Tobold's Blog
Sunday, September 30, 2012
We're all the good guys

Imagine in a pen & paper roleplaying game you come across the following character: He is undead. He is a priest of some dark deity. He uses dark magic and fear to kill his enemies. He works with orcs, trolls, and some sort of minotaurs. What would you think about that character? You'd probably think he's the villain of the adventure. But no, he is my shadow priest in World of Warcraft! And he just finished the first zone of Pandaria being the overall hero and good guy.

Of course if you'd play through that zone with your Alliance character, you'd be the good guy too! Because we're all the good guys. Whether we want it or not. EVE Online has clearly shown that in a low-consequence virtual world environment the default player behavior is evil. If I can shoot and rob you without consequence in a game, why wouldn't I? But as victims in virtual world can react by leaving the game, most game companies have decided to not allow evil behavior towards other players, or at least make being the victim free of consequences as well. Thus in the war between Horde and Alliance, there are no bad guys. And no losers. Whatever side you are currently on, you're in the winning team of the knights in shining armor.

That isn't just a World of Warcraft problem. In the oh-so-dynamic Guild Wars 2 your options are either helping the good guys or not helping them. You can't help the bad guys, even if you wanted to. In Star Wars: The Old Republic you could always choose the most dark side option there is, and play an "evil" Sith, but at the end of the day you're still spending your days helping people with their problems.

There has been some discussion lately in the blogosphere about story in MMORPGs. I don't think the problem is that there is no story. The problem is that the story is so incredibly bad, flat, and predictable. You, the hero, have no personal conflicts, no emotions, no difficult decisions to take. You just walk around, and ask random strangers what there problem is and how you could help them with it. All day. Every day. In many games the most evil thing you are allowed to do is to click "decline" when somebody asks you for help. In a more guided game like WoW that continual series of being helpful is sometimes rewarded with a cutscene, in a less guided game like Guild Wars 2 you get a reward for completing every random stranger's help request in a zone. Not helping them isn't really an option.

In the end you are playing a character who has less character than most NPCs. These games are still miles away from even the interactive storytelling of a pen & paper game, which isn't always great literature to begin with. If there is no other option than being the hero, if everybody is the hero, then ultimately that isn't any better than an office job.

While your general point is correct, you are wrong about one thing: Horde is the bad guys. I will gut you at my first opportunity.

No hard feelings ;)
I realized while I was playing the Secret World (yeah, yeah, more TSW, bear with me) that what I enjoy the most in "story" video games isn't the story per se, but the characters. And that's mostly the NPCs. What's the best part of Mass Effect 3? The loyalty missions. Why is that? Because you get to know some pretty interesting characters.

Same thing in TSW, the enjoyable part of the excellent cut scenes isn't that they drive the story forward, but that they showcase some very cool characters.

The next logical step would be for computer games to enable the player to create his own interesting character, but I sadly doubt that is workable. Even in tabletop RPGs giving your character an interesting personality and backstory isn't something everybody does, maybe even a bit niche. Not only doesn't everybody enjoy it, it's actually pretty hard to come up with a cool character.

And MMOs already have people that create their own character and play it out, that's what people do on RP servers don't they? And they're a distinct minority.
err, "the best part of Mass Effect 2
Not only do I not want to be evil, I don't believe anyone should be encouraged to be evil, or even feel it's acceptable to be evil. Therefore I feel the game companies are simply demonstrating social responsibility.

Also, what's wrong with office jobs? We should all work in factories or on the land?
It's interesting that you should write this just now, because I have been thinking all weekend about the opposite. One thing that really sets WoW apart, to me, is the quality of the writing.

The stuff that they put in there, and the way they progress all these little stories, it's really very well done. Almost every time. Of course it is easy to laugh at them and dismiss them as trite and predictable – not least because many of them are so cute. But at the end of the day, if you do stop to read the quest texts and listen to the dialogue it is hard not to feel a bit invested in the story.

And sure, these are not "your" problems, but they are still certainly "story". You pressing a button to trigger the next part of the story doesn't make the story as such worse (or better), in my opinion – that's more a question of interactivity.

It is doubly interesting that you focus on "your" story, because it seems to me that this is exactly what Guild Wars 2 is seeking to do (the opening cutscene is quite explicit: "this is my story"). Thinking about it, that overall decision probably informs a lot of the quest and levelling design too. Since GW2 focuses on your story, you don't even get the explanations or the choice of not helping. With WoW and a "their story" focus, the quests are the story.

Anyway, I digress. Thanks for another interesting post!
Seems a naive notion of evil to begin with.

Alot of 'evil' are people basically stooping to various acts out of lack of resources or fear for their lives (or even the lives of others).

Whilst in your average mmorpg, what fear? As long as you grind, you'll make it. And you'll never die.

Or is 'evil' and 'play a sociopath character' being used interchangably? I'm not sure a sociopath character is as interesting as it seems (particularly if he can't die), but I'm open to arguement.
What attracted me to WoW (Wrath era) was that up until the Wrathgate, you could argue quite justifiably that the two factions were merely like any other two factions who have to learn to get along. Post Wrathgate, it's a bit harder to do so with the rise of Garrosh and Sylvanas' total war. At the same time, the racism in elements of the Alliance makes it harder to meet those in the middle.

