2012/10/02

Saving the Status Quo: Video Games Against Change

Introduction

Save the kingdom, the world, or the universe. Heroes in general are keepers of life: they protect our way of living as it was before something bad happened . Their video game colleagues are no exception. But sometimes players are given choice: return the world to its former state or take the power in your hands and change the society. I want to explore how video games communicate these choices and how they interpret them. I will use cases of popular video game titles with these themes and analyze whether they promote change or status quo. Unfortunately, the core of my analysis will be based on the actual endings of games, therefore containing many SPOILERS. You have been warned, now let's delve deeper.

Mass Effect Spoiler Alert by StellarStateLogic.
Myths versus Video Games

I am deliberately skipping all theory connected to change and status quo to keep this article brief. We can agree that myths and folklore were a great socializing instrument that taught new members of society what is right and wrong (Miller 1994). It is quite logical that these stories were promoting status quo. Change was seen as dangerous and with uncertain outcomes. Knights were saving kingdoms and keeping the traditions by their marriages with young princesses. But video games are a different genre of expressive medium, quite often they give us choices. But those choices are not presented as equal, some are seen as good, others as evil. Are video games conservative or revolutionary?

Baldur's Gate Bhaalspawn Saga

Let's skip all the games that do not offer player any choices regarding the status quo and start with the legendary Baldur's Gate Bhaalspawn Saga. Bhaalspawn Saga is a massive video game experience spanning hundreds of hours and consisting of two main games and two expansions. We will talk about the final ending from Throne of Bhaal. The epic conclusion offers three different end sequences. Main protagonist can either become a good god entity, or an evil one depending on player choices made throughout the Throne of Bhaal expansion, lastly he can surrender his godly essence and spend the rest of his life as a mortal human (elf, halfling...) with his companions.

In practice, after the last battle, the player is presented with two choices: a) become a god, b) destroy the power and become mortal. Solar, the creature presenting the choices, and hero's companions will express their feelings about those choices. This is the first source of developer's influence on which ending is seen as good and which as evil.

Taking the power is preferred by companions with evil alignments. For example, Korgan Bloodaxe, vicious, bloodthirsty and greedy berserker says: "Take yer power... ye fought for it hard an' well enough, there be no need to give it up and no-one worth givin' it up for." Viconia DeVir, cruel drow priestess, states: "If power exists, it exists to be taken. To do otherwise is to show weakness and invite death."

Throne of Bhaal by Jaxsbudgie.
On the other hand, good companions are more reluctant to take the power while still aware of the possibilities that come with being a god. Imoen, rebellious and chaotic good mage/thief, is lured by new horizons available with such power: "But who wouldn't want to see the planes." At the same time, she is apparently sad when thinking about hero's departure to become a god. Valygar Corthala, just ranger with family issues, warns the hero of following Bhaal's legacy: "Make your own destiny would be my advice... do not rest in your sire's shadow."  Finally, Solar praises the protagonist for choosing to abandon his godly essence ("You have done well, and freedom shall be your reward.") , but is also satisfied when he becomes a good god as opposed to being disgusted when he becomes an evil one.

The second source of our analysis is hidden in three different voiceovers and music scores which describe the consequences of each choice.

Mortal ending uses a popular music theme from the game series with both adventurous and nostalgic tones. Hero's impact on the Forgotten Realms is described as: "Your life may be mortal, your time now finite, but the mark you have left upon the Realms will endure."

Good ending is accompanied by a celebrating and quite majestic music theme. Hero's deeds are seen as: "Tales of your life shall inspire and guide, while servants of darkness will flee your wrath. It is a legacy that will forever change the face of the Realms."

Evil ending uses a dark, ominous music theme. Hero's influence on the world is more apparent: "You are the Bhaal-spawn, Lord of Murder, and the mark you have carved upon the Realms shall never fade."

There are only small differences between the voiceovers concerning the status quo, all of them admit some kind change. The evil ending uses the strongest expression (to carve), followed by the good ending (to change the face) and the mortal ending (to leave a mark). The mortal ending is clearly the most pro status quo ending available. At the same time, it has, in my opinion, also the biggest number of positive elements: hero gains his freedom, stays with his companions and love interest (if he has one), he breaks free of his destiny and still manages to change the Realms for the better, at least a little. Therefore it seems that developers are favoring the most status quo ending, although not as much as we may have presumed. As much as the mortal ending refuses the godly power, it still alters the status quo. Good ending is also a very good choice in the eyes of the game. The biggest potential to change (connected to killing: we may consider life to death the most powerful change) is seen as evil and illustrated by words like tyranny, desire or guile. 

