Chutes and Ladders

Fight This T-Rex wrote a blog post a while ago all about the fact that moral choices all kind of turn into economic transactions, which is oddly parallel to a quick comment in a post on Speaking Natalie that points out the same thing regarding the primary moral decision in Bioshock.

At some point later, I added to the pile with a rambling post about Tabula Rasa main characters, and how the unwillingness to assign personal characteristics to characters without the player's input turns “moral choice” into a ridiculous parody of actual choices.

Clearly, at least some people out there agree with me that this is a problem, but I don't see much of this opinion in most of the industry blogs that I read. Maybe it's been so well established that everybody takes it for granted, or there was a two-month flurry of posts on the subject (Like Braid reviews) that I just happened to be in the can for, and am now behind on my collective internet knowledge, but it seems unlikely.

I've already said my piece, so I won't shove it down your throat again, but I think the problem is that the ultimate creatives behind a game need to trust that a well written game will drive home the magnitude of a moral choice that you make. KotOR featured a bunch of items that could only equip if you were good, because they didn't want the game to be harder for someone playing as a light side Jedi, and they needed something to make up for all the extra money and experience you got if you were evil.

I can't tell if that sprung from a misunderstanding about how difficulty interacts with enjoyment, a misunderstanding about the IP of Star Wars in the first place, or a misunderstanding regarding the motivations for ethical behavior in the first place.

Maybe it's just because it intersects with something I already feel strongly about, but I can't help but be suspicious that it's at least partially the last one. Why does a fictional character engage in ethical behavior? (The “What is ethical behavior?” discussion is for another time)

I see three main reasons why characters in the media engage in ethical behavior, and quite frankly, I haven't been satisfied with any of them for a long time.

1. For personal gain: Rarely is this ever particularly overt, but in a game like KotOR or Fallout 3, your character only has the personality that you give him/her. If you make a moral choice because you think the rewards are better if you do the right thing, isn't that just engaging in ethical behavior for personal gain? It's rarely ever addressed as such, and when doing the right thing for personal gain is addressed in games, books, movies, or television, it's usually painted in a negative light, but when it's not explicitly addressed, it just sort of hangs there, and the implicit message is carries varies from just “Don't worry, life is fair, we proimse” to “Why you do something doesn't matter”, neither of which I can make myself endorse.

2. To avoid punishment: This is great for “Dora the Explorer”, but it's also pretty much the only motivating factor in ethical behavior in any sitcom ever. The “Aww...” moment at the end of every sitcom you've ever seen is based on the bumbling husband wanting to do something nice for his wife so she stops being angry at him because of the stupid thing he did at the beginning of the episode. Not to mention the fact that it seems to do a decent job of describing the childish understanding of Christianity that only exists in the heads of nut jobs, its detractors, and the mainstream media, but that's another issue for another post.

3. A commitment to doing the right thing: This is the most amorphous and boggling to me. Maybe it's short sighted of me to think this way, but you know that conversation in a serious movie where somebody is struggling with a difficult moral choice, and the supporting character leans in and says, “You have to do the right thing”? There's always a niggling thing in the back of my head that asks, “Why?” If the “right” thing is the thing that you should do, then saying that you should do the right thing is... unhelpful, to say the least.

Without building any kind of a consensus and establishing an underlying principle to ethical behavior, or at least pointing at the grey areas surrounding most actual ethical issues, that whole avenue of inquiry is narratively bankrupt.

Or maybe I'm just a big jerk.


Asymptotic Advancement

How fast do you think you could run 100 meters?

Now, I don't know much about Track and Field, but I'm pretty sure you could run 100m in a little over 20 seconds. The world record is just under 10 seconds for men and just over 10 seconds for women.

Again, I don't know much regarding track, but I'm willing to bet that someone capable of matching or exceeding the world record trains tens of thousands of hours more than you or I do. All of that time, all of those thousands of hours of training, leads to cutting the time in half, and I bet the first 6 seconds off that time can be achieved within the first thousand hours.

You see, human skill levels are logarithmic. The return on the investment of time training grows smaller the more you train.

Now imagine your WoW character. If the skill level of your WoW character was logarithmic, a level 80 character would be only marginally better than a level 70 character, despite the fact that it probably took most people longer to go from 70 to 80 than 1 to 40. How many level 10 characters do you think it takes to down a single level 80 character? Maybe an infinite number.

The fact is, in almost all RPGs, the advancement is exactly the opposite: exponential. Experience required to level up increases exponentially, but so does experience gained, so your power level increase to time spent ratio goes up the longer you play.

My hunch is that this is done to give games a wider appeal. The bread and butter of RPGs, at least to some degree, has always been repetition. If you can't fight things in at least a somewhat similar fashion, it's difficult to feel like you've advanced at all, and the feeling of advancement is what RPGs bank on to counteract the somewhat repetitive nature of their play.

