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On morality in RPGs, Armored Warfare & Guido Henkel, Chris Avellone...

I remember when I played this power-hungry character in New Vegas and gradually removed all of the main bosses including Caesar and Mr. House to become this self-installed merciless lord of Vegas. I always have this malicious glee when a game allows me to do such things. Tyranny is the opposite example; even if you really want to, you can’t do that much good.

Well, I think what Tyranny does is put you in a position where you are an agent of an evil empire. And so, the most good that you can be is still not that good [laughing]. Because you’re representing something that’s fundamentally really tyrannical—surprise [laughing].

So, if you’re playing a cruel character, you’re like, ‘ah I’m just gonna take advantage of this kid

I guess it was with KOTOR2 that you first tried to implement more moral fluidity—so not just the light and dark side of the Force, but also this gray, somewhat neutral stance.

Well, that’s what we tried to do with the disposition system in Pillars. Instead of using light and dark, or good and evil, we used a sense of attitudes that you have toward people. For example, being cruel is something that we don’t put into quest dialogues unless it really feels like it warrants it. So you can’t just walk up to someone, talk to him and then just kick him in the faceit just kind of feels like nonsense.

I like these violent fillers during dialogues, especially in Mass Effect [laughing].

But, even in Mass Effect, when you punch out someone, you can’t punch out everybody; you punch out the person that you kind of want to punch out [laughing]. With cruelty in Pillars, there’s a quest that I helped to write, about this little kid named Gordy. He’s kind of an annoying kid, and there’s no one around, so you can smack him around and be mean to him, and tell him all these really horrible things because it’s easy. So, if you’re playing a cruel character, you’re like, ‘ah I’m just gonna take advantage of this kid.’

Yeah, that’s great. I remember when I played Fallout 2. I decided to hang out with slavers, because that’s what I wanted to be—fuck it. But even then, the experience was more penalizing than it was rewarding in the end. It’s very interesting; morality in RPGs is a very complex thing. What’s also part of that, is that often such mechanics are linked to this all-seeing Sauron’s eye, where everybody knows I committed a crime despite the complete lack of witnesses.

Those are very hard systems to model.

I like how stealth games such as Hitman model this. You kill somebody, hide the body and that’s it—nobody has a clue. I’d like to see these kind of mechanics implemented more in CRPGs.

By the way, I love the Hitman games; I love Blood Money and I love the most recent Hitman [laughing]. The episodic one, I play that and I think it’s fantastic. The difference between something like Hitman and a game like ours is, you have an identity which people are hostile to fundamentally. If you alert someone and they see the body and become suspicious, if they find you, they’re going to go hostile, but there isn’t really a long-term ramification. The larger world is really just whatever the ISA remarks about.

I’m fairly post-modernist, so I don’t think my opinion is that important. I think that if someone wants to make something, they should go ahead and make it

The same really applies with something like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. You have a level, and there’s an ecology of AI within that, and also they’re all communicating with each other. [Anna] Grímsdóttir, or the other NPCs that are your managers, they can respond because they’re watching you the whole time. But otherwise, what you did in the level doesn’t carry over to the next level. In a role-playing game where you have these big open spacessome are very isolated but it’s all part of a greater worldit’s hard to model systems. I mean, we always try to improve it, but what we would always rather err on, is having people react to the things that you do, rather than not. So, if we make it extremely realistic, then you get very little reactivity, which I think in some cases just feels worse [laughing]. But it’s difficult.

Fallout: New California (TBA)

Understood. What about you and mods? For instance, in New Vegas. Do you know the original Fallout: Brazil?

Yeah.

I played the first episode some years back and it was great. This massive project recently got renamed to Fallout: New California.

I thought it was New Frontier.

Nope that’s different project. Are you in contact with any modders by the way?

No. I’ve had a lot of people contact me to ask for opinions on stuff, but I really tend to avoid expressing opinions on those things because I don’t think my opinion is very important, to be honest. I mean, I’m fairly post-modernist, so I don’t think my opinion is that important. I think that if someone wants to make something, they should go ahead and make it, and if people want to play it… If I weighed in on everything that I thought was good or bad or whatever, I don’t think that would actually be good for anyone. The only thing I could say that might be helpful to people would be things like scope, for which I would always say, “just make it smaller,” [laughing] because everyone’s mods are huge.

