Thursday, 31 May 2018

About orcs, maybe.


Here are some thoughts about Emmy Allen's post about orcs. It has nothing to do with any of certain worlds or game content itself and it is probably moralizing as well. I thought about posting it in any of two actually relevant threads but I think I now officially chickened out on this.

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However I might object to the idea of violence, I cannot deny that violence in games (both video and tabletop) can and often does feel good. When I pressed shoot button in the original 'Doom' for the first time in my life and saw the just-menacing opponent reduced to a splatter, it felt pretty good and it still does. I think such action and following victory triggers something in hunter part of hunter-gatherer part of the brain, something that humans are probably hard-wired to feel, especially when they are allowed, by the rules of the game, to win.

Videogames especially often provide violence as both feel-good and time-effort optimal way to solve problems. Partially it is because of the limitations – it is much easier to create a good shooter/slasher than a complex nuanced world, and with the latter sooner or later it is going to feel fake anyway as it hits its programmed limits. In addition, the violence in video games is almost always consequence-free – to my memory, only three recent games (Spec Ops The Line, This War of Mine and Metal Gear Revengeance) tried to do anything with how consequence-free the game violence is, however small the effort was in the last case. In the absence of any meaningful consequences, the violence often is the quickest, the optimal and the most satisfactory way to solve the conflict, challenge, hostile situations, any kind of obstacle. In addition, in games with any gunplay and swordplay these aspects are intentionally designed to look spectacular, be engaging, 'have weight', have visuals and sound feedback satisfactory to the player to participate in acts of combat; also the player character often has no other abilities but to combat and to combat-support, sometimes they cannot even talk.

In such games I don't feel guilt playing within the extremely narrow limits using extremely limited tools the game provides because I literally cannot do anything else aside of turning the game off. Framing of the violence as heroic or unavoidable (as it is in so many videogames) helps but even if the actions of my character eventually presented as villainous what options do I have aside of not playing a game? Can I spare faceless soldiers in Metal Gear Revengeance after I hear their scared thoughts? I want to but I can't. If there was a bloodless stealth option after that scene I would use it but there wasn't one so I kept on slicing.

In tabletops the combat is much abstract, without visual/audible/quick button input component, it is slow and doesn't have the same flow of quick situation-reaction challenges as good videogame does; the biggest gameplay satisfactory feedback is probably rolling a handful more dice on criticals, seeing DM's face when you tell them your damage modifier or hearing the cheer or awe from other players at the table. In addition, GM, having no limitations of a computer, can come with any tonal or setting consequences for excessive violence they wish.

But it is still a feel-good feeling to dominate the situation in quickest and most finite way. This satisfaction in games is something that real life almost never gives us in any way, as there are always consequences and there are always compromises and we rarely have so utterly an upper hand that the problem is not solved but erased. Real life provides especially heavy negative consequences for the violence, while a game very often only rewards it.

I think this is where Always Evil opponents in tabletops come from. Acceptable baddies to feel good exterminating without a thought in addition to more nuanced freedom that the tabletop game can provide through live DM without computer limitations. And the more human-like these enemies are, I believe, the more satisfactory is the hard-wired feeling of victory over them evokes. Defeating demonic pile of tentacles and solar lenses is more when it also has a recognizably human face that can understandably express pain of defeat on top of it.

But because tabletop games are guided by actual humans and have much more freedom in them, it always feels somewhat fake to me when there are a lot of consequences-free violence in the world more fully realized than in videogame. Like this is a part of a videogame with its very limited tools and very narrow constrains grafted into otherwise alive and realized world that is tabletop setting. 

But violence in games often feels good. Its absence or when it is complicated by real-like consequences can diminish this feeling of feeling good. And people are coming to games mostly to feel good.

The first ever setting I created had no intentional violence, but people didn't want to play it as it was boring to them. The second setting had no Always Evil targets, not even as demons, and people didn't feel good on weekend nights they came to have fun. I think unless people intentionally agree to abstain from violence or at least from the violence as the best/first/quickest tool to solve the challenge (as in Ryuutama or games with especially lethal combat/RL-like consequences), acceptable targets are assumed to be somewhere in the world by default to give the sense of satisfactory victory.

This said, I am happy that orcs are becoming less Always Evil fodder and are given more space to be people instead, however messed they are right now as people. I saw a notion that orcs should be unhumanized back into some un-understandable eldritch monstrosity, but I think ever since Tolkien it was already too late for this because even in his works orcs had humanly understandable looks, behaviour, ambitions, thoughts and memories; they already were people in everything but their designated role in the story. That Always Evil orcs in particular are almost always un-beautiful and mostly dark-skinned humanoids that are portrayed as incurably aggressive and non-variations evil doesn't sit well with me for a number for different reasons as well so I can only welcome the notion of them as more complex people, however yet messed up.

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