As a compelling feature in narrative and gaming...
Good is a compelling concept in gaming and storytelling which, for whatever reason, seems to fall by the wayside often enough in art. In attempting to describe good, there may be difficulty in offering up something with a halo that offers the same thrill as a bleeding skull on fire vomiting bats as the earth cracks beneath its impossible shadow. Even in the event that you put horns on an otherwise subdued character, which an adult might enjoy, those horns still offer up that edge that is, essentially, the province of badguys.
Meandering around this issue can take up volumes, but, at a basic level, we are stymied by our biology when attempting to construct the 'good' narrative. To begin with, the urge to create is largely driven by the need to exorcise internal stresses and configurations of thoughts which we cannot simply digest or hit the 'cancel' button. Like an abort, retry, fail dialogue in DOS, the song is stuck in our head until we can listen to it repeatedly--except, in this case, the song is the repetitive stress and general angst which creeps in via the nightly news as though it were the unholy spirit of a little girl in a japanese horror film. As a consequence, the great artists of generations past and present, as often as they have extolled the simple virtues of the human form, have concentrated their creative efforts on the nightmarish visions of damnation, for the simple reason that they, themselves, were damned to live in times when the only acceptible subject matter was renessaince fan-fiction, showcasing those whacky characters we all know and love from state sponsored mythology. Slash fiction, particularly, was frowned upon, or any author-insertion sexual fantasies, and I think we all know just how gay artists can be. I know I am. Or would be, if I'd studied harder in school.
In any case, repression and suffering beget art depicting sic, and while art is marginalized in many ways, what is perhaps even more significant is that the art which is *not* marginalized, is usually unfathomable bullshit. Jackson Pollock. To be clear, while there may be virtue in a Pollock, there are not 1000s of dollars worth of virtue, and the idea of 'authenticating' a 'genuine' Pollack is so fucking laughable without dint of forensics and crystal ball stuffed with two genies, a unicorn, and a cursed gypsy that, themselves, each, have an additional crystal ball filled with a variety of other oracles, ad infinitum to produce a hall of mirrors like effect on the future, that the very idea that those words came out of someone's mouth before now is, itself, evil.
Also, there is an elephant that a Russian artist taught to trunk-paint which can and has sold paintings.
In that environment, author insertion of a demon torturing author insertion popes, priests, and heads of state are all understandable and straightforward, and, to put it in the modern context, the fact that, regardless of main character, very often in a video game, you are fighting and killing idiots with a great deal of upper body strength is a commentary on how people who never played football feel about jocks moreso than commentary on good and evil.
I am no different, this screed is a result of thoughts being put in my head which infuriate me, by the people at Wizards of the Coast who have chosen to morally bankrupt and castrate the Dungeons and Dragons license. 4th edition was released recently, and, excited by nostalgia, and partly encouraged by how awesome Jerry from Penny arcade is (he typed, cringing at the awkward construction), I put myself down for a boxed set. When it showed up, I put it in the bathroom, so that I could meditate on its contents properly. Before I'd even finished my first session, I was appalled.
I've been appalled before, though, so I whined about the changes they'd made to a friend of mine, and moved on. Appallation is a regular state--you have to manage it, like you manage an LSD high. (Check the clock, don't start after 4 PM, and make sure you have plenty of water around for when your eyes dry out and the lids feel like they're sticking.) Asides aside, I was fine just ignoring it forever, but, recently, having dipped into another podcast (I'm enamored of podcasts, now), I heard something said which was so assinine it drove me to notepad. I would like to mention, though, that, by this time, my tolerance for complete bullshit I disagree with is getting much higher. For one thing, I've been listening to the 1up yours podcast and 1up FM podcasts--which are so full of fucking idiots it's beyond comprehension. GFW radio is the only podcast I'd certify reasonably safe for public consumption from that network, and then, only if Shawn Elliot is around to provide actual content (I have to say, on an aside, I like Jeff Green as friendly, level headed, ex CGW back page writer/fellow Jew, but he lets his daughter play World of Warcraft, and I think that qualifies as child abuse).
