Tyranny: Playing as a minion of the Big Bad

So, I’m a sucker for roleplaying games of all sorts; always have been. I played the first Final Fantasy, back when it really seemed like it might be the last one! Now there are 37, I believe….But I also really enjoy the kind of roleplaying games that allow you to make choices in how you pursue the goals of the game, especially when those choices are reflected in some way in the game world. They don’t have to be huge consequences, necessarily, but I want the game to acknowledge things that I have been doing within it. For example, in Fallout: New Vegas, you can help some factions while harming others, and those you help will greet you differently than those you harmed. In Knights of the Old Republic, you play a Jedi in the Star Wars universe, and you can pursue the light side or dark side of the force. The game plays differently, depending on your choices.

Currently, I am playing a game of this sort, which is called Tyranny. Tyranny was developed by Obsidian, which is the same company that made Fallout: New Vegas. They also made Pillars of Eternity, which I discussed in another article. It’s a company that is known for taking story seriously, and I almost always at least give their roleplaying games a shot because of this. In some cases, they take an existing franchise and push it in a new direction. In others, they create their own universe.

Tyranny is the latter sort of game. It takes place in a world where the Ultimate Evil has already won the day. It’s too late to stop him or her (the question of the Big Baddy’s gender is part of the game). In fact, you helped bring this about, as one of the generals serving the main villain of this world! At the start of the game, you get to make certain decisions about the history of the world, and how conflicts were resolved (by you!). These choices come up during the game itself, and people will respond to you differently because of them. If, for example, you decided to burn down a city that challenged your master’s rule, then when you meet up with people from that city they will be angry at you for doing so. Of course, if you meet up with an enemy of that city, that person might thank you. Choices you make during gameplay have similar effects.

While the story itself doesn’t differ dramatically as a result of all of this, it does add some wonderful flavor to the game. Your choices matter. But what makes Tyranny interesting as a gameworld is the fact that you work for the villain. You must decide what that means. Will you embrace being a villain and terrorize the people you encounter? Will you strike them down in cold blood and increase the fear they feel when they hear your name? Or will you be a kind of Schindler, helping people from within the very organization that threatens them? The choice is yours, and it produces some wonderful moral dilemmas.

I don’t mean to suggest that choosing between cold blooded murder and saving the innocent is a moral dilemma. It isn’t. Murder is immoral. A moral dilemma occurs when you are faced with two or more choices and neither one seems very good. This happens throughout Tyranny, even when you are trying to be as good as possible. There is no way to escape the problem of dirty hands in this game. This really separates it from earlier roleplaying games, such as Bladur’s Gate, where one can play a pure good character and basically act heroic the entire time. In Tyranny, you are serving a bad person, and everyone knows it. You can’t back out of this role, either. You can only make the best of it, whatever that means for you.

While I think Obsidian could have taken this a bit further than they do, the world they have created is interesting, and the moral choices you must make often have weight to them. It’s a fairly dark world, which makes it a good choice for Fall playing, if you are looking for an RPG for Halloween (though, if you haven’t played Costume Quest, check that out too! Or Grim Dawn, if you prefer action RPGs…or even Path of Exile!)

Pillars of Eternity and Abuse of the Power of Nobility

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“All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” — Lord Acton

Like my other post on Pillars of Eternity, this will contain a specific example from the game, and is thus a spoiler. In such examples, I avoid using the main quest line. It’s possible that you will not follow this side quest, but it is rather easy to find and start. So be warned that you if you want to play the game without spoilers you should not read any further. This incident occurs in and around the village of Dyrford.

The setup for the quest is that a noble lord and his daughter were passing through the village on the way to a city. The lord says that he is hoping to find someone for his daughter to marry. Unfortunately, she has gone missing, and he suspects that she has been kidnapped. I immediately offer to help, of course, but as I ask around, I notice a few things are not adding up.

First, the noble is taking a rather circuitous route to his destination. There are easier paths, though this one is less likely to draw attention. The people in the village all dislike this lord very much and don’t really want to help me find the girl. The man’s servant doesn’t seem to know much about the girl, despite claiming that he’s been in service to the lord for years.

Further investigation finds that she seems to have run away rather than being kidnapped. However, the people that helped her seem a bit fishy too. Something is way off in this situation. The details are kind of fun, so I won’t spoil them, but eventually you learn that the girl in question is not the man’s daughter at all. She’s his niece, and (TRIGGER WARNING…seriously!), she’s pregnant with his child. Apparently, the lord’s own wife is unable to have a viable child (all of her children are hollowborn, which means they lack souls). In a last ditch effort to procreate, he forces himself on his own niece.

