Monday, June 1, 2009

The Good People of Azeroth

Life sometimes hands us odd coincidences that upon reflection turn out to be telling. In my case, I completed the Amber Ledge quests in the Borean Tundra the same day Obama released the previously secret torture memos from the Bush administration. For those of you who have short memories, the Amber Ledge quest chain includes the quest The Art of Persuasion where the character is required to repeatedly jab a captive enemy prisoner with a “Neural Needler,” with each jab producing increasing amounts of psychic pressure until he confesses to the secret location of a captive ally. For those of you with really short memories, Bush was the President of the United States before Obama.

I actually didn’t realize this coincidence had happened until a day later, my mind too absorbed by the game to pay attention to the news. But even at the time the parallel was too obvious for me to ignore. My initial reaction was to abandon the quest chain because there was no way I could condone this type of behavior from my character. But I was only a few quests short of the Nothing Boring About Borean achievement and I didn’t want to waste the time to track down new quests. So I tortured the captive and went on with the game, a little bile in my throat.

An amoral universe

One aspect of the World of Warcraft that has always left a vague distaste in my mouth is that Azeroth is essentially an amoral universe. There is no real moral conflict. By this I do not mean that the world does not present the character with moral situations. Rather, it’s the fact that those situations are all biased towards whatever gets the character loot, experience, achievements. The real problem with the Art of Persuasion quest isn’t that the player is asked to torture a human mob; that’s a genuine moral situation. The real problem is that the reward structure is entirely biased towards torture. Torturing the captive grants the character experience, gold, and a quest completion that counts towards a variety of in-game achievements. Refusing to torture grants the character absolutely nothing.

Another example of this amorality is the quest chain in Zul’drak called Betrayal. Here the player is required to infiltrate a Scourge bastion and through a series of heinous acts earn the leaders trust, find out his plans, and eventually slay him. From a game play perspective that sequence of quests and their scripting was amusing and fun; in fact it is one the better quest chains in the game along with Saving Sharpbeak and the Swift Flight Form quest for Druids. But I remained troubled throughout the quests by the implication that it’s acceptable for the good guys to lie and to deceive to get what they want. Lost in such design is the question that if our actions don’t separate the good from the bad, what does.

Morality versus Reputation

On the surface it would be easy to jab Blizzard with condoning or promoting torture but it’s actually a result of a fundamental choice in game design. Many games at least have meters where the cumulative total of a player’s actions slide the bar closer to good or evil. The original Dungeons and Dragons paper game had the concept of alignment with the dual poles of good/evil and law/chaos. While in some games the character’s alignment is merely cosmetic (has no affect on game play) and there is the occasional annoyance of disagreeing with the developers idea of what constitutes a good or evil action, those games at least gave a nod to the fact that actions had moral consequences. It’s a fundamental truth that what gets measured gets managed and in the World of Warcraft there is no way to manage your character’s morality because it simply isn’t measured. Morality as a meaningful aspect of game play is completely absent.

But that doesn’t mean their aren’t choices to be made; players need to perceive that their actions make a difference somehow. Instead of changing alignment characters gain Reputation with the various game factions. Gaining high reputation with one faction often comes with various rewards including unique gear and titles. Indeed, one of the most difficult achievements in the game is gaining the title “The Exalted”, which is awarded for gaining exalted reputation with 40 of the 44 factions in the game. It’s a telling point that a major game achievement is awarded not to the character who behaves closest to an ideal good but simply to the person who serves the greatest number of powerful interest groups. To be as plain as possible: in WoW kissing the right ass, going along to get along, is what works; morality is irrelevant.

Playing for Good

A similar debate ensued over at regarding this issue a few days after I completed The Art of Persuasion quest. Alex Ziebart argues that the best way to envision characters in WoW is as mercenaries. On the other hand, Daniel Whitcomb believes that Varian Wrynn is in the moral right. It’s possible that both views are correct; the non-player characters of Azeroth live in a moral universe while the player characters live in a reputational one. But it leads to some decidedly awkward questions. Alex says that “saving the freaking world is reward enough” for us mercenaries but it’s difficult to imagine why we would care: which achievement is that again, who is that rep grind for. We’re not really Jesus and we’re not really Pontius Pilot; we’re just the guards that stick god with a spear and then cast lots for his garments.

