Heroes and villains have been a staple in gaming since its inception. Of course, this is the same in any storytelling medium, as prototypical stories must contain conflict, and the most direct way to fashion conflict is to introduce a struggle between good and evil and between heroes and villains. Itís universal, and itís boring.
Thereís no hiding the fact that struggles between good and evil have grown tiresome, and the many calls for a renaissance of good and evil in gaming show just how badly many of us want to see stories that discard simple black and white for shades of gray. There have been plenty of efforts to this end, but have any of them truly been successful? We still complain about how poor moral choices have been done in games, as what is meant to be a true moral decision ends up being simply a matter of choosing the good or evil path. Itís not a revolution at all, but simply a new set of curtains covering a stained, broken window.
So, where can good and evil go in games now? Is there a way to truly transform the ways that games treat good and evil? Of course there is, and itís perhaps not nearly as difficult as a lot of people make it out to be. In fact, thereís a fairly recent game that, for my money, handled the conceptions of good and evil in an impressively original way, and itís a choice that might surprise you.
Hint: Itís a JRPG. Really!
While dozens of games lately have attempted to put the weight of good and evil into the hands of the player, Tales of Vesperia tells a linear story, and one that, when taken on the surface level, doesnít do a whole lot differently. The basics of the story involve an evil force thatís threatening to destroy the world, and a villain who hopes to dominate the planet and will do whatever it takes to achieve this goal. Whatís impressive, though, is how various characters who seem so unambiguously good surprise you. So letís take a look at some of those characters who truly seem to distance themselves from what we normally consider heroes and villains. You donít need to have played the game to read this post, but if you want to avoid spoilers, you might consider putting this aside for now.
Yuri is the main character in Tales of Vesperia, and being the main character, is tasked with saving the world. Sounds like a job for a hero, right? In some ways, this holds true for much of the game. Yuri is the type of character who simply acts to do whatever he thinks is right, and most of the time, the character will agree with him. He sets out to recover a stolen item that controls water in his city, and thus his journey begins.
Then, all of a sudden, on a dark city street, Yuri encounters a minor villain in the game, Ragou: one whom you havenít had to fight at all, as heís not the fighting type, really. Sure, itís clear that heís not your friend, but in the realm of villains, heís no Sephiroth.
So, on this cold, dark street, what does Yuri do? He assassinates the unarmed Ragou and tosses his body into a river. Hard. Core. The best part? He hardly struggles with the decision.
Later in the game, yet another villain meets the same fate. Cumore is a bit more of a bastard, basically taking an entire town over and using its citizens as slaves. One night, Yuri sneaks into Cumoreís room, wakes him up, chases him out to the desert, and backs him up against a pit of quicksand until he falls in. Then Yuri just watches as Cumore is buried alive by the sand. Hard. Core.
After this scene, we get to see a bit more about Yuriís justification for his actions, which essentially comes to down to fact that he had no faith in the ability of the justice system, so he went off and exacted his own brand of punishment. His husband (not really), the ideal knight Flynn, gives him a healthy chiding for his actions, but Yuri doesnít waver from his opinion that the only way to truly stop evil is to stamp it out completely.
The great thing about the game, and where it allows Yuri to succeed as a character, is that it, as a game, never seems to take a stance on the issue. I feel like so many other games fail in moral ambiguity because they write one good choice and one bad choice, and expect us to be the ambiguous ones through the choices that we make. It is not up to us, as players, to create moral ambiguity in your games. It is up to you, writers and developers.
Annoying princess character with a sheltered upbringing? Yep. Healer character? Yep. Crappy voice acting? Yep. Wish she was dead after about thirty minutes? One thousand times yep.
Yet as the healer character, Estelle is later given one of the more interesting roles in the game. See, sheís the only character in the game who is able to naturally heal characters not only in battle, but any wounded NPC that the party might come across. Because of this, sheís celebrated throughout the game by nearly everyone you meet.
That is until some flying bird thing calls her an insipid poison, which doesnít really make any sense, but letís focus on the poison part for now. Indeed, later in the game, you do find out that she is literally a poison. Her healing ability uses ďaerĒ (stupid term for a familiar thing? Check!), which the world requires in a certain balance. If this balance is interrupted, oops, the world is broken.
So, you come to find out that every time Estelle has used her healing ability, she has killed the world a little bit. Thatís heavy.
In all honesty, though, itís a fantastic way to put a spin on something that we so often see as a universal good. While, in their struggle to defeat the villain of the game, they unquestionably require Estelleís healing, they also have to come to grips with the fact that itís destroying the planet. Keep using it and the planet turns into a giant unhappy face. Stop using it and your friends probably fail in their journey and die. Itís a tough choice, and those are the sort of choices in games that make us truly forget about the lines between good and evil and think only of whatís necessary.
So, what can other games learn from this? Thereís nothing, nothing in this world or any other world that we should ever treat as universally good or universally evil. The real world does not work that way, so why should a game world? Stop thinking in terms of good and evil and simply think in terms of characters: what does one character want, and what is he or she willing to do to get it? It is this consideration that makes for realistic morality, and, properly executed, will give us far more rewarding games than the cut-and-dry morality of many of this generationís attempts.