WoW Quest is Controversial?

11 Dec

[Cross-posted on Destructoid]

Kotaku has been following a story (sounds contrived, but it’s true!) wherein Richard Bartle — the man who created Multi-User Dungeons — has decided to call out a quest involving the subject of torture.  Mind you it’s not the only torture quest in the game, (the Death Knight content has players murdering townspeople and harvesting human skulls) but his point is still relevant.  Is it moral for Blizzard, even in jest, to more or less condone torture?  The quest has you using a magical neural needle (guaranteed not to cause permanent harm!) to convince a member of the Beryl Mages to give up information on the whereabouts of a member of the Kirin Tor (the preeminent group of wizards in the Warcraft universe, and generally the good guys).  The Kirin Tor has strict rules on torture, but you’re technically a free agent, so they’d rather have you do it for them.  Bartle’s issue is that in order to complete the quest you must torture the Beryl Sorcerer, and there is no branching path where the player can choose not to use torture.

Now, as an act of reinforcement I agree it looks irresponsible.  Is Blizzard teaching players that torture is necessary and effective?  Yeah; no, that’s not good.  But viewed through a  different and more appropriate lense, I would have to disagree.  As a commenter on Kotaku stated, you can just abort the quest and face the consequences of making the right choice; which is the loss of twenty some thousand experience — the usual experience reward.  I might be playing the old school string a bit fervently here, but it would seem that someone from such nascent industry roots as inventing MUDs might have a hard time accepting that the game mechanic option of aborting the quest is a functional story element.  One might, more traditionally, expect a branching story.  Give the player more options.  The idea that you can *actually* choose not to do the quest is quite foreign.

I’m no expert on MUD’s, but I’ve written some crude text adventures in Java.  And in that situation you a) take the winding path or b) enter the cave.  You’ve got to choose.  From my perspective the option to organically eliminate roadblocks is more of an actual choice — that’s why it’s harder to make.  You really want that experience.  Sure it’s questionable, sure you may disagree with what your character is doing.  But at the end of the day you need to get to level 80, because your boss isn’t going to believe you’ve been sick for more than a week.  I would bet that even Bartle himself has completed the quest; I did.  In fact I found the quest incredibly amusing if only for the insults slung my way by the detainee, especially as I thought back to one of the Death Knight quests that involved ‘persuading’ Scarlet Crusade soldiers to relinquish information by replacing your weapons with hot pokers and wading through huge blocks of insult text until they either spilled the beans or died.

My point is that it’s nothing new; it’s Blizzard humour through and through, and it’s done tastefully.  I mean really, as much as I respect the right to get upset over something you view as irresponsible, what’s next?  Accusing Monty Python of condoning torture because their Spanish Inquisition sketches were hilarious and didn’t end with a message saying ‘The actual Spanish Inquisition was really bad, don’t torture people’?  I think, as Blizzard has proved with it’s quest vocabulary and subject matter, we have to respect the intelligence of the playerbase.  Anyone who plays the quest and thinks torture is alright wasn’t convinced by the quest — not because it’s ‘just a videogame’ but because the subliminal pull isn’t there.  I can tell when a religious informercial is trying to convince me that their faith saves or whatnot; there isn’t someone at Blizzard championing torture and hoping to convince others of its wonderful uses, and it’s easy to see that.  If anything the quest text makes the Kirin Tor seem unwilling to get their hands dirty, and willing to keep some skeletons in the closet — which is called story development; it gives the Kirin Tor more character.  The whole thing seems to be much ado about nothing.

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4 Responses to “WoW Quest is Controversial?”

  1. Richard Bartle December 11, 2008 at 10:20 am #

    > I might be playing the old school string a bit fervently here, but it would seem that someone from such nascent industry roots as inventing MUDs might have a hard time accepting that the game mechanic option of aborting the quest is a functional story element.

    You are playing it a bit fervently. I may have started with MUD, but I’ve been involved in the industry ever since. Actually, in my experience it’s the people with the longer backgrounds who have a better idea of what’s going on than those who have only spent 5 years playing MMOs.

