Paragons of Virtue

Ben Franklin keeps up appearances.

Stealing is OK as long as it's done well.
– Richard Garriott, Ultima VIII: Pagan

In Britannia, the Avatar is both the chief prophet and living example of virtue, constantly returning to dethrone evil and valiantly correct heretical moralities, all while modeling honesty, compassion, valor, justice, sacrifice, honor, spirituality and humility.

We all want to be that good guy, the hero. It's not enough to be the main character in our stories; we also have to be right. It's incredibly difficult to see ourselves as the bad guy. Even stories we tell about villains end up making us feel like maybe he wasn't so bad. So why is the Avatar such a rampant opportunist and thief? Why are we all?

The Avatar isn't alone. What character paused to consider the owner before opening a chest or smashing open a semi-hidden pot or out-of-the-way crate? Who among us has struggled with the ramifications of unearthing a rural family's life savings from behind their house? What virtual leader has considered the treatment and daily lives of their subjects before choosing a government type or moving a slider?

There are, of course, justifications. We need that potion, cash, weapon, or largely worthless keepsake to help save the world, after all. I'm sorry for ruining your garden, but there may have been something hiding under those vegetables you had planned on living off of this winter. Hey, at least this way winter will turn to spring instead of a wretched hellscape. You obviously don't appreciate all I'm doing for you.

Ezio runs through cities on a quest to avenge his family and rid Renaissance Italy of corrupt Templar officials, but is constantly dropping onto private balconies to rob unsuspecting citizens. Sure, guards are sometimes henchmen for the bad guys, but even when the town’s been cleared up, you’ll still end up cutting them for presuming to object to your rampant trespassing.

Democracy is simply inconvenient for my goal of attacking the Aztecs. When I sack their city and that small amount of money enters my treasury, I can’t be bothered to consider how we took that money from the inhabitants of the city, much less spare the existence of the buildings and hundreds of thousands of conquered citizens.

But really, how often do we finish ridding the world of evil without also being radiantly equipped and fabulously wealthy? Who then goes back over their accounting to reimburse all those NPCs? Who returns that crappy weapon to the private's footlocker? When we rescue slaves, do we think to let them loot the captors and reclaim their property? Who among us refuses to loot for reasons beyond utility or inconvenience?

So yes, there may be something in many of us that drives us to choose paragon paths, but we still dabble in black magic when it suits our purposes. So where does that leave us, only acting good when we know our actions are being observed and judged? Only doing the right thing when the consequences are clearly presented?

But there is a limit to how far we'll go. Many of us get uncomfortable playing torture games. We twinge at the thought of playing Super Columbine Massacre RPG! Cheating and "dishonorable" play are still discouraged.

Even Ben Franklin is criticized for sometimes settling for the mere appearance of virtue, and it’s hard for me to take sides against the man who said, “Games lubricate the body and the mind.” After all, whether we're talking about Ben's 13 virtues, the Avatar's 8 or Moses's 10, perfection is an awfully high target. But I'm not sure how often our characters really even try.

So what do we do with this cognitive dissonance? Do we limit morality to what’s been codified in the game’s design? How do we write off our virtual transgressions, and why is it different to ignore your child in Rohrer’s Gravitation than it is in Fable 3?

Do we dismiss these questions because fun is more important—and if so, why don’t we prefer games where we don’t have to worry so much about these questions? Why does BioWare bother? Why don’t we play games where enemies are abstracted beyond humanity, or where we shoot love pellets to subdue blue meanies? Why isn’t Care Bears the hottest IP in FPS games? Why do we instead buy and play games that stretch, warp and challenge our moral senses? Heck, why don’t we just stick to Madden or Go?

Ultima 7 charity
Ultima 7 poverty
Ultima 6 cover

Comments

Fun read! I seem to recall there was some Bard's Tale remake that included a lengthy narrator-monologue about the questionable ethics of bashing on crates. I never played it, so I don't know much more, but the story always stuck out to me. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need break some pots.

Everyone has to pay hero tax. That's the law.

Good question, don't know the answer but I got reminded of this:
http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2010...

See, this is why I stick to Thief: it's all about being honest with myself and what I'm doing.

What character paused to consider the owner before opening a chest or smashing open a semi-hidden pot or out-of-the-way crate? Who among us has struggled with the ramifications of unearthing a rural family's life savings from behind their house? . . .

We need that potion, cash, weapon, or largely worthless keepsake to help save the world, after all. I'm sorry for ruining your garden, but there may have been something hiding under those vegetables you had planned on living off of this winter.

