games

Why Being the Hero Never Pays

February 19, 2009 | Posted by Jonny Richardson

Until very, very recently, I’d gone through my gaming career as a saint. Every choice I made was a selfless act made entirely with the greater good in mind. I’d frown at bribes, turn my nose up at those who had no respect for justice and sacrifice myself for the sake of others – and I’d do it all with a smile on my face. I was Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Captain Planet all in one. A modern day superhero.

Games presented me with a choice of actions, and I always elected to do what I felt was right. I won’t lie – it wasn’t always the easiest dog to walk. Refusing to take payment for a deed that took 3 excruciatingly dull hours to complete, simply because I was “that kinda guy!” was particularly hard. There were times when my dimpled smile waned slightly, and my wide, hopeful eyes wanted nothing more than to glare savagely at the fat bastard who lounged around his home, playing cards and stuffing his face with mutton while I was out clearing an entire zombie infested graveyard, SINGLE HANDED, on some fucking stupid quest to recover his favourite packed lunch box which he’d accidentally left in his Grandmothers tomb.

Yet I never once allowed myself to stop being pious. Even when I had no money for weapons, potions or the like, it didn’t matter. If the game offered me the choice to take the path to martyrdom, then I’d be seen skipping happily away into the distance, singing Neil Diamond songs as I went.

He’s a hero, you know.

Whether you think I deserve a round of applause, a Nobel Peace Prize or a slap in the face for this bravado is entirely up to you — because it’s now completely irrelevant. You may have already guessed it from the fact that the introduction was written in the past tense, but my days of being a hero are over. No more will I go take it upon myself to be a chivalrous, courteous and loveable role model. Never again will I behave like Barney the freakin’ Dinosaur! Are you listening fantasy, space, apocalyptic, pirate, Wild West, futuristic, vampire and miscellaneous games? I QUIT! You were my moral compass. You told me where to go, what to do and how to act. You gave me choices, and I always made sure to not only do what was right, but go above and beyond it! No matter what it cost me, no matter how EASY I could have made it for myself, I always. did. what.was. best!!!

…And we’re back in the room.

Sorry about that folks. Don’t worry – I haven’t turned heel; I’m just upset. Recently I’ve come to the conclusion that being the hero in video games never pays. I can honestly think of no reason why it would be worthwhile. It’s this, my most recent revelation, which I’d like to discuss with you today.

My discovery came as something as a shock to me. I’m about as passive a person as they come, but I found myself a little riled up when a game recently elected to showed me that every good deed I’d done in the past, and every individual and/or family, collective settlement, population, civilization or galaxy I’d helped along the way, was ultimately a waste of time.

The Day of the Fat Fingers

In an ironic way, it’s entirely my own fault. The game I was playing on that most fateful of days was Fallout 3. I was talking to a complete stranger who I cared very little about, and was beginning to feel myself drown in wave after wave of boring dialogue. So I slipped on some water-wings, and did what I always do in those situations. I clicked the mouse as quickly as I could, randomly picking dialogue options at speed in the hope my lack of caring would make him go away. Besides, if he said anything important, I’m sure my omnipresent invisible scribe would jot it down in my journal for me.

The stranger eventually left (and there was much rejoicing), leaving me with blissful silence…and a message in the top left corner of my screen. The message was one new to me – “you’ve lost karma!”

“Oh.” I responded.

…and that was the turning point in my approach to games. In retrospect, it’s a touch anti-climatic. Yet that really was it. I’d accidentally hit the wrong choice, and upset a stranger. That wasn’t the end of it though.

A week or so ago, I wrote a feature in which I discussed video game addiction . In the article I admitted to having been a Ultima Online junkie in years past. If I’d have opted to share my current gaming addictions, I’d have been forced to have written a section devoted entirely to the use of the quick-save button. I’m an obsessive compulsive for that little life saver. Even as I write this article now, I’m quick-saving after almost every word!

Before the accident, I’d never seen evil. Geddit?!

With that in mind, after dipping my toe (albeit accidentally) into the world of bad karma by upsetting one ‘extra’ from Fallout 3’s cast of thousands, I decided it might be in my best interests to paddle out a little further, just to see what I was missing. I could always quick-load (the sexy partner of the quick-save) to right any wrongs I may commit. Fast forward five minutes, and I was diving deeper and deeper into an ocean of evil in a submarine of bastardry. I killed, I maimed, I stole –and I did it all with an expression of indifference on my face.

When I decided I’d had my fill of ‘evil’, I tried to quick-load my ‘good’ game; only to find that one or more of my dastardly deeds had caused the game to auto save. Yet by then, I really couldn’t have cared less. I’d made an important distinction between good karma and bad karma that would forever change the way I play games.

***

We’ll continue this rapidly declining story in a tic, but first I want to raise a point about choices.

