Politics and games – worth the risk?

 

For quite some time, the team @ Larian has been showing remarkable constraint in the content they put in our games. Years of working with external producers telling them that you can’t say this, you can’t do that, be careful no to offend this group etc… have conditioned them to be … nice. Which is strange, as that’s actually quite counterintuitive for them :)

Now don’t get me wrong, they are a nice bunch, but occasionally you will hear comments that are inflammatory enough to ignite the fires of indignation in a  broad part of society. The funny thing is that it’s just their sense of humor, and they don’t mean anything bad by it, but as we’ve learnt over the course of the years, humor is very relative and you need to be careful if you’re releasing your games worldwide. At least, that’s the common doctrine.

So now we’re making Dragon Commander, and one of the things we’re trying to do with that  game is putting recognizable real world situations in a fantasy context. The game contains a RPG part that’s all about choice and consequence, and the idea is that you have to decide as a ruler how you want to organize the societies in the lands you’ve captured. That means you need to make political decisions, so we figured it’d be cool if we filled the game with situations that are very similar to the things we read in our newspapers every day.

The first batch of political decisions I received from my design team was by the book – nice, and sure not to offend anybody. So I returned the file to sender with the message that “nice” wasn’t representative of  political debate, and I wanted some more meat.

The second batch I received immediately triggered every warning signal that’s been conditioned into me by hordes of producers, legal teams and  I guess what my own media environment considers as political correctness. But it was representative of the things over which we debate, and that’s exactly what I asked for, so I couldn’t complain. Not that I really wanted to.

Topics covered were euthanasia, abortion, illegal immigrants, healthcare, same sex marriage, drugs, religious tolerance etc… exactly the kind of things that can get you in a lot of trouble if you dare vent an opinion that diverges from whatever position is taken by certain social, ethnical or cultural groups.

The problem I have is that we’re putting these into a game context, meaning that we need to attach consequences to whatever choice you make. The mechanics of Dragon Commander are such that whatever choice you make, certain factions will be satisfied by it while others will vehemently oppose it. But if you make a choice that fits with the faction you’re trying to please, then that can be considered as a reward, and so I can already foresee  public reactions like “Larian’s new game rewards players for taking liberal view on same sex marriage” or “Dragon Commander gives you bonus if you authorize drugs”. It might be interesting to note that I picked the most docile topics here.

The nuance that one faction is pro and the other extremely against, and that for any bonus you might get, there’ll also be a malus, will probably be completely lost amidst such debate. And considering that we already received death threats over the abrupt ending in Divinity II: Ego Draconis, I guess we probably shouldn’t be surprised that this time we’ll be facing something potentially far worse.

Which sparked the debate – are we really sure we want to do this ? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about this, and will then follow up with a second piece.

 

  • Metalx224

    I think that it would be a good thing to do for a game like this to add some bigger issues into the game. Having decisions that would affect the game world, like murder as opposed to abortion would be very interesting in the context of the game. Something like save 1 child or a whole city. You could also have it be something like a good/bad meter that different factions would respond to, but having specific actions cater to specific factions. It should like you have an interesting dynamic already in place to decisions, but I would like to see more intense or possibly controverisal decisions as well. Either way, this game will still be great! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=590162181 David Walgrave

    I think it would be refreshing. Many of the so-called moral choices in videogames, are not moral choices at all, and only make sense in the game world, seldom happen in real life, and barely have a real-world counterpart. “Choose between 1 child or entire city” is a fantasy dilemma.

    “Save your child or your wife from the burning house” is still not a political issue, but already a more realistic dilemma, even if the game probably doesn’t offer the option to run away like a scared selfish bastard.

    In most games I played, it’s always very obvious which option is Evil and which one is Good. On one hand, I am tired of this. It was fun in KOTOR for once, because it makes sense in the Star Wars universe. Then it started to get overused and by the time Fable 2 came out, I was sick of it, and found myself being ultra-nice all the time, because once you have chosen one path, you have to stick to it. It’s very hard to choose the evil side all of a sudden if you’ve been playing Jesus all the time. (Jesus with a lightsaber and plasmagun hacking people up. Yeah, that makes sense.) So give me grey and give me stuff to think about and discuss.

    But.

    On the other hand, there may be another reason to real life questions not finding their way to games: it reminds us of real life. I like to think gamers play games to do something wild, something different, to live the life of an action hero. To escape. Maybe we don’t want to be reminded of the real world while gaming. So give me a sword and just let me hack into people and don’t bug me with your political questions. (Sidenote: If there are political questions in a wargame, doesn’t anyone in the game question the fact that we’re trying to solve shit by waging war? :) )

    I wouldn’t care too much about what people think. Games can be more than just entertainment, they can give us food for thought. And they often do. So why not a bit more serious? If the developer/publisher communicates well enough about the decisions you have to make in the game, only extremists will take offence that the choice is there to begin with.

    Still, I would care about what the players want.

  • melianos

    Do it. Really. Let me choose over abortion, euthanasia, immigration and other sutff.