It’s a disgusting act, and as the player character, you are given the option of helping her enact revenge on the noble lord and thus expose the corruption of the noble class or stopping this plot. The revenge path has a high cost on everyone involved and will likely leave the young girl permanently broken (at best!). However, you are told that it will serve as a blow against the elite who abuse their power.

Of course, there are other ways you can deal with this problem. I chose to wipe the unfortunate girl’s memories and deal with her uncle myself. This seemed preferable to sacrificing her in the name of revenge. Still, I can’t help but wonder if hiding the truth from her was the right move. I sent her to a chapel, hoping that the priests there could help her start a new life. I wonder what will become of this poor woman.

These are the kind of quests that haunt you even after you complete them, and they are a big part of what makes Pillars of Eternity such an interesting game, if a bit dark at times.

Pillars of Eternity uses the Trolley Problem

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In a previous post I mentioned that I really like how Obsidian Entertainment approaches ethics in their game, Pillars of Eternity. However, they are not content to rest on an excellent virtue ethics system that tracks how your character reacts to situations. They also present you with moral dilemmas that are often quite difficult to solve, or at least make you consider which choice is the right one.

Before I give a specific example, I need to point out that this post will contain spoilers for a particular quest in the game. It is not the main quest; so you might not even find this quest. However, it is not overly difficult to find. It takes place in Defiance Bay, in Act 2. So once you have finished with that area, then you can read this post (or if you don’t mind a spoiler for one side quest).

I won’t spoil the details that get you to this point, but it turns out that an acting troupe is luring various citizens into joining them in order to essentially create a snuff fil….err, play. In other words, they literally kill these people on stage in front of an audience. The underground theater’s patron is a lord in the city. When you confront him, he points out that he cannot help himself. He has a perverse desire to see people die. He is ashamed of it, but it is just who he is. In order to keep his desires in check, he tries to select people that will not be missed, or who are not particularly good people in the first place. Moreover, he tells you, he donates a lot of money to charities in order to balance out his wrongdoing. If you destroy him, those people will no longer be helped.

It’s a classic dilemma—a version of a thought experiment called the Trolley Problem.

The Trolley Problem presents a situation where a trolley driver looks ahead on the tracks and sees that there are five people stuck in some way to the main track. Luckily, there is an emergency side track that goes around these five people. The driver need only push a button to switch tracks. Unfortunately, there is a single person trapped on the side track. The question is: should he push the button?

Most people say that pushing the button is at least morally permissible. Some say that he should push the button and would be wrong not to do so. The calculation in either case is basically utilitarian. Killing one person is better than killing five.

Now consider another case. A world class surgeon has five patients in need of various transplants. They will die without them. The doctor has a separate patient who is perfectly healthy and has all of the organs needed by the other five patients. Assume that the doctor is so good that the surgery is (effectively) 100% likely to succeed. Should the surgeon be allowed to sacrifice the patient in order to save the other five?

Here, most people will say that the surgeon may not do this. Some people will say that the healthy patient could volunteer to die for the other five, but many people do not find even this acceptable. In any case, our intuition is that the surgeon cannot simply take the patient’s life.

Why doesn’t utilitarianism prevail here? Many answers have been suggested. Philipa Foote says that the difference between the two cases involves killing versus letting die. Killing five people in the trolley example is worse than letting five people die in the surgeon example. Judith Thompson, on the other hand, says the difference lies in rights versus utility. In the surgeon example, we would be violating the healthy patient’s rights by killing him or her. The five other people have no right to the healthy person’s organs. Of course, the single person on the train track also has the right not to be hit by a train. Unfortunately, in the trolley example, rights get violated either way, so you fall back on utility. Violating one person’s rights is better than violating five; the lesser of two evils, so to speak. However, in the surgeon case, rights can be respected, so they should be. In Thompson’s terminology, “rights trump utility.”

Whatever solution you prefer (even if it’s some other solution!), Pillars of Eternity is offering us a similar choice. We are asked to consider whether the good that the nobleman does somehow makes up for the lives that he is taking. If we are purely utilitarian, we might argue that he does so much good for the city that the loss of a few lives is outweighed by the good done. If we are deontologists (explained a bit in the second paragraph of this post), or if we simply believe that rights are inviolable, we might argue that rights should never be ignored in this way, no matter what good may come of it.