As I play through a game, and get more and more accustomed to its play style, I need additional reinforcement from other sources to overcome the diminishing returns of the novelty of the system. In RPGs, the main supplanting reinforcement is the feeling of character advancement (combined with the sometimes heavy reinforcement of unfolding narrative).

In fact, mastery plays a large part in many people's enjoyment of games, (don't worry, I won't throw in one of those tacky blog quizzes about “What kind of gamer are you?”) but there's an important distinction, I think, between games in which your advance through skill mastery alone, and games where you advance through a combination of skill mastery and character advancement. Sure, almost every game has some amount of character advancement: your character is more powerful in Doom when you have the chaingun than when you only had the pistol, but for the most part, any advance you make in that game is based on your own skill level increasing.

Not so with RPGs. Truthfully, I'm not sure I was any “better” at Final Fantasy 7 when I beat it than when I started it. It's not exactly a terribly skill intensive game. In fact, the term “RPG”, has come to describe games in which a character's numerical advancement is a large part of progression through the game, despite the fact that there's absolutely no connection between the terms. In Half Life, you play the role of Gordon Freeman, but that doesn't seem to mean anything anymore.

The term RPG, and the idea of critical hits (as I mentioned in the last post), I think, are just more subtle ways in which very specific gaming tropes get generalized to form a gaming subculture, which is a point of great fascination to me. I'll let you know when I get my degree in cultural anthropology so I can sound like I know what I'm talking about.


World of Roguecraft

In Secret of Mana, two of your three characters have magic, up to a maximum of 99 magic points at a time. Your offensive caster has an MP absorb spell, but aside from that, the only way to restore your magic points mid-dungeon is to use a Fairy Walnut, which restores 50 MP, and you can only hold a maximum of four.

By limiting the selection of Mana restoring items to one large chunk, the game has rendered it almost pointless to increase your maximum mana above 50. Since your MP caps at 99, you can never use two in a row without wasting some, and given the real time nature of the game, using an item doesn't cost a turn, or similarly penalize you time wise. Your offensive spell caster has an MP absorb spell, so you only use restorative items on your defensive caster, in which every point of MP gained up until 50 is actually worth 5 MP (the original plus four restores), but past 50, every point of MP gained is worth only a single point, to be used and only restored once you sleep at an Inn.

You have no control over your advancement, so this isn't a balance issue, but you can tell from looking at the game that the designers didn't think much about that. Health restoring items come in 100, 250, and “all” versions (out of a max of 999), so why not magic?

“Video Game Design” as a valid field of inquiry is a fairly new phenomenon, and I think design hiccups like the above one from Secret of Mana suggest that it's taken a while to connect the people who were pioneering this new medium with the people who had been doing the same thing on paper for at least a decade before.

Early RPGs (which I count as everything leading up to the release of the PS1), particularly Japanese ones, provide a fascinating window into a large group of people trying to reinvent the wheel in terms of roleplaying games.

For instance, take the idea of critical hits. (Wikipedia article here) The idea of critical hits, as best as I can tell, arose as a way of somewhat mitigating the horrible inaccuracy of the HP system. There's always a chance you'll stab somebody in the heart, causing much more damage than if you stabbed them in the thigh.

According to the Wikipedia article, 1975 was the birth of critical hits in western civilization, which was drastically before the advent of video roleplaying games. Supposedly, the man behind Dragon Warrior, Yuji Horii, cited Ultima among his influences for the gameplay of Dragon Warrior, but even crafting that sentence indicates how much of the early Japanese RPG experience was informed by Western Culture. The Dragonlord from Enix's first Dragon Warrior is most definitely the kind St. George would have been tasked with slaying.

And yet, take the thief class from Final Fantasy. If I recall correctly, he had an increased chance to critically hit, which makes perfect sense to our current gameplaying sensibilities, but actually has no realistic basis. Why should I be more likely to hit a vital organ because I steal things? I understand that there's an association between stealth and assassination, but I imagine that the original Japanese word for the “Thief” in Final Fantasy provided a smoother segue to the upgraded “Ninja” class.

The original “Rogue” (Wikipedia article here) had no such association between thievery and likelihood of striking an internal organ, and yet it's become such a huge part of our gaming culture that nobody bats an eye at the idea that a primary statistic designed to represent your ability to dodge also increases your chance of striking an internal organ, or that there's an entire class in almost every single MMO created based on the idea of the combination of both being sneaky, and critically hitting someone. I certainly don't object, but I think it's occasionally edifying to trace the history of certain gaming tropes, and learn how potentially artificial these associations are.

Well, at least for you guys, I roll combat with my rogue.

Join me for the entire month of June, as I do a series on the tropes of early console and computer RPGs.