Pillars of Eternity and Obsidian’s Wonderful Use of Virtue Ethics

poecharacter

For the last several years, one of the better companies for producing both inventive and nostalgic RPGs is Obsidian Entertainment. Many of their games have taken existing properties and created sequels that took them a bit further (e.g. Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Fallout: New Vegas). Last year, however, Obsidian released a game based on an IP that it created, called Pillars of Eternity (PoE). PoE began as a Kickstarter project, which I funded because it looked incredible and I like the company. It’s a throwback in design to the Infinity Engine games (like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale), but with many new features.

One of these features is the traits system, which assigns your character values to various character traits that they have exhibited through conversations that they’ve had with different people and factions in the game. It’s a wonderful system because it reflects a moral theory that I’ve mentioned before in this blog—virtue ethics. What makes PoE’s take on virtue ethics great is that it assigns numerical values to various qualities that you’ve exhibited, and then other people in the world will hear about your reputation and act accordingly.

An example might help! I am playing as a druid character (you have a party of six characters, but one is the main character, i.e. the character you are playing). She is a good person, very helpful and mostly honest. If there is a conflict between producing good and honesty, she will choose to produce good. Those do happen in the game, but for the most part, she has been able to be honest. As a result, she has an ‘honesty’ score of 3.

This means that when I am first meeting a new NPC in the world, I am sometimes given the option of using my honesty trait to convince them that I’ll do what I say. Characters in the world will react to me accordingly, saying things like “They say you are an honest person. So I think I can trust you.” This really helps with immersion, of course, but it also has in game benefits. By being trustworthy, I am told things I might not otherwise find out. Of course, there are other characters that will not like me because I am so honest. They will know that I am unlikely to lie on their behalf, and this could make them wary to give me certain tasks.

The system that incorporates all of this is not perfect. I cannot always tell which option will be seen as the benevolent one (my highest trait at 4 right now). I try to do good, but you aren’t told which option will raise benevolence or honesty or any other trait. Still, you can get pretty close. I would prefer a system where you are told which option matches which trait. That way I can be sure that I am choosing the one my character can do. This might undermine immersion though; so I understand why it isn’t present. Maybe there could be a setting to make this visible of invisible, allowing players to choose. I can, of course, go online and find this information, but I don’t want to pause my game during every conversation in order to look at walkthrus, which often have spoilers.

Overall, though, the system feels about right. There are many traits. My character is seen as slightly stoic, but mostly passionate. She’s clever. She even has a one in ‘deceptive’, probably from the times where I chose benevolence over honesty. If you play a different way, you can get traits like ‘aggressive’. I don’t know all of the traits that might be seen as more negative. I assume there is a malevolent trait to counter benevolent. Perhaps I’ll play the game again and see how that goes.

But it’s a big game; one of those epic, sprawling RPGs that you remember companies like Bioware and Black Isle making. Obsidian is a continuation of an approach to RPGs that makes you feel like you really are playing a video game version of a roleplaying campaign. The characters have distinct personalities and issues they wish to resolve. Some of them are unlikable (I’m looking at you Durance! I do not like you!). Others are simply exotic, in the sense that they represent ways of thinking that reflect the fact that they come from non-human cultures. For example, one of my favorite characters prefers eating raw meat. She’s on a journey to find the reincarnated form of a village elder that died several years earlier.

There are factions that you can find favor with or who might become enemies. There are entire new cultures to learn about; different approaches to magic, psionics, even chanting (bard-like abilities). I’m glad games like this are still being made. The inclusion of a virtue ethics approach to morality helps me see the world as a living place, where my actions and my value (or my character’s values anyway!) matter. I’d love to see other developers extend this idea further.

Let me know if there are other games that use a similar system. I’d love to hear about them.

Sports as RPGs?

baseballplayer The image above belongs to EA sports and Gamespot. I use it only as an illustration of how immersive sports games can be. I do not own the image.

Anyway, a reader of this blog messaged me to ask whether I had considered sports games as RPGs. At first, my thought was simply “Well, no, of course not! They’re sports games, not roleplaying games.” But I like many genres of games, and I’ve played plenty of sports games. What’s interesting is that more recent ones have added franchise modes and character creation, which allow you to tell a story in a way that is actually pretty much like an RPG! But can they include ethical dilemmas in them? I think so.

The premise behind these story/franchise modes is pretty simple. What if you could make an athlete of your own, and follow him or her (reminder that we need a great women’s soccer game to celebrate their World Cup victory!) through the early stages of that player’s career, working your way up into the big leagues, where you eventually reap all sorts of rewards. Many of these games have you start with lower stats, which you raise through quality play or by engaging in mini-games (like batting practice, or 7 on 7 drills, or whatever). They sometimes feature the ability to create your own home and fill it with trophies you’ve earned, or use your money to buy new cars or other symbols of prestige.

