Dragon Age and Tolkien’s Orc Problem

4 11 2009

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So now that it’s up, I can tell you that one of the reasons blogging has been so light for the last week is that I have been hip deep in reviewing Dragon Age for G4. It’s brilliant and amazing and I spent close to 50 hours over the course of five days playing through it and I’ll probably do it again with a different character. If you’d like to read the rest of my take, check out the full article on the G4 Web site. This particular post isn’t about the quality of the game, which is beyond question for me. It’s about the problem that I had with the Darkspawn, the main threat to the world the player faces.

Here’s the problem. Like the Orcs or goblins in Tolkien’s world, the Darkspawn are an embodiment of absolute evil. They are like locusts, driven to destroy, unable to be negotiated with and seemingly incapable of any higher desire than to burn, crush and destroy and make more of their kind. In short, they’re a typical rampaging fantasy horde that exists merely to provide sword fodder for the player to hack through millions of them without the annoyance of feeling guilty. That bothers me. I don’t like unredeemable fantasy monsters. It was one of the awful influences of Tolkien that turned me off of fantasy for many years.

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Now, I’m not a pacifist. I’ve supported wars in the real world knowing that real people on both sides would suffer horrible deaths and injuries because of it. Even as I did it though, I never bought into the simplistic propaganda that those on the other side were irredeemably evil or anything less than human. War is a serious matter, requiring serious deliberation with full appreciation of the consequences of legally sanctioning the killing of other sentient beings. Even when the cause is just, the process is tragic. Like my recent bout of guilt fighting the Morroval in Moria, I’m wondering how to feel about the Darkspawn I’ve killed. (Yes, I know they’re not real and that “it’s just a game.” That’s hardly the point, is it Captain Metaphor?)

What makes the moral simplicity of the Darkspawn especially glaring in Dragon Age is the incredible level of characterization the other races and societies are given. Every character and race in the game has realistic, multi-layered set of motivations. They’re not purely good, nor are they purely evil. Even the “villain” the player faces throughout much of the game is given a believable, though twisted, sense of moral purpose for the actions he takes in defense of his homeland. In fact, at one point one of the character’s henchmen, when asked about the actions she takes, scoffs at the player. “It’s really easy to be an adventurer,” she says. “No one weeps for the death of an ogre. It’s much harder when you’re facing enemies who look just like you.”

She’s right and it’s to the game’s credit that despite the threat they pose, the Darkspawn are actually in the minority of the foes you’ll face. One of the toughest choices you’ll face in the game is deciding which side of a Dwarven royal succession struggle you’ll support — knowing that whichever way you choose, you’re going to have to kill a lot of dwarves whose only real crime is choosing to support the side the player didn’t pick.

No such grace is granted to the Darkspawn, though. They are sword fodder, there to be killed in order to rack up the experience points. Yet the darkspawn wear armor. They carry swords and medical supplies. Clearly they have a culture — someone must be forging this stuff — and value life, their own if no one else’s. Who are they? Are they sentient at all? If they’re nothing but locusts, then they’re not truly evil, are they? This was the reason why in Sufficiently Advanced Magic I chose to avoid having an “evil race” and made sure to explain the motivations for why two nations are at war. I have my sympathies and they come out in the book, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m ready to retire Tolkien’s orcs once and for all.

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Is Moria the Promised Land?

21 10 2009

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Here’s something interesting that jumped out at me while playing Turbine’s Tolkien-themed MMO The Lord of the Rings Online on Saturday. The Morroval are monsters that live in Moria that the player must battle. These half-woman half-bat demon things are an original Turbine creation based on small references to “fouler things than orcs lurking in Moria” in the books and Morroval NPCs are programmed to issue various statements during battles. Some of them are hints on how to fight them. If one says “Protect me, my sisters!” that’s your Loremaster’s clue to dispel corruption because they’ve got a nasty protective enchantment that can make them really tough to kill. One thing that they say really got me and made me think though. Just before they die they’ll ask the player “Why do you attack us in our home?”

