Game Design: Raising a Point

Games have an incredible potential as ways to tell a message just as easily as they can entertain, but the actual creation of a game that is capable of handling its source material with grace while providing a vehicle for players to form opinions is difficult, and, ultimately rare. There’s a few crucial considerations when it comes to raising a point in games that few people keep in mind.

First, when trying to get a message across in a game, you have to be careful with regards to the political climate. I’m not trying to say that sensitive topics can’t be discussed, but rather that it’s very easy to send the wrong message with the content you have in your game. Of course Dragon Age’s fantastical racism comes across as wrong, but nobody’s defending racism here, and it just looks like EA’s trying to compare religion and conservative values as being directly opposed to freedom and equality (what with the oppression of mages and elves and such). Likewise, it’s a very shallow point. Skyrim does a marginally better job with the Thalmor and the worship of Talos; as far as I can tell nobody actually likes the Thalmor, but they’re much scarier and more convincing, even though they’re pretty much just Nazi elves. More convincing is the conflict between Ulfric Stormcloak and the Empire, with Ulfric expressing some xenophobic tendencies which prove that he’s far from being a heroic leader. When working with a topic like this, it’s important to be aware of what expectations your audience comes into the experience with; EA’s known for being more than a little left-leaning, and they have some fairly prolific activist writers, so when they write something we know it’s going to have a certain perspective, while Bethesda presented their universe much more objectively; where Dragon Age tried to say “Look at how horrible this is!”, Skyrim simply says “This is what’s happening in Skyrim.” and let the players decide what to  do, and because of that it really succeeds as a platform for considering the issue instead of simply being a rant about the horrible nature of human prejudices.

More importantly, however, is to consider how it’s presented. In order to explore important issues in a game, players need to have a choice more meaningful than “good” and “evil”. One of the best ways to do this is to explicitly avoid the mechanics that are supposed to be used in allowing these decisions; what I’ve typically found is that a good/evil scale works really poorly. Switching to an ambiguously moral scale, such as Mass Effect’s Paragon and Renegade are somewhat better, bu t I’ve found that the best experiences I’ve had with this sort of thing come from games in which there is no explicit way to determine if what I’m doing is right or wrong; in Fallout, for instance, which really played a huge role in providing the framework for future morality systems in games. However, one of the interesting things about Fallout is that it doesn’t really care about the player’s Karma all that much; unlike, say, Knights of the Old Republic and other BioWare games where things explicitly depend on where you fall on the good/bad alignment scale Fallout actually has few if any long-term penalties for being good or bad, rather looking more at what the player’s character might do in, say, “cutscenes” (for instance, killing the Overseer) rather than really forcing them down certain paths or choices. In games where being good or evil determines things beyond simply the player’s sense of satisfaction from the game, we often see a decrease in satisfaction, because players have good intentions when they do things that the game designers didn’t want them to do (for instance, Fable giving “corruption” for eating meat).

Another important thing about raising a point is that you have to provide information and background. The Deus Ex series does this incredibly well, because it looks at transhumanism in a way that players have likely never heard it discussed, looking into the background, timeline, and ramifications of people being able to augment themselves so that they can out-compete everyone else; which obviously has advantages for combat applications but also has a notable impact in society. Cyborgs need drugs in order to survive, which are very expensive, and as thus need to be able to outperform people, which they have little difficulty with, but frequently reach the point where they’re barely human as a result. Immediately a dramatic tension is created without relying too much on players’ prior knowledge, but it also looks at various nuanced elements of play; it presents a complex set of challenges and decisions. For instance, a war game might point out that even though the two forces on the battlefield right now may be “good” factions, one may be allied with a faction that is unambiguously evil (consider modern terrorism and civil wars in the Middle East), which leaves in implications for after the war.

To present an issue in games, you need to consider the way in which your audience will receive it, contemplate it with depth and a viewpoint that lets players make their own decisions, and go into detail on the events so that players can come up with their own opinions, allowing them to invest in the matter.

2 thoughts on “Game Design: Raising a Point

  1. Steven

    Holy dear lord, I don’t even know where to begin. Before I start in on the actual content, I must – MUST – point out how tedious it is to read. Superfluous words make it nearly impossible to read smoothly. In short, pay more mind to editing in future articles. Your very first sentence is also long and structured in such a way that it obscures the point.

