Moral Inconsistency in Diablo 3

… and in many RPGs for that matter.

I know what you’re all thinking. It’s just a game. And Diablo 3 is perhaps the least-morally-involved game within the computer RPG genre. The game and its adherents make no apologies: it is pure, unadulterated and visceral hack-and-slash. Kill, loot, power-up. Rinse and repeat.

And so maybe I’m the only person in the world who was annoyed by a particular quest I found in the game. But please hear me out…

So I’m playing Diablo 3 yesterday. It’s a fun game — while I like the creative freedom and social aspect of tabletop gaming, but every now and then you want to smash monsters, ya feel me?

And I’m playing the Barbarian and I’m in a crypt, smashing open burial urns, opening sarcophagi and coffins, and grabbing what gold pieces and loot and I can find inside.

And then I stumble upon a ghostly woman in the crypt who tells me of her plight:

“Grave robbers have defiled my tomb. Now, my husband writhes in torment because I do not rest at his side. Return my bones so that we may rest in piece.”

My character, steady and resolute, says something like, “I will find them for you and lay them to rest.”

Of course, my character’s high-and-mighty attitude is somewhat ridiculous. Before and after this encounter, I have probably disturbed the remains of hundreds of souls, smashing their urns and opening their coffins to grab gold. (Sure, some you might say — it was a cursed crypt and all the bodies were raised as unholy undead. But that wasn’t true of the urns. And why would this woman be the sole exception?)

Morality is a sticky subject for RPGs — it’s only a game, after all. But what bothers me here is less a problem of moral inconsistency — it is a problem of the game designers being unaware (and simply not caring) that it is going on.

This is not new to RPGs and has existed in the genre since its beginnings. (In fact, I just read today an excellent writeup of an OD&D campaign, in which, however, the characters loot a dead warrior’s body and avail themselves of his gear, and the party cleric prays over the body. See the last session of a campaign journal of The Lost City module.)

Killing and getting treasure lie at the roots of the RPG genre. If a game doesn’t have a moral compass, then adventurers often shape up to be people many of us would rather not like to know. Most gameworlds compensate for this by making the evil antagonists particularly Eeevil, so that, so long as the PCs are in opposition to this Eeevil, the PCs come off as fighting for the Greater Good.

I’m not asking us all to search our souls and take this too seriously. I’m not saying that video games cause our world to become embroiled in wars. (Because they don’t.) I am simply speaking from my preferences as a gamer. And when I come across an example like the Ghostly Woman in Diablo 3 in which the character is rewarded for honoring burial places when he has been destroying them all along, I can’t avoid being “ripped” out of my immersion by its blatant moral inconsistency.

I’m not asking everyone to share my preference. But when I’m playing a game in which my characters are to be virtuous and honorable — “lawful good,” if you will — then the choices they make and the quests for which they are to be rewarded should be consistent with the tenets their characters are supposed to espouse.

On the other hand, if they are looting tombs, smashing urns and grabbing loot, then they shouldn’t pretend that they honor the remains of the dead. The game shouldn’t subvert the game world’s internal logic simply because the players now have a new “Quest Objective” appear on the computer screen.

I would rather a game not let “the game” trump the world inside the game, when it just isn’t necessary.

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About ronaldsf

Grandmaster of the Pathfinders' Guild at Martin Luther King Middle School.
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