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As a follow up to last week’s Game Stash, I was going to go into greater detail about the form vs. function disconnect in the roleplaying genre and discuss how we often confuse the mechanics with the context. RPGs, to me, should be about growth and choice and consequences; skill points and alignments and dialogue trees are merely the outward manifestation of roleplaying and not the thing itself. Then it turns out that Shamus Young beat me to the punch in a pair of excellent articles that succinctly expressed many of my own dissatisfactions.

Over the last ten years, the roleplaying genre has been all but overtaken by morality systems that appear, on the surface at least, to give players a chance to explore what real roleplaying should be – playing a role. Shamus rightly called out the narrow definition of morality in most roleplaying games with what he calls ‘the cheap formula of “do you want the money and the bad karma or do you want to make some trivial sacrifice as a down payment on your halo?”‘ But in many cases, there are plenty of opportunities to engage in activities that would earn you scorn and condemnation in the real world, but are perfectly acceptable conveniences in the world of videogame RPGs. I don’t want to pick on any one game in particular, because they all suffer from it, but just for the sake of choosing an example most people are familiar with, let’s just look at a brief bit from Mass Effect 2.

Early in the game, the player visits a community suffering from a particularly nasty plague. The plague has killed off most of the people and the few who are still alive are paranoid and disorganized. This makes for a particularly compelling chapter in the game where the player confronts the darker parts of human (and alien) nature, which give rise to ambiguous suspicions and predatory self-interest. While the player is encouraged to face the suspicions as they relate to the source of outbreak, there’s no compelling reward, either in terms of story or gameplay, to drive the player away from joining in the looting. In fact, the game does just the opposite.

As the player descends further into the level, he or she finds lots of abandoned homes and businesses and it’s only natural for a little poking around to turn up a few credits. I don’t think any player can be faulted for checking wall safes and rummaging through the pockets of the deceased; most games call so much attention to these elements that it almost seems like a foregone conclusion that you’re meant to take them. They’re just lying around, after all, and we can rightly assume that we’ll need whatever bits of cash or gear we can get our hands on to confront the tougher challenges to come.

I usually turn a blind eye to this kind of thing but Mass Effect 2 doesn’t do a good enough job hiding the moral contradiction here. In fact, the game makes it explicit. It becomes openly laughable during this plague sequence when Shepard and his companions enter an apartment to find two looters standing over a dead body. “Stealing from the dead?” Shepard asks. “I don’t like looters.”

Wait a minute.

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Did I just miss something here? Looting from the dead is where most of Shepard’s funding and equipment comes from. Sure, the confrontation works great as a story moment, but it openly challenges one of the fundamental RPG traditions, which is stealing everything that isn’t nailed down (and can’t be pried up). Even the living aren’t exempt from this type of robbery. At one point, Shepard gets Paragon points for encouraging a couple to seek safety and then he promptly steals thousands of credits from their home. At that point, the Paragon points stopped being a true measure of my moral decisions and simply became a game element to be manipulated. At least in Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls games you’d need to be sneaky about this kind of thing.

Again, I don’t want to make fun of Mass Effect 2, because it is an amazing game and definitely more nuanced, ethically speaking, than previous RPGs. But it also represents a paradox so firmly established in the genre that we overlook its inherent inconsistency, even in titles that are exemplary in all other respects. Even those games that don’t allow the player to steal outright must deal with the notion that it’s okay to slaughter hundreds of human beings, just so long as they’re bad. It seems that all that separates heroes from villains in most games is that the heroes are just killing the right people.

Heroic acts of stealing and killing have become so central to our idea of what roleplaying should be that it seems almost insane to question them. To a certain extent, they are valuable and necessary components for these games; no one wants to play Star Wars: Mediators of the Old Republic or Peaceout: New Vegas. But following on my recent argument against the conception of games as primarily mechanical challenges, we should at least note where the gameplay actively works against the story. Even if you disagree with my original premise that context shouldn’t take a backseat to gameplay, you should at least concede that context and gameplay shouldn’t contradict each other so openly.

This is, of course, assuming that the role you’ve adopted in these games is more in line with good than evil. I think, for most of us at least, that’s a safe bet. Designers of these games have often lamented that so few people take the “bad” path, and much creative energy has been spent trying to find a perspective that encourages players to give in to the Dark Side or, more interestingly, to present choices that aren’t as obviously good or evil.

I suppose it’s encouraging that, even in a virtual world, most people tend to be good, but it also suggests the strongest consequences for a player’s morality are in his or her own mind. It’s what anthropologists mean when they distinguish between societies of shame, where judgment comes from without, and societies of guilt, where judgment comes from within. Susan Arendt, for instance, chose not to steal the cash from the couples’ safe because she established her own personal context for the action. Even though the theft had no external consequence of shame, she still refrained from stealing because doing so would carry the internal consequence of guilt.

If the situations and characters are compelling enough, our own internal values will enhance the moral relevance of the games we play, but that’s not an excuse for game designers to avoid expressing the consequences of our ethical choices in the game world itself in ways that are consistent with our own consciences. When your main heroes spend most of their time killing and stealing, all to save little shops, china cups and virginity, that’s no easy task.

Steve Butts is still trying to get in touch with his inner villain.

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