What’s interesting is that PoE gives us this option. You get to choose which approach to ethics you (or your character) prefers to take. Of course, in real life, you might just kill the guy, take all of his stuff, and donate it to the needy. Solve both problems! But that misses the point of the thought experiment. Besides, this example takes place in a fantasy world where some people literally have the power to cure the insane impulses of other people by using mind magic. If you want to break the example, just ask Obsidian why they don’t let one your characters simply fix the nobleman so we can have the best of everything!

But that would be unrealistic.

Star Wars – The Dirty Hands Problem

kentharAs my light side character continued to move through his story line, he found himself on the capitol planet of Coruscant. This planet is a giant city; so everything you do on it takes place in one vast city (well, vast for this game; kinda small for a planet-city).

I found myself working for a the Senate to infiltrate some of the gangs that were running rampant on the planet. However, when I broke into their complex, I discovered that they had made a deal to help fund one of the very senators I was helping! Uh oh! Time to make a major ethics decision.

In this case, when I returned to the senator and confronted her with the information I found, she asked me not to disclose it, for the good of the government and the people. I moused over my dialog choices and found that the ‘Light’ choice was to force her to tell the truth, regardless of the consequences. Since I’m playing a Light character, that’s what I did, and she thanked me for showing her the li…err, the right way to be.

Here’s the problem, though. I hated this option. The senator had actually made a pretty compelling case here. She pointed out that her opponents had more money than she did; so she needed the gangs to help fund her campaign, so that she could get elected. Then, once elected, she would be able to be a force for positive change on the planet.

I get this! This is a version of what Michael Walzer, a political philosopher, calls the ‘Dirty Hands Problem’, a phrase he stole from Sartre. Walzer notes, I think rightly, that a good politician cannot help but dirty her hands a bit; it’s a messy vocation. If nobody is playing fair, then if you attempt to remain ethical and above the fray, so to speak, you will likely lose. What we want, Walzer argues, are people who are willing to do the dirty work that we do not want to do ourselves, but who are shameful enough to feel guilt at having to do so. In other words, we want someone who can’t sleep at night because she made a deal with the devil, but we still need her to make that deal, for the good of us all.

That’s basically what this senator was doing, and the game forced me (if I am to maintain my ‘light points’) to out her. That strikes me as pretty short-sighted. We might hope for a world in which politicians can tell us exactly how they feel, and what they will do. We might want a world of transparency where our politicians only do ethical things, and everything turns out right as a result. I’m not sure that’s the world we actually have though.

It’s an interesting dilemma, one that is especially fitting for me to consider the day after I voted in the Ohio primary. Do we need politicians with dirty hands? Or is it possible to clean up the system itself so that dirty hands are no longer necessary?

Star Wars (TOR)- Blinded by the Light (Part One)

kentharI recently signed back up to play Star Wars: The Old Republic. This Bioware MMORPG allows you to play as either part of the Republic or part of the Sith Empire, which basically means you are either a good person or a bad person. That’s a bit of an oversimplification. On the Republic side, you are basically supporting the good side of the conflict. However, your character can make choices that make him or her travel further down the path of the Light Side or the Dark Side.

SWTOR is much more story-oriented than most MMOs. Each class has its own story that it progresses through, including missions unique to that class. This gives Bioware a chance to make you feel like the hero, which is something most MMOs lack. The choices you make, between good and evil, as you progress through the story don’t actually make much of a difference to the story itself. However, they do change your character’s appearance and give you access to different equipment.

I have a love/hate relationship with Bioware’s approach to ethics. On the one hand, I love that they try to include it in games. The Baldur’s Gate series, for example, allows you to play any alignment, and your party makeup and choices will differ as a result of your choice to be good or evil. The problematic part is the choices themselves. In that series, the ‘evil’ acts tend to reduce to being mean and stealing a lot. There’s little room for the subtleties of playing a Lawful Evil character, bent on taking over the world. Basically, if you kill good people (or NPCs), or you get caught stealing things, you are evil. If you help people, you are good.

SWTOR takes a similar approach, but uses the Light and Dark sides of the force to represent good versus evil. Once again, I admire that they allow for this, and that it is not limited to what side you take in the galactic struggle. You can play on the Republic side, as a Jedi, and fall victim to the Dark side of the force, for example.

The problem, once again, is what is considered “Dark”.

One of my characters is a Jedi Knight. I’m playing him as a follower of the Light side, so I try to be helpful and make choices that will give me “Light Points” instead of “Dark Points”. These are helpfully labeled in the dialog choices, so you won’t make a mistake somehow. That’s a good thing, since I can’t always tell what will lead receiving points in either direction.

