I’ve been reading a bit about Fable 2 and how Monsieur Molyneux wants to create a game that challenges the moral decisions of the player. You have to admire the stance, because I don’t know about you, but I only have to look out the window to see people being immoral, self-centred arses on a regular basis in real life, so creating a moral challenge that stands in the way of accessing areas of game play is probably about as effective as holding a small square of toilet paper over your head in the hope that it might provide a challenge to the piano that is hurtling down towards you from ten stories up. And we’re talking that awful, really thin paper that you get in public loos, rather than that double-quilted luxury paper that moisturises and provides a light, if somewhat unnerving, massage when you use it.
In MMOs it is almost a certainty that the majority of players will just pick whichever path provides the greater reward, whether that involves saving the kingdom from invaders, or selling their grandmother to the local sausage factory, as long as their decision gifts them ‘the shiny’ at the end of it all then as far as they’re concerned they’ve made the right decision. One envisions spreadsheets that have been carefully designed to work out the optimum path through the game for maximum reward:
Adventurer: “Sorry Kenneth I’m going to have to kill you now.”
Kenneth: “What? Why? You’ve been helping me for ages now, you’ve saved my entire family from starvation, you’ve rescued my daughter from bandits; I thought we were friends!”
Adventurer: “Well, according to my spreadsheet, doing quests for you was the best way to improve my standing with your village elder, and she had a really nice sword to give as a reward once I’d done enough good for you and your family. But I have the sword now, and I really would like the shield to go with it, and, well you see, the shield is given away by the local warlord, but only if I’ve been bad enough to ingratiate myself with him.”
Kenneth: “I don’t. I don’t understand. You were dating my daughter for crying out loud!”
Adventurer: “I know. I’m sorry Kenneth. But I’m going to have to kill you and your entire family, otherwise I just won’t be able to offset all the good I’ve done for you and your village, and the warlord will never speak to me. It’s all here in the spreadsheet, look.”
Kenneth: “Oh. Oh I see. Well, yup, that all seems in order, looks like you do indeed need to kill me. Can’t argue with a spreadsheet, as my mother always says!”
Adventurer: “I’m afraid I have some bad news, Ken, your mother is dead.”
Kenneth: “Dead? How?!”
Adventurer: “I killed her on the way over here actually, it was either that or help get her cat out of the tree.”
Kenneth: “What about the cat, did you at least get it down from the tree.”
Adventurer: “Of course, Kenneth! Of course! After all, I’m not a monster.”
Kenneth: “Well that’s some consolation, at least.”
Adventurer: “Yep, I got it down from the tree; then I killed it, skinned it, and sent its pelt to the local warlord, because…”
Kenneth: “Heh heh heh! The local warlord hates cats, I understand! Right, so how would you like me? Just standing here oblivious or in a slightly cowering posture pleading for mercy?”
Adventurer: “Oh, uh, just standing there will be fine, thanks.”
Kenneth: “Righty ho. Oh, and looking at this column on your spreadsheet, it appears you’ll get a decent boost to your evil reputation if you also burn my house down, so don’t forget to do that.”
Adventurer: “Really? Oh yes, you’re quite right. Dammit! I haven’t got anything to light it with.”
Kenneth: “Here, have my lighter.”
Adventurer: “Thanks! I guess it’s not like you’re going to need it any more, is it? Ha ha ha!”
Kenneth: “Ha ha ha! No problem, any ti… urk”
Adventurer: “Now I just need to go and find your wife and, well, you know…”
Kenneth: “Gurggle… yup! Hrng… mrrrgghh… don’t forget… to put my head on a spike… for the weekly warlord windfall… gaaaahhhh”
Adventurer: “Oh! Good point! Thanks Kenneth, you’re a real friend. Were a real friend, even.”
I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with trying to present a moral challenge to the player, you understand, but the basic problem is that to provide a moral challenge the player has to connect with the society in which they operate, such that its laws and its people have a meaning and depth to them that the player can relate to. This, among other things, requires a story and history to the world, one that involves the player intrinsically, and this is something that MMOs just do not, perhaps can not ever, provide.
I wonder, for example, how disappointed the developers of EQ2 were when they created the good and evil races, to provide these moral counterpoints in the game, only to find that the vast majority of players just see these factions as obstructions to grouping with their friends and getting to certain of those cities which they consider to have better quest zones. Given the option by Blizzard to switch your Alliance character, as is and in tact, over to the Horde, or vice versa, would players bat an eyelid at switching allegiance if they thought that the other side had the greener grass? I think not; there may be more personal reasons why people wouldn’t, there is no love lost between the players of Horde and Alliance themselves, but it would not be the abandonment of the moral stance that their faction honours that would stop them. The fact that most players still see Horde as evil and Alliance as good shows that there’s little understanding of what the real morals and beliefs of each faction really are.
Kenneths of the MMO world beware!