The more I think about that, the more I think that that statement must be deliberately provocative. The storyline in the Mines of Moria expansion is that the death of the Balrog has created a power vacuum in Moria and various factions in Middle-earth are moving in to take advantage of it and claim Moria and its treasures for their own. Throughout the game, the player is supporting an effort by the dwarves to reclaim their ancient home and will see Mordor and Isengard orcs fighting against goblins and other creatures that have been living in Khazad-dum long enough that they could conceivably be considered “native Morians.” Here’s the thing, though — if you apply a post-modern filter to this storyline, shouldn’t your sympathies lie with the Moria goblins and the Morroval?

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Think about it. Khazad-dum was abandoned 7,000 years earlier when the Dwarves dug too deep in their search for Mithril and released the Balrog. That the Balrog is evil isn’t in doubt but what blame do the goblins who took up residence in the abandoned halls of Moria hold beyond doing what they needed to to survive under the brutal tyranny of the Balrog? At what point do the crimes of the past become irrelevant to the modern era? Yes, the Dwarves were kicked out of their home into a diaspora and have finally returned, but by what right do they claim land where hundreds of generations of goblins and Morroval have lived and died?

Even worse, there doesn’t seem to be any common ground between the three factions that could broker any sort of structured solution. Of course while hopeful peacemakers attempted to do so, the Dwarves would continue to build and expand their illegal settlements in the Dolven-view and the Twenty-first Hall while the goblins and Morroval fight back with what weapons they have — stealth, surprise and terror. It’s an endless cycle of violence where killing begets killing that merely begets more killing.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it leads one to make a moral equivalence where there really isn’t any. Yes, each side has some historical validity to their claims but ultimately my sympathy goes to that side that ultimately carries itself with greater moral elevation despite the often tough choices that war can create. In such a case, my sympathies must ultimately lie with the Dwarves not because of what the Morroval or the goblins do to them, but because of what goblins and Morroval do to each other and the kind of culture they create for themselves. Goblin and Morroval culture is one of stark brutality where the strong dominate the weak through murder and fear and rule by force is the norm. They make a virtue of killing and death and under their care Khazad-dum — a land of grace, beauty and freedom literally carved from the unforgiving Earth — became “Moria,” the Elvish word for “Black Pit.” No, the Dwarves are hardly innocents but when choosing between the imperfect and those who consciously choose evil (no matter that some of their claims may be justified), I’ll take the imperfect every time.

Any similarity between Moria and a particular country in the Middle-east is purely coincidental, by the way.





Getting Carried Away in LotRO’s Hall of Mirrors

19 10 2009

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After a hiatus of about three months, I spent last Saturday night doing something I haven’t done in a while — playing The Lord of the Rings Online. Now I love that game and if I had all the time that some of my guildmates seem to, I’d have at least half a dozen 60s instead on one along with a level 27 Champion and a few alts all hovering around 20. MMOs are like relationships — you occasionally need to take a break to see other games. (Please don’t tell my wife I wrote that.) I actually made a good bit of progress on my epic quests, finishing the first half of Volume II and finally convincing someone to take a trip to the Mirror-halls, one of the new three-man instances.

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Here’s the thing about the Mirror-halls. I love a lot of the stuff that Turbine does with their instancing and dungeon runs. There’d nobody better at telling a story in an MMO through the medium of dungeon design. They’re also really good at making the environment a more interactive and interesting part of a dungeon run. It seems to me that the mirror-halls is one their biggest missteps in the game. The big challenge in the mirror-hall is to reclaim the place from the merrevail (evil female demons) that have taken up residence in the place by adjusting the huge rotating mirrors to once again bring light into the place. That means that players have to run around adjusting these huge mirrors while fighting against wargs and morroval who are trying to keep the place in darkness. The place is a huge puzzle and is incredibly confusing.

The problem is that this is the the one area I’ve seen where Turbine’s creativity really ran away with them. Considering that this is a three-man instance and such instances were created to be challenging as larger content without the need for the huge time investment or a ton of people, why on Earth would you then go create an instance where even if you know the pattern you’re going to spend a huge chunk of time running up and down through confusing corridors turning mirrors just so in order to get just everything right? Then after all that, you follow it up with a boss fight that’s just brutally hard? Come on guys! Pick one or the other. If players are going to invest the time in getting the puzzle completed, would a simple tank n’ spank boss fight be too much to ask? Conversely, if the challenge is the fight, don’t make us fight the landscape getting there as well. This may be just me but having both at the same time smack of the classic World of Warcraft 40-man raids where every step had to be choreographed to within an inch of it’s life.