Nov 21, 2008

[Moral Ambiguity, or Lazy Design?]

So Richard Bartle makes a comment about quests in WotLK requiring players to torture helpless people for information. This kind of squicks him out.

Broken Toys then accuses him of overreacting. The ensuing discussion thread there is kind of interesting, with some people actually seriously discussing the concept of moral choices in games.

The first quest I ran across in Northrend that made me stop and go "WTF, how is this not kind of effed up?" was one from a Tuskar asking me to kill members of a rival tribe and kidnap their children for him. I still am not really sure why anyone would think that somehow makes killing tribespeople okay, as long as you have their kids as prisoners in a sack somewhere (yes, you actually put the babies in a bag) so technically the race won't go extinct. A bit insane as well as something really wierd for a 'hero' to be asked to do as if it was the most normal request.

But then in Dragonblight I was given my first torture quest, to use a branding iron on a Scarlet Onslaught member to gain information, and then to kill him afterwards. Okay, I was kind of squicked out, but the Scarlet folks have been pretty big bastards to everyone, and it was a Forsaken quest and they sort of specialize in being bastards themself, and it was part of a chain (and xp) so I did it. It's not like NOT doing it would have made a bit of difference, anyway, as there is no real choice or value to choosing not to do a quest for moral reasons in WoW.

But now knowing that there are several other quests requiring you to torture helpless people makes me really stop and wonder what the Blizzard devs were thinking. Apparently, there are other quests where the devs seem to have completely lost any kind of concept of the morality they're pushing as normal here: Killing an ally because she was being brainwashed and threatened with rape (Keristrasza, with the rapist being Malygos himself) ('a fate worse than death' and all that, I suppose is the justification there). Waving a white flag to lure out an enemy leader to kill them, etc. Torturing prisoners (and never once is that torture result in anything other than success -- they never lie or valiantly die without ratting out their allies). Can a game really claim to be about making the player a hero, when it has you doing very un-heroic (or even evil) things, though?

There are some class/race situation where I could see how these quests could work -- Warlocks and Death Knights are pretty evil, after all. Forsaken characters tend to be bitter and vicious to the living, so I could see certain race/class quests that would make make sense in those contexts -- but asking a life-affirming Druid or righteous Paladin to do such things? An honorable Tauren or a devout Draenei? Most of these quests are chains or offer only a lose/lose result for not doing them -- you never gain anything for choosing not to do them, you only lose out on xp, loot or story progression.

Chris Metzen, when talking about the theme of WotLK, said this: "We want to add some layers of psychology that put you in strange moral situations of how you fight the good fight that mimic some of Arthas’ own experiences…. By the time you reach level 80 [the expansion's new level cap], by the time you stand toe-to-toe with this bastard, do you still have your pretty principles and highfalutin morality, or is it a mirror reflection? Arthas is after that as much as global domination. It’s a hook that makes it personal that Burning Crusade didn’t have.”

But the way they went about it was a lazy design choice -- Blizzard should have made moral choices in Northrend actually MATTER, so that the decision to do something immoral for loot or convenience actually had an impact, instead of basically expecting people to play all the quests regardless how bad those quests made them behave, and then wag their finger at us afterward for being so 'amoral' when we were never given a real choice to behave otherwise.

I think it's a blatant show of how Blizzard disregards the player's own feelings about their character and how they have personalized that character in order to facilitate Blizzard's idea of the story the way THEY want it to be experienced by us (instead of letting the player make their own path), and I think that's a violation of the entire concept of a MMORPG. To attempt to add 'moral ambiguity' to the game simply by adding quests that make people behave reprehensibly without any real consequences or internal conflict about it was a very poor way of going about adding 'moral ambiguity'.

EDIT: Raph Koster weighs in his opinion.

Nov 7, 2008

[What's the Deal With Twilight?]

  My personal feelings about this series' popularity are summed up in this comic and in the hilarious book reviews by Cleolinda.

  I mean, vampire romances are legion. There are lots of far better written stories out there with characters that are not TSTL (too stupid to live) abusive, shallow, and mary sue-ish. Yet, just like with Eragon, magazines went ga-ga over it (calling it the next Harry Potter? Seriously?!) and it's fans squee over it's mediocrity with frightening intensity.

  Is it just because its fans have never read a good paranormal romance, or are that many people's idea of 'romance' really that screwed up? If Edward wasn't a vampire, would the reactions even be so intense? Because if you remove all the paranormal trappings (and rainbow glitter) the relationships in these books are just plain dysfunctional, and only get worse as the series goes on.

  In an environment where there are so many better paranormal romantic books out there as alternatives, why is Twilight singled out at the one most worthy of all this praise? I just can't understand it.

Extra: A fun podcast about fandom in general, Twilight, relationships, feminism, and a slew of other things. =)