    That’s the case here. You misunderstand what it is I’m complaining about. It’s a meta-design point: if you’re going to put in a quest that shocks players out of their comfort zone, you have to mark it. Otherwise, they won’t necessarily realise it was put there deliberately, and any point you were trying to make is lost.

    OK, so you abandon the quest. Fair enough, you lose XP, and you miss out on a quest chain. However, you also realise that you’re not playing the same game that you were playing before: there’s been a shift in its ethical structure. Whereas previously you might have been able to justify your actions on the grounds that they were morally justified, now you find yourself being asked to do things which aren’t morally justified. It’s as if you were watching The Simpsons and it suddenly changed into South Park. So what was previously a fun game with a vague cover that all those killings you were doing were acceptable because those bad guys would have killed you if you hadn’t killed them, now you’re being asked to go beyond the pale.

    What if you do the quest, though? It runs just like every other quest – there’s no indication that it was anything out of the ordinary. So where’s the story element? There is none. If players aren’t told somehow, “you might want to reflect on what you just did”, they’ll think it’s just part of the game. They won’t recognise it as a story atom; they’ll just think Blizzard is OK with torture.

    The design principle is that if you push people over a boundary, you have to provide a context to justify it, or immediately pull them back. Blizzard does know this: there’s a quest in Teldrassil where some satyr asks you to kill things you know you’re not supposed to kill, and if you do them then you get in the bad books of the dark elves and have to do another quest to redeem yourself. That’s fine: it tells people that if they want to step over the line, they can expect consequences. There’s no such response in the WotLK torture quest, and that’s what I’m complaining about.

    >I would bet that even Bartle himself has completed the quest

    Yes, but then I’m a designer, not a player: I had to complete the quest to see how Blizzard handled it.

    Richard

  2. nickhalme December 11, 2008 at 12:38 pm #

    Firstly, thanks for taking the time to comment (and not starting with ‘Dear Troll’) 🙂

    In no way am I questioning your experience, or suggesting you would be out of touch. I’m simply suggesting that someone who’s been playing these sort of games since their inception are going to see things differently than someone much newer to the genre — you have different expectations and, probably, different definitions of good MMO storytelling; not to suggest those differences are wrong.

    Alright, that makes it much clearer; you would have a quest with this sort of content divided into a quest category, or at least make the ‘moral test’ aim clear in the text and objectives, if I’m following. But that brings me back to the idea of actual choice, not necessarily accounted for by the quest structure but rather by player actions through mechanics. Does a quest have to be marked in order to evoke player choice and recognition? Isn’t it counter to getting a point across if you put up a big neon sign saying ‘This is a moral quest, please choose the high road or be punished’.

    The point you’re making is going to be consonant or dissonant to players, which is not going to change their mind. Given the choice, through mechanics, to do or not do a quest, you’re letting the player actually make up their mind. It’s not accounted for and it’s not a part of the story if they choose not to do it, but that player knows if they did or did not do it. Maybe someone who hunts isn’t going to complete the Cenarion anti-Nesingwary chains because they feel weird attacking something they agree with — it’s not part of the story or quest structure, but the function for the individual is still there. Maybe that could be called bad game design, but the player behaviour still exists even though it’s not planned for — you could go so far as to call it emergent.

    The risk of defending this quest, and by proxy Blizzard, is that it implies I think the quest is perhaps perfect. It’s not, and I can agree that they tread on thin ice when dealing with torture. But I don’t think it’s as large a shift in ethic theme as you’re proposing. Blizzard’s light, cheeky style is fairly consistent. The mage you torture responds with quirky insults, verging on the whole black knight persona, “tis but a flesh wound”. The Kirin Tor mage simply turns his back and arranges books while you torture this person. It’s a rather comical situation, and taken as satire, does not condone torture.

    That said, some quests do seem to make that shift, now that you mention it. Collecting poacher ears for the Cenarion Expedition made me a bit uneasy. The zealous nature of the CE is unsettling, while the poachers are comically evil (collecting deer skin for that new set of Nesingwary knives). It’s an odd combination that seems to have been executed effectively, but is surprising nonetheless.