If there was something that I wish that WoW would do with this, it would be to enable a break in the old factions. The thing is, I could easily see such a break as a prelude to EVE-like behavior, if not managed well.

Well actually I think everyone gets to play as bad guys.

I mean, basically what you do in WoW is break into people's houses and kill them so you can steal their stuff, right? It's Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap but with orcs.

What did Ragnaros actually ever do to anybody, you know what I mean?

But even if we accept these home-body monsters are evil, it's basically Hitler v. Stalin anyway, because it's the Guys Who Want to Kill People and Take Their Stuff v. Guys Who Want to Kill People for Reasons I Never Bothered to Read.

But on a more serious note, you are absolutely right. The hubbub over that torture quest was a bit odd, since the game involves constantly murdering people so you can take their stuff. I wouldn't think paid assassins would blanch over a wee bit of torture.
Terry Pratchett's Lord Vetinari has the definitive statement on heroes:

Lord Vetinari sighed again. He did not like to live in a world of heroes. You had civilisation, such as it was, and you had heroes.
“What exactly has Cohen the Barbarian done that is heroic?” he said. “I seek only to understand.”
“Well... you know ... heroic deeds ...”
“And they are ... ?”
“Fighting monsters, defeating tyrants, stealing rare treas¬ures, rescuing maidens ... that sort of thing,” said Mr.Betteridge vaguely. “You know ... heroic things.”
“And who, precisely, defines the monstrousness of the monsters and the tyranny of the tyrants?” said Lord Vetinari, his voice suddenly like a scalpel - not vicious like a sword, but probing its edge into vulnerable places.
Mr. Betteridge shifted uneasily. “Well... the hero, I sup¬pose.”
“Ah. And the theft of these rare items ... I think the word that interests me here is the term “theft”, an activity frowned on by most of the world’s major religions, is it not? The feeling stealing over me is that all these terms are defined by the hero. You could say: I am a hero, so when I kill you that makes you, de facto, the kind of person suitable to be killed by a hero. You could say that a hero, in short, is someone who indulges every whim that, within the rule of law. would have him behind bars or swiftly dancing what I believe is known as the hemp fandango. The words we might use are: murder, pillage, theft and rape. Have I understood the situation?”

Excerpt from Terry Pratchett's The Last Hero.
I don't know if I can call some of my more insane Sith characters,particularely helpful. you can "help" for the credits (and say so) you can help becasue you genuinely want to help. you can claim to help and then betray the person you were supposed to help. you can kill instead of saving. some stories come with some very personal difficult decisions (the closest that comes to mind is trooper). the key is motivation of your character. Traditional villians if you look at separate actions might also look like they are "helping" people. to achieve their own means.

in GW2, you are definitely a hero by default. there are no selfish and/or evil actions that you can take, at least not that I have found. and I suppose in WoW at least in pandaria. I haven't played it in a while, but I do remember some of the horde quests involving deliberately destroying, sabotaging, etc alliance and just regular bystanders.

but I'd say going along with a demented scientist and slowly (and painfuly) poisoning some rebels? is a pretty evil action IMO. I woudln't call it particularely heroic. especialy when your motivation (which the game allows you to express) is to enjoy them writhing in pain. for example.


The whole faction thing is of curse quite popular in games and is probably motivated by gameplay reasons – particularly to serve as an excuse for pvp. Generally speaking, these conflicts seem artificial and silly. But really; aren't many conflicts just like that? People of this world seem bent to create conflict where none should exist. Whether it Is Catholics vs Protestants or PC v Mac, it seems that we just need to disagree.
And he just finished the first zone of Pandaria being the overall hero and good guy.

The very first quest of that zone requires you to kill 80 people with cannon fire - and it only gets worse from that point on. There are many terms for people who do things of that sort, but "overall hero and good guy" are not among them.

The good and heroic solution is to skip the quests altogether and go grind a bunch of Sha mobs somewhere. Yes, it's harder and more boring, but doing the right thing often is.
There are many terms for people who do things of that sort, but "overall hero and good guy" are not among them.

Most people actually do consider the soldiers fighting on their side in a war to be the heroes and good guys. Just ask the British what they think of Bomber Harris, who killed a lot more people than just 80, and deliberately targeted civilians. He is still considered a hero.
As Leah said, I argue about swtor. In swtor you can indeed play an evil character. And if somehow it happens to help someone doesn't change anything..even the bad guys have their moments...
@Tobold You mean the chap commonly referred to as Butcher Harris by his men? I'm a Brit and while I understand the pressures of the time I believe that is one of the occasions we stooped too far.

Most Brits wouldn't even know who he is right now, but when they put a statue up for him there was still a significant outcry and petitions against it.
The problem is that to too many people "an interesting character" means a sociopath (in MMOs, anyway, hopefully they take a different attitude in RL). So their characters have to be channelled, unless you want to end up with something like Eve.