On the other hand, I do want to play the RPG that models the above. Maybe this is what Fable III tries to do at the end? I don't know. I would want it as a core mechanic for the whole game, though: work hard to earn your gear and everyone prospers, or take the smashy-stealy shortcut to heroic power and see the people you're supposed to save starve.

Also, this:

stevenmack wrote:

Everyone has to pay hero tax. That's the law.

Loot in Thief had a purpose beyond kleptomania. What you looted in one mission would form the budget for equipment for the following mission, so it made sense to take your time and explore, rather than just rushing to the objectives otherwise you would have a harder time later on.

The Zeldas and RPGs that encourage wanton looting are balanced with the expectation that you will do so; and frankly I think it is poor, outdated game design to do so. I deal with the cognitive dissonance by mentally rewriting the narrative to not include this behavior. (It is the same mental rewriting that removes accidental pedestrian deaths in Grand Theft Auto, the ones where I would actually stop and call 911 if the game allowed me to do so.)

Not that I have a problem roleplaying a bad guy (much less problem than other people seem to have, based on threads for Mass Effect and Infamous and such) but the lack of ethically consistent player behavior is a problem. It is poor writing.

barbex wrote:

Good question, don't know the answer but I got reminded of this:
http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2010...

See, there's probably a "take all" command for the clothes, which can be easily sold for 1 silver each in town.

beeporama wrote:

(It is the same mental rewriting that removes accidental pedestrian deaths in Grand Theft Auto, the ones where I would actually stop and call 911 if the game allowed me to do so.)

Grand Theft Auto 4 does allow you to call 911. All those pedestrian deaths happened and you did nothing to stop them, you monster!

I rather embrace playing the villain in the games that allow that. It is a nice departure from the moral and ethics that our society requires us to follow to be an active and free member of it.

More than once:

"Ha ha! This stupid villager forgot to mark this item in red letters as 'owned'. Now I can take it and he can't get mad at me! Stupid fool! Where'd I put that extra sack?"

I think that part of the problem is the level of detail in our simulations. I don't feel bad for the pedestrian(s) in GTA because they clearly are just a prop. I can run over every pedestrian I can find and tomorrow there will be just as many of them back again--nameless, colourless, faceless.

That's one of the main reasons why I really liked the original 2 Gothic games. Every character was a real character. Every item in the world was there for a reason. You kill someone, they are gone and done for. You steal something, it's really a crime. Most characters will behave possessive towards their stuff and bitch about it if you manage to swipe it from them. The system was not perfect, by any stretch of imagination, but I certainly think it went a long way to creating a more believable level of simulation.

MoonDragon wrote:

I think that part of the problem is the level of detail in our simulations.

That's one reason I frown a bit every time I hear people cry out for open world sandbox games There's a cost to everything, and when the amount of content goes up, not every studio has the development team to make every area in the game interesting. I'd prefer some games to have a narrower scope if it meant every location was interesting rather than a generic template room with the same 'home' props scattered around the room.

Oblivion at least attempted to address this problem by assigning ownership to items. It didn't always work, but at least it made you feel like a thief when you were clearing all the houses out for loot.

Something I've discovered in most RPGs is that, despite what you think, there is no reason to be The Human Vacuum Cleaner, sucking up all objects in the game. Dragon Age is a great example. I dutifully collected crafting items the whole game, thinking I would build traps and brew poisons. Then, I reached the point of enlightenment where I knew I would never find a use for all that junk, and sold it off. I enjoyed the game a lot more after that.

I guess that depends on difficulty.

The Witcher has 3 difficulties, and it's crafting was for potions and bombs, and you could buff your sword up. In the descriptions for the difficulties it says on hard that it's pretty much required and on normal that it will help. I would say DA:O is similar, definitely not required on easy, a good help in some fights on normal, and should be an almost required part of the game on hard.

The method of getting those materials never seemed quite right in either game, adventuring and peering into every container for petty scraps don't quite go together.

Ultima 4 did in fact punish the player for robbing homes (the first in the series to do so) or killing random peaceful NPCs. Well, punished in the fact that it hampered your progression to the game's final goal. A big step up from Ultima 3 where slaughtering entire towns was my favorite leisure activity.

I can see the Ultima (7?) screenshots up above next to the article, but the first two are too tiny to read.

Quintin_Stone wrote:

Ultima 4 did in fact punish the player for robbing homes (the first in the series to do so) or killing random peaceful NPCs. Well, punished in the fact that it hampered your progression to the game's final goal. A big step up from Ultima 3 where slaughtering entire towns was my favorite leisure activity.

I can see the Ultima (7?) screenshots up above next to the article, but the first two are too tiny to read.