    To your point about the story value of that quest; it’s exposition. Players knew the Kirin Tor were a bit shady (watching over Medivh with the Violet Eye — wiretapping reference, anyone?) but now players are aware that torture, while not condoned officially, is allowed. This is the sort of thing that led me to suggest you might have quite a different perspective here: I’m quite content seeing that the quest is saying and not telling. If Blizzard told me that torture was bad then I haven’t decided for myself; so I haven’t really decided anything.

    I hope I’m not driving home the subjectivity point too hard here, as I glance up to see it seep into just about every paragraph, just in a different phrasing, but hopefully you see my point in all of this.

  3. Richard Bartle December 12, 2008 at 7:37 am #

    >I’m simply suggesting that someone who’s been playing these sort of games since their inception are going to see things differently than someone much newer to the genre

    Well no, that’s not what you were suggesting. You said I “might have a hard time accepting that the game mechanic option of aborting the quest is a functional story element”. That does indeed imply that I’m out of touch. It seems to be saying I’m so dyed-in-the-wool that these new-fangled “MMOs” are beyond my understanding. They’re not.

    >Does a quest have to be marked in order to evoke player choice and recognition?

    Basically, yes, it does. If you look at what people have been saying in the comments to blog postings on this topic, it’s painfully clear that a good many of them see nothing wrong with the quest and don’t know what all the fuss is about. If you don’t hit them over the head with it, these people aren’t ever going to recognise that the quest was in any way making a point.

    For those who do feel the quest stands out in a disturbing way, you have to reassure them that it was intended or they’ll think you put it in because that’s how you feel. If this were a tightly-written narrative game, you could probably get away with it because players would be expecting to have to look for subtexts for everything; here, though, this isn’t clear. There are people arguing in other forums that this quest is simply an example of Blizzard’s dark humour and there’s no subtext to be read into it at all. Therefore, in a game like WoW, you do need to mark the quest as being there to make a point, otherwise even those people who recognised it will not know there’s a subtext and will look for other explanations.

    >Isn’t it counter to getting a point across if you put up a big neon sign saying ‘This is a moral quest, please choose the high road or be punished’.

    That may be, but you can mark it afterwards. They can do the quest and THEN you can indicate that they may like to think about what it is they were asked to do. This is what we see in that Teldrassil quest I mentioned, for example.

    >Maybe someone who hunts isn’t going to complete the Cenarion anti-Nesingwary chains because they feel weird attacking something they agree with — it’s not part of the story or quest structure, but the function for the individual is still there. Maybe that could be called bad game design

    The anti-hunting quests are flagged up as making a point by their pretty clear parodying of PETA with DEHTA, and the “DEHTA’s little PITA” achievement you get at the end. Where is the equivalent for the torture quest?

    >I don’t think it’s as large a shift in ethic theme as you’re proposing.

    It’s perhaps not a huge shift, but it’s still a noticeable one.

    >Blizzard’s light, cheeky style is fairly consistent. The mage you torture responds with quirky insults, verging on the whole black knight persona, “tis but a flesh wound”. The Kirin Tor mage simply turns his back and arranges books while you torture this person. It’s a rather comical situation, and taken as satire, does not condone torture.

    If they wanted it to be comical, they could have made it funnier than they did. It just plays as a run-of-the-mill quest – nothing to mark it out as different.

    >but now players are aware that torture, while not condoned officially, is allowed.

    Yes, but large swathes of the player base don’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with that. If Blizzard is making a narrative point here, it’s lost on those people.

    >I’m quite content seeing that the quest is saying and not telling.

    Those people who don’t want to do it would be content with that, too, if they were sure that was indeed what it was saying. We really don’t know, though – with no in-game explanation, we’re reduced to second-guessing Blizzard’s intentions. Blizzard could come up with any one of half a dozen explanations. If one of them was the “you kill people, so what’s a bit of torture here and there?” answer that keeps coming up in forum discussions, your understanding of the quest would have changed. It wouldn’t be about saying and not telling – it wouldn’t really be about much at all, other than Blizzard thought torture was small beans in the great scheme of things. That’s why we needed it marked here: to show that it’s intended to be stand-out, and to hint at what it was saying.

    >I hope I’m not driving home the subjectivity point too hard here, as I glance up to see it seep into just about every paragraph, just in a different phrasing, but hopefully you see my point in all of this.

