the gamer down the street, and the gamer on the other side of the globe. Sure, you might be able to vary your approach - I'll take a sharp blade over a gun anytime - but in the end, the song remains the same.
Then there are the games that go that extra step: The Karma Games. While not an official category, odds are that you know what I mean. These fluid little titles will alter elements of gameplay based on the actions that you take. Some are perhaps a bit too subtle in their approach, like BioShock Infinite. (Yes, it's there; do a search on "Bird or Cage.") Other games will shut down entire mission trees based on a single answer to a question. (Hellloooo Fallout: New Vegas!)
Then there are the visual games. You can literally go to the Dark Side in Knights of the Old Republic, taking all aspects of skin tone along with you. The Fable series is also well-known for shifting your visual appearance based on decisions you make... But first, you'd have to boot the game. And, of course, your ending may vary.
I've gone back through the annals of gaming to pull up some of my favorite Karma Games. Some you've played, others you might have missed. All are worth giving a shot.
ATTENTION. The following contains MINOR SPOILERS. You have been warned.
Black & White/Black & White 2 (PC and Mac, 2001/2005)
A precursor to The Sims, this PC game and its sequel took the God complex to a whole new level. The player was placed in charge of an island populated by tiny tribes of people. The goal: Make an impression on these pathetic ant folk. From here, it's up to the player as to how to make that happen. Benevolent rulers will bestow gifts on the locales, inspiring the tribes to worship the giant hand in the sky. Or you can just scare the hell out of the villagers by picking up some trees, animals, or - what the hell - people and chucking them into the nearest volcano. That gets their attention, too. Of course, you can only throw so many screaming, crying villagers on the barbie before you get bored. The good news: You can change your approach at any time, winning back followers who will be fruitful and multiply… providing more virgins to toss in the volcano. Hey-ooohhh!
Karmic factor: 2 (out of 5)
Infamous/Infamous 2 (PlayStation 3, 2009/2011)
Infamous tells the story of Cole McGrath, a bike messenger in Empire City. One day while on a delivery, no doubt wearing a helmet and obeying every traffic signal like a good bike messenger, Cole gets caught in a devastating explosion. The accident turns Cole into a human bug zapper who surfs electric cables because it's a game and why the hell not. After some basic training levels, you're set loose on the city to find missions and unlock areas. Your actions along the way determine Cole's state of mind. Work with the cops and help little old ladies across the street? You'll find yourself calm and collected, with bluish white light emitting from your oh-so-caring hands. How cute. If you prefer a more bad-ass Cole, screw over the Po-Po and leave grandma to the thugs. Cole's nocturnal (electric) emissions will turn black with a kickin' red hue. Also, your game ending may vary. Fun fact: Only one Infamous ending sets up Infamous 2. A gutsy move on the part of the developers? Or just bad sequel planning? You be the judge.
Karmic factor: 3 (out of 5)
The Walking Dead (iOS, PC, Mac, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360, 2012)
Telltale Games originally serialized its version of The Walking Dead, complete with cliffhangers at the end of each game and a "Previously on" intro for later chapters. The game is heavy on dialogue trees and light on combat, making your mouth the single most dangerous tool in your possession. Interactions typically consist of an NPC making a long speech then asking a question. Your choices often consist of a brief version of the full response, meaning you might not know what you're about to say when you choose. There is also a silent option for those of us who just can't make up our damned minds. For the most part, the answers vary by attitude. Are you sweet or sassy? In a good mood or going through caffeine withdrawal? How you answer will determine how others see you, which in turn affects what happens later in the game. Occasionally, your decision will have life or death ramifications for an NPC. Here's the twist: If someone is doomed, they are going to buy it before the chapter ends, whether you make a life-saving move or not. So in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make… but in this case, it doesn't matter. The story is too linear to have any real impact. At best, you're really just being a dick to your fellow survivors.
Karmic factor: 1 (out of 5)
BioShock/BioShock 2 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac, 2007/2010)
In both BioShock and BioShock 2, Karma has a face… and an adorable bow in her hair. While there are occasionally other choices to be made in the games, your Karma really comes down to one thing: whether you "Save" the Little Sisters by shoving them into a filthy air duct where they will most likely die from black lung, or cut to the chase and harvest them for Adam. If you opt to save them, you'll be rewarded with periodic presents to make up for the fact that they took off with all the goddamned Adam, which you kinda need to survive. Harvest them and you'll score more Adam up front, but the kids are going to talk crap about you in the third act. Oh yeah, there are two different endings, too. While some games will give you a chance to balance out your Karma, BioShock is rather unforgiving. If you harvest the girls early in the game, the odds are good you'll get the "bad" ending, no matter what you do towards the end. ("No redemption for you, Mr. Bubbles!") On the flip side, playing for good and then sucking down a few Adam pops toward the end of the game can also nuke your Karma fast - unless you reload an earlier checkpoint. Ain't Karma a bitch?
Karmic factor: 4 (out of 5)
Fallout 3/Fallout: New Vegas (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, 2008/2010)
Whether you sing with the angels or dance with the devil in the pale moonlight, you'll find a home in the Wastelands… a place where they shoot on sight. These RPGs offer wide open spaces filled with mutants to kill and people to serve. (Take the cannibal perk, and you can serve them with a side of fava beans and a nice chianti!) Here, every single thing you do can impact your Karma. Stealing is bad… but only if you get caught. Killing non-mutants is typically a no-no, but there are certain people who won't be missed in the Wasteland. Even a smart-assed answer can send your Karmic meter toward the sinister position. (Because, as always, left is evil and right is good.) Careful players can balance out good and bad deeds to achieve Neutral Karma, but why bother? I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints - but you can do either one in the game. Best of all, both games offer a one-time get-out-of-jail free card in the skill tree, should you decide to switch teams.
Karmic factor: 5 (out of 5)
So, what's your favorite Karma Game, and which team do you play for?