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Josh Sawyer: Chapter IV

I remember when I played this power-hungry character in New Vegas and gradually removed all of the main bosses including Caesar and Mr. House to become this self-installed merciless lord of Vegas. I always have this malicious glee when a game allows me to do such things. Tyranny is the opposite example; even if you really want to, you can’t do that much good.

Well, I think what Tyranny does is put you in a position where you are an agent of an evil empire. And so, the most good that you can be is still not that good [laughing]. Because you’re representing something that’s fundamentally really tyrannical—surprise [laughing].

So, if you’re playing a cruel character, you’re like, ‘ah I’m just gonna take advantage of this kid

I guess it was with KOTOR2 that you first tried to implement more moral fluidity—so not just the light and dark side of the Force, but also this gray, somewhat neutral stance.

Well, that’s what we tried to do with the disposition system in Pillars. Instead of using light and dark, or good and evil, we used a sense of attitudes that you have toward people. For example, being cruel is something that we don’t put into quest dialogues unless it really feels like it warrants it. So you can’t just walk up to someone, talk to him and then just kick him in the faceit just kind of feels like nonsense.

I like these violent fillers during dialogues, especially in Mass Effect [laughing].

But, even in Mass Effect, when you punch out someone, you can’t punch out everybody; you punch out the person that you kind of want to punch out [laughing]. With cruelty in Pillars, there’s a quest that I helped to write, about this little kid named Gordy. He’s kind of an annoying kid, and there’s no one around, so you can smack him around and be mean to him, and tell him all these really horrible things because it’s easy. So, if you’re playing a cruel character, you’re like, ‘ah I’m just gonna take advantage of this kid.’

Yeah, that’s great. I remember when I played Fallout 2. I decided to hang out with slavers, because that’s what I wanted to be—fuck it. But even then, the experience was more penalizing than it was rewarding in the end. It’s very interesting; morality in RPGs is a very complex thing. What’s also part of that, is that often such mechanics are linked to this all-seeing Sauron’s eye, where everybody knows I committed a crime despite the complete lack of witnesses.

Those are very hard systems to model.

I like how stealth games such as Hitman model this. You kill somebody, hide the body and that’s it—nobody has a clue. I’d like to see these kind of mechanics implemented more in CRPGs.

By the way, I love the Hitman games; I love Blood Money and I love the most recent Hitman [laughing]. The episodic one, I play that and I think it’s fantastic. The difference between something like Hitman and a game like ours is, you have an identity which people are hostile to fundamentally. If you alert someone and they see the body and become suspicious, if they find you, they’re going to go hostile, but there isn’t really a long-term ramification. The larger world is really just whatever the ISA remarks about.

I’m fairly post-modernist, so I don’t think my opinion is that important. I think that if someone wants to make something, they should go ahead and make it

The same really applies with something like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. You have a level, and there’s an ecology of AI within that, and also they’re all communicating with each other. [Anna] Grímsdóttir, or the other NPCs that are your managers, they can respond because they’re watching you the whole time. But otherwise, what you did in the level doesn’t carry over to the next level. In a role-playing game where you have these big open spacessome are very isolated but it’s all part of a greater worldit’s hard to model systems. I mean, we always try to improve it, but what we would always rather err on, is having people react to the things that you do, rather than not. So, if we make it extremely realistic, then you get very little reactivity, which I think in some cases just feels worse [laughing]. But it’s difficult.

Fallout: New California (TBA)

Understood. What about you and mods? For instance, in New Vegas. Do you know the original Fallout: Brazil?

Yeah.

I played the first episode some years back and it was great. This massive project recently got renamed to Fallout: New California.

I thought it was New Frontier.

Nope that’s different project. Are you in contact with any modders by the way?

No. I’ve had a lot of people contact me to ask for opinions on stuff, but I really tend to avoid expressing opinions on those things because I don’t think my opinion is very important, to be honest. I mean, I’m fairly post-modernist, so I don’t think my opinion is that important. I think that if someone wants to make something, they should go ahead and make it, and if people want to play it… If I weighed in on everything that I thought was good or bad or whatever, I don’t think that would actually be good for anyone. The only thing I could say that might be helpful to people would be things like scope, for which I would always say, “just make it smaller,” [laughing] because everyone’s mods are huge.

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Joshua Eric Sawyer

Born: 18.10.1975
Nationality: American
Role: Game Designer
Studio: Obsidian
Previously: Black Isle Studios
Known For: Icewind Dale, Neverwinter Nights 2, Fallout: New Vegas, Pillars of Eternity, Deadfire

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