Life is like a box of chocolates

Games give us choices. This is a recent trend, as games of old tended to be corridor ridden, linear affairs, built around the idea that games should move from ‘Zone A’ to ‘Zone B’ to ‘Zone C’ and so on. The only choice these games offered the player was to either press on forward from A to B, avoiding whatever obstacles just-so happen to live in Zone A ½, or to sit tight and hope that Zone A had some interesting 32-bit scenery.

Since then we’ve moved on leaps and bounds. I still fondly remember playing Ion Storms excellent FPS/RPG Deus Ex (2000). I remember being amazed at how the introduction of simple choices could alter the genre away from anything I’d previously seen before. In technological terms, 2000 was decades ago, with games having evolved at a frightening rate since then. Modern titles such as the aforementioned Fallout 3, world infamous Grand Theft Auto IV, and roaming world titles like Far Cry 2 all purport to offer gamers more choice than ever.

Excitingly, the shift of power has changed. Game play is now no longer about engaging in content made by professional game designers – it’s about gamers generating their own content using the tools which the developers give them. I don’t necessarily mean user created content a la LittleBig Planet, either.
Are game developers dropping storylines and cleverly written plots in favour of developing fully fledged electronic worlds for the players to create their own storylines in?

To make it easier, I’ll stop rambling on in hypothetical gibberish, and use examples.

• A) Linear: example - Deus Ex is both linear and has choices. It’s an example of developers using storylines. The player can’t waltz over to any part of the city or map at will – actions follow in a logical and catalogued order. The better a linear game is, the more the choices in the game have a profound effect on the progression and the outcome of the game.

Compare this to,

• B) Sandbox: example - Grand Theft Auto IV. This is what’s known as an open world game, or a sandbox game. It has a storyline, but it plays second fiddle to the player being able to do whatever the hell he wants. Shoot a hooker. Ride a helicopter. Or do it the other way round – nobody will tells you what to do. The better a sandbox game is, the more choices and actions a player will be able to do.

Ok, now comes the difficult part: Of the two, which game offers the more choice?

Think about it for a second before scrolling down.

It wasn’t really all that difficult, was it? B) wins hands down. Until they remake Deus Ex and allow you to do a 360 flip on a motorbike from the top of a building, GTA will continue to keep winning!

Ok, the real question comes now: In which game are your choices more significant?

While you’re thinking about it, let me get back to the story.

Who are you? Who-oo? Who-oo?

I would have answered A). Although choices in linear games are few and far between, the ones you do make have a profound outcome.

I would classify Fallout 3 as a GTA style game – an open world, free roaming, vast apocalyptical safari. Large on surface area, and small on choices that really matter. What really upset me about F3, and my adventures into the darkness of the soul, was that my actions had absolutely no consequence.

For instance, I’d piss somebody off, and go to initiate a conversation. They’d bark a “Get the hell away from me”. By the other token, If I’d softened somebody up with a good old fashioned bit of hero’ing, they’d respond with a gentle “Thanks! You really helped us out!”

That’s…it? The difference between good and evil?! An NPC being slightly more or less aggressive with how they talk to me!?

If that was the case, why the hell was I making life hard for myself? Why had I spent so much time trying to accumulate light force points, lawful points, positive karma or paragon, when the only difference between being good or evil is simply an alternative one lined remark?

This is only half the story, however.

You could argue that Fallout 3 as are many other sandbox games, is a game with a storyline. At the end of the game, your actions certainly affect the ending. Throughout the course of the game, various people will contact you or try to hunt you down depending on your alignment.


Maybe we’re all a little more Swiss than we’d like.

Yet I feel it’s missing the point completely. Both good and evil offer comparatively the same experience to the play. It’s like starting a job in real life and being told you can choose what colour uniform you’d like to wear. That doesn’t mean you’ve got choice in the matter of the job – only in tiny circumstances surrounding it. The choice you’ve made is purely arbitrary.

That being said, what could be done about it? Developers create huge open worlds to offer gamers more choice in how they play games. The result of this is a loss in significance of choices. If you switch the focus around, and make choices the focus of the game, then linearity is the only way to implement it. It would be impossible for a team of developers to script in detail, varied and unique outcomes for the billions and billions of actions you can perform in sandbox games.

***

This is all my own opinion, so it’s bound to have more holes in it than a colander. That being said, what do you think about what’s being said? Agree? Disagree? Abstain? How do you play your games?

I realise I’ve been extremely harsh on some games and blazingly general with a lot of things I’ve said, but in my defence it’s a freaking huge topic, and I wanted to try to cover all the bases!

That’s all from me for this feature. Also, one final apology for swearing in the introduction. It’s crass, lazy language to use, but I’m a crass, lazy person.

Peace Out y’all!

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Jonny Richardson

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