This week on Extra Punctuation, Yahtzee discusses the tired trend of having two factions in a video game that are always authoritarian or libertarian, fascist or nutter.
Extra Punctuation Transcript
Fascists Versus Nutters is something that might be worth analysing that seems to have been coming up a lot lately in my personal gaming habits. It’s a point I’ve brought up in ZP every now and again, for it is my habit to identify the cliches in modern game design and fashion them into yet another nail to put through the end of my favourite whacking stick.
What I’ve observed is that whenever a game asks you to choose between two rival factions, like it’s a choices matter RPG or an assign the districts open worlder, the choice will very frequently come down to either fascists or nutters. Meaning, one side is authoritarian and rules with an iron fist but keep things neat and orderly, while the other side is libertarian and permits personal freedom but is also chaotic and less efficient and doesn’t hang the dish towels properly when they’re finished washing up.
Dying Light 2 did this with having you side with either the survivalist everyday citizenry or the self-appointed peacekeepers. But just to pick a few more token examples, Shin Megami Tensei games usually have you side with either the forces of Law or those of Chaos; The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners has the orderly Tower and disruptive Reclaimed factions, the entire Assassin’s Creed series is built around the eternal tentpole of fascists vs. nutters and recently I’ve been playing the actually rather interesting Not For Broadcast which has you wrestle with the requests of both a totalitarian government and a violent resistance group. It’s pretty endemic in games with any kind of faction relationship system and I’m wondering if we really are incapable of coming up with other themes worth exploring in this area.
On the one hand it might be unavoidable. In my video about open world games I mentioned that such things keep having the same plots about having to retake the world from an evil entity or force generally because that’s what’s driven by the gameplay. If the gameplay involves exploring the world, makes sense for the plot to be about saving the world. And if you add a faction loyalty system into the mix then it follows that both factions want to be the one that runs the world. And since all governments fall somewhere on the sliding scale between authoritarian and libertarian one of the factions is going to go more one way and one the other.
So as I say, fascists vs nutters is an obvious theme to go with. But is that really all you want to be? Obvious? Has the restaurant of gaming narrative no ambition beyond feeding us beans on toast every bloody night?
Still, it’s an improvement on video gaming’s previous favourite philosophical dichotomy, namely, do good versus do evil. As seen in such games as Fable, Infamous, Knights of the Old Republic, The Suffering, etc, etc. I assume that sort of thing went out of favour because audiences demanded something a little more nuanced. I’m just speculating here but I think it was because we like to pretend this is a grown-up hobby and Mother Teresa versus Skeletor isn’t a very complex dilemma. For the most part people don’t like to be evil. They might play the evil path out of curiosity or for completeness’ sake but the fact is, being evil for no reason is both irrational and narratively unsatisfying.
Audiences respond best to stories where what happens is justified. What that means depends on the creator and their individual level of cynicism, but generally we want characters to be rewarded if they’re heroic or likeable or smart or interesting, and punished if they’re villainous or boring or stupid or naive. Being wantonly evil without pushback just isn’t appealing. If you’re engaged with the story, at any rate. I want to stress that. If you’re, say, doing one of those Dark Souls speedruns where it’s quicker to just murder all the NPCs for their shit then you probably won’t care so much about the ethics of the situation.
But anyway. These days we’ve graduated to fascists vs nutters, which is slightly more nuanced because both sides have their pros and cons. But it’s not that much of an improvement because there’s still one side that’s more narratively satisfying than the other. Good storytelling almost never sides with the authoritarians because independence and the sense to question authority are traditionally heroic qualities. When Starfleet says not to risk diplomatic relations with the Romulans by violating the neutral zone to aid a stricken vessel, we would neither want nor expect Captain Picard to go “Can’t be helped!” and knock off early for a head polish. Authoritarians are all about maintaining status quo and the first thing a good story should do is disrupt the status quo. That’s my latest story writing tip. See that status quo? Disrupt that shit, boyeee.
My point is fascists vs nutters isn’t much more interesting than good vs evil as far as story branching goes. But what’s the alternative? Well, having more than two factions might help. But if there’s a third point on the authoritarian versus libertarian sliding scale then the sensible choice is always going to be the one in the middle, isn’t it. Sure, middleground compromise isn’t always the right choice – the solution to Nazi Germany was not to negotiate them down to only murdering half the world’s Jews – but if you’re dealing with two extremes, then yeah. When it’s liberty or security, a bit of both is best. You don’t want slavery, but then again, you also don’t want your next door neighbour to be free to build a nuclear warhead.
So I guess the only way to get away from fascists vs nutters is to stop making samey open world games with the same plots, and that’s advice that’s going to bounce off the triple-A industry like gummi bears off a yoga ball, isn’t it, but nevertheless. Just as your average Call of Duty protagonist is boring because they never seem to have any desires beyond wanting to fight in wars all day, maybe if your factions want something other than just to be in charge, we could find new philosophies to explore. I’ve always been fond of the philosophy of Diogenes the Cynic. And that story about the supposed meeting he had with Alexander the Great in 4th century Corinth. Maybe you could have a faction dichotomy based around that. So the player can either side with the faction that wants to stand around in golden armour being really impressive, or the one that wants to tell the first faction to stop being such twats.