Mass Effect Trilogy

Control ending by StellarStateLogic.
In Bhaalspawn Saga we only had to work with the fiction (Juul 2005) of the game, Mass Effect also employs the rules during the ending. Some choices are only available if you play the game "successfully", also the outcome of a choice can slightly vary depending on the same factor (effective military strength). Without going further into detail, there is a hierarchy among the four endings based on player's level of effective military stength (the complete EMS chart can be found on Mass Effect Wiki). The fiction of Mass Effect 3 encourages the player to achieve the highest EMS possible: Commander Shepard is saving the Galaxy and needs all the help he can get to succeed. Therefore we can assume that to achieve the best ending from the developer's perspective, the player would need the highest EMS possible. In other words, the ending, which requires the highest EMS, is the best one available. From a quick look at the chart, we can see that this ending is called Destroy.

Destroy ending is the only pro-status quo choice of all posible endings, because it technically reverts the situation to the moment before something bad happened - in this case before the appearance of the Reapers. Destroy ending eradicates all the Reapers along with all existing artificial intelligence. This can be seen as a slight change to former status quo, but it is quite irrelevant because of its temporal effects. Artificial intelligence can be created again. This fact is also one of the main arguments why Catalyst discourages the destroy ending. Not only is destroy ending (in its best version) the most difficult ending to achieve, it is also the only one which leaves Commander Shepard alive.

The second most difficult ending is the synthesis ending which brings the biggest change to the Galaxy. Organic and synthetic life is merged, therefore creating a new synthesized DNA. The Catalyst describes this option as "the pinnacle of evolution", clearly communicating that sythesis ending is indeed revolutionary. The other two endings (control and refuse) contain some change elements, but not as big and crucial as the synthesis ending.

While synthesis may be the second most difficult ending to achieve, the fiction (the narrative) discourages the player from choosing it (e.g. it is the Catalyst's favorite option, its effect is forced on every organic and synthetic being, therefore against Shepard's principles). Without much hesitation, we can proclaim the destroy ending as the preffered one. Therefore it is quite safe to say that developers of Mass Effect trilogy are promoting status quo.    

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2

Devil survivors by annako.
Devil Survivor 2 is a Japanese RPG centered around a group of young survivors of a demonic apocalypse. Their main goal is to do something about the world which quickly descends into chaos. After one week, in which the main hero builds new allegiances and fights demons, player has to decide the fate of the world. There are five endings in total with some slight additional variations. Compared to Baldur's Gate and Mass Effect, choices in Devil Survivor 2 are not only differentiated by fiction and difficulty, but also by achievements (so-called titles in this case). From a quick look at the list of titles, we can see that all endings are worth the same amount of points, but only two of them allow the player to score the bonus title Triumphant (despite what is said on the wiki, players also reported unlocking this achievement in Liberator ending). Using a meta-gaming viewpoint, Restorer and Liberator are clearly the best two endings.

Let's now take a look at how Devil Survivor 2 endings work with status quo. Meritorious and Egalitarian endings represent theoretical models of society - while the first one is based on the survival of the fittest, the second prefers much more caring society. Both of them would change the world in a significant way, but it seems the developers discourage player from choosing them. Their epilogues are in fact questioning these two choices.

Meritoriuos: "Polaris' (note: overseer of human race) power reformed man's consciousness and a new world order dawned. All disparities arising from wealth and breeding were eliminated... Only one's performance as an individual will prove one's worth as a member of society. Power... Knowledge... Reason... Those who survived live by marshaling their talents to the fullest. And of course... Yamato and his retinue continue to reign supreme above all." 

Egalitarian: "Polaris' power reformed man's consciousness and a new world order dawned. Considerateness reigned supreme and men dedicated their lives to each other. It was a true utopia, the sort men had dreamed for ages. Can man maintain is prosperity without a competitive spirit and a drive to excel? All that's certain is that the future is in the hands of Ronaldo Kuriki and his friends." 