In any case, all those podcasts give me frequent cause for disagreement, and if not for the occasional rays of sunshine and sanity that pierce the murky depths of down syndrome, I'd be whining more often about how some minutiae in phrasing sparked an unspeakable rage about, for instance, Japanese art, or how much bullshit goes on in the games industry, or how people trivialize everything that could conceivably be important in discussions of culture and philosophy, while aggrandizing and endlessly milling something trivial into powder which gets sprinkled into every discussion, irrelevantly, for the next 5 weeks. I'm not referring to anyone specific, at this point, just venting menstrual blood into the atmosphere to scare away predators. Or attract them, I guess. Honestly, depends on the predator.
But venting leaves me spent, and the less often I do it, the more imaginary points I score in the contest in which I'm the only participant. I have a quota to meet.
So, after having implied that I would not meander, I've meandered a fuck ton. To *continue* to meander, the issue came up because of an aside comment that someone on the Squadron of Shame was making while talking about how great Okami is--that the people working on Dungeons and Dragons didn't know how to make an angelic character compelling. This was an 'ah ha' moment in the narrative I was constructing in my own head about how far the DnD franchise had fallen.
I think it's fair to say (and can I get a shout-out from all my peeps over 25?) that society is going straight to hell, and it's because of these young folks, and their foibles. Specifically, it's the foible that, these days, the apocalypse cult is in full swing toward our inevitable doom. I discussed the apocalypse cult somewhere in an earlier piece, and rehashing it again here is fairly unnecessary, but, to summarize, there are two tensions in cultural appetite for popular art--one which emphasizes the need for supernatural saviors and heroes, that no normal human could possibly be, and one which emphasizes the ability of the common man to apply knowledge, skill, and courage to overcome adversity. In times of seeming futility and domination by authority, the superhero holds sway and garners the most interest. In times of directionless leadership and ambiguous cultural standards, the common man becomes the focal point in art. Like all dichotomatic views of society manufactured out of whole cloth, mine is eally only true in some sort of proportional sense. For instance, is the new batman movie a common man's movie because of the Harvey Dent character, the participation of the city, and the fact that Bruce Wayne is, fundamentally, a normal person, or, is it a super hero film, because normal billionaires do not have a weapons manufacturing plant that can make top secret cars and things that fly and do flips and contain motorcycles to augment the extensive ninja training they recieved in some Nepalese temple? I would argue that, in an era when superhero movies talk endlessly and depressingly about how hard it is to be the christ (spiderman, hulk, superman, to say nothing of the Heroes tv series, and even Lost, which introduces superhuman qualities on a regular basis), batman was green-lighted on the assumption that all superheroes are more or less similar, and only by sheer accident served a pent up audience in favor of the common man, or else contained enough symbology from both camps to satisfy everybody, which is fine by me, as far as it goes. Also, it helps that Heath Ledger swam upstream to give one of the best performances of any character actor in my memory before rotting in his ancestral birthplace, so that his roe would have nutrition before setting out on their journey to the sea.
Anyway, like I say, society is going straight to hell, and the reason, this time, is because my generation and generations following seem to be utterly pussy whipped by authority. People don't consider, for example, how fundamentally unjust it is to have a seatbelt law, when behavior can communicate ideas, and freedom of speech is based on the notion that, short of yelling fire in a crowded theater, you are free to espouse any idea you wish, regardless of how wrong you are--to the point that it is ok to proliferate ideas which are, without question, harmful to society (e.g. religious ideas that are frozen in time at the point of their ancient authorship, and reinterpreted through a lense of self-involvement by people who enjoy the idea of eternal salvation as long as they don't have to alter their behavior in any way), yet do not produce an immediate causal relationship with some kind of violation of someone *else's* rights, but, somehow, you must wear this safety equipment or face a suspension of a basic functional priviledge of movement (another freedom) that operates on tax-payer money. But, rather than saying 'this is unfathomable crap--what's next, making me brush my teeth?', it is in vogue, now, to make statements like 'anybody who doesn't wear a seatbelt is an idiot'. Well, maybe. But we if we made being stupid illegal, society would collapse. That a seatbelt must be *included* in a care that is to be sold here is fine. That it must meet a standard to be considered to serve its purpose--fine. But that an insurance company has lobbied government to try to help reduce their payouts and ensure a living client in the event of an accident who they can continue to gouge for years into the future, is not fine. Private racetracks may demand belts, helmets, and anything else. They are private property. A public road is not. Which is why you can't have separate water fountains for blacks and whites in a public building. In any case, without going on this tangent for too long, I'm surrounded by people who will watch someone get abused by authority and do nothing. Passivity is in vogue.