    I do, but then I see everyone else’s point, too. You read the quest one way and are happy with that; other people have read it other ways. Some of these people are also happy, and some are not happy. Whatever, they can’t all be right..!

    Richard

  4. nickhalme December 12, 2008 at 9:49 am #

    “Well no, that’s not what you were suggesting.”

    But it was, even if you interpret it that way; perhaps you’re used to being on the defensive on that point. Every developer knows a fresh set of eyes sees things more clearly and without preconceptions — that’s not to say more correctly or less correctly, but it’s a different perspective that should be considered. It seems that to you the quest is broken from a design standpoint, but you’re not acknowledging any other set of criteria that might be applied to judge it — is your criteria not influenced by your experience more so than what fashion this quest is communicating a message in?

    “If this were a tightly-written narrative game, you could probably get away with it because players would be expecting to have to look for subtexts for everything; here, though, this isn’t clear. ”

    Tightly-written as in linear, short and dense, like a single-player RPG? While there is no easily condensed single story there are multiple story threads that are continued and added to, and I think some players ARE looking for subtext in the quests that make up these story threads. What was interesting with the Death Knight quests is that the bad guys really aren’t that different from the good guys, because for a while the usual good guys are the enemy. Then the Ebon Blade becomes a friendly faction, etc, and now they have a storied background and their thread is more interesting going forward. The Kirin Tor also have a story thread, and this torture quest is no doubt a part of it, as they are increasingly built up to represent the secret society, the illuminati, the vanguards of good that seem to have very dark secrets. The significance is there for the people looking for it, and the people not looking for it don’t care to see it; bonking them over the head with information isn’t going to paint them interested.

    “Some of these people are also happy, and some are not happy. Whatever, they can’t all be right..!”

    But they can! If one player hates a game because of the music and one player loves that same game because of the music, both of them are right — they have different tastes. Beyond quality of workmanship, games are difficult to objectify, and so too is the manner in which this quest was implemented.

    As you, reportedly, don’t wish to make a huge deal out of your own unhappiness with the quest, who is to say that Blizzard was trying to make a point with it? I say it fits into the usual lighthearted style because it does blend in with other quests — nobody who already thinks torture is a terrible thing to do is going to complete the quest and suddenly think torture is fine because Blizzard treated it in such a light way. And just the same, nobody who is ignorant to the reality of torture would change their mind if the quest made a point of showcasing morality.

    Say the tortured mage dies when you’re done torturing him, and the next quest in the chain has you dispose of the body. You return to claim your reward and the Kirin Tor, while thankful, think less of you now. Maybe you even lose some rep with them for doing what this lackey has commanded, breaking Kirin Tor policies. So what? It’s now become a very pragmatic quest, and those who don’t think much of torture are still going to plod along and say ‘Wasn’t that torture quest great, I feel like such a badass’.

    In its current state the quest is of the common variety, and I believe it would have the same effect on people who are fine with torture, while beating people who are aware of that sort of cruelty over the head. Surely when you played the quest, yourself against the practice of torture, you saw what they were trying to say. It’s a highly sardonic and deadpan mockery of any government, and maybe specifically the US government and the trouble they’ve gotten into lately in the press. A good portion of the audience, I would bet, are on the same page, and the rest are not. No matter how you create the quest it’s going to satisfy one part and turn off the other.

    What I find odd is that you seem fine with giving players a way to think, and letting them go down that path. Because the DEHTA quests are obvious and thinly veiled, and more or less tell the player who the good guys and the bad guys are, then it’s fine because a line has been drawn? In that case you have a quest writer telling players what to think, and whose place is that?

    All the better that the quest ‘say’ rather than ‘tell’ and allow players to make up their own minds; that’s how they’re going to think anyways. You cite the satyr quest in Teldrassil as being perhaps a good mark to hit in order to make a morally challenging quest, yet the only thing to do is redeem yourself; it’s built into the quest and comes off as artificial. You didn’t really do anything wrong, this is what the quest is supposed to do. So does that teach players that doing the wrong thing is fine if you do something nice afterwards? The logic just doesn’t hold up if what you want to accomplish is to sway someone’s opinion.

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