Are you sick of me talking about The Old Republic yet? Well, for better or worse, it’s providing the inspiration for another column, though I hope the topic itself is going to be a little bit more generally interesting.
It’s about morality–which is a facet of human existence I personally consider to be what 19th Century British would call a “sticky wicket”. I realize there are people out there that believe in moral absolutes, e.g. “stealing is always wrong”, but it’s a rare case where I find myself able to condemn certain behavior without at least some part of me wanting to walk a mile in the shoes of the perpetrator. Don’t get me wrong, I have some lines I won’t permit to be crossed, at least if you want to remain someone I’d consider a friend or someone to be trusted… but even though I feel instinctively queasy at the thought of a 50 year old man dating a 16 year old, there are states of the U.S., and even entire cultures, where doing so is considered not only legal, but normal.
For that matter, the idea that slavery is morally reprehensible is a really recent idea when compared to the overall arc of human civilization. Racism? Caricatures that were fine and dandy for children’s books and movies of the 1940s are anathema now. The bar keeps being moved. From my standpoint, for the better, but I’m still left with the uncomfortable notion that there must be aspects of society we find normal in the present age that future generations are going to look upon with disgust and horror.
Those are extreme examples, though. It’s pretty easy to take a stand against cannibalism, no matter if certain isolated tribes still consider it an essential part of their society. Closer to home would be the ongoing debate on whether it’s okay for American soldiers and operatives to use torture, as long as it’s only used on “the bad guys”.
Then there’s the personal aspect. You’re generally against torture, but a hypothetical situation is posed: the person you cherish most in the world will die unless a certain bomb is defused within an hour. You cannot get them away from the bomb in time. The only way to defuse the bomb is with a code known by the man you currently have captured. He will not tell you this code willingly.
What do you do?
These questions are perhaps impossible to answer truthfully without actually being in the situation, rather than pondering it in the safety of your own home, your loved one sitting not too far away in perfect health. Simulating dire situations, on the other hand, rapidly gets us into dark territory like the Stanford Prison Experiment, where getting “real” answers may turn out worse than the questions that were being asked.
In the aspect of simulation, we come to the issue of gaming. Specifically, role-playing games, which amongst other things can let you crawl into a different skin for a period of time and act on stimuli in ways you wouldn’t in reality. This doesn’t always happen, but for me, the best, most satisfying RPG sessions are the ones that enable a more or less safe outlet to exploring hard questions and facets of ourselves we don’t normally acknowledge.
It also becomes a sticky wicket. Dungeons & Dragons to this day still uses an “Alignment” system where the creators have come up with certain definitions of what defines the moral spheres of Order vs. Chaos, and Good vs. Evil. In ye olden days, all Paladins had to be strictly Lawful Good or risk losing their in-game abilities, and you were at the whim of your particular DM on whether lying to save the life of an innocent, or ignoring a starving beggar stealing bread, was something that could bring down the hammer.
Computer RPGs bring this to the next level, because there’s no arguing with them. They do what they’re programmed to do, and they’re programmed by people, whose moral outlooks may not be the same as yours. If the computer game is one that’s trying to go beyond “solve puzzles, kill monsters, collect loot” into a deeper experience, problems can arise.
Now, Bioware is acknowledged as the industry leaders in terms of bringing intense role-playing experiences and compelling stories to the computer gaming world. They tend to have a fairly mature standpoint, recognizing that human behavior tends to be more complicated than just “this is always good, that’s always evil”. In fact, many of their games delight in playing with your expectations, providing memorable portrayals of both honorable villains and questionable heroes. Your own character is often left as a blank slate at the beginning of games that can tread down paths of your choosing, a trend that I believe started with the incredible Planescape: Torment (which is still slated for a Low-Rez Recollection one of these days) and continued through Mass Effect and its sequel, a place they even wisely removed connotations of good and evil by instead basing their morality scale of actions on “Paragon” vs. “Renegade”.
Bioware also, in the early 2000s, managed the Herculean feat of getting the Star Wars universe to a point where embracing the Dark Side was something you could do for reasons other than wanting to cackle and murder people with lightning and force chokes. Their Sith philosophy was based, at its core, on the embrace of passion rather than its denial, and provided that counterpoint to the Jedi practice of isolating themselves from all emotion — including love. Bioware followed Lucas’s crazy ideas from the prequels to their (il)logical conclusion and made something again compelling out of them. For instance, the Jedi code forbids attachments, but not sex. So it’s okay to pick up chicks at the nightclub as long as there’s no actual affection in what transpires. Depending on your outlook, you might have some problems reconciling those actions with “goodness”, but hey, it was Light Side.