Along those lines, looking through the 4th edition of Dungeons and dragons, you can see, clearly, where this deeply internalized need for authority comes into the picture. When I bought my first book of DnD, years ago, as a kid, I was enthralled by the idea that, here were these rules that you might, or might not follow--that they gave you suggestions for dealing with various issues, but, at the end of the day, you were using this skeleton of material to flesh out an imaginary world as a partnership between friends to tell a story, and strict adherence to dice was unnecessary--but, moreso than that, there were few places with explicit illustrations of *anything*, to capture the magic of the imagination as it exists when reading a book, for example. Yes, there may have been lead miniatures, and grid maps for some people. Some people may have done only parts of their sessions that way. But for me, creation of a world without any tangible reference points was the best part--and, what's more, just the idea of the dice and statistics was enough to give you the flavor. You didn't really need to be slaves to them. Many people felt the same way, and that's why, for a while, the stereotypical image of people playing DnD was just people sitting around the table with dice and character sheets, and nothing else. That is magic, and it is a wonderful collaborative creative pastime.
4th edition is a miniatures battle game in which you proceed from room to room with unnecessary flavor text, roll dice approxiamately once every 3 seconds to defeat enemies with rigidly defined combat roles and abilities, until either the players or the enemies are all dead. At this point, items are assigned the way that weird kids, from weird families, who actually get to ask for specific christmas presents, and expect to get them, rather than be surprised (often enough having them before christmas day) are assigned their semi-yearly reward for containing the DNA of their parents. But wait! There's more... depressing shit.
Having moved the game firmly out of the realm of the imagination to the extent possible, and turned it into monopoly with demons, where free parking bestows on the user whatever +1 swords and crap he asked for before the encounter started (oh hey, sure enough, there's an apparatus of kwalish in the pile of jewels, gold, bones, and refuse that you discovered in the ancient, ruined garbage disposal (add't'n'l paranthetical: apparatus of Kwalish are actually awesome)), they have also debased nearly every aspect of the game which encouraged imagination. To begin with, Monsters, which, once, were written up at some length with descriptions of behavior patterns, desires, typical haunts and domains, affinities, flavor, and even favorite colors (in at least one case) are now nothing except for battle tactics and instructions to the Dungeon Master on how to use them to attack when they exist in miniature form on a placemat with a grid printed on it. The sum-total of their flavor comes from 2-3 'lore' sentences which are only read in the event that a player rolls high enough to pass some threshold. These sentences are often redundant as the highest one is really only a more detailed description of the lower ones. These are pieces in backgammon. Comments in the Dungeon Master's guide about accomodating players, and the need to prevent them from doing some things while encouragin others are a perverse condecension in what was once a free-range exploratory activity for people. It's not play anymore, it is a game and fuck you if you don't know the rules.
The biggest shortcoming in the revision is, to wander back in range of the point (2 squares adjacent blast template blarg!), the view of good an evil. In the original Dungeons and Dragons there was a fairly powerful rubric for 'alignment' based on Law, chaos, good, evil, and neutrality with respect to either approach. This admitted the possibility that, for the purposes of some societies and situations, all 4 concepts could be, in the abstract, good or evil. A lawful evil society in the midst of chaos would be a relief for people needing support, regardless of its evil nature. One could live and operate in and as an evil society. In the nomenclature of the game, it might have been better to replace evil with selfish and good with egalitarian or sacrificial, and, indeed, some game systems tried to synthesize more nuannced views. Unfortunately, the trogladytes that ran this ship into the ground, starting even years back, never really seemed to know what they had.