Kingmaker ending is a pro-status quo ending very similar to Restorer. The only real change is that there is now a new being overseeing human race, perhaps more understanding and benevolent. Restorer is the most pro-status quo ending that the developers could even come with. Everything is back to normal and everyone is happily living their ordinary life: "Will the history repeat itself? Let's survive." If the player is able to achieve the Triumphant variant of Restorer ending, the situation will look even brighter: "You don't need these (note: demon summoning) services anymore. Good luck." There is also a cutscene showing how each of your friends is now living much better life than before the events of the game. While this can be certainly seen as a change, it is quite trivial when compared to the scope of the whole "establish a new world order" theme.

The last option (Liberator) is a kind of a let down ending. While the main protagonist frees people of any supernatural control, the whole civilization lies in ruin and the vast majority of all continents is transformed into an ocean. Future does not look bright: "The world's administrator has perished. Mankind has won true freedom. Those who survived are left with what remains of the world and a vast sea that spreads beyond it. Mankind has no means to heal this deep scar, left as the cost of freedom. But, even so... the world goes on... in the hands of indomitable champions. You are free from control, but also from protection." The price of freedom is deemed too high. In this case, good intentions do not lead to a good end. Liberator means a major change for the world - the main hero literally overthrows a god. But we can argue what role Polaris actually played in the society, whether he was influencing the structure of society or just waiting to eradicate the human race.

Devil Survivor 2 offers a lot of interesting choices, but in the end the pro-status quo Restorer choice is depicted as the most satisfying ending. The most radical alterations to status quo (Meritorious and Egalitarian) are discouraged through the whole fiction, both extremes are represented by authoritative radicals who would easily kill for their ideals. 

Discussion
  
While the chosen games are by no means representative of the whole videogame culture, they paint quite a surprising picture about video games' relation to the status quo. All three analyzed games associate the good ending with keeping, or more precisely saving, the status quo. These games are exhibiting so-called status quo bias: "In choosing among alternatives individuals display a bias toward sticking with the status quo."(Samuelson, Zeckhauser 1988: 47) While games are often criticized for their supposedly harmful effect on players (especially children), they can be, and in fact some of them are, a socializing tool promoting conservative pro-status quo values. In this aspect, they are behaving quite like myths or fairy tales. On the other hand, players are not mindless puppets, they do not have to accept these values, they may not even identify them while playing or they can interpret the endings in an entirely different way.

Note: In my analysis, I also wanted to show which instruments can be employed by developers to create a notion of a good (or the best) ending: a) the fiction, b) the rules, c) the meta-gaiming. Of course, developers can also canonize their preferred ending when making sequels or expanding the transmedia storytelling, further strenghtening its position. 

References:

Atlus (2012). Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2. Atlus: Nintendo DS.

BioWare (2001). Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal. Interplay: PC.

BioWare (2012). Mass Effect 3. EA: PC, PS3, XBOX 360.

Juul, Jesper (2005). Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Miller, Peggy J. (1994). Narrative Practices: Their Role in Socialization and Self-Construction. In: Neisser, Ulric; Fivush, Robyn (Eds.). The Remembering Self: Construction and Accuracy in the Self-Narrative. Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Samuelson, William; Zeckhauser, Richard (1988). Status Quo Bias in Decision Making. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 1: 7-59. Kluwer Academic Publishers: Boston. Retrieved 2012-09-30 [online] http://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/rzeckhau/SQBDM.pdf.

Fan art:

annako (2012). Devil Survivor 2: Together We Stand. devinatArt.com. Retrieved 2012-09-30 [online] http://annako.deviantart.com/art/Devil-Survivor-2-Together-We-Stand-303632316.

Jaxsbudgie (2010). Throne of Bhaal. devinatArt.com. Retrieved 2012-09-30 [online] http://jaxsbudgie.deviantart.com/art/Throne-of-Bhaal-173378674.

StellarStateLogic (2012). The Reaper War (Asari Artstyle - Synthesis Ending). devinatArt.com. Retrieved 2012-09-30 [online] http://stellarstatelogic.deviantart.com/art/The-Reaper-War-Asari-Artstyle-Synthesis-Ending-294509707.

StellarStateLogic (2012). The Reaper War (Quarian Artstyle - Control Ending). devinatArt.com. Retrieved 2012-09-30 [online] http://stellarstatelogic.deviantart.com/art/The-Reaper-War-Quarian-Artstyle-Control-Ending-294112211.

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