The tragedy of a moral player in an amoral world is that there is no way to play for good. The lone alternative to evil is to simply not play. If you think torturing is wrong and you want your character to reflect that, your only choice is to walk away. One is then left with the awful choice between not playing or not doing good. It’s an uncomfortable dilemma.


Anonymous said...

With the Zul'Drak line (amongst others), I felt that Blizzard were trying to tell a particular story involving your character.

And the story was that you would do lots of morally grey things because it was the best way to fight a really really evil foe. It's very noir actually. Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean. etc.

BUT, it leaves the question: what if that's not the story you wanted to tell about your character? What if you wanted to stay true to your moral values, even if it meant that the world burned?

WoW is not the game in which you can tell that story.

Larísa said...

I really wish that I identified so much with my character that I seriosly reflected about the torture quest. Now I didn't and thinking about it afterwards make me feel a bit sad. I just noted: "hey, that's another kind of quest construction, I'm not killing boar, I'm using a needle, cool, than I'll get my reward quicker". What does that say about me? I'm really like a rat, just chasing for the rewards.

The penalty for refusing to torture isn't too bad. It's not game breaking that you can't do the entire BT zones, it isn't like we're lacking quests and areas to level up. But it certainly would be more interesting if you somehow got a recognition if you refused to torture. What about an achievement? Something for the records...

A final reflecton: I actually like the idea of heroes that aren't entirely good or entirely evil. I recently read Eldric by Michael Moorcock, where the hero gets his powers when he's killing using a magic sword. The only problem is that he's not only killing enemies, but his friends and beloved ones too. He's utterly unhappy and a mixture of good and evil. And isn't that quite realistic? Isn't that how it is to be human. We're not black or white, but full of shades. And I actually like that WotLK reflects this with the more doubtful quests.

Zakesh said...

Maybe stop to consider the ones of us that wants to torture people and backstab people to get rewards. How very few quests we get that gives us rewards. Rather we have to suffer to save those kittens, help the old and crippled and do lots of really boring "nice" stuff to get loot and experience.

I want more options to join the Lich king insted.

There is a couple of games where you can actually choose to play the villain or the hero insted. Knights of the old republic and City of Villains/City of Heroes is the 2 that spring to mind first.

Jessabelle said...

I know a lot of people who do not read quests. They have their leveling add-ons, and they just grind through blindly, without really paying attention. For me, I've always read the quests - at least, the first time I do them. And silly as it may be, there have been many quests that I have refused to do. I was very uncomfortable with the starting questline for Death Knights, but I went through it because I was assured that your character atones at the end.

That having been said, if you want to get philosophical about it, it would be entirely unrealistic if we were to get some achievement for being "good". We should make the moral decisions because they are right - not because we hope to be recognized for it. In the real world, the difficult moral decisions we make do not always reward us. If you don't torture that character, you won't get the gold and xp. You won't get anything; but you also won't be punished for choosing not to do so.

Aelthea said...

The main message the 'good' guys seem to be putting across with these quests and stories: Kill people who kill people, because killing people is wrong.

Anonymous said...

It's like Grand Theft Auto with more fantasy graphics. "Go kill these people" with no option to ask questions. Funny enough in GTA4 there are occasion where you get to choose to kill or let live, which seems redundant given the number of people you killed to get where you were.

Morality never really posed an issue with me in the game as I just accepted my fate as having to do bad things at times. However, one particular quest left with a strangely bad feeling afterward. A quest for the Kulka Tribe in Dragonblight had me go and steal some pups and in consequence kill the mothers in self-defence. I felt bad after I did that.

Surly the creation of that quest could have been avoided. Alternatively, did it even need avoiding?

Russell Abbott said...

Wow...excellent, excellent post. I thought much the same thing when I did those B. Tundra quests, and did much the same thing too--because in the end, it makes no difference to anyone yourself, and I already know that I vociferously oppose torture in all circumstances. I wasn't enough into the roleplaying either to abandon the quest--and, I had a OCD desire to finish every single quest in NR (which I have now just completed).

The US has a problem that way--in the show 24, dozens of movies, books, etc., torture is usually presented as a quick way to get the information you need if you're tough-minded enough to handle the stress.

Which is, of course, complete shit. As documented by Darius Rejali in his book Torture and Democracy, torture never obtains reliable information, and in fact isn't even that good at getting false confessions. Instead it inflicts massive psychic damage on both the torturer and his prisoner.

I like your idea of a KotOR-style morality scale. That would be an innovative way to gain/lose new abilities or items, especially in that you would have to actively work at keeping it where you wanted.

