Thursday, November 1, 2012

Part 2 of Game Politics - Choosing sides

at 3:11 PM
I'm gonna take a little break from covering XCOM. It's getting monotonous for me, so I know it must be for everyone else. What better time to revisit my discussion of games focusing on political strife.

So last time we learned how dysfunctional the notion of Kingdom Versus Empire is. Beyond the void of historical basis; Kingdom Versus Kingdom, Nation Versus Nation, and Faction Versus Faction don't work either. Fictional political conflicts are very weak subject material - in my opinion, altogether, but for the sake of this post, specifically in games. Something games rely upon more than other media is making the player feel like they (through their in-game avatar) are acting for a purpose, that they're doing the right thing or at least know why they're doing what they're doing. That's the role-playing aspect of RPGs (contrary to popular belief, which holds that "role-playing" means score). Political motivation in real life is a plenty complex issue and difficult enough to inspire; doing it in a fictional realm is a near insurmountable challenge.
I'm going to pull a new example for this discussion: the Assassin's Creed series. Assassin's Creed III (about the sixth game in the series) debuted this week with its take on the Ammy Revolution, the birth of This World's First Free Nation (TM). I've yet to play, so let me tell you a little about Creed II. The game is set in Renaissance Italy, the 16th century or so, a time at which the region was dominated by independent city states. Readers of Machiavelli's science fiction diatribe, The Prince, will be familiar with this setting (Machia-V himself even makes an appearance in-game, as a time-traveler with lazer-hair). Ruling families and the church establishment duked it out for power on an almost continual basis. The ongoing Assassin's Creed epic, an eternal battle between two secretive societies known as the Assassins and the Knights Templar (think Freemasons), fits naturally onto this backdrop. The Assassins (that's the protagonists' side) run with certain historical families like the de Medicis, while the Templar are represented primarily by the Borgia (papacy).

A common means of making the player feel like he's joined the right side ("right" as in fitting - right for a hero would be good/just and right for a villain is something else) is to tie a personal goal of the character to a political faction - he needs to help X force in exchange for Y. Assassin's Creed II uses this approach; the protagonist's father is killed by the Templar, so he joins forces with the Asses to get revenge. He also learns his father and uncle are also secret Asses, and his teenage rival is the son of a Templar.

Well that's all real fucking convenient, huh?! This... is bad. Family ties and vengeance are emotionally oriented goals, no invigorating for the player than "go rescue a princess". There's no justice or heroism, no curiosity, nothing to make the player feel any shared stake in the conflict.

Worse yet, it trivializes your involvement in the overarching strife, dissociating the personal conflict from the political one to create an unfortunate dichotomy. I'm not saying two plot-lines is an unfeasible goal, I'm saying having one propped up entirely by the second makes it feel like fluff. Even if he does manage to empathize with the snobbish, prissy Ezio (no one should (oh I should note I mean Ezio the character, not the blogger here)), the player will be motivated by vengeance and familial dedication. A bunch of murders with political motives don't really fall within that justification.

Okay, so providing a personal attachment isn't good enough to make the player feel righteous in his shared struggle. You have to draw him in with the talking points as well. This is where Creed II falls so flat on its face that its brain explodes. From everything I can gather, the Asses' (remember, played by the Medicis) only goal is to kill Templars (Borgia), because the Templars killed some Asses, because the Asses killed some Templars before that, and so on. As X once said, "both sides are 'right', and both sides murder". There's also something about apples, like they both really like apples, but again it's the same on both sides. So really, the whole conflict feels fucked. Kind of pretty common for wars, oh well.

Then again, not all people think wars are bad. Some are Republicans or work for the military-industrial complex.
I most certainly did not make this image
HEY LOOK I JUST PISSED SOMEONE OFF A WHOLE BUNCH BY CHOOSING A SIDE! DID YOU SEE HOW THAT ILLUSTRATES MY POINT?! Next time I'm actually going to talk about some of the political subject matter used to get you fighting for a cause, in a feature I'm tentatively calling, "Part 3 of Game Politics".


  1. So you're saying war is bad so players shouldn't be motivated to play a game where the avatar is on one side? I really can't, in any way, figure how the unbelievably broad category of political strife is weak subject material for games...I guess I could think through an argument about how its just about the most compelling thing that involves violence, because well the only other thing that involves violence that doesn't sit one of the sub-categories of political conflict you name, that I can think of as a subject for games, is the personal revenge narrative. AC 3 uses both, and maybe its contrived, but I don't really get what you prefer. To put it simply, two secret societies battling it out over history is pretty badass and I don't think its all that hard to be "motivated" by it.

    1. No, I'm saying that war doesn't have inherently good and bad guys, so if you're going to give a balanced conflict, you can't just drop the player on one side and expect them to identify with that one because that's what Ezio was born as.

      Throughout Assassin's Creed I found myself constantly wondering why I wasn't a Templar, or for that matter, why I was on either side at all. If the game was set in 2012, you don't honestly think tons of players would have a huge problem with the Assassins being Democrats and the Templars being Republicans?

      I don't necessarily object to the use of political strife as part or the focus of the narrative, I object to the notion that the player has to be on a side (be it one chosen by him or chosen by the game).

  2. Another thought that perhaps calls for some examination: how much does the player need to be motivated versus simply understanding that the avatar is motivated and acting accordingly? An extreme illustration of this would be any game where you play the villain for part of whole...

    1. Well as I said, I was using an example of a good guy archetype. Or wait, damnit, did I edit that out? That post was in draft state for weeks so I may have.

      Anyway the point was that the "right" side is the one that fits the character or the personality that the player is going for. So a villain of course would need a side that fits his motives, so that the player can identify with the conflict from his side.

  3. If I didn't have to write a paper on actual political philosophy right now I'd write up a post. Maybe I'll just post my paper.