Monday, April 27, 2015

Damocles and Narcissus

A very long time ago I was discussing RP with an online game guild and happened to mention that I do most of my roleplaying in single-player games. Some were a bit puzzled at this:
"Isn't that like talking to yourself?"
"No." I replied "It's like talking to the walls."
I still maintain this to be a crucial distinction, though I'm much less certain now that it applies to most gamers. I don't think they can distinguish the sounding-board of AI interaction from their own internal monologue. However, I'm getting ahead of myself. Here's the basic thrust of this post: we act differently in single and multi-player games. Our aggressively competitive and sycophantically competitive, individual and tribal, id and superego-driven sides of our competitive instinct feature to varying degrees depending on whether we're playing to single-player literary constructs which act only as our foils and straw-men or to the viciously competitive audience of a multiplayer game. Unfortunately, game designers pander to our weakness of character instead of offsetting our moral relativism.

Morality's what you do when nobody's watching, right? I'm starting to see this as a deceptive abbreviation of observable behavior because the author of our personal fable is always watching. We want to think of ourselves as being well thought of, even when facing a pixellated AI face on a computer screen. The situation changes according to whether that face represents an algorithm or another player, though, on whether that other player is capable of playing us in turn. Incentives must be designed to challenge and compensate for players' tendencies, to balance players' self-serving tendencies between self-serving self-aggrandizement and self-serving viciousness and destructiveness.

Case-in-point: Lord of the Rings Online has a PvP option, relegated as in any WoW-clone to an inconsequential minigame divorced from the main game world. For the low-low price of whatever, you can create a "monster class" (giant spider, warg or various flavors of orc) and duke it out with other payers who bring their elf/dwarf/man/hobbit characters into the PvP instance. Now, when LotRO launched, the Free Peoples were significantly more powerful than their monster counterparts. Thematically, this fit with Middle-Earth tropes (an elf hero would be the equal of any number of orc redshirts) but in practical terms it combined the worst of both worlds. Given the option of an advantaged or a disadvantaged play option, most players will choose... well, 'nuff said. Top that off with the fact that the heroic "pretty people" faction was by default the one most people would choose, and you had a completely one-sided conflict. In terms of self-image, everybody wants to play a bad-ass Aragorn impersonator already. It took many a year for Turbine to realize the obvious: under those conditions, you have to incentivize customers to pick the denigrated, filthy orc side. In recent times they've beefed up the stats on monster classes and though LotRO's PvP system still ain't worth spit for lack of adequate server, interface and other functionality, it is at least utilized by many players who apparently haven't heard there are actual PvP games online. It became possible to get a fight going. The self-serving power-mad profiteering balances out the self-serving moral high-horse.

PvP games are practical. People will play as a glob of snot if it gives them an extra 5% damage boost and extra odds to ruin someone else's day. Sadism is the name of the game, and it is always necessary to police those who deliberately sabotage games. Without repercussions, players default to griefing, to the satisfaction of hurting others by any means: cheats, sabotage, team-killing, whatever feeds that social primate need to beat others down. Multiplayer incentives must push toward positive behavior.

Single-player is a whole different issue. If the internet reveals humans' true nature as sadistic parasites, solo role-playing reveals their pathetic desperation for self-deception. Players want to see themselves as knights in shining armor no matter their actions. In the absence of actual competition, it becomes entirely too tempting to game the system in the other direction, to simply try to get as many of those simulacra of social interaction on screen to sing your praises. Thus, in single-player games, it is not immorality but morality which should be counterbalanced. Sadly, almost every game out there sells moral justification. Take something like Dragon Age or The Elder Scrolls. Even if you play the scoundrel every step of the way, by the end of the game there is no way that you won't save the kingdom and be lauded as a hero.

Even in the best RPGs like VtM: Bloodlines or Planescape: Torment which laudably allowed for conscious, self-denigrating malfeasance, the "good" gameplay choices were more fleshed-out. We need more of the features which made these so memorable. As much as we need multiplayer games to reward good gameplay and not just facetious profiteering, we need single-player games which tear down the player's self-image. We need adventures which make the player feel ugly and weak and despised, in which the character can and does make mistakes and petty cruelty is acknowledged as such while at the same time being made tempting through gameplay mechanics. The Heather Poe subplot in Bloodlines should serve as a prime example. Make a negative course of action appealing initially, then throw the consequences in the player's face

More than that, we need entire storylines which cast us as the dregs of society or as outright villains. The Cat Lady, Miasmata, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, STALKER, Bloodlines and Torment, though they all had their failings, deserve everlasting praise for NOT padding the player's ego unnecessarily. We need a new generation of games like that old favorite, Dungeon Keeper, which allow us to play as skulking boogeymen.

When they're in a position to sabotage others, players need to be beaten into shape. When alone in the safety of their self-image, they must be beaten out of it.

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