The Old Republic seemed to be doing well at presenting the Light Side as choices reinforcing harmony and peace, while the Dark Side was bulwarked by indulging in discord and passion (yes, even the passion of love, but at least it was consistent). The best part of this was my discovery that your choice of faction did not pre-ordain your path: it was entirely possible to walk the Light Side as a Sith Inquisitor, for example, and Bioware’s writing staff is skilled enough to have your storyline still make sense if you do so (although some of your intended victims become very amusingly confused).
But it’s a huge MMO, and Bioware’s quality standard and immersiveness are so high, that I couldn’t help feeling perhaps disproportionately slapped by one instance I felt was not only a terrible example of railroading, but a nasty letdown on the morality aspect as well. Thar be spoilers here, so if you’re sensitive to that I’d say just go ahead and stop reading now. I’m probably not going to say anything earthshakingly profound for mankind, anyhow.
Still with me? Well, it was one of the early side quests for the Republic Trooper, a class meant to represent a professional soldier in a military operating more or less how we would expect our modern Western militaries to operate. Rules of engagement, etc. etc. Well, your first experience with the game is to be dropped into a warzone where separatist rebels are attempting violent overthrow of the Republic-supported government.
Now, as you progress you do get the idea that the local government is pretty corrupt, but the resistance forces aren’t exactly being good guys either. You and the other Republic troops are not the local forces, though, that’s made pretty clear.
Now myself, I’ve never been hugely pro-military and I found the American invasion of Iraq a very pointless and costly exercise. However, I had climbed into the skin of a professional soldier, and I had a job to do no matter if I disagreed with the people at the top.
I was railroaded, and Morally Judged, and it surprised me how viscerally offended I became at this. You see, you are requested to help out a Republic medical quartermaster. Medical supplies were stolen the previous night and a refugee was sighted leaving the area around the time of the theft. Without those supplies, other soldiers currently on the critical list are going to die. It’s made very clear that these are not unneeded surplus, nor is anyone involved here part of the local government that might be skimming. These are Republic soldiers who are quite literally going home in bodybags, within hours, if you don’t get those supplies back.
So you track the theft to a refugee woman who confesses, telling you she stole them because children in the refugee camp are sick. Little Timmy (or whatever his name is) wanders up to whimper “It hurts” during the conversation, just to reinforce this. The woman informs you the supplies were stolen in turn by some separatists, and she’ll tell you where they are, but only if you swear you’ll bring the supplies back to her and not to the medics.
Bioware does love its grey areas, and normally I have no problem with them. Here’s where the problem comes in, and that’s that the game gives only two choices here: tell the woman you agree to her blackmail, or threaten the child’s life.
Yeah, those are your only two options, and you of course get Dark Side points for threatening the child, and get called a monster. Which you probably should for threatening the child, but there’s no other option if you happen to be playing someone honorable who doesn’t want to lie and get this poor woman’s hopes up. It’s plain bad writing.
That’s not the worst part, though. The worst part is that, whether or not you get the information by agreeing with her or threatening to murder kids, if you then turn the medicine in at the base, you get hit with 100 more Dark Side points. And the medic doesn’t go “Hey we’re actually selling these on the black market, here’s your cut,” he tells you how you came not a moment too soon and you’ve saved a lot of lives from agonizing deaths.
There’s not even an option to identify the woman for prosecution, which might be more arguable as going too far. Or any option to request that some of the supplies be made available to ease Timmy’s tummyache. Boom, 100 Dark Side points. Not a small amount. Except did I mention threatening to murder the child only gets you 50?
The refrain I get on this Dark Side bullshit is that “Soldiers know what they signed up for”, but it doesn’t wash for me. It’s not a matter of harmony vs. discord or peace vs. passion here (if anything giving all the medicine to the refugees speaks of a more emotional response), it’s some portion of the dev team making the call that letting a soldier die in agony is morally preferable to the universe than helping a child perfectly capable of walking around and complaining to not have a headache. And that’s not even counting the original theft.
That’s exactly the scenario presented. Soldiers, no matter the circumstances, are at best expendable. Yes, even if you happen to be a soldier yourself, who might be thinking “Gosh, what if I was the one dying in pain because someone stole the antibiotics?” More than anything else in the game, this was somewhere I think Dark Side and Light Side values did not belong, and poor writing showed the wires on some sort of blanket agenda that went beyond anti-war to anti-military. Which is a problem when half your protagonists on that starting planet happen to be soldiers, and I’m not even counting the people who in real life are military or have loved ones who are.
The irony of course is that none of this would matter if Bioware weren’t normally so good at hiding the railroad and navigating the quagmires of human experience with a surprisingly even-handed view. With nearly every other Light Side/Dark Side choice in the game, I can figure things out as logically consistent to the Universe they’re presenting (which is leaps and bounds above what Lucas ever provided), so the occasional misstep really glares, and makes me glare back.
Most games still can’t (or shouldn’t) even approach the territory that Bioware regularly explores. I suppose, in the end, I should be thankful I even have something to complain about.