Thursday, May 17, 2012

More Boring Stuff On Why Video Games Are Art. Also, Ponies!

OK, I'm back, and I'm about to write about evil, art, and game design. To make it all go down easier, there will also be ponies. So read, on but remember ...

GameBanshee writer Eric Schwarz wrote a tough but fair review of our recent game, Avernum: Escape From the Pit. In the review, he made a comment about the game's story that I thought was really interesting:

"The game world's overall tone and morality is also a bit strange - slaughtering Slith (lizardmen) farmers in the name of the king might be uncomfortable, but the game world certainly doesn't care."

I actually liked this comment a lot, but he didn’t go near as far as he could have. There are places in Avernum where the morality gets even stranger.

For example, one of the main foes in the game is an army of savage lizard men, called slithzerikai, sliths for short. (The sliths are not all hostile. They have friendly settlements, and playing as a slith is an option in later games in the series.)

In one of the dungeons, you have the option to smash a huge clutch of slith eggs. If you do so, several of their guards attack you, but that is the only negative consequence for what most would consider a pretty evil act. I have been accused in my forums of encouraging baby-killing in my games. And, yes, I did allow the player to do a pretty horrible thing with no punishment. And I have written games in which the player can choose to do things that are even worse.

Why did I do this?

Because computer games are art.

Oh God, No, Shut Up!

Yeah, I know. The debate about whether video games are art is probably the boringest thing in the history of boring things. To liven this blog post up, here are more ponies. Hey ponies, what do you think of tedious navel-gazing blog posts?

Products Of My Own Weird Brain

Avernum: Escape From the Pit is a rewrite of Exile: Escape From the Pit, the very first game I released as shareware. It was the first Real Game (tm) I ever tried to write, and it was a pretty wild, uncontrolled process. Since I'd never done it before, I just went crazy, throwing encounters and plot bits and moral dilemmas in willy-nilly. It was a raw, unguarded process. I didn't second-guess anything. I just took how I thought and how I saw the world and put it down in the computer.

This is how storytelling works.

I've always been a huge news junkie. I still keep a close eye on what is happening in the world, as it fascinates me. (And is an endless source of fresh material.) Doing so, however, has given me a very cynical worldview. Our world has many, many principled people, struggling against enormous odds to increase the reserve of justice and kindness available on the planet.

However, these generally unsung heroes fight against an overwhelming amount of awfulness. Ours is a world where horrible things happen to undeserving people on a constant basis, and nobody who is not personally involved will ever know or care.

This is how I see the world. It's not right or wrong. It's just how I see things. When I write a story, any story, it will be colored, in ways obvious and subtle, by this perception.

This is why the morality in Avernum (and in all of my games, really) seems a bit "strange." Because it reflects my worldview, and being exposed to how another humans sees the world can be weird and unsettling. This is what makes art cool. It lets you see how other people think.

Important Disclaimer

My games reflect how I feel the world IS, NOT how I feel the world SHOULD BE. I do not personally endorse crushing the weak, hunting goblins for sport, or smashing slithzerikai eggs. Extrapolating an artist's personal experience and views from his or her work is very rarely accurate and is generally a waste of time.

Hmm. I'm getting Bored. So here is this.

So Why Leave Do I Leave the Horrible Bits In?

Because I write role-playing games.

The term "role-playing" has become hugely debased since it was created. Most RPGs don't give you the opportunity to actually decide what sort of person you want to play, even in the simplistic way computer games allow. That is why I always try to put moral choices in my games: to give the player more agency in what is going on and to help him or her feel more attached to the little computer person they control. And the better and more dramatic the choices you allow, the greater the effect.

Thus, I give the player a chance to be evil from time to time. If they choose to be good, it affirms their character as moral and admirable. If they choose to be evil, it's probably so they can get a vicarious thrill from engaging in craziness they would never consider in real life. Either way, the option to be evil gives the option to be good more meaning.

But I have to play fair. If someone is evil, I can only punish them if it makes sense. Sometimes, evil is not punished. Thus, I don't always punish it. Sometimes, but not always.

There's No Right or Wrong Ways To Design These Things

I wanted to pull out and discuss that review quote because it was, in the end, a perfectly subjective artistic judgment. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Reviews are nothing but subjective judgments. That is what makes reviews cool. My game made Eric Schwarz feel a little unsettled. That wasn't a right or wrong reaction. It was just his honest reaction, and I'm happy to get any reaction at all. I'd rather make someone feel something, even if it's not positive, than for my game to generate 30 hours of "Meh."

As computer games develop as an art form, I look forward to more discussion about what they mean and how they affect us. (Though, of course, I may be the only one.) People are more interesting than polygons.

In Conclusion

Thank you for your patience. I hope it went well. How did it go, Spike?

Thanks, Spike!


  1. My personal design bias means that choosing the moral option will often cost you more than the evil one, which probably reflects my view of reality.

    Games morality doesn't have to be TV morality.

