Dehumanization in Games: Stop the Mindless Killing!

“Kill Ten Rats” is usually one of the first quests you get in games – in MMO’s, as far as I’ve ever noticed, it’s normally THE first.  However, that kind of a thing is present in regular old RPGs as well.  Dragon Warrior isn’t even missing it; instead of directly being told you have to kill a lot of slimes before you’re big enough to progress in the game, you learn it.  Occasionally reasoning is given for this behavior; “I need some meat for my soup; would you go get some from the alligator pens outside?  About ten, I think,” says the sweet old woman at the house where you wake up at the start of Nexus TK.   LOTRO usually gives overpopulation or pest-control as a reason (which led to me choosing one of my Wardens there to be a pest-control specialist).  These things eventually end up being “grinds”, when the Player has to kill far more than just ten of any one thing – and at that point there really isn’t much reason given except the old Dragon Warrior one:  you won’t reach the next level till you have enough experience.  By then, the NPCs of whatever kind have become nameless faces.  Easier to take out those, by far.  (If you don’t think that’s the case, ask any kid on a farm who’s ever named a piglet and then had to watch it slaughtered as an adult, for meat).  One of the major issues with this, though, is – well, they’re nameless faces.  Players learn to not think of the consequences, to not think in general.  “Kill ten rats” becomes synonomous with any creature – or person.  You end up committing genocide without really thinking about it, just to advance somewhere, to get an achievement, to get a cookie.

Generally, the reasoning behind this happening is with the developers’ not having time and/or budget to change the current flow of things.  Sit back for a second and think what it would be like if your favorite game were NOT at all like this.  Ok, I’ll consider one of my favorites:  So it’s a sunny day in Middle Earth.  You stretch and yawn at the Prancing Pony, where you’ve been staying; took a vacation from the harshness of wandering in the Old Forest collecting flowers.  Downstairs, you hear people alternatively groaning, shouting in anger, and freaking out; those bandits are at it again!  You, the constant Hero, grab a roll and go out to the gates where you find the guards looking grim.  “Got enough armor?”  they say.  “It’s not a good day for the faint of heart.”  You shrug; you’re FINE.  So, brashly, you go onward.  And… two minutes past the gate, you’re at the little bridge, when you hear cacophanous howling, and all of a sudden you’re swarmed by a band of brigands!  Ohh, yeah.  Player, meet Graveyard.  Pretty fast, you learn to be REALLY careful going out the West Gate of Bree.

Now, to be fair, LOTRO is one of the few MMO’s I’ve ever seen where they make at least some attempt at giving some personality, some life, some humanity, to the mobs around a person.  The scene I just described actually does happen at the town of Trestlebridge, some miles up the road from Bree in the North Downs.  It’s driven me nuts for the couple years I’ve played the game, but at the same time I like it, because it makes the environment more – well, lifelike.  So do the warbands that are to be found now at higher-level regions.  I can remember bemoaning the fate of my poor minstrel when he couldn’t leave Snowbourn without getting TWO bands, one on each side – and at the same time I thought “yup, that’s more realistic”.  Honestly, if you’re in a relatively hostile region, and Rohan definitely is one, then you shouldn’t expect enemies to ONLY be lurking around every corner – they’re going to attack your town every chance they get!  Destroy, set ablaze, pillage – all that stuff.

Does that make the situation better?  I think it’s a small step in the right direction.  It would slow the development AND the pace of the game down, if every single one of the brigands near Bree, the orcs near Trestlebridge, the trees in the Old Forest and the goblins in the Greenfields had names, said something different from the guy next to them, did different things.  That takes a ton of writing, I know – doing it myself, I know.  My husband has remarked that it takes less coding since you can do a lot of copy/paste for that; it’s the same code for a lot of stuff.  For a huge game like an MMO that’s rough, very rough.  How would you deal with this in an MMO?

Over in the land of the RPG, where as I mentioned, there’s still the dehumanization of people and creatures, what do we do then?  As a developer, I can only say it requires more – and better – writing.  As a gamer I say the same thing.  What do you say?  Thinking of your favorite RPG, what would you do?  I love Trine.  Oh, those skeletons are a pain in the ass.  This is a small example, but – what if they spoke to you?  That’d be bizarre.  Slow down the game.  It’s a lovely game.  I honestly have little issue at all with it, but yeah the skeleton are nameless and faceless, aren’t they?  So you’re supposed to kill them.  Logically; after all, they’re trying to kill you.  I’m not saying every enemy needs to be given presents and flowers.  I’m saying the dehumanization needs to be rethought.

Now, I should point out that as a writer of fantasy and sf, yeah you generally do give SOMETHING to the other things in the room to do/say.  Even if it’s something as simple as “there were jeers, some people laughed, Horta Jorgensson fell off his chair howling, and even the mutt by the fire seemed to chuckle.”  Nobody’s got a name except Horta, and yet the reader has a pretty good idea of what’s going on, and a better feel for the room than if I’d just written, “People had differing reactions to the joke.”   So, well my own take on the issue is somewhat skewed toward, “Why NOT have every different mob have a different name/action?  They’re not all the same creature.”   No.  Unless some Dark Lord went and cloned a goblin, they aren’t.  Hell, even then Tolkien did not have all orcs and all goblins acting the same way.

