It became apparent to me very early on in my Star Wars: The Old Republic career that there are many ways to play a Dark Lord of the Sith. Being a dyed-in-the-wool Vader fanboy, my Sith Juggernaut, Ogregunk, followed a fairly strict and regimented Dark Side path - Force Choke anyone who dares to disagree, show no mercy to the weak or the vanquished, plot the destruction of my master almost as soon as I left Korriban, choose violence as a solution to most problems, kick puppies, et cetera. When I ran the Black Talon flashpoint, I always killed the captain and executed the general. No exceptions. Sure, Vette didn't like it, but it was my character's natural reaction to the situation.
It came as something of a shock to realize that other Empire players weren't doing things the exact same way. The first time I saw a Sith - a Sith Pureblood Inquisitor, no less - choose to let the captain live, I was confused and horrified. I even expressed my confusion to the player who won that conversation roll, and he informed me that he was "going Light side."
"But you're Sith!" I thought to myself. "Why would a Pureblood Sith Inquisitor elect to follow a course of mercy and compassion? What's the angle there?"
And it kept happening. I rolled other Empire toons, and they all chose the Dark Side conversation paths in the Black Talon flashpoint because, to me, that's how the Empire rolls. But approximately half of the other players chose Light Side options. Marauders, Assassins, Mercenaries, Snipers... all the guys who seem like they should be punishing the captain for his brazen defiance are letting the man live.
Out of curiosity, I rolled a Republic toon on another server - a Smuggler, who fits nicely into that moral grey area and could realistically go either way in similar situations - and ran the Esseles flashpoint. When the decision as to whether or not to jettison the engineers came up, I chose to seek an alternate route and save the poor people. The guy tells you there's another way, and the loss of a good engineer in this situation is needless and counter-productive. I was casually informed by my group mate - a Jedi, no less - that "most people jettison the engineers." The Jedi had never tried the alternate "let-them-live" method and didn't know what to expect or where to go.
So it turns out, then, that a significant percentage of Empire players want to play the "good guys" and a significant percentage of Republic players want to play the "bad guys." Kindly, compassionate Sith Assassins and vicious, cruel Jedi Sages.
The question is, why are players choosing to play "against type" so often? I have some theories.
1) The Empire has cooler-looking stuff. Black and red starting clothing looks way more badass than the puke-colored junk you get on Tython and Coruscant. The Fury looks cooler than the Defender. Force Lightning has better visual effects than Telekinetic Throw. There's no reason you can't be one of the good guys and look awesome doing it.
2) Players find the storylines for the other faction to be unappealing. Tython might seem kind of boring or preachy, like an extended after-school special. The Jedi are all about peace and love and introspective navel-gazing. Or Korriban might feel rather too bleak and oppressive. PTSD is likely very, very common among the Sith Academy's graduates.
3) The guilt factor. Consider what represents Dark Side choices for each side: on the Sith side, you can choose to repeatedly administer shocks to your companion to keep her from running her mouth. And you can kill rivals and even your master in cold blood before you ever leave your homeworld. On the Jedi side, following the Dark Side means not revealing that two young padawans are in love, or giving experimental drugs to villagers, knowing that there might be side effects but making them stronger so they can better defend their village. Playing a Dark Side Empire character may make some players feel a bit yucky inside, but a Dark Side Jedi is much more conservative.
4) Some people just plain enjoy going against type. Perhaps they wish to establish a unique identity among their peers, or like to thumb their noses at The Man by zigging instead of zagging. There's certainly nothing wrong with this approach, but the idea that a "Light Side Sith" or a "Dark Side Jedi" is somehow unique or different is fallacious.
5) Some players develop complex back-stories and biographies for their characters - even on the non-RP servers - and base their decisions entirely around that. They are not necessarily "going Light" or "going Dark," but the character's history will suggest a course of action that plays against type in some situations. An example would be the Bounty Hunter who ruthlessly pursues his quarry and has an explosive, violent temper, but he is also strongly anti-authority and was orphaned at a young age so he helps orphaned refugee children living in illegal settlements. He would earn Light Side points by giving the kid money, but his history would dictate that he is not going to let the kid starve to death just because the Empire says he shouldn't be living in that area.
There are essentially six alignment paths players can follow - three per side - and each of these paths can be theoretically justified in some way. It all comes down to the roleplaying, and how the character views the galaxy around him.
Dark Side - This is industry-standard for the Sith Empire, a tyrannical, oppressive regime that subjugates the weak and rules by extreme enforcement of law and order. Dark Side Imps are your Darth Vaders and your Emperor Palpatines - embracing their darker urges and emotions and using them to grow stronger. Force users translate the Sith Code in a more sinister way, violence is often the solution to all of life's little problems, secrecy and intrigue and betrayal are par for the course. You end up looking kind of corpse-y in later levels, but that makes it easier to strike fear into the hearts of your enemies. Violence has forged these characters into engines of hate and destruction - action is prefered to debate, always.
Players who choose this alignment are probably having more fun with the game - you don't need to weigh consequences, pander to the whims of companions, play nice with people you feel are beneath you... you just act. Often violently. And since so much of the game is combat-based, why not just skip all the extraneous debate and banter and get to the fighting straight away?