    Now then, for bullet points:

    – Bioware’s political correctness has led them to make horrible and offensive representations of the LGBT community.
    – Skyrim utterly fails at conveying a point because the world doesn’t reflect what you are told. Multiple races reside in Ulfric Stormcloak’s own city with very little disparity in living conditions.
    – Paragon and Renegade are not even remotely ambiguous. It could not be more obviously ‘good’ and ‘evil’ short of making the good choice blue and the bad one red. Oh wait…
    – While I can’t speak for the earlier Fallout games (which, since you failed to mention which Fallout games, I don’t need to), Fallout 3 and New Vegas made it insanely clear if you did ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. A karma meter appeared every single time you did something ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
    – Deus Ex looks on transhumanism in a way players have likely never heard it discussed? Seriously? Deus Ex looks at the most immediate issues of human modification: the most shallow possible effects of what would be a revolutionary change in technology. Using your exact quote: “Cyborgs need drugs in order to survive, which are very expensive, and as thus need to be able to outperform people, which they have little difficulty with, but frequently reach the point where they’re barely human as a result.”. What is the conflict? What is the platform? What is the developer trying to say? Are augments bad or good? It makes no difference because the game wasn’t about augmentations, nor did it actually use it to effectively enhance the story. The game was about a conspiracy plot, and though they might have been trying to leave the resolution to the player, they did it in the worst possible way: pick a button, get an ending.
    – How is it that earlier you talk about wanting more meaning than “good” or “evil”, then proceed to use an example of “good” and “unambiguously evil” factions?

    I must reiterate, please revise your work or hire an editor. Your point is absolutely buried under poor sentence structure, awkward grammar and excess words.

    Reply
    1. Kyle Post author

      Don’t get me wrong, I fully intended to point out that BioWare is politically correct to the point of idiocy. I don’t think many people deny that.

      Did you actually play Skyrim? Sure Ulfric Stormcloak rules over a city with inhabitants of multiple races in similar living conditions, but the Dark Elves are seriously poorer than most of the non-Dark Elves, and they face discrimination and a lack of protection from the local law enforcement structures.

      Paragon and Renegade can be very ambiguous. It did not necessarily turn out that way in Mass Effect, but at least as in Jade Empire with the Closed Fist and Open Palm it was more of a peace/nonviolence against recklessness/violence. There’s less of a moral connotation involved, as in, say, Knights of the Old Republic, where actions for the greater good can be considered “evil” because they are unpleasant.

      Fallout 3 and New Vegas are very much unlike the original Fallouts. Fallout 1 basically has Karma mean nothing, 2 has it meaning very little, and in Tactics you’re lucky to even look at it throughout the course of the game. Don’t get me wrong; Fallout 3 and New Vegas are not paragons of their moral system; it’s wrong to steal from Caesar’s Legion, but totally okay to murder them in droves.

      If you want to take my somewhat underwhelming overview of the game, then sure you can strip out a lot of the controversy. Part of the point of Deus Ex is that it does not make the argument for one side or the other, letting the players decide. If you’ve only played Human Revolution, then yes, it has one of the least satisfying choices in the history of games, slightly above Mass Effect 3. However, the choice of the button is not the same as the choice of the ideal; there is no intentional argument in Deus Ex because it seeks to present a question: “Is it right to improve ourselves and upgrade ourselves?” and looks at the potential consequences of that course of action.

      I’m not sure that I understand what your point was in the final point, nor do I think that you view things the same way as I do. In the Middle East we essentially see three factions; secularist or Islamist dictators, secularist freedom fighters, and Islamist fighters (who often double-dip into terrorism). I’m not going to even call the Islamists freedom fighters, as many of them are essentially puppets, but we can look at, for example, Syria, and see that there’s no good option.

      In Syria we have the example of Assad, who’s kinda a jerk. We don’t have any real reason to like him, but he’s not the worst dictator in history. Then a civil war sparks up and he turns into a real mean person, killing people in droves. The Free Syrian Army, for instance, is a secular force, and while they don’t have any plan for Syria after getting rid of Assad, if they do anything but set up a dictatorship we’ll be fine with it. Then you have the various Islamist groups, who are known to be some of the more brutal combatants, aligned with a variety of groups that are considered terrorist organizations. The problem we have with them is that they’re even worse than Assad, attacking minority populations and anyone they disagree with, which, as Islamic extremists, is a fair number of people. If they take over, Syria will not be stable, and they look poised to do so, as unlike the FSA who just want Assad out, they have plans for Syria.

      Ergo, Assad and the FSA are the factions that we look at sort of ambivalently; neither are terribly good (the FSA isn’t exactly full of saints, though they’re not worse than the Syrian Army), and we’d like to have something other than either of them. However, we definitely don’t fancy Al Qaeda or the Taliban securing a nation-state firmly in their grasp (not that they necessarily haven’t, depending on whom you ask).

      In short, any involvement with the rebels involves giving a “good” faction that is allied with an unambiguously evil faction some support, which invokes a moral (and economic) choice.

      One final note; while I do apologize that my verbosity and frequent editing mistakes make this blog a little difficult to read, this is, first and foremost, a personal blog. I write four articles a week by my lonesome, and don’t have the time or money to have a dedicated editing process. I don’t mean to seem cavalier and say “well, I just don’t care”, but to an extent most of these posts are what come up in my mind as a topic for meaningful discussion, a thought that I’ve been kicking around for a while, and as such are essentially written in little more than stream-of-consciousness with editing that essentially consists of a spell-check and a re-read.

      Reply

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