Thursday, October 18, 2007

Good vs Evil: races

Tobold points out that MMOs which divide races into good and evil nonsensically give both sides the same quests and goals. He goes on to say he would probably enjoy a game more if races were morally neutral and it was left up to the player to define his or her moral alignment.

While I agree that such a setup could be fun, it could also be fun to keep races divided into good and evil but make their alignments show up in differences of goals and tasks.

Originally, I was going to cover how I might separate good-race gameplay from evil-race gameplay in more meaningful ways, but just covering why racial stereotyping in games can have value turned into a full article. So I'll go into the differentiating the gameplay in some later blog.

First off, what benefits could possibly come from dividing races by moral alignments, ala LOTR?

Simple loyalties and goals
Well, one benefit is that most people like having clear enemies and, consequently, clear goals. Just look at the best-selling films and novels throughout history. Sure, there have been some complex and twisted stories that have received large audiences, but the largest audiences have always been achieved by stories with the classic Good-vs-Evil dichotomy.

Game designers often come from an artsy crowd which loathes traditional aesthetic models, but the smart developer acknowledges that those traditional models are still today the basis of best-selling entertainment. That's not to say that most people can't appreciate complicated and unpredictable stories. It just means that the classic model of absolute/personified Good-vs-Evil still resonates with most people and remains highly profitable.

Cultural allegory
But why represent Good-vs-Evil through races, like Tolkien's elves-vs-orcs, rather than sticking to individual heroes and villains? Well, there are probably multiple reasons this could make sense, but the one most obvious to me is that it allows the storyteller to address cultural morality, rather than just individual morality. It's an allegorical way of addressing issues which are more social than psychological.

The importance of allegory
So why speak through allegory? Why not address real issues in a completely real setting? The beauty of allegory, of reducing complex realities to simple symbols, is two-fold.

First, symbolism is an act of qualification. If a child is asked to draw a house and does so by drawing a triangle over a square, then that child is revealing which elements of the house's design he or she considers most essential... which elements most define a house in his or her perception. In this case, the child is highlighting the overall shape, the frame of house, as its most important element. If, instead, color was the most important feature in the child's perception, he or she would have started drawing the house by filling in the middle of the drawing with colors. If the child adds a front lawn before adding windows or a door, then playing out in the yard or admiring the plants each time coming home is probably important to the child.

We all learn through symbolism as children, but I assure you that adults think in symbols just as commonly. We just don't speak in symbols as often, partially because modern culture holds facts as more important than storytelling and disvalues intuition (thinking with a floodlight, rather than a direct beam).

Second, symbolism is an act of organization. A connection can be drawn between particular elements of reality by how they are associated in the simplified picture (the symbol). In Tolkien's mythology, every elf is good and every orc is evil. In his LOTR, elves live in harmony with the forests. The homeland of the orcs, on the other hand, is full of fire and industry. All trees have been cut down to fuel "the machines of war", as was done around Isengard in The Two Towers. In this way, Tolkien associates brazen disregard for the natural world with evil. Harmony with nature and respect for its beauty are associated with goodness.

In short, the orientation of elements in relation to each other suggests to the audience a particular way of perceiving them. Such associations are sometimes intended to be absolutely accurate (i.e., "cutting down trees is evil"), but they are often intended only as guides for deeper contemplation (i.e., "Under what circumstances is killing trees evil?").

Allegory doesn't exclude real complexity
Think back to the beginning of the first LOTR movie. At Bilbo's birthday party, not every hobbit is a pleasant fellow. There's that one fat-cheeked guy who scowls at Gandalf and is still ohnery and scowling at the birthday party ("Proudfeet!"). In the book, Bilbo's relatives greedily quarrel over who will inherit his home. At the end of The Hobbit, which precedes the LOTR story, Bilbo returns from a long adventure to find that those relatives have already tried to declare him dead and take the home.

But hobbits, as a people and culture, clearly represent goodness. Note that they love gardening, which means, like the elves, they are associated with natural harmony. Between their love for nature and their love for food, ale and pipe-smoking, they're clearly associated with life.

Tolkien combines symbolism with realism. The petty greed of Bilbo's relatives and uninviting personality of that one hobbit in the film doesn't compare to the malice of the orcs, so he is able to maintain the hobbits' basic goodness while simultaneously including the small failures that help make characters interesting. If a hobbit had murdered another during the story, that race would no longer be a symbol of goodness (Golum was "like" a hobbit once, but he's separated enough to not tarnish the symbol).

Dividing races into Good and Evil doesn't prevent depthful portrayals of individuals. And it actually enables depthful exploration of cultural and individual character in many unique ways. If I was designing an RPG, I would probably use the familiar setting of Good-vs-Evil, but I'd try to ensure that "good" and "evil" are felt and seen... that they're not just shallow labels.

1 comment:

  1. Another option is races that avowedly avoid any connotations of "good" or "evil", each retaining the same quest types, but declaring themselves to be the "good" side, while the other side is obviously the war-like, "evil" side. The game could include propaganda on both sides to support this, and certainly the invading behavior of the players themselves would support each side's view of the other, despite the fact that the players would have to have read the descriptions of each race in the beginning of the game before choosing their own. Thus the game becomes a study in "us versus them" behavior.


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