Tobold's Blog
Monday, May 12, 2014
Simulated evil

Multi-player games can be used as a platform for communication, which opens them up to real evil forms of cyber-bullying. But in this post I want to talk about something different: Games that make you do evil things to NPCs. When I recently wrote that the Wildstar open beta had started, one reader commented: "Also couldn't stand the humour (one of the first quest had you torturing and burning spies or something).".

[Spoiler Alert: Bhagpuss, don't read this now!]

Wildstar depicts one faction, Dominion, as being evil in a supposedly humoristic way. So the player frequently ends up playing the stupid goon who pushed the button to torture somebody without having been fully aware of his actions. One quest has you bring supplies to the natives of Nexus, do quests for them, and even play ball with them, only to later reveal that the supplies were poisoned, the village is now dead, and the natives now hostile for the rest of the zone. Okay, so you get to kill the guy who sent you off with the poisoned supplies, but the whole story leaves you with a bad aftertaste. You can't even opt to not deliver the supplies, because then the quests for the second half of the zone don't open up.

In a way this affected me more than playing a serial killer in games like Grand Theft Auto. Yes, I know, no real humans were hurt in doing this quest. But the quest made me feel like a tool for evil, and not like a hero. It didn't fit with the role I wanted to play or thought I was playing. World of Warcraft caused some stir back in 2008 with a single torture quest, but that was a rarity. And Horde was never depicted as being actually evil, your evil-looking orc is constantly doing good acts and is extremely helpful to every stranger with an exclamation point floating over his head.

I very much prefer games like SWTOR, where you actually have a say in these matters, where you can choose between good and evil. Games that force me to act against my own morality only drive home the point that I am playing on rails with no choice and no influence on the story. I can only choose not to play.

I have not yet played on Dominion side, the Exiles side felt very run-of-the-mill questing (I'm still at very low level, so it's an incomplete impression).

I'm replaying some SWtoR and even if it does a decent job with its light/dark stuff, there is still a lot of weirdness. As much as playing the evil Sith is fine (kill anything on sight), I'm leveling a "light-side" empire character, which is ending up being an experience in constant backstabbing and lying: it feels extremely incoherent overall when the "light" options sound even more evil than the "dark" ones.....
The problem you encountered sounds like cognitive dissonance ( see the blog "You are not so smart") : especially true in games, people define their principle from their action and not their action from their principle. That means that in games where you killed everyone, that seems normal - and not evil - to kill. This is particulary true, because in all games, NPC are eneemies or allies.
In the quest, you start by helping them : you automatically classify them as allies. But in fact, you have killed them : so you have killed allies - and that is more evil than killing enemy.
I had the same feeling when I killed bystanders in Bioshock Infinite : killing policeman that surely have families and are only trying to stop some mass killer seems normal, but one death of a bystander, and I was really ill-at-ease !
In many games, you can select your faction so as to get more or less of actions you may find disturbing. Really, the torture quest in WotLK should hardly have shocked anyone who has played as Forsaken and seen the abuse of human slaves in The Undercity. From the start of WoW, powerful factions within the Forsaken have been creating weapons of mass destruction with the intentin of exterminating humans. Sign up with them, and you're likely to sign up for that, though of course you can generally avoid almost any quest in WoW with little penalty if you so choose. It seems to me that if you're pernickety about killing NPCs in Wildstar, you should probably avoid playing the faction mentioned.

Currently I'm playing Mush. If you are chosen as Mush, or worse, unlucky or careless enough to become infected part-way through the mission, you have to abandon all feeling for your old crewmates and work to stay under cover while lying, manipulating and murdering them in the guise of your old self. The game wouldn't work if it were any different - it needs people to be ready to play evil at the drop of a hat. Of course that's not necessary in most MMOs, as there are NPCs to play that role.

Curiously, Mush actually fixes certain MMO evil issues. Griefing exists, but at least by the nature of things griefers quickly get killed and are no longer part of the mission. And since everyone is anonymous (playing a pre-defined character) until after the voyage ends, cyber-bullying isn't a thing. I think cyber-bullying is largely a consequence of the degeneration of MMORPGs into MMOs where characters are avatars of their RL personalities. Maybe in time there will be a move back towards MMORPGs, at least as a niche.
Shrug, in games with explicit good/evil systems, like a third of the things I do to be good, the game yells at me saying it was evil to do. I can deal with roleplaying as good or evil, but it annoys the hell out of me to have to do something that I think is just flat out evil in order to get good/light-side points.

I remember a quest from one of the fable games where some woman was freeing chickens so they can run away because she thought caging animals was wrong. And this took place in a town experiencing mass starvation. I found all the chickens and brought them back and the game had the gall to give me evil points. So I killed the damn woman for caring more about stupid chickens than starving children, and for ruining my good playthrough.

If only there were some sort of objective morality, then I'd love to see it better handled in games. But since there isn't I'd rather do without the moral choices aligned with systems that I completely disagree with.
The whole of WoW's Death Knight introductory storyline is about being groomed to be one of the Lich King's elite soldiers, which means being cruel and ruthless for the rest of your existence. It includes being ordered to kill a nurturing figure from your childhood. You're saved from that career by a deus ex machina that frees you to be independently good or evil as you choose.

The following year, I remarked that CoD:MW2's No Russian mission (in which you're forced to participate in the slaughter of civilians at an airport so as not to blow your cover) did for CoD what the Death Knight introductory storyline did for WoW: it showed exactly how evil the bad guys were and how imperative it was to stop them.
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