For example, my character was asked to help a village of Twi’leks, which he happens to be a member of anyway, though they didn’t comment on that. The village was being attacked by Flesh Raiders (that can’t be good! I hope they didn’t name themselves!). At several points, I was given the option of being exceptionally rude to the villagers. I could tell them I don’t care. I could ask for money. I could even be sarcastic at times. What was odd is that these choices may or may not lead to Dark Side points. Sometimes they would, and sometimes they would not. Also, choices that seemed pretty rude, but not outright evil, might lead to the same number of Dark Side points as choices that amount to murder. I get that game mechanics dictate some of this, but it seems odd to equate sarcasm, or even indifference to the plight of others, with killing someone in cold blood.

At other times, I would try to do the right thing, get the Light points, and then end up doing the same thing I would have on the Dark path, essentially. A good example of this came when I told one of the leaders that I would not murder the raiders for her. She said she understood but that they would likely attack me on sight, and I would have to defend myself (by killing them, of course!). That’s a good way to get my noble Jedi Knight to kill a bunch of mobs, I guess!

Another interesting choice happened when one of the village guards asked me to use some of the raider technology to get revenge on them for what they had done to villagers. Arguable, this could be seen as justice, a kind of retribution that makes sense in the case at hand. However, he constantly stressed that it would revenge, not justice, so that I would know this was the evil path. Ok, I guess I’ll have to tell him that revenge is wrong! I’m going to go out and get that tech and just destroy it rather than use it on the raiders…oh, and I might have to murd….err, self-defense them all in order to do so! But that’s Ok. Jedi Business–nothing to see here!

Fallout Dilemmas Part 2-Silver Shroud

Fallout 4_20151114171057In a previous post, I discussed my dilemma with Pickman, an NPC that led me to wonder what choice to make regarding his existence. Today, I want to look into another dilemma the game created for my character that is trying to be roughly moral. Spoilers ahead! Again, I shall avoid main plot spoilers, but this one is a series of quests. While I won’t give everything away, I can’t really discuss it without spoilers.

Shortly after entering the ghoul-run town of Good Neighbor, one of its denizens asked me to reclaim some props from an attempt to televise an old radio program called “The Silver Shroud”. The Shroud seems to be based on a very old radio character from the real world (i.e. our world, which is not necessarily more real than Fallout, but that’s another topic!) called The Shadow. I used to listen to audiotapes of The Shadow on trips with my grandparents, who apparently grew up listening to the show. I can still hear the echoes of its main tagline: “The Shadow Knows!”

Anyway, the Silver Shroud is a pulp hero more than a superhero. Think of characters like the Phantom or Dick Tracy; he’s a vigilante with a silver submachine gun and trench coat with a scarf (maybe it’s an ascot!) and a hat. He fights villains like the Mechanists, whom you may remember from Fallout Vegas. It’s really terrible stuff, but perfectly captures how these old serials tended to work.

Once you bring back the costume props, the ghoul that idolizes the Shroud asks you to don the costume and bring justice back to the Wasteland…you know, give people hope that there are heroes out there. So what should I do? Do I lie and pretend to be a superhero? Or do I say no?

Honestly, I had to see this quest play out, so I didn’t care what the moral choice was. But here’s how I justified it for my character after the fact!

First, there’s no way that anyone but the crazy guy who hired me would believe in the Shroud. The bad guys I took out were certainly unconvinced by my horrible imitation of the Shroud. Seriously, though, you must do this quest and you must speak as the Shroud. It’s hilarious. But I don’t feel like I’m lying to these people by pretending to be the Shroud. I feel like I’m cosplaying.

Second, these are bad people I’m taking out. I get to find out the bad things they’ve done first, which means they deserve to be murdered in the streets by a fake hero…right???

Third, maybe knowing that a vigilante is out there taking down the bad guys is enough to give some people hope. I mean they might not believe in the shroud, but surely they believe that less bad guys in the world is a good thing.

Fourth, aww, who am I kidding? I did it all for the lulz.

Fallout 4 Dilemmas Part 1- Pickman

PickmanpaintingTime for some applied ethics in actual games. This is part 1 of an ongoing series about Fallout 4. There will be spoilers in these posts. I will try to avoid spoilers that focus on the main plot of the game by focusing on choices made in side quests as well as one-off events that happen in the game. Because Fallout 4 has a huge, open world with lots to explore, you may never encounter some of these situations in your playthrough. However, they are in the game, so you have been warned.