Moving back over to game development, I can see how doing things in exactly the same way as I would in writing would cause some issues here.  I have a story called “Harpy”, for instance.  Every harpy in there has a name or at least does something different.  The reader doesn’t even know the name of the elf who appears in it, but he’s still memorable because I’ve had him do something.  So what if I translate that into a game format?  The story’s small enough that I could probably pull it off with almost exactly the same wording.  But if it were larger, there might be an issue.  It would take longer.  It would make the writing of the game more complex – believe me, if you’ve never tried this:).  Is this a bad thing?  No, I actually don’t think so.  You know who would?  Players hungry for the next xpac of Wow, partners who want to make a return on their investment, media who will mercilessly go after a game that’s taking “forever” to complete.  I personally still think it’s worth it, but then again I’m writing-minded.  Do you?

Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about that stuff.  Nobody’s breathing down my neck except me – and wow is that enough!  The point is though, I have the freedom to fool around and try new techniques, dream bigger than my britches.  (And, well, locate and point out the flaws in other games…)  Oh yes, I’ve thought on the issue of dehumanization and how to NOT do it, myself.  I’ve come up with a few things, not to disappoint!  Hopefully they’ll be refined by the time I’m writing in 2D, 3D and co-op:

1)Player’s home – or someone else’s – is full of rats/bugs/snakes/etc, given option:  poison, no-kill trap, relocate.

2)enemy mobs around:  arrest, talk with them, diplomacy.

3)make sure that mobs have differing speech/actions/reactions

4)give achievements for dealing with enemies in DIFFERENT ways – not “use staff-swipe 300 times” vs “use stun 300 times”, but “use no-kill traps 20 times” vs “use relocate 20 times”.

5)have books around towns/cities that talk about different peoples/creatures (so not ONLY about your own kind, or about “the horror when the Kordors attacked”, but something about “the history of the great Kordor Empire”).

What would you add to this list if you could?

GW2 is an example of a game that’s been trying to change the mold for two years – sheesh, it’s been that long.  They do an excellent job of writing Living World stuff, an ok one of quest-writing and achievement-creation.  Unfortunately they do still apply to the old “kill ten rats” dehumanization business.  The one area where they did do something like what I was talking about above is where you can’t port in to towns sometimes because they’re “contested”.  It means they’re under attack.  And, you won’t be able to port in, either, till that attack is put down.  As a writer/designer, I LOVE that.  As a gamer – well, it makes things frustrating at times.  No, you can’t please everyone all the time, it’s true.  Hell, my favorite game LOTRO is the one I gave as a big example here – GW2 and Terraria are close seconds these days, and BOTH of them have it (in Terraria‘s case, it’s armies of undead things like zombies, vampires, snowmen, skeletons, and demons). Perhaps someday the writers over there will overhaul it a little so that things are a little more lifelike.

What would you do to an MMO to change this?  What would you do to an RPG?


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5 Responses to Dehumanization in Games: Stop the Mindless Killing!

  1. tsuhelm says:

    I always liked the old pen n paper encounter roll> with obviouse monsters attack being the most normal but other weird stuff possible, talkative goblin, friendly goblin, mad goblin, goblin runs away…why does EVER mob in LOTRO behave identically!

    I dream of a an AI being developed for each mob and has postulated the idea of an MMO where each player has a guiding AI games- master who will spice up conversations and encounters but also keep the content consistent and will reinforce that NPC’s are not nameless and have personalities…

    eg. Oh you need another ten rats killing_ What you doing with them, selling them in your famous meat pastries…? Er wait a minute…!

    And lets to do away with NPC’s living the same boring live, how unlikely is it 3 years into a game an NPC is still sat day and night waiting for someone to find a lost ring…which by the way you had found at least two times before…

    • catchersrule says:

      The idea of a separate AI for each monster is an amazing one – I can’t conceive of how to do it but hope someone will figure this one out, because it sounds neat!

      Yeah, NPC’s should really be doing different things when the Player goes near them again – must look into that one. (Because that, my poor little brain CAN figure out how to do:)).

      Maybe the TESO people should have made an NPC for various towns who has a sweetroll-selling racket and bugs players to buy into his stock…

  2. Valourbörn says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with this post–I would love to see dehumanization end in games, and yet I would pity the developers who would then have to write out a crap load of extra dialogue and actions and whathaveyou. I’m sure there’s a compromise, and it just needs bold people like you to lead the movement 🙂

    I’m glad you mentioned GW2 though–they’re not perfect, but they’ve certainly started in the right direction. It’s nice when even the developers admit that they don’t find it remotely interesting to be given a quest to go kill ten rats.

    One thing I like (along the lines of what tsuhelm was saying above me) is the possibilities in a tabletop game like Dungeons & Dragons. Being the dungeon master, I love to reward my group for finding non-violent ways to dispatch potential foes (gold, allies, information), as well as to have an NPC act in a way they won’t expect. It’s way more fun that way.

    • catchersrule says:

      Yes, I love GW2 for what they’ve tried – and are still trying!

      You are right, it takes a LOT of extra writing to actually give characters in a game – as it does in a story – life. At the same time, I personally think it’s worth it.

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