  • guest

    You can do it BUT be careful to not put too much of these decisions in game, otherwise game could stop being fun.

  • Anonymous

    I’d say include them as long as they’re done well.  If they’re written and worked in nicely, the positive result can outweigh whatever negativity might get thrown your way for including [issue here].  You can have people giving more thought to the choices in a game, and the other side to having potentially controversial things is that people will talk about it, a lot.  I’ve kind of noticed when reading discussions of other RPGs that if they include a large choice on a controversial topic with no good ‘right’ answer, people will argue which was right over and over–and talk about the game a lot in doing that.

    It’s fine to use good/evil morality choices for some things too, but something I’ve noticed that makes those choices nice is that when you’re doing ‘good’, it should be harder than doing ‘evil’, because being actively good is generally more difficult.  Thought it was nice in D2 when you had to give up attribute points (even if it wasn’t that much) to be good, because it did make you stop and think when those choices came up.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that use them to force people to think about the choices they’re making, not just because they’re controversial.  Don’t shy away from the more hard-hitting stuff, it’d be great to see more of that.  Just make sure it’s there for a reason.

    • Lar

      Interesting – what you’re saying is that we should make what we think is correct the hardest choice, and the things we disagree with the easiest ones. 

      • Anonymous

        In a way yes, since the way I see it, it’s going to be harder for someone to do the more honorable thing, since if it was easy in the first place it wouldn’t be that honorable.  Just as a simple made up example, you could have a baron who owns a large number of slaves, and the baron just asks for a small investment on your part to help him buy some guards to keep the slaves in check, and if you do he’ll gladly offer you some special armor, a look at a special book in his library, or something like that.  Or you can help out the slaves, but that means you have to fund their rebellion from the ground up, and you don’t get the ‘special’ secrets that you might have gotten from the baron, since they wrecked his castle in taking it.  But then maybe you’d get some extra military support from them, or you’ll be known for your kindness in another situation when someone remembers hearing what you’ve done.

        Sorry if that’s a bit of a ramble but I guess what I meant by that is that the ‘idealist’ choice might offer a more delayed or diplomatic award while the ‘pragmatic’ choice would offer an immediately appealing award but you’d be at a diplomatic disadvantage later on.

        • melianos

          Your example is wrong. Pretty much no one is in favor of slavery anymore on this planet, so there is no “real” choice. If the game was supposed to come out 200 years ago, then that choice would have had meaning

          Take the example of abortion or death penalty (ok, not death penalty in a fantasy WAR setting).
          There are still many people in the world who believe being against (or for) abortion is the right and simple choice. So what you define as the right easy choice is for someone else the hard one.

          A better example, in my opinion, is in GW2. At the beginning (playing human), you have the choice between saving a burning orphanage, or an hospital. And you can’t save both. Now here, we do have a real choice (but still not a political one).

          So I think larian should do like in tropico, be for abortion, you get help from a faction, and another one wants to kill you, be against, it’s the other way around. It will probably be impossible to balance rewards and handicaps perfectly, but do your best, larian !

          And if possible, if we wait too much to decide, have both factions against us :D

        • Wotan Anubis

          Making the evil choices easy and the good choices hard was what they did in Fable 3 and it just became silly after a while. The logic the game used to make the evil choice the ‘best’ one became ever more ludicrous. So married was Fable 3 to the idea that you have to be an absolute tyrant to be able to save your people that all realism was lost.

          No. Like Melianos, I prefer a more faction-based ‘morality’, in which certain decisions will please some groups while upsetting others and vice versa.

          • Anonymous

             Well, you wouldn’t need to make every choice over good or evil in the first place, but when you do, it’s nice to have the choice be more than just choosing whether you’re going to walk down a red hall to the cafeteria or the blue hall to the cafeteria.  Faction choices are good too, I was just more talking about why it’s good to make the benefits of different choices wildly different.  And it doesn’t have to apply to every choice–there’s nothing wrong with a choice just leading to who’s going to be providing your units.  But if you want to make a more detailed choice, make it about immediate versus long term payoffs, or even about sacrificing something now in the hopes that you’ll get something later.  (Maybe even have other characters suggest that the sacrifice is a bad idea, even if it does make them ‘feel better’.)

  • RSJE

    Do it!

  • http://twitter.com/PCRPGNews Travis Bassett

    Do it for sure. 

  • FuzzyDuck81

    Moral dilemmas were present in the Witcher games & they added excellent depth & grittiness to the setting.. admittedly any you put in won’t necessarily have to be quite as grim & “youre screwed either way” :)

  • Mathieu Vanhove

    I like the idea of the adding difficult choices tackling real-life problems; my only fear is that it will not mix well with the patented Divinity black humor. The reasons why in games like the Witcher serious problems get taken serious is IMHO because the entire game is serious. Whereas in Fable, everything is a joke, you end up not thinking about the morality and just pick the choice which will wield the funniest result.
    Few games have managed to combine dark humor and serious choices but if you want a good example, look at the character HK-47 in the KOTOR series.

