2 Ideas for 7/30/09


I remember a time, way back in 1995, when morality systems in games was hands-down the coolest idea ever. Secret of Mana 2 had just come out in Japan (and was soon to be denied to America fans), and my head was filled with thoughts of creating holy warriors and dark lords. The idea that all of my choices could produce drastic and dramatic changes in my character’s personality and set of skills affected me viscerally. The Ape-man buried deep within my brain-stem grunts favorably at the black/white view of absolute good and evil.

The enlightened modern man, of course, more readily rejects dichotomy, at least intellectually, and we know now that in many ways this-or-that morality systems in video games tend to be unrealistic and uninspiring. In certain contexts they work well: SM2 is a good example. SM2 presents to the player a classic fantasy environment, in which the existence of ultimate good and evil isn’t contradicted by the basic facts of life, so it’s a simple manner for the player to cooperate with the narrative. The setting doesn’t obstruct the player’s ability to suspend their belief in shades of gray.

This kind of fiction falls apart in more realistic settings, especially in the absence of good role models. If there’s no Ahriman or Ahura Mazda to hold up as the standard, the player quickly wonders why their character is the only one locked into such absurd extremes.

With that said, we’re much quicker to view the choices and actions of strangers, especially public figures, as distinctly binary. If I don’t know you, I can blithely decide that you’re a good person or, more commonly, that your heart is a bastion of evil.

Enter Demigod. The player is the son/daughter of the God <Proper Name> of the <Proper Name> pantheon, with <adjective> power over <noun>, and as a fledgling god you’ve been sent out into the world to learn and grow. Or possibly to be killed; maybe your parents are afraid of your potential and view you as a threat. Hell if I know, I’m not too concerned w/ the plot specifics here, just the mechanics. Pick your source mythos and build a story around it.

As you explore the world, fight, and complete quests, you’re faced with choices. For example, should you steal some diamonds or feed some homeless instead? The twist here, is that your morality (and thus skill-set and overall evolution) is based on public opinion. In this world, a god’s power is derived from his worshipers, and the worshipers themselves shape the god’s nature with their belief. This is tracked along two axes, public opinion and worshiper ethics. The favorable viewpoints of criminals mean different things than the love of puppies or the hatred of children. It’s possible to, for example, be a stalwart god who grants the prayers of villains and saints alike, or a murder of the upper class who also helps little old ladies across the street. Additionally, unseen acts (good or bad) affect your position in the grid less, but too much time acting in the shadows will result in events which have nothing to do with you being attributed to you, be they miraculous births or horrific floods.

You may not be good or evil, but in the eyes of the common man you very well might be.

I Am Legend

The book, not the movies. There’ve been 3, though none of them tell anything remotely like the 1954 novel. I recommend Matheson’s book to everyone, but if you’re in a hurry, just read the synopsis here.

One way in which video games excel above other story-telling mediums is in their ability to tell a personal story, to draw the player into a character. This trait is itself often best expressed when the player character exists in essential isolation. Silent Hill 2 is one of the finest examples of this; the player becomes James in a very real sense, and his break from reality becomes the player’s.

Given that, I am Legend seems uniquely suited for this type of linear narrative. The player becomes Robert Neville, and his desperate isolation gives way, as in the book, to a tentative friend in ally in Ruth, only to have that newborn trust betrayed by the realities of their situation. The game follows the book’s narrative through to Neville’s final despair, imprisoned and awaiting execution at the hands of a society which views him as the monster.

In this case, the mechanics are of less interest to me, so long as they are a good fit for the story. It’s the opportunity for storytelling which really matters here. Matherson’s novel is a good fit for a single-player game.


~ by Matt Altieri on July 30, 2009.

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