There were plenty of concepts on the rubric that made sense. Lawful good was this puritanical virtuous pain in the ass which could, conceivably be unwelcome in some cases (specifically at parties or when just 'hanging out'). Chaotic good was tied to the ideal of nature, or even just the imagined role of a frontier where people had to make do and deal with change, but were essentially moved to help one another and make things pleasant. Neutral good was one that concerned itself with how people were treated, and not the method behind it. Chaotic evil would be the acts of animalistic rivalry--survival of the fittest, and organization only to the extent that motivations lined up, one imagines, only as a coincidence, for the most part. Lawful evil is organization with a view towards power and survival above and beyond comfort--perhaps as a reflection of a harsh environment, or some unsavory application of the pursuit. Obviously, neutral evil would be an opportunist. Then there were the Lawful neutral, true neutral, and chaotic neutral alignments. Lawful neutral is law and order over chaos, and good and evil are just things that people do while they're trying to stay organized--you could imagine a police officer or judge having this attitude. True neutral is fairly straightforward, but need not be a zen-like acceptance of all things, but rather an appreciation for need for law and chaos, good and evil, or, if not the need, the inevitability. Now, what bugs me is the fact that, somehow, imagination seemed to fall consistently short for chaotic neutral--the viewpoint that says that law is not the answer, but neither good or evil are particularly worth espousing. To most people, this meant insanity. The character might think that today is lollipop day, and that means that evil is bad, but next week (all next week) is shark week, and then evil is the way to go, and in the mean time, let's wear this bunny like a hat. To me, this is bullshit. Chaotic neutral is nothing more than the concept of the free market. That, ultimately, forces vying for control of human lives (or in dnd, humanoid), must be allowed to compete, and, in that competition, the appropriate emphasis on good or evil will come about to suit the society in question. Coca Cola may donate to charity, or, it may introduce a carcinogen into its recipe which tastes great. The appropriate response is to buy more or less coke, not to storm into the factory with the hand of authority and demand that the company do one thing or another. This sort of character would be against domination of any sort by any type of enemy--whether it was some kind of benevolent sheriff's organization or undead minions of an asshole. It is a valid worldview, whether you agree or not, but it was habitually dismissed.
Looking through the book, now, it's clear that the lack of imagination and comprehension are even more severe. The rubric is gone. Now there is only a spectrum with good and evil on it, excellent good being lawful, and horrifying evil being chaotic. Then there is a big ambiguous space in which 'unaligned' deities and characters can frolic and wonder at the apparent meaninglessness of their beliefs. Deities which were aligned with, for instance Lawful Neutral (A god of art and civilization), or nature (chaotic good), are somehow enemies of the followers of gods which are evil or chaotic evil, but, themselves, are neutral. It is an assinine construction. But even more assinine is that law is somehow a feature of pure good, when, in reality, it is nothing more than a tool to fuck with people on a constant basis. To the extent that fucking with people may produce good, or evil, or nothing much at all, is an entirely different subject. By castrating the moral lattitude of the average dungeons and dragons character, the people at Wizards of the Coast are basically saying 'you can't have any more imagination than we do, and we don't have a hell of a lot'.
The issue of lack of imagination is particularly telling in the notion that players are basically told that they cannot worship evil gods, or that, if they do, it will be 'difficult' to act good. Well. No shit. The dungeon master is encouraged not to let evil characters in a party, unless all the characters are evil. Are you fucking kidding? We work with evil people everyday! Good and evil cooperate on a constant basis to make the world go round. The tension between good and evil characters, and the possiblity that good might go bad or evil might 'see the light' are interesting possibilities which should offer plenty of fun times, but, instead, the notion here is that you are not mature enough to interact like a person. That the only acceptible approach is homogenaity. As if someone who is ostensibly good, but has different motivations from other, equally ostensibly good parties could not come into conflict. If that were true, then why is everything so fucked up? And don't say evil people, because they're just trying to get by in a world filled with conflicting goody two-shoes guanoerians.
So it comes down to the issue of good and evil, in itself. Paradoxically, these people could not come up with an 'angelic' kind of race for people to play, but organized a game around the belief that, if everyone is good, then it just tastes better ("it" is authority's hairy pustulent dick). Meanwhile even Blizzard's Gamesworkshop's World of Warcraft presents 2 factions at complete odds which are both ostensibly good, and yet different.
Good and Evil come from a motivation among humans, and chimps, to, in a homogenous environment, invent differences, factionalize, and compete--usually with warfare. It is fundamentally no different than the competition between males for females, except on a larger scale. The tension in behaviors usually emphasizes strength in times of prosperity or prosperity in times of strength. Good and evil are rhetoric applied to the struggle, usually claiming that corruption or cruelty have perverted the original virtue of the opposing faction's interest. The more common concept is liberal and conservative--which isn't to say liberal and conservative in any particular country, but the idea in general. That a conservative would want to maintain the existing structure, and a liberal would want to change it. Good and evil are only useful in identifying actions within frameworks, not for broadly assuming a basis for positive or negative behaviors. For instance, the idea that you are not in constant fear of your life is, overall, a useful improvement to society that we should maintain. In as much as a government may put that fear in you, or efforts to destabilize that government might achieve the same thing they are evil. Blowing something up capriciously is evil no matter who's 'side' you're on. The idea that there may be no other choice is yet another endless meandering waste of everyone's time that we need not get into.