Light Side - These are essentially the rebels within the Sith Empire. Perhaps they admire the law and order that the Empire represents, but wish to fight the cruelty of the Sith who sit at the top. Force users translate the Sith code very differently from Dark Siders - passion does not always mean hate and anger, but also love, and the power that the Sith crave can be bent towards achieving good.
These might be the "tortured soul" types - characters who have faced severe adversity and seek to prevent it from happening to others. Though they may fight the darkness within, they have a conscience and feel empathy towards others that the Sith higher-ups simply do not. Light Side Sith seem to be more "soulful" - their choices feel more meaningful because there is so much darkness around them.
There aren't really any examples of the "Light Side Empire" path in the movies, but in the Expanded Universe, you can look at a character like Mara Jade as an example. She starts off Dark Side as the Emperor's personal assassin, but that all changes when she meets Luke.
Neutral - This alignment is actually more difficult than the other two. At key times, players will be forced to choose between the Light and the Dark, and it can be difficult to maintain a steady balance of the two. Neutral characters may follow a strict ethical code - the bounty hunter, for example, that always fulfills his contracts, for good or ill, but shows compassion to people he is not hunting. Or they may be completely whimsical, doing whatever amuses them whether it be foul or fair - an anarchist like Kaliyo fits this bill.
Personally, I think Malavai Quinn walks the Neutral line as well. He is a hardcore Imperial loyalist who doesn't necessarily object to harsh decisions, so long as they serve the greater good of the Empire in the long run. The ends justify the means - you have to break the eggs to make the omelette. And then you have guys like Revan, who fully embrace both the Light and the Dark, not limiting themselves to either and becoming something more.
Light Side - Again, this one is industry-standard. A Jedi striving to avoid the Dark Side's temptations of power and glory, a Trooper dutifully serving the Republic and putting himself on the line to defend its principles. The Lukes and the Leias - fearless crusaders for truth and justice. A smuggler trying to do the right thing despite the temptation of wealth and fame, reluctantly joining a cause because he likes fighting for the underdogs. Good-guy hero stuff, gaming staples since the dawn of the RPG. There's a reason it's still the industry standard.
Dark Side - Yeah... sometimes the cliche is just too much, and being all good all the time can be pretty boring. The virtuous Jedi may have all the self-satisfaction in the world, but the fallen Jedi probably has more money and more fun. And it's always interesting to see where villains come from, the process that makes them into villains. The lust for power grows beyond their ability to control their own destructive urges. The dark path is the quickest way to achieve their goals, and soon enough they begin to crave it more and more. Anakin Skywalker is a much more complex character than Luke, and might be more interesting to play in a game. He justified the killing of Jedi younglings with the idea that he was doing it so that he could eventually unlock the secret of saving lives.
Neutral - A lot of people use Han Solo as an example of Neutrality, but he's really only Neutral in the first half of A New Hope. After that, you can chart his progression through the Light Side until he's a hero of the Rebel Alliance and at least Light IV by the end of Return of the Jedi. A better example would be Commander Cody in Revenge of the Sith. He's an unquestioningly-loyal servant of the Republic, fighting off Separatist armies one minute and executing Order 66 the next. He follows his orders to the letter and leaves the moral decision-making to the higher-ups. Or Chewbacca - a guy you want to have at your side in a fight, but you also probably don't want to beat him at holochess. Neutral characters can run the gamut from sober and serious to capricious and impulsive.
Whatever line you want to walk, you can make it easier to follow your chosen alignment path by tweaking some options. In the Preferences menu, under User Interface, scroll down and look for the Conversation options. If you want to rigidly pursue a select alignment path, tick the boxes that show alignment gain from conversations. The "on mouseover" option is enabled by default, and will show the Light Side star or the Dark Side triangle in the middle of the dialogue wheel when you hold the mouse over the conversation options. The other option, when enabled, will place a small icon at the end of dialogue options to make the gains more obvious, removing any guesswork.
Conversely, if you'd rather immerse yourself in the character and allow him to make decisions without meta-game regard to alignment, untick both boxes. Base your decisions on what you think the character would do in the situation, how he would react.
Looking back at Ogregunk's illustrious career, there is still one tiny speck that mars his otherwise-flawless reputation as a pure Dark Sider, a decision I regret to this day. When he was still on Korriban, undergoing his trials, he was tasked with deciding whether a failed assassin should live or die. I over-thought the situation and allowed her to live, because I knew that he would later tell his master, "The Empire needs assassins." Letting her live earned Ogregunk 50 Light Side points, which were not erased by justifying the decision to his master later. He carried those 50 points for a long time, and it always rankled me to see that number on his alignment bar - it was always that one niggling decision weighing against all the other decisions he had made before and since, a stain on his career. Once he reached Dark V, though, and then blasted past it by continuing his personal tradition of murder and tyranny, those points disappeared from the bar. I like to think that, in this case, it means the ends justified the means - allowing the would-be assassin to live caused several more people to die - and Ogregunk was "forgiven" for thinking long-term.
Do you play "against type?" Share your reasons in our comments!