  2. Yes, it's a game designer/writer's prerogative not to listen to people screaming, "The chiiiiildreeeen! Won't somebody think of the children!" Not every story is child-safe, nor should it be. And heroes can be evil, yet still do acts to save others. I've been playing Jeff's games since the Exile series (I still remember a weird section I discovered in one of the Dragon's caves, with a place I could see from walking into the walls, but had no idea how to enter- I asked Marianne, Jeff's wife, how to get into this area, and she had no idea what I was talking about. Oh, well...) and I have loved them all.

  3. 'This is why the morality in Avernum (and in all of my games, really) seems a bit "strange."'

    Doesn't seem strange, just seems to be absent context. I'm not sure what you're describing even constitutes morality, as such. Morality, however you self-define it, only exists with-in context. The freedom to do what you want with impunity removes any negativity for your actions, so the only morality left is whatever you were brought up on. So, I suppose, there's nothing weird about the morality in the game, it's the morality of the player that makes some potential actions seem strange. I don't think a game can even "have" morality.

    Also, games aren't art. Neither is most art, art. Tim White posters from the 80s. That's art.

  4. So... When does work begin on the My Little Pony relative-morality RPG begin?...

    I've got a fever, and the only prescription is more prancing dilemmas.

  5. First, I would like to say "Keep up the good work", because Spiderweb RPGs are one of the few things that still make me like games.

    Now, the trouble with slith eggs incident is not that player is not punished: it that the world doesn't react in ANY way to this. Not every act in the game MUST have consequences (that would be nice, but too hard to design), but this piece feels like one that should. In Fallout or Arcanum you would probably have a few encounters with enraged sliths after you did this through the game (which could be seen as a kind of punishment, of course, but at least it's a LOGICAL consequence of your action, unlike some random lowering of "goodnes" parameter more common to modern RPGs), or at least get some new dialog options somewhere, or a note in ending ("Broken shells of eggs that once were the clutch of small slith city still litter the floor. Lizards never returned to the place where your band of adventurers scoured stone halls with fire and sword").

    One may argue that the moment still has consequences - for player, if not for his characters, but that link is too weak. Most of us do not feel this close to characters we play to let such decisions influence us strongly.

  6. I'm a bit weirded out by the ponies, but the thoughts on game morality are cool. I'm not a big RPGer but that does feel right to me; it makes me want to play through a Spiderweb game.

  7. First, PC games lost all chances to be an art form years ago. I remember a caustic article by the developer of a 'art game' (that was quite good, IMHO) called 'The Path' about the failure of games being anything 'artistic'. Games are merely a form of entertainment, and if some of them are thought-provoking, good.But 'Art'? Pretentious.
    Your games aren't Planescape: Torment for sure, and playing Avernum I've never experienced 'morality choices' that I ACTUALLY remember -while in Geneforge the 'morality' was faction-dependent, forcing you to 'roleplay' a little.
    Second, it is quite unsettling to see an article about 'games are art' and 'morality choices' with 'My Little Ponies' images.Unsettling.
    Third, Do a Geneforge prequel.Please?

  8. After murdering every single adult slith in that cave and within a 300 mile radius, I don't think those eggs were going to make it, whether I smashed them or not.

  9. I don't get it. What's the moral angst about?
    War is not policing. During wars, soldiers kill people. How is portraying that innovative or risque?

    How does the Avernum world not react to your characters murdering people left and right?
    NPCs obviously think your characters are killers. That's why they ask your characters and not the shopkeeper next door to kill their ennemies.

    People who think there's anything moral about war are dangerous. You can't reason with the leaders they choose, only deter their self-righteous agression with superior force or effective WMDs.
    Use your stinkin' morality when it's still time to prevent or stop the war, for $deity's sake!

  10. We didn't need the eggs because the computer generates new adult sliths on a recurring basis.

  11. Interesting thoughts. I like your approach, and I think your idea here of what makes the game art is a good one, even if I may not define it exactly the same way.

  12. Due to both the musings on morality, and the copious pony usage, I have gained a great deal of respect for you today.

  13. I've gotta ask, how are slith eggs any different than chicken eggs or baby dolphins or any other species? Morals aren't morals because of some religious construct. Morals are morals because biologically they make sense for the species. Dogs like and obey humans because we breed them that way and it makes sense to them to be nice to people who feed them, we get pleasure from their company.

    I love your games because of the story. There are very few stories that are engrossing enough to cost me literal days of my life, and I think that's what it's all about. Gaming is escapism. You're writing works that all me to make mistakes and learn from your experiences and your world view, without the real life penalty that would normally be associated with the mistakes. Can you sometimes get away with something? Sure, will you always? No and then you have to pay the consequences of your actions, whether that be good, bad, or otherwise.

  14. I love your games because of the story each of them tells. Excellent post!


  15. I don't know if it's art but from my own point of view white vs black morale choices are tedious and the only interest is it's better to have potentially the choice even if for me it's not really a choice. For me gray morale choices are much more fun, from far. Two examples, Neverwinter Nights 2 Mask of the Betrayer and The Witcher 1. This could be art or this could be better entertainment.

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