Friday, April 29, 2011

Derrida and a fair conversation system

Not to throw names around but, hey, I know some pretty cool guys. Guys like Derrida, Barthes and Foucault. We're best buds. It might help that they're all dead, and can't disagree, but I like to think we've progressed beyond that.

The Communications Design course I teach has recently been re-routed to the wonderland of semiotics. It's been a learning experience, to be sure, the least of which was uncovering the correct pronunciation for synecdoche, and one of the greatest of which was researching Derrida's ides on binaries. I'm only about 40 years behind modern thought, I know, but it got me to wondering - if the human brain is wired in terms of opposites, is that why so much neutral dialogue sucks?

In D&D, the hardest characters to play are True Neutral. What does a True Neutral character want? Probably nothing. Don't ever play a True Neutral Monk, because you will lose all of your powers. Chaotic Neutral, yeah, or Lawful Neutral, sure. Those are fine. But True Neutral? I've never met anyone who can actually tell me what that means. Someone once described them as Vulcans. The thing is, we have an inherent problem with Vulcans, and it's one that come up time and time again in the original Star Trek - they're 'bad' when compared to our human emotional 'good'.

Somewhat ironically its this capacity to lack emotion that would save Vulcans from giant space catastrophes. You can bet in their horror movies the girl who sprains her ankle gets killed because the others calculate the odds and run away. We see that as cold and unfeeling. We see that as bad. How can we write from that point of view?

Only in Fallout 3 have I ever been allowed to play a neutral character. In games like Mass Effect, playing neutral means you wind up in more battles, because you have neither Charm nor Intimidate. It matters less in Dragon Age, because your companions will choose to approve or disapprove as they will, but taking the neutral route usually results in no one really noticing. Kill a few babies and Morrigan loves you; save a few burning orphans and Alistair's on your side. Set a few babies on fire then put them out and neither of them will be happy with you.

Fable is just as guilty of this, as are myriad others. It seems to me that being a neutral character in one of these games is like being the quiet achiever in class. No one notices you, and you might not get any help, but you don't get in trouble, either. Where does that leave us?

Would a game that forces you to be neutral be possible, or even worthwhile? From what I've heard, Fate of the World may be headed in that direction. If we take with us the idea that there is no right answer, what does that mean for the current state of in-game dialogue? There usually seems to be an optimal path. Should there be? Should any one dialogue path be privileged over any other, simply because that's the way you're intended to play? How many binaries are at work here, and how many can we counteract?

Why are games still teaching us moral values when we're not children anymore?