Not so long ago, I found myself involved in a big discussion about what rewards to attach to a most vile and despicable deed. It’s not a position I’m used to so I couldn’t rely on instinct to sort it out. I have to admit that it really felt wrong to give a gameplay bonus to something I clearly didn’t agree with, yet at the same time, I couldn’t deny that within the logic of the gameworld we’d created, in this particular instance it made perfect sense to award gold to a player for behaving like a dictator with blood on his hands.
From this discussion sprouted the following piece, written by Jan (our lead writer) & me. The release of today’s choice & consequence promotion video for Dragon Commander felt like the right moment to release this.
If there is one aspect of Dragon Commander that has generated frequent discussion among the team at Larian it is the topic of politics and more specifically: the political, moral and ethical choices you can make in the game. When you are aboard your command ship, the Raven, a broad spectrum of political and moral issues will be brought before you by a variety of characters and inevitably, these characters will vehemently disagree with one another at all but every junction.
Our inspiration for these political conundrums we derived from newspapers, news websites and news broadcasts the world over. We ended up with a host of current issues that – to use a whopper of a euphemism – create debate wherever they arise. It is these issues that we translated into a fantasy context, though they remain quite recognisable.
To do so we created a host of fantasy characters that represent people or philosophies of a certain political persuasion in an almost commedia dell’arte manner. They are stock characters in their way, with their own eccentricities and conflicting ideals, but their masks are those of lizards, imps, elves, dwarves and undead rather than the literally masked prototypes of the theatrical genre.
These characters speak plainly. They speak forcefully. They hammer home their viewpoint, often eschewing all nuance. In their own exaggerated manner they bring to bear their opinions, and even though it should go without saying, we’re saying this anyway: this doesn’t mean we necessarily agree with their opinions at all.
This is important to keep in mind, because by creating characters that often exceed individualism only to become certain ‘types’, we noticed that their opinion regarding various political statements were amplified to such an extent that they became quite frankly shocking.
What we also discovered though, and this is something we considered important as designers, is that it made players sit back and think about what decision they should make. Because the decisions you make aren’t simply ethical ones. Dragon Commander remains a game and decisions influence gameplay. That means that what you consider to be ‘the right thing to do’ may not bring you the rewards you’d have liked.
You take on the role of an emperor after all, and if you were really to command an empire, how long would it take you before your ethics would take a backseat to more Machiavellian concerns? Compare it to conveniently ignoring injustice in a particular country, say, because the natural resource deals you have going on there are just too good to pass up. It is easy to say such choices are reprehensible, but a lot of us live in societies in which our political overlords condone such actions, and indeed our quality of life may depend on it. We just don’t quite like to talk about it.
In Dragon Commander, as a commander in chief, you are confronted with problems and opportunities that may lead you to making decisions that in real life you would never even contemplate. And yet you may well make them anyway, because they will give you the edge you were looking for. You’re trying to win a war in this game, and it’s a lot harder to live up to personal standards when all around you the enemy is closing in.
Here’s one example that caused a lot of debate to help you understand what we are talking about.
As the game progresses one of your generals will point out that when your armies conquer new land, this conquest is usually followed by widespread pillaging and abuse of women by soldiers. Clearly this is a serious but sadly all too recognisable crime that has been repeated countless times throughout history. In Dragon Commander you can choose to make a stand against this war crime by ordering the execution of its perpetrators, but you can just as well let it slide because you feel you need every last soldier for the war effort, and they can’t fight for dragon and country when they’re swinging from the gallows.
We sincerely hope that we can all agree the moral thing to do is punish those who rape; that this should be the evident and indeed only thing to do. But for us, the real problem we encountered here is that by design each choice should have gameplay consequences that fit with what gameplay mechanics are available in the game. And for decisions to have a real impact, they all need pros and cons; pros yes, even if a choice may be regarded by most as ethically despicable.
Attaching a pro in this particular example, for instance, felt wrong and for quite some time we therefore considered removing the situation from the game all together. But ultimately we decided to leave it in. This part of the game is about role playing i.e. you take on the role of somebody else, and if you decide to role play that person as somebody thoroughly evil, then that’s up to you.
The net result of this is of course that in several cases this may give the impression that we are letting our own convictions influence the rewards and penalties you reap for making certain decisions, but we really tried not to make this so. We did our very best not to judge and we simply tried to balance the game in such a manner that all choices lead to logical consequences. This wasn’t easy because logic and morality don’t necessarily add up.
Anyway, we ended up with a game in which giving your subjects license to do things that may be fundamentally wrong on all kinds of different levels may nevertheless benefit your march to victory. But, we’ll add that it is always possible to win the game by following your own moral compass, even if sometimes it may feel that’s not the case, because we did associate pros and cons to each decision, and while playing you never know what consequences are associated with the choice you didn’t make .
What direction different people’s moral needle points in is another matter entirely. Your north may be their south and vice versa. One may say that ‘one should act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law’, but nowhere does it say that – to stay in a fantasy context – a dwarf’s view on what should become universal law does not differ fundamentally from that of an elf.
To accommodate for this we ensured that for all decisions you’ll make you’ll have vocal supporters but also even more vocal detractors. And like we said, their reactions may shock you. The intent behind that is to make you think about what you’re deciding. Keep in mind also that all situations are modelled on what we read, heard and saw in reality, a reality which isn’t always a nice place at all.
No matter what we say or write about this, we realise that what we’ve done in Dragon Commander may cause quite a stir, and may even upset people.
So why do it, you may ask. Why openly walk into a snake pit?
There are many reasons we could cite but the most important one is that we honestly think it should be possible for the medium we work with to address sensitive issues like these, using its biggest strength, that of interactivity.
Video games have come a long way in many respects; less so in others. If no one is willing to push the envelope, we might as well make another Mario again and again. Pushing the envelope in terms of choice/consequence is what we’ve tried to do, and we’ll be the first to admit that in doing so no doubt we’ve made many mistakes. Certainly, we didn’t capture all of the nuances behind each political or ethical position, because obviously, we still have to work within the constraints of our medium (and budget). But, if we managed to make a player reflect about exactly what he is doing while playing a video game, we’ve reached our goal because surprisingly, it is fun doing the right thing when you know you’re dealing with a game that’ll let you do the evil thing. It only works though, if the evil thing is really included.
We wrote this piece because this is the Internet. It is good at taking things out of context. We wanted to have a place to refer to when people address us about the choices & consequences in the game. We realize our execution isn’t picture perfect and we had many doubts about including this type of gameplay in Dragon Commander. But in the end it was doubt that we set aside, because, to quote a famous playwright: ‘Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt’.
Jan & Swen