As for WoW, I think it does not too bad a job of hostile factions that can respect each other to a certain degree but have divergent interests that are unlikely to be resolved peacefully. Of course the war keeps going because that's the name of the game. Literally. It doesn't mean your average orc is a bad guy, for an orc. And I'm sure you try to do good, Tobold -it's not your fault that you were turned into a shambling monstrosity that may ultimately need to be killed before its kind take over the world.

I think I would have a problem with a game that rewards players for being 'evil'.

I took Grand Theft Auto away from my son when I saw him happily running over innocent civilians with his car, and he told me he didn't have a problem with it.

IF there is anything for kids to learn from these games, and the jury is still out on how much people do learn from them, I don't think it helps society for those things to be 'evil'.

I think I would have a problem with a game that rewards players for being 'evil'.

I took Grand Theft Auto away from my son when I saw him happily running over innocent civilians with his car, and he told me he didn't have a problem with it.

IF there is anything for kids to learn from these games, and the jury is still out on how much people do learn from them, I don't think it helps society for those things to be 'evil'.

I dunno, you could have evil Characters. Maybe you could have the evil choice, and each time you take it your cash rewards or gear are better but you are more and more shunned by the good segment of the game until maybe the guards won't help you if you get attacked and if you stay evil will eventually KOS.

Ultimately I have a total separation between real morality and video game morality, since I have literally killed trillions of 'people' in video games, even if it was abstracted to the point it was nothing more than a spreadsheet transaction. 90% of video games that aren't Tetris have you doing something morally questionable.

I mean hell, in Super Mario Bros. all those bricks you are head butting are the magically transformed citizens of wherever, so you're totally murdering people on the off chance they poop coins or mushrooms when they die.

So it's best not to get too wrapped up in that sort of thing.
World of Warcraft lamp-shaded this, I think, in a goblin-related quest somewhere. I didn't do it myself, only heard about it.

SPOILER: Some goblin asks you to steal the key off another goblin - which you do by killing and looting him. The murdered goblin then proceeds to HAUNT YOU, asking you why the hell you murdered him when you could have just knocked him unconscious, bribed him, or hell even just threatened or asked him. If he'd known it was all you were after, he knows you're wreathed in god-like power, he would've simply given it up. So you run around the zone, completing quests and haunted by an annoyed ghost.

I seem to recall that, depending on who you are rooting for, a LOT of things you are asked to do in WoW are downright evil. Some morally questionable. Ten minutes into the Blood Elf starter area, you lure a peaceful ambassador to a secluded spot to murder him. The Kirin Tor copped a bit of flak for that quest where you capture, then repeatedly torture a prisoner, for information. And did you ever do that Undead quest line that involved developing and testing a new plague on a helpful, neutral druid? This isn't an enemy combatant. The plague which was, ultimately, used as a plot point in WotLK to jam another wedge between Horde and Alliance as they threatened to actually cooperate.

Asides from the rampant murder of other races, wildlife genocide, and general death and destruction on a natural-disaster scale, your character is an implement to all kinds of malicious ends.
...Why? Because someone asked you to.

It's almost like the twist behind Bioshock, only with gold exclamation points.

When levelling with my brother in a RP situation, we actually played it up. We were not great heroes. We were murderers. Murder-buddies. We would trek great distances, poison villages, commit genocide, kill men, creatures and gods, and even the spirits of the dead, obliterating them eternally. We consumed SOULS, the very essence of what a person IS.
...All if anyone asked. The only limit to our capacity for violence was what citizens and militaries dared to ask of us.

It was a fun angle - next time you go through Outland or Northrend at least, try viewing every scenario as of your character as psychopath rather than hero, and imagine their impact on the world. Especially considering how many body parts they have on their person at any given time.

The fact that all this behaviour is viewed as 'heroic' or noble is a very interesting perversion, and if it were a film, one might even be tempted to assume the writer did it deliberately to prove a point.
Sorry if someone has pointed this out already, but you can choose to help nobody in GW2. You get XP from crafting and collecting crafting materials. It may take you longer to do, but it is an option.
Also there's quite an absurdity in 'being evil all the time' - uh, you just betrayed some dudes, but hey, some other dudes come up going 'oh hae, were sure you wont betray US!'

So how absurd is that?

Oh, I know, you could get in their good graces somehow, so you can betray them for a BIG score. So, how to get in their good graces - I guess doing stuff for them...oh yeah.
They need to balls up and make PvP non-optional to have a true good/evil system at work in any MMORPG.

Or even just non-optional for particular quests. And it doesn't even have to be good vs evil, it can be two shades of gray.

The common caravan escort in GW2 is a good base example. One faction is moving gold or supplies from one place to another and another faction wants said supplies.

Aiding the attackers then yields more gold (negative karma tho) if you win while aiding the defenders yields more karma (less gold than if you were a raider) if you make it to the destination.

Only 1 death allowed per involved event. You get killed participating on either side, you can't "rejoin" the same run.

That simple dynamic will make things way more open-world than it already is.

From there you can link out to faction standings and the like which is already present in a few other MMORPGs.

This way you can be what you want to be. Even if that is a crazed axe murderer fisherman part-time chef cat-man. :P
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