Wait, who is Bush again? ;)

Klepsacovic said...

Excellent post. I wish there was such thing as refusing a quest. Currently you just ignore it and the story effectively pauses, waiting for you to take it. Actively refusing a quest would allow us to define ourselves. Overall the story might go in the same direction, but we could at least decide what part we'll play.

Anonymous said...

I'm just wondering why this is coming up now. There's a pile of quests in Azeroth and Outland where you get told "Beat up this guy until he talks." So you do the fight, his bar turns green at 5% or so, and you get the info. Is using the needler instead of your normal weapon a morally significant difference?

Anonymous said...

Thats why I loved the DK quests so much. I was so sick of being a goody two shoes in Vanilla WoW, and BC. I think in this expansion it's a darker mood for sure. Look at alot of the quests, Revenge, torture, hatred. Northrend is a darker place indeed. I for one like it.

Azryu said...

Speaking of quest chains...
did you do the chain in Icecrown, for the Argent Crusade, where you go around seeking to help cure a heroic paladin of the plague of undeath?


If not, you must do it...
it all starts off with you going to find Crusader Bridenbrad, at the request of the mighty Highlord Tirion Fordring. Bridenbrad is a hero of the Argent Crusade, who carried 10 men back to safety alone, and when he went back into battle was not to be found.

When you find him, he is inflicted with the curse of undeath- meaning he is going to die, and be born as a servant of the lich king.

Once you tell Highlord Tirion Fordring about this, he sends you to the keeper Remulos to see if he would help aid this crusader as to try to cure him. Remulos agrees, and sends you to the Emerald Nightmare to get an acorn that will hopefully cure him.

When you get back, you use it on him, however he is not cured. Bridenbrad says he feels better, but the plague is still within him, and his life was merely lengthened.

So you go back to Highlord again... and he sends you to Alextraza, too see if she can help. She gives you a potion of a special lily and her dragons breathe, which in itself burns in favor to make life anew.

When you get to him, and use it on him, he feels as if a part of it has been eaten away, but his destiny is unaltered. He shall die and be reborn to be a servant of the very evil he had so heroicly fought against.

So in one last attempt, you go to A'dal in Shattrath hoping he can help. Because I cannot simply tell you, I will copy and paste what A'dal says:

"I am pleased that you have come to me, -name-. I know of Crusader Bridenbrad, and of your travels in hope of saving him. Bridenbrad's valor has sparked remarkable selflessness in you, and this is a miracle unto itself.

The Light will take care of its own. I will extend my blessing to Bridenbrad and he shall not endure the corruption of undeath. I shall return you to Dalaran, and you shall return to him. Know that I remain with you."

So you go back to the paladin empty handed, but not alone at all. When you arrive at the resting place of the now withering paladin,
M'ori, K'uri & A'da appear.

A huge beam of holy light appears around the body of the crusader, and you see his soul sit up and start rising into the air...

"A'dal says:
Fear not, young one, for this crusader shall not taste death.
A'dal says:
In life, Bridenbrad was the bearer of great deeds. Now, in passing, he shall taste only paradise.
A'dal says:
The light does not abandon its champions.

After that, I merely stood in awe of how good this game can be if you pay attention to the story... I mean, a'dal feed his soul from his body so that the paladin would never face such a horrible end...

Here is a screenshot of when a'dal uplifts his spirit...

Right next to the battle for undercity and all those quests, this was my second favorite quest line.

Fish said...

I am not one who normally embraces a "might makes right" mentality. I too normally identify with characters, although because I play both factions I generally don't see other characters as the enemy (except strangely on the pvp server where I generally assume they would kill me if given the chance, normally I'm correct). However, the amber ledge quests involve service to the Kirin Tor right? And Larissa is a mage? While I generally have a disttrust for those who refuse to get their hands dirty, I generally think of my allies as the "good guys" and my enemies the "bad guys" and sometimes the end does justify the means. . .Luckily I never have to make these types of decisions IRL. . .

Elnia said...

@jessabell. It's nice to see that someone caught the drift.

@selenite. Most insightful. I think it's because beating someone up is something that easier to relate too than jabbing someone with a neural needle. Not all pain=torture.

@Fish. Elnia is a Druid. Though I'm not sure that it changes your point.

Anonymous said...

