Friday 2 October 2009

Review: Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords: Chapters 1 & 2 for the iPhone

It was the word cull that finally made me balk. The sallow humans who needed me to thin the numbers of goblins in the nearby forest: sunken eyed and dark-lipped as if inbred with their ghoulish neighbours to the south. They wanted the goblins dead, but phrased the process in terms of clinical population management. The same goblin race that I was trading with across the mountains were here no more than cattle or game overrunning it's permitted habitat.

Sure, I killed a few. But the word echoed in my head as I butchered the first three: burnt flesh and blood on my hands (and boots, and hair and everywhere else that the clubbing blows I inflicted sprayed their arterial viscera). And I stopped. Not because of any moral code but mere distaste for the work. (and the decision fell nowhere in the deliberate morality I had chosen: freeing the daughter from an arranged marriage, who still travelled with me, never stealing or cheating - but brutal, brutal bloody murder...)

The storm giants were next. Their chieftain I had somehow chosen to spare, turned and asked for the head of one of the thieves who had guided me to his mountain habitat. I agreed to his request, but no thief will feel my stormblade. I did hunt pegasus eggs in the mountains for them, but the nobility of the mother in her throes of death turned me from hunting any more - even though taming one of these beautiful creatures as a steed would have greatly benefitted me.

The collection of heads as bounties is no trivial matter. The tendons in the neck are tough, and need to be cut, or more often hacked through with a sharpened blade post-mortem, with particular attention paid to popping the vertebrae apart between segments. You should move the body between three and four a.m. to minimise the risk of being noticed, cut into four or five approximately equally sized pieces in the bath or shower and double-bagged in plastic garbage bags. Store the parts in the freezer to avoid the stench of decomposing flesh until you're ready to proceed, and change the sumps that could trap human matter to minimize the forensic footprint.

Every fantasy world feels like a Pangaea through which you wade waist deep in a bloody river of your own design. Humanity has always acted this way: from some primeval fear when we stared deep into the eyes of Neanderthal man and saw something truly alien staring back at us. Our so-called civilisation still gives lip-service to the idea of universal intelligence, saving dolphins to sack the rest of the sea. But as soon as we can stuff it in our mouths and swallow, we'll 'harvest' it until the wellsprings run dry. Witness the fiasco of governments stumbling to avoid declaring the bluefin tuna an endangered species. But governments have always stumbled: perpetual extensions of our partitioned, hypocritical by design brains.

Humanity as a xenophobic monoculture - eusocial and spreading through the stars in a genocidal crusade. That's why science fiction to me rings truer than those tired recreations of the hero myth.

Distract me with the shiny gems of achievement, and let me not think.


Andrew Doull said...

So I've exaggerated a little for dramatic effect - but there's definitely something of the 'push' nature of questing in Puzzle Quest that leads to feelings of guilty complicity. The 'I was just following orders' massacre of goblin tribes being the most outrageous example, with the killing a troll for ogre food coming a close second.

It's especially ironic given how innocuous the actual combat is.

The Mad Tinkerer said...

In the Paper Mario series you fight Goombas, just as in every other Mario game. However, you also get to talk to friendly Goomba characters and in the first two, Goombas actually join your party. They have no problem with you fighting these other Goombas who are explicitly explained to be aligned with the villains or otherwise just "bad".

The rationalization for Puzzle Quest is much the same: the goblins you are killing are the bad guys. If they weren't, your companions would complain. It's a fantasy world with fantasy rules and I'm sure the NPCs understand the ethics of their world better than you do.

See also games like KOTOR where you can be a saint or a jerk or somewhere in-between and your companions (and the Light Side/Dark Side meter) will let you know exactly how moral or immoral your decisions are.

If you really want to worry about it, you should look at some games with actual serious issues in this area:

Final Fantasy VII, for example. It's revealed 2/3 of the way through the game that the main character used to be one of the "random enemy soldiers" the protagonists have slaughtered by the dozens if not hundreds by that point. Even before then, in the opening chapter, both the protagonists and the antagonists cause mass devastation to the beginning city, but the main protagonist is upset (to the point of going slightly crazy) by the main villain killing the people in his hometown. But then, this is also a game where The Planet itself doesn't have a problem unleashing even worse (potential) devastation in the form of giant monsters onto the various population centers. So basically, pretty much every major character in the entire game is a mass-murderer, and the only difference between the good guys and the bad guys is how personally the protagonists feel about it.

But this is turning into an essay rather than a simple reply. Bottom line: Dude, it's just a match-3 game, not GTA. ;)

The Mad Tinkerer said...

"and the only difference between the good guys and the bad guys is how personally the protagonists feel about it."

Oh if only there were an edit function. This would be better phrased as "the defining line between the good guys and the bad guys is how the bad guys are the ones who kill people the protagonists care about".

BTW: I like FF7 and actually played through it four times. But it's really a very dark game and in some ways out of place in the FF series with regards to the attitudes of the protagonists.

VRBones said...

Shiny gems and coins, can't forget the gold.

(No cake though, the cake is a lie)

mandaya said...

"That's why science fiction to me rings truer than those tired recreations of the hero myth."

you should try and read Steven Erikson's "Tales of the Malazan Book of The Fallen", for a fresh look at what Fantasy could be like. Themes include genocide, colonialism, mercantilism and lots of other "realistic" themes commonly not seen in Fantasy (or SF, come to that).
Apart from that, I agree with your post: This is one of the reasons why games are still considered puerile by most. And rightly so, I guess.

Andrew Doull said...

The Mad Tinkerer: "the goblins you are killing are the bad guys"

They're not described as such in the example I'm thinking of. The first time you fight goblins, they ignore your attempts at diplomacy and are "bad" in this sense. But think time round, you're just asked to 'cull' them.

Agree with your points in general but it still strikes me as a bizarre paradox to have these kinds of grotesqueries in a game that didn't need them at all. It's almost as if the designers were worried that Puzzle Quest wouldn't feel adult enough otherwise.