I start with a choice made by my heroic character, Dannis. I’ve decided that Dannis does care about finding his son (this is the main plot, but you discover this in the tutorial), but he is unwilling to sacrifice the good of others to do so. As a result, he helps people when they need it, whether they are settlers trying to fend off Raiders or victims of ransom demands from Supermutants who have kidnapped their loved ones. Dannis is a good guy, and this should make his moral choices pretty easy, right? Not exactly!

(This is where the real spoilers begin!) In one recent episode, Dannis happened upon an art gallery. As soon as he went in the door (hiding, naturally!), he overheard a group of Raiders talking about a man named Pickman. The Raiders were plotting revenge on this guy for messing with their gang. Sounds like my kind of guy! The Raiders are ruthless terrorists in the wasteland, and Dannis tends to shoot them on sight (before he gets shot himself). This was no exception, so he decided to put an end to their revenge fantasies by lobbing a frag grenade into their midst. Three raiders died instantly, but there were more around the corner.

After eliminating the resistance, Dannis checked out the building a bit. In a large room on the main floor there were grotesque paintings on the wall. They looked like they were painted with blood, and they depicted hellish scenes of torture and Cthulhu-like images of eyes on tentacles. Really gruesome stuff! In the middle of the room was what can only be described as a monument to death and dismemberment. Limbs and torsos and heads were arranged in sickening postures, a sadistic sculpture dedicated to madness and destruction. Whoever made this engaged in perverse fantasies. These Raiders had gone too far!

There were also some corpses on gurneys nearby. They contained the usual Raider loot—a few bullets, some bottlecaps, and various junk—but they also had calling cards from this ‘Pickman’ character. Apparently, he was killing these Raiders and letting them know it was him. Well, good for Pickman! These guys were even more disgusting than other Raiders I had seen.

As I explored upstairs, I realized that there was a space in the wall, which led down into the basement. Down there was another piece of “art”, this time with a bucket of blood and some entrails next to it. Ok, this was messed up! However, it was starting to dawn on me that this isn’t typical Raider behavior. Yes, they impale some of their victims, but largely as a warning or to strike terror. Someone was taking perverse pleasure in this, and that isn’t really their style. A blasted out section of wall led into some caverns/sewer beneath the building, where Raiders were taunting Pickman that this time had come. It was time to pay for his sick deeds. Uh oh. This confirmed it. Pickman was the bad guy here. I mean he was the worse guy…or something.

I finally found the climactic battle. The leader of this group of Raiders was fighting with Pickman. I wasn’t sure whom to help at this point, so I lobbed another grenade. Maybe it would take them all out! No such luck. A few Raider minions were killed, but the two big baddies were still fighting with each other. I decided to shoot the closest one, which happened to be the Raider. From my elevated vantage, I was able to end the fight fairly easily. Unfortunately, Pickman was still alive. I decided to find out his motives and go from there. This was where I made a mistake of sorts, morally speaking. If, at that moment, I had treated Pickman as a threat, I could have eliminated him and felt no real guilt. He was a bad guy; the Raiders are bad guys. Save the Wasteland by ridding the world of both.

That’s Fallout justice!

Instead, I listened, as he explained that the Raiders deserve what he’s doing to them. His art produced good in the world, even if it did satisfy his twisted ends. I froze, literally in game terms. I paused the game and thought through my options. What should I do? On the one hand, this guy was a psychopath; on the other, he directed his tendencies toward Raiders, and the less of them the better. He was an apocalyptic Dexter, using his deviant desires to rid the world of other evil people. Did the ends justify the means here? I wasn’t sure, and I teach this stuff for a living! What’s my duty here? What would maximize utility? What would Aristotle do?

Damnit…I just wasn’t sure.

Ultimately, I decided I couldn’t just murder Pickman now that he had stood down. In game terms, he was green (non-hostile). I told him I would let him live. He gave me a key to a safe he had hidden behind one of his viscera paintings. In it was some treasure, including the switchblade he used on his victims, which gave a bonus by making enemies bleed after being stabbed. I sold it, because gross.

As I left his gallery (yeah, that’s what the building is called in the game: Pickman’s Gallery), I pondered my decision. I couldn’t get over the feeling that I should have killed him. Sure, he’s ridding the wasteland of Raiders, but he’s also a sociopathic dick who delights in dicing up his victims and turning them into art. Should I have left someone like that alive? Does anyone, even a Raider, deserve to have that happen to them? I don’t think so, but I also wasn’t sure I could just murder him in cold blood.

Here I am, traveling through the Wasteland, acting as judge, jury, and executioner over and over again, and this one time I have a perfect chance to end someone awful, I don’t take it. What do you think? Did I make the right choice here? Or did I blow it?