Im not 100% sure where to start. But here it goes, there are ALOT more quests in this expansion that are morally questionable, obviously the Death Knight starter quests come to mind. In the end though as was pointed out your death knight works for redemption, ok that kinda evens it out. Killing unarmed noncombatants bothered me the most I think about those quests. Strong arming an enemy to gain information to save an ally from imprisonment, didn't really bother me at all though. I did that quest and didn't think twice about it to be honest. I am not one of these people who want to play the evil guy. I don't RP but sitting down and thinking about it I don't think my character is any less a hero or good guy because of that, I mean lets be honest how many creatures has the average level 80 toon killed ? How many times have you chased down that retreating humanoid and killed them probably by either stabbing shooting or launching a fireball or whatnot for you caster types literally in the back. Not very heroic is it, but there is only one option in this game kill or be killed for the most part. Think of that for a second.

Vigorless Fragmentary said...

The quest in dragonblight where you kill the den mothers and steal their pups comes to mind - but seriously: isn't questioning quest morale in a game with fantasy and ultimately also medieval setup called warcraft a bit misplaced? surely players would realize within the first hours of gameplay that while warcraft can by no means be labeled as a very violent game it is still far from being non-violent?

however, i agree that being able to choose between the path of good and evil like you got it in the Fable games can add depth and more potential to MMOs too. it's something blizzard would have to seriously look into though and change the entire game mechanics enough to justify its implementation - or all we'd get is another halfhearted afterthought similar to pvp in this game.

there has been MMOs before where the choice to play a villain or hero had huge impact on your entire gaming experience - most prominently and early in Ultima Online, the mother of all MMOs.

Crucifer said...

Why is it that no one ever argues that players who never engage in PvP should be rewarded for not using any means necessary to 'kill' an avatar of another real life player.

Isn't that just as morally reprehensible? Or is it ok that as a willing participant its fine...

TheReaper said...

Many of the people arguing about this point have mentioned SW:Kotor as an example of a game that measures your alignment.
Now, while Kotor is one of my all time favorite SP RPGs (along with Kotor2 and Jade Empire), I found it absolutely impossible to play the game as an evil character.
Its not that I can't deal with playing the baddy, but that I can't deal with playing an idiot.
Every single time someone asks for your help, you have to deny them, instead of having an option to comply and betray them at a later point.
You have to actively weaken your own position, just to show how much of an "hardcore badass" you really are.
Annoys the living hell out of me.
Evil in the real world isn't like that, its subtle and seemingly friendly, right up to the moment where it presents you with the bill.
So, in a way, I'm glad that WoW stays away from those problems by not introducing an alignment system in the first place.
My only concern is character advancement and I do whatever is necessary towards that end.
In addition, I think that many of the WotLK quests are actually quite clever in showing how easy it is for your character to fall into the same trap Arthas did: Fighting evil by all means and becoming evil yourself in doing so.

Fritzgar said...

TheReaper as stated above makes a very good point, alot of these quests have our characters who are supposed to be (mostly)heroes push the envelope on what is truly acceptable for a good person to take part in. Stealing babies, torture, etc. etc. I think it is all meant ot show how easy it is to fall from grace so to speak. Of course we could both be looking to much into it I mean Blizz also seems to have a pre-occupation with, to put it nicel, poo related quests also.

Varcse said...

ok before i begin i'd just like to say something: i love rpg's. They are literally my favorite game genre. The thing i love the most in rpgs are : 1 the storyline 2 the option to create an avatar and do with him what you wish.

That being said, i never thought about morality in wow and now that i think about it, i havent really been good...
All these posts have good points, and i wanted to contribute is a question to you all:
Do you think blizzard will introduce a " morality meter" into wow? Should they?

Tesh said...

I'll come back to this later, as I like what you're getting at here, and I like some of the comments. For now, I'll just ask if you've read Raph Koster's "The Evil We Pretend To" article.

I, for one, am tired of the mindless killing that passes for content in these games, and I've written about that more than once...

but at the same time, yes, we are just good little rats reacting to shinies. In a world where they really can't give players enough control to tell their own stories, and track consequences for actions, we will always have to put up with extraordinarily shallow experiences. MMOs just aren't the place for players to have control.

Elnia said...

@tesh. No, I hadn't ever read that but I just did. I think the author and I have similar issues but we come at it from very different angles. His angle is sociological in nature and mine is...well, wait and see, there is more to come. It will all tie together even if it isn't obvious yet.