Good Player vs Good Character …

So, the next video I’m going to look at from Extra Creditz is this one about Nier: Automata and how it promotes kindness through sacrifice. My title, though, is aimed at the fact that Extra Creditz doesn’t seem to separate the character and actions taken by the character from the player and actions taken by the player. They chide most games for, they say, making the player feel like they are good people through things like goodness meters and quests to help people, but since this doesn’t require sacrifice from the player it’s hollow. It’s easy to be good, they argue, if it doesn’t cost you anything and might get you XP, money, extra quests or extra enjoyable encounters if you do it. They then say that NieR Automata pulls off what they call a good way to do that. I’m going to talk about the spoilers they gave in that game — I haven’t played it — and so I’ll put the rest below the fold:

So at the end, in NieR Automata, if you hit the final boss and die, you can see messages of encouragement from other players who have managed to beat the game. If you die enough times, you will eventually get an option to have other players who have finished the game help you beat the final boss. Once you manage to beat the game, you find out how that system works, as the game lets you leave a message for other players and then asks if you want to let your character become one of those that can help out players who are stuck on the final boss. But there’s a catch. Doing so deletes all of your save games and character information, and so you essentially lose that character and everything you earned with the character, and thus everything that you spent so much time earning in the game. If you want it back, you have to start over from scratch. They consider this to generate real empathy and, if you choose this, to be you doing something that is truly good because you had to sacrifice something to actually help those people.

The issue with all of this, though, is the fact that the game is trying to judge the player as to whether they are good or not, and it’s really hard to judge the goodness of the player as opposed to the character because player motivations vary far more than character motivations do. For example, in examining the Paragade system in Mass Effect, Shamus Young talked about one specific set of choices:

One of my favorite illustrations of this problem is here on Virmire. The Salarians are going to attack Saren’s base head-on to create a diversion, while you sneak in the back. It’s basically a suicide mission for them. During your ingress, you run into several opportunities to make life easier or harder for the Salarians out front. You can destroy the Geth communications array. You can ground their air units. You can set off various alarms to make the enemy move into a different position. Each of these actions will allow you to fight more foes so your allies can fight less.

The paragon / renegade points are awarded under the assumption that taking more heat on yourself is altruistic and paragon-ish, and easing your way by dumping more foes on your allies is the renegade thing to do.

Let’s ignore that fact that some of these actions (like blowing up the communications array) can easily happen by accident in a firefight, without you even realizing you’d done something other than shoot some robots. What’s funny about this situation is when I tried playing through this section as a renegade. I wanted to fight as many Geth as possible, because they’re filled with lovely delicious XP that will level me up and let me kick more ass. The game assumed that I was killing these Geth because I wanted to help my allies, but in reality I was motivated by simple videogame bloodlust. Helping your allies is undeniably the optimal thing to do, so you kind of have to screw yourself here if you’re fishing for renegade points.

The thing is, the Paragade system is supposed to judge the character’s goodness, and not the player’s. It’s not really reasonable for Shamus to chide the game for not taking his particular OOC take on the game into account, at least in part because those vary far more than they do for characters. They can also be monumentally shallow, as he demonstrates when he talks about how clearing out all the areas gives him more XP and levels. A player playing a game OOC might choose every “good” option simply because doing so gives them more XP or access to better powers or the powers they like the best … or they might choose every “evil” option for the same reason. Or a mix of the two. And we saw this in the Knights of the Old Republic games, especially the first one, because there were strong mechanical reasons for going completely to one side, either Light or Dark, as you got a special ability and if you wanted to use the abilities of that alignment not being fully Light or Dark meant that those powers cost you more Force Points to use, which meant that you couldn’t use Force Powers as much if you were not fully aligned to that side. So players were mechanically inclined to pick one side and always act according to what that side did, but that in no way implied that the players themselves were good or bad. They were just playing the game.

And yet, the Knights of the Old Republic games also tried to present these choices as actual character choices, which defined whether the character you were playing was good or bad. So, a player might go full-on brute because they’re playing a character that’s a brute. Or they might play as a total Jedi paragon. Or anything in between. And this carried over to The Old Republic, where you could have essentially fallen Jedi or light-oriented Sith. But other than some minor mechanical advantages, for the most part the reasons to act this way are entirely because that’s the sort of character you’re playing. It says nothing about the player to look at how that character acts. In the Knights of the Old Republic games, I have habitually played both light and dark side characters, one right after the other. Looking at either one of them to determine whether or not I’m good or not is laughably wrong.

So, those quests that they talk about, in general, are aimed at the character, not at the player. The gold the player sacrifices may not matter much to them in the long run, but if done at the right time it matters to the character. As should pretty much all actions in the world that provide a moral choice. The game shouldn’t be asking the player to make a moral choice, but should be asking the player to make a moral choice on the behalf of the character.

And NieR Automata’s choice fits into this, because the video and game make some assumptions about why people might make the choices they do. If we presume that there are some things that would be easier for a player on replaying the game if they keep their save files, if you have a player who really, really wants to replay the game then losing their save files would be a huge sacrifice that they simply cannot make. But does that make them a bad person? Would it make them a worse person than a player who is never going to play the game again and doesn’t care at all about the trophies that are lost? Would it make them a worse person than a player who is eagerly looking forward to doing all of those quests and other things again on their second playthrough and sees this as a chance to get at least some sort of immortality until their character helps another player and dies doing it? For the game, or even for Extra Creditz, to judge the “goodness” of the player here requires them to know and judge those player’s motivations, which vary widely. Also, they’re talking about a game here, something that people do for fun. A player may not be that anxious to ruin their fun entirely to allow another player to have a bit more fun, and there isn’t really anything wrong with that. Expecting players to sacrifice their fun just for the fun of others in something that is just for fun seems to be overly demanding.

Games should not be judging how good or bad players are, because most of the time the player’s motivations are not really relevant to morality, and vary too much for a proper judgement. Encouraging games to do that, as they do here, is encouraging games to do things that they will get wrong a lot of the time, and that will annoy players when they do get it wrong. This isn’t something that games need or should be doing.


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