The two screenshots are 7, yeah. Looks like they came out pretty small, though. I'll see if I can fix that ... oh, screw it.
IMAGE(http://lh5.ggpht.com/_Wt-wYS_metc/TFhKyXcXOOI/AAAAAAAAAIM/jqQWodXEWu0/s640/U7Stein.jpg)
IMAGE(http://lh5.ggpht.com/_Wt-wYS_metc/TFiAw8vJ0uI/AAAAAAAAAIk/Cp1PwTTyJso/s640/U7race.jpg)
IMAGE(http://lh3.ggpht.com/_Wt-wYS_metc/TFiJlU1l16I/AAAAAAAAAIs/PCxsvNEkiWU/s640/U7faithcharity.jpg)

I prefer Serpent Isle's gameplay (ring of reagents & keyring ftw!), but IV-VII did more to tell a story of ethics than any other RPG of their era, or most since.

I've never played the Ultima games, but just looking at the screenshots gives me a headache. I can play any FPS with as much head-bob as you like, but Ultima's extreme perspective gives me this weird feeling like something's not right. Is there a mod to maybe rotate everything 45 degrees to the right?

Gravey wrote:

I've never played the Ultima games, but just looking at the screenshots gives me a headache. I can play any FPS with as much head-bob as you like, but Ultima's extreme perspective gives me this weird feeling like something is obviously amiss

Exactly!

The Ultima VIII intro was great, but the game was just downhill from there:

So does this mean Ultima 9 is Karmic retribution for all that stealing from the common folk in the earlier games

stevenmack wrote:

So does this mean Ultima 9 is Karmic retribution for all that stealing from the common folk in the earlier games

We have nobody to blame but ourselves.

But that won't stop me from blaming everyone else.

I did kill a looooot of innocent folk in games II and III.

I think it all comes down to consequences. In real life, there are serious consequences to any of this sort of behaviour (Oops just blew up some innocent bystanders - drat... Carry on!). Everyone who plays realises this, which divorces the in-game act from reality and makes it dead easy to convert it to a risk/reward equation. Fallout 3 - do you steal that key from the mayor and break into his house to get the bobblehead? This isn't a moral question, it's a stats question - do you have enough sneak skill to get it done without getting run out of town.

And frankly, anyone who made a habit of running around stealing other people's gear would be dead within a matter of hours. Contrary to popular fiction, one man with a sword *can't* beat a crowd armed with only their fists.

The thing with that is most games are ridiculously balanced in favour of the player. Part of that is because making fun and challenging opponents is hard to do, part of it seems to be the intention of a lot of game designers to make the player feel powerful through being genocidal.

Running with the Fallout example, society has lasted a few hundred years after the war, and then some mass murderer gets out of the vault and their primary way of progression is with violence. If the wasteland had the communication that lets them spread your reputation, it should also spread the advice to put down the troublemaker.

Scratched wrote:

Running with the Fallout example, society has lasted a few hundred years after the war, and then some mass murderer gets out of the vault and their primary way of progression is with violence. If the wasteland had the communication that lets them spread your reputation, it should also spread the advice to put down the troublemaker.

Not to nitpick specifics, but in FO3 the Regulators will hunt you down if you're evil (and Talon Company if you're good). Of course, you just blow them up and take their stuff anyway.

I forgot about them. I guess it needs to tie into the world more than just showing up, see the example with the goblin totem from Oblivion, although that was from another thread. Those enforcers seem disconnected from everyone else in the world, but then it's a secondary aspect to the main missions, so it would feel odd within that game if everyone pulls their gun on you on sight.

Pawz wrote:

I think it all comes down to consequences. In real life, there are serious consequences to any of this sort of behaviour (Oops just blew up some innocent bystanders - drat... Carry on!).

I tend to think that living an ethical life due to fear of repercussion is missing something. Something big.

wordsmythe wrote:

I tend to think that living an ethical life due to fear of repercussion is missing something. Something big.

That's the big thing about games, you're playing to get some kind of reward (insert skinner box comparision), and you're acting the way you do in a game because it helps you in some way. I suppose what would be a great game would be where it feels like you should 'be good' but there's no direct reason for doing so, similar to a horror game that can creep you out without any direct threat to you.

I may just not have the mindset shift into a more pure I/O model that many gamers have when entering a virtual space. Then again, I also don't treat people much differently online than in real life, so I know I'm odd already.

Because I don't tend to make that shift, it's fairly natural for me to act in suboptimal ways in games, just as I often do things in real life without any direct reason or reward for doing it.

I know I'm sounding sanctimonious here. I don't want to tell other people how to play games. I just wonder to what extent I'm alone in this.