    • Lar

      Well, we have things like “nudist dwarves demand times in sun” issues ;)

      • Lar

        Reading this again, I do want to add the disclaimer that this is in the context of a fantasy game where we have dwarves, elves, lizards etc…

        • Mathieu Vanhove

          I don’t for a second doubt that DC will be fun of that patented Larian humor and sillyness. I just hope that the sillyness of some situations does not take away from the impact and severity of the more serious situations. Black humor, by definition, makes light of serious matters.
          i.e. In Dr.Strangelove, the entire impact (pardon the pun) of dropping the nuke is lost because of the hilarity of someone riding the bomb like a horse. When the question: “Will you nuke a country?” gets replaced by “Do you want to watch someone in a cowboy hat ride a bomb?”, morality loses.

      • http://profiles.google.com/psilorder Erik Norén

        Have people at Larian been Playing “Nation States” ?
        (That game has almost exactly that issue; “X (type of nudist) demands time in the sun”.)
        Either way i hope you’re taking it a bit further then that and many other games that launch you straight into the “extreme choice” problem/trope, which forces you to be an extremist. You either basically tax the people to death or basically let the government go without funds.
        (Nation States is atleast lampooning it).

        • Lar

          I actually just learnt about Nation States today, and there seem to some similarities, though I can’t say too much about it as I haven’t played it yet. From what I’ve been told  Nation States doesn’t have the link between political choices you make and how that affects the people you are close to. It also seems that the choices are more arbitrary and don’t have a link to political blocks of the type we have in Dragon Commander. I also don’t think there’s a bifurcating story behind it all, but as I said, I haven’t played it yet.  

          • http://profiles.google.com/psilorder Erik Norén

            Oh, there isn’t, it is just random issues that affect arbitrary statistics and you can’t really fail at it.
            But the idea behind (if i understand right) is good; illustrating the problems with “extreme choice”.
            It does for one thing throw the player right at the “either or”-scenario. There is no negotiation before which can succeed (some combination of the two) or fail (and move you to have to pick a side) and you can only act in extreme ways (being a miser versus being a spendthrift for example).

  • Anonymous

    Reading this greatly increased my anticipation for the game. It’s so refreshing to read the thoughts of a developer that is also a gamer at heart and has the guts and experience to pull off their dream game.
    It’s so typical these days to see “AAA” developers put in senseless and superficial “controversial” stuff in their games purely for shock value and marketing, and I would love to see Larian handle difficult topics in an interesting and mature fashion that is well incorporated into the gameplay. I have no doubt that they will lead to some tough choices and excellent role-play opportunities for the player. 

  • Haba

    Personally, I love being challenged. Reading Nabokov’s Lolita, being forced to make a hard choice in a game etc.

    The most refreshing situations are the ones that are not binary, i.e. the times where you have no straightforward good/bad choice. Serious moral or ethical themes can work even in a humoristic games, but the balance is very precarious.

    Making the choices difficult morally and ethically, as well as in terms of the gameplay (bonuses and disadvantages) actually makes the choices meaningful. If you make one of the choices too unlikeable (or disadvantageous), you actually eliminate the freedom of choice.

  • Illusive Man

    Do it … as an “uncensored” option in the settings.
    Lovers will love you more, Haters will turn it off.

    • Anonymous

      Seconded.

  • Pug987

    This may be the only time in your lives that you get to create a high budget game without anyone telling you what you can and cannot do. I’m sure most developers don’t get this chance even once. Why would you want to impose restrictions on yourselves. Just make the game you want to make and let the media say whatever they want. People who aim high and fail make much more compelling games than those who aim for mediocrisy and succeed.

  • Zergem

    Well, I never liked grey morality.

  • Alrik Fassbauer

    I don’t really know … Including real-world politics might lead to the phenomenon that the critics and the intellectuals among the players – and perhaps those who prefer games to be “dark & gritty” as well – might love this game, but the masses not so much.

    There have been games in the past where this phenomenon applied to, like the gorgeous “Beyond Good & Evil”. Or “Paraworld”.

  • Sihaya

    Games evoke
    catharsis. For this to happen, situations and characters have to be believable,
    loveable, understandable, and still safe – far enough away from real life and
    the world outside to not affect us in the same way, but differently. Which does
    not mean it can’t affect us more than any real life situation we’ve
    encountered.

    Maybe the
    trick is not to copy real life situations on the political map and adapt them
    for the game. Maybe it’s about creating situations that will leave a similar
    taste in our mouths, have a similar gravity and importance to them. Without
    dropping the player in a situation that is perhaps uncomfortably close to home.

    I don’t
    think difficult decisions and issues should be avoided simply because someone
    will not like them. Ego’s shouldn’t have to be taken into account. But I think
    it’s important to make sure you do what you can to present them in a way that
    won’t cause grief. It’s a thin line, but one that is well worth walking, I
    think. The result will be something more than just a game, something people
    will remember and love, and you as creators can be very proud of.