Cartoonish Supervillainy

“If your idea of a home security system is a pit full of lava– you might be a supervillain.”

Games are simulations. They may not be simulating reality in any substantial way, but by their nature as systems they are internally consistent. A game is a simulation of a world which operates by rules– albeit, admittedly, often rather odd and arbitrary rules. And, because of those strange, strange rules, sometimes to achieve what seems like a reasonable goal we end up having to do extraordinary, silly, and occasionally outlandishly evil things.

Well if you’re so evil, why don’t you just eat this kitten!?

“If you redirect the ocean directly into Hell just so that you can collect the resultant obsidian– you might be a supervillain!”

Whether this is a problem or not really depends on what tone you’re trying to set for your game. In Terraria, accidentally decapitating bunnies while trying to harvest wood to build your first meager shack is hilarious. However, trying to build a serious narrative on top of a world of zany car chases and goofy ultra-violence is a fool’s errand. I’m sure you can think of certain games which fit that description, and while they usually sell reasonably well and are overall quite enjoyable to play, most people don’t, I believe, play them for the brilliant narrative experience.

“If you create a demon-summoning device for the sole purpose of murdering those demons and stealing their possessions– you might be a supervillain!”

At best, this incongruity makes your game look silly– which, I suppose, isn’t a problem if you’re making a silly game. However, other problems can arise pretty quickly, since one can unintentionally imply some pretty tacky things via these methods. For instance, in the Grand Theft Auto series you can hire prostitutes to restore your health, which I’m sure made sense to someone at some point. After she’s finished ‘healing’ you, you can kill her and steal your money back, plus a little more.

“If you build a monument out of evil, world-consuming black stone just because it looks pretty– You might be a supervillain”

Well… I guess it’s a start

NPCs in games aren’t people. Killing them doesn’t present a real ethical dilemma for players, because no one dies or is even inconvenienced. The line blurs a bit when those NPCs start becoming characterized with distinct personalities and their deaths have accompanying consequences within the game world, but for generic NPCs it’s not really important whether they live or die (and prostitutes are seemingly always generic NPCs– if they aren’t, then you probably never actually see them prostituting). Generic NPCs are more like resources than people; we care about them as much as politicians care about poor people, and for mostly the same reasons.

“If you instigate environmental catastrophes solely in order to grow a rare strain of glowing blue grass around your castle– you might be a supervillain.”

Of course, having NPCs who you can freely murder because they aren’t real people tends to draw unfortunate comparisons, particularly when the actual people who are, in real life, most equivalent to those NPCs occupy such a social position that they are in very real danger of being dehumanized and victimized. While it is merely an optimal utilitarian strategy in the game world, who’s to say that Jack the Ripper’s practices didn’t seem like an optimal utilitarian strategy from his point of view? Once they cease to account for the negative effects on others, the derived utilitarian strategies start to look pretty gruesome– one of the reasons why we need law and police officers, because some people simply aren’t invested in the well-being their peers.

“If you destroy all of the snow in the world just to make your floating snow castle look more impressive– you might be a supervillain!”

…perfect

What’s most noticeably uncomfortable is when the game design conspires to make you do things which are even ethically questionable within the narrative of the game. And, because it’s unacceptable, apparently, that the audience might be made uncomfortable, these situations are rarely seen. It’s seen as poor game design to ‘punish’ the player for doing the right thing by leaving them un-rewarded when they refrain from stealing an old man’s retirement money, so they ensure that the player’s decisions are irrelevant by making sure they get an equal reward for being a good person later on. At the same time, they want to support the player’s ability to make whatever choice they want, so usually nothing particularly bad happens when he does steal the old fella’s money, either. In most such games, usually the only choice you do get punished for (by way of not getting rewarded) are moderate, reasoned, middle-of-the-road decisions.

“If your main source of income is beating up elder gods for their lunch money– you might be a supervillain!”

Of course, this completely undermines the entire idea of role-playing (and games which tout the range of choices they offer players are always role-playing games). You’re no longer making decisions as the character, trying to thread your way through tricky ethical dilemmas as best as you can under harrowing circumstances; you’re just trying to maximize the output of the game machine, trying to pick the result which will be most favorable to you. It’s ironic that by supporting the player’s ability to make whatever decision he wants to, the designers have drained a supposed ethical dilemma of any ethical choice.

Pictured: Moral complexity

“If you keep voodoo dolls of your acquaintances around for the dual purpose of murdering them if they displease you and as a handy human sacrifice– you might be a supervillain!”

Most narrative-heavy games are, at best, mildly psychotic. Either they cast you as a hero while forcing you to steal from townsfolk, or they cast the story as a drama while encouraging you to engineer over-the-top automobile collision circuses, or they cast the world as morally complex while motivating you to act in the most righteous or despicable ways possible. It creates situations of ludicrous hypocrisy: Your thieving murdering protagonist is hailed by the newly impoverished townsfolk as a hero, one can only imagine out of pure unbridled terror.

Maybe the reason we don’t see many comedic games any more is, simply, because just playing it straight, in the face of such absurdity, is strange and funny beyond the reach of even the wittiest of writers.

If you write an entire article riffing on Terraria-inspired Jeff Foxworthy jokes– you might be a fucking nerd.

 

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