That’s where the ethics could become a bigger part of such games. Players could be forced to decide whether to remain loyal to the team they are on or move on to a more lucrative deal. Perhaps you’ve helped a small market team become a contender, and in midseason, a trade opportunity comes, complete with a new, bigger contract. Do you take the deal? Or do you remain loyal to your teammates?

Of course, deeper social issues could be explored too. For example, a shady character could approach you and ask you to shave some points at your next NBA game in order to help people win bets. I seriously doubt that any of the licensed games could do this. The leagues that support them would not allow it. But maybe some mods could add these features.

In any case, we are finding more and more games are adding RPG elements, to give them more longevity and to add greater ranges of immersion. I’m all for it, but I’d like to see these games go beyond just the material rewards of being a sports star and try to explore some of the ethical temptations that come with being a celebrity.

Transphobia MUST Stop

BaldursGateSiege

Ok, so this blog is mainly about silly things, like existentialist paladins, or pseudo-ethical dilemmas in games like Fallout 4. But today, I read an article about the reactionary pushback that Beamdog has gotten with its latest addition to the Enhanced Edition of Baldur’s Gate. Beamdog is a company that has updated several of the Infinity Engine games, like BG1 and 2, and IWD. These are classics in the RPG genre that frankly revitalized PC RPGs. By updating them a bit, Beamdog has introduced younger gamers to these fantastic games as well as allowing some of us older gamers to revisit them a bit more comfortably.

The company just released a standalone expansion of sorts, called Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear, which is set between the events of BG1 and 2. The game is receiving a flood of negative reviews, not because of the gameplay itself, but because of this one incident, which Paul Tamburro explains:

“The new expansion, which is set between the events of the first and second game, features a conversation with a transgender character in which she explains her transition. Mizhena, a cleric in the game, explains the origins behind her unusual name in a dialogue tree if the player questions her about it. “I created the name myself several years ago,” Mizhena says, adding: “My birth name proved unsuitable.” When the player asks what was wrong with her old name, she continues: “When I was born, my parents thought me a boy and raised me as such. In time, we all came to understand I was truly a woman. I created my new name from syllables of different languages. All have special meaning to me, it is the truest reflection of who I am.”
Read more at http://www.craveonline.com/entertainment/972903-gamers-flood-baldurs-gate-expansion-negative-reviews-introduces-transsexual-character#MqL2ewo3GxlduzoF.99

How does Tamburro know that the negative reviews reflect transphobia? You can read them yourself and confirm it. I’m not going to post them here. They are filled with transphobic equivalents to “I’m not racist, but…” Also look for phrases like ‘virtue signaling’ or ‘SJW’ (Social Justice Warrior), which are classic signs that you are about to read something immature and offensive.

So what we have is a bunch of people who are upset that a transgender character appears in a video game. Note that you are not forced to play as a transgender person; she is an NPC that you meet. She explains her transition and the origins of her name. That’s pretty much the extent of the encounter. Yet some people are up in arms over it.

This has to stop. The same hateful comments appeared when Dragon Age: Inquisition featured a transgender character. Representing a reality of life is not a political statement. If you don’t want to play a game that has a transgender character in it, then don’t play it. But attacking the creators of the game is wrong; trying to overwhelm the game with negative reviews because it is inclusive is wrong.

Note that this is happening in the same week that an article came out about how tabletop gaming has a “white male terrorism” problem. I’ll write about that article too, but examples like this are pretty telling. If you think gaming does not have a problem with being exclusionary toward oppressed groups, here’s a pretty good example suggesting that you are wrong.

I have no idea what it is like to grow up as a gamer in today’s world. When I grew up, many of my friends were ostracized as being nerds or geeks. It wasn’t considered a cool quirk like it is in some circles today. People were attacked because of their hobbies. I did not personally receive much of this kind of bullying, but I sure saw a lot of it. It was wrong, and I didn’t do enough to stop it at the time. Many of the comments, which were ostensibly about being a gaming nerd, were actually about things that people couldn’t control, like their appearance, or the way they walked or talked. This is the same thing! A transgender person doesn’t choose to be transgender. He/She/They may choose whether or not to transition, but very few people would willingly choose to become part of an oppressed minority. It doesn’t make sense.

I applaud Beamdog for representing a group that deserves recognition just as much as anyone else does. I have transgender friends, both online and offline. They deserve to see themselves and their stories represented in gaming. If you don’t want to hear their stories, then don’t listen. There are many NPCs, and even PCs, in video games that do not speak to me at all. However, as a white male, I’ve been catered to all my life. I have no problem finding characters that I can identify with. Transgender people deserve that same opportunity.

Beamdog’s Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear can be purchased DRM free via GOG.com or through Steam.