But, to get into it, a little, one of the games in which you play a 'good' guy which I love--in fact I love the entire series, is Legacy of Kain. In those games, Kain is evil because his vengeful ambition drives him to undermine various factors in the world which provide comfort and stability, and Raziel is good because *his* vengeful ambition drives him to wipe out monsters which are undermining various factors etc etc. Kain's ultimate purpose is has more good in it than Raziel's, who is just a tool, and has no really moral agency whatsoever. The key feature in the 'goodness' and 'badness' of the characters is a tension between their desires and the consequences of their actions. Kain desires to, after fucking around for a while (it's a long story), discover why the world is so fundamentally corrupt, and repair it. In the course of doing so, he brings it to ruin (multiple times--there's a time machine). Raziel, on the other hand, is motivated by personal ambition in every version of his existence (again, time machine), but, in pursuit of his personal agenda, humans greet him as a savior, horrible demons are devoured and prevented from putting nefarious coins in their hellish juke box (that only plays music from the 50s--again, time machine), and, ultimately, he gets trapped, with another version of himself, inside a sword, that Kain uses to something something, happy ending. Arguably, Raziel is an evil character who does nothing but good things, and Kain is a good character who does nothing but *evil* things. The personal interest I have in those stories comes, at least as much from the good as from the evil.
Now, when it comes to portrayals of good and evil where they are a spectrum within a single realm, the problem, seemingly inevitably is that the game designer/programmers/artists are the ones attempting to label you as good or evil, according to their unfathomable lack of imagination. For instance, in Fable, where certain haircuts, I shit you not, made you more good or evil. Even when you picked on your little sister in the Fable prologue sequence, the assumption that you are then, evil, with green, dripping letters, is authoritarian horseshit. Little sisters need to be picked on. Furthermore, children are amoral animals that slowly develop a concept of right and wrong according to events in their lives. While a sociopath may present extremely early in some rare cases, the idea that a child is setting foot on some kind of moral path any time before becoming a teenager, and often, AS a teenager, is, itself, juvenile. There's no accounting for the behavior of a person who, let alone have 'baked' neural pathways, is awash in hormones driving them to be competitive, aggressive, and increasingly independent. The possibility of reform, such as it is, is always present, and certainly, the environment is often as important in judging the 'evil' or 'good' in a person as anything else.
Which is why Peter Molyneaux (add vowels to taste) completely fails at offering interesting moral choices in a game, and the creators of Fallout brilliantly succeed.
To compare. In Fable, you hit your sister a little, act rude to a couple people, and get a pointy beard at the stylists, and you suddenly seeth with a red aura and tiny horns poke out of your forehead. In Fallout 2, you can knock a woman up, be forced to marry her, and then choose to kill her, or keep her alive and prostitute her to various mutants and human wreckage in the post apocalyptic setting. The ramifications for this are that she earns you money, or, if you shot her, that you get to resume your normally scheduled grim loner persona. The moral choices which weigh on *you* alone are the ones which are more meaningful. That some short sighted designer determined in his basement that choice A) was correct and choice B) was the queue for igor to apply the correctional voltage. I remember, in Black and White trying to make a 'good' tiger who would go and impress nonbelievers and then nurture them. But ultimately, to make him effective, I had to teach him how to set things on fire. In the process he became hateful of me, and gods in general, and ultimately, while he was great at impressing a village by setting it on fire, and then putting it out with rain when it converted to my religion, he was depressed and emotionally crippled tiger that was angry all the time, and could never find peace. I had to put him down.
The reason 'good' is difficult to work into games is because any time someone sits down to determine what is 'good' and what is 'evil', they become judgemental freaks of nature who sneeze platitudes up their own ass. That's why good isn't a compelling motivation in a game. Because to provide compelling motivation you must have a realistic reaction, and the fact of the matter is, you are not always going to be motivated to do good. To artificially impose it is to make an assumption about reality that is basically false and then iterate on it, producing dozens of other false conclusions in corollary.
And also, your mom.
back to the news...