On the subject of torture in “World of Warcraft.”

So I managed to ding to level 80 the other night with my main character, a dwarven hunter named Balfour, and along the way I’ve done several hundred quests one of which stuck in my head.

As it turns out it’s stuck in a few other people’s minds as well. Folks like Richard Bartle who blogged about it and started quite the discussion across various gaming websites. The name may not mean much to most folks, but Richard was one of the people instrumental in the development of the precursors to Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGS) as we know them today. He was one of the guys who developed the first Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) game which was entirely text based and the coolest shit on the Internet back before everyone and their cousin started using it. You can read a little of his background here. His work laid the foundation for what was to come and for that gamers everywhere owe him at least a beer or two.

The quest Richard blogged about comes fairly early in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion that Blizzard just put out, or at least it does if you start in the Borean Tundra zone, and it involves torturing a bad guy for info on the location of another NPC. The title of the quest is The Art of Persuasion and the quest text reads as follows:

It is fortunate you’re here, <race>.

You see, the Kirin Tor code of conduct frowns upon our taking certain ‘extreme’ measures – even in desperate times such as these.

You, however, as an outsider, are not bound by such restrictions and could take any steps necessary in the retrieval of information.

Do what you must. We need to know where Lady Evanor is being held at once!

I’ll just busy myself organizing these shelves here. Oh, and here, perhaps you’ll find this old thing useful….

At which point you’re given an item called the Neural Needler which has a text description of: Inflicts incredible pain to target, but does no permanent damage. Now take a moment to consider what this quest is requiring you to do. If you’re playing an Alliance character, which I am with this toon, then you’re a “hero” or “the good guys” and you’ve just been asked to torture someone to retrieve urgent information.

It’s the first time I’ve ever paused to consider the quest I was about to undertake as I was surprised by it. Richard was as well:

I’m not at all happy with this. I was expecting for there to be some way to tell the guy who gave you the quest that no, actually I don’t want to torture a prisoner, but there didn’t seem to be any way to do that. Worse, the quest is part of a chain you need to complete to gain access to the Nexus, which is the first instance you encounter (if you start on the west of the continent, as I did). So, either you play along and zap the guy, or you don’t get to go to the Nexus.

I did zap him, pretty well in disbelief — I thought that surely the quest-giver would step in and stop it at some point? It didn’t happen, though. Unless there’s some kind of awful consequence further down the line, it would seem that Blizzard’s designers are OK with breaking the Geneva convention.

Well they may be, but I’m not. Without some reward for saying no, this is a fiction-breaking quest of major proportions. I don’t mind having torture in an MMO — it’s the kind of thing a designer can use to give interesting choices that say things to the players. However, I do mind its being placed there casually as a run-of-the-mill quest with no regard for the fact that it would ring alarm bells: this means either that the designer can’t see anything wrong with it, or that they’re actually in favour of it and are forcing it on the player base to make a point. Neither case is satisfactory.

Now I admit that I didn’t have quite the same reaction as Richard. I was taken aback, but I did the quest and moved on and didn’t really think about it much until later. I suppose you could claim that the countless hours I’ve spent killing zombies, Nazis, and thugs in horribly violent video games over the years has desensitized me, but I don’t buy that because out of the hundreds of quests I’ve done on the way to level 80 this one sticks in my mind in an uneasy way. Why? Because it’s completely out of context and the fact that you can’t progress the quest line without doing it.

I’m not saying that torture shouldn’t be depicted in a video game. WoW has other quests that involve torture, murder, and even genocide and while a good chunk of them are on the Horde side there’s a few on the Alliance side as well. The difference is the context. For example if you start a Death Knight, the one new class with this expansion, during the course of your first two levels you’re under the control of the Lich King and are technically a villain. There’s a long quest line that eventually has you freed from the Lich King and along the way you’ll have to do a quest, amusingly titled How To Win Friends And Influence Enemies, that has you beating several NPCs to death with red hot pokers until they give you the information you need. I had no problem with that quest because I was, at that point, playing a baddie and torture is something baddies do. It fit the context. In comparison my dwarven hunter is a hero and has done many heroic things in the course of the game and as such the torture quest seemed really out of context and not the sort of thing my hunter would do at all. Even if you went with the Bush Administration’s flimsy rationale for torture sometimes being necessary, the threat of immediate catastrophic harm, there’s nothing in the quest line to suggest that would apply in that case. It basically boiled down to a lazy NPC turning to me to do the dirty work he wasn’t willing to sully his own hands over.

Now it’s possible the quest designers at Blizzard were trying to make a larger point about torture and I, and other folks like Richard, are failing to see it. If that were the case then I’d feel a little better if the torture weren’t successful in extracting the needed info. Torture never works in the real world and while I know that WoW, and wherever it is the Bush Administration governs from, isn’t The Real World it’s still annoying that torture works there in the same way that it’s annoying that it works every time Jack Bauer does it in the TV show 24. In a game as well written as World of Warcraft this one quest seems particularly jarring to me otherwise I doubt I’d still be thinking about it after so much time has passed from doing it.

Ultimately I would be pleased if Blizzard decided to modify the quest in some way, but I won’t quit playing WoW if they don’t. It is just a game, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be had in discussing things like this.

16 thoughts on “On the subject of torture in “World of Warcraft.”

  1. Some people feel that Blizzard is making a political statement about the ‘outsourcing’ of torture. It seems pretty hypocritical of the Kirrin-Tor to ask the player to do something that they themselves are capable of doing but would rather not.

    Also it isn’t likely that torture is something that would be acceptable by the codes of factions like the Silver Hand for instance.

  2. Just FYI, you can run the Nexus without completing the chain.  I’ve never done a single Borean Tundra quest, but have happily run the Nexus.

    So there is an out if you want – you’re not forced into torture in order to enjoy the other content.

    BTW – for a different spin on things, the quest line in Grizzly Hills that culminates with ‘Escape from Silverpine Lodge’ (or something to that effect) has a similar start…. but then an NPC *does* interject, and stop you from committing the atrocity.  (I was rather uneasy with where THAT quest was going.)

    and yes, I’m being vague in case you’ve not done that quest line.

  3. I play a warlock in the game. Every mob I kill I torture. My spells that I use to kill people are called things like curse of agony, corruption, and unstable affliction. Everything I kill is a slow agonizing death. From a game mechanics point of view we do damage over time, but if you really look at warlocks they torture mobs until they die. If there is really an outcry to stop torture in Warcraft then they would really need to get rid of this class. 

    Secondly I think it is important to make clear the difference between what Les and Richard said. Richard claims “either you play along and zap the guy, or you don’t get to go to the Nexus.” This is simply not true. There is no questing requirement to enter the nexus. Most quests in Warcraft are voluntary.

    I think it is important to remember that Azeroth is not earth. It is not a nice place.

  4. Andrew, yeah I know you can run Nexus without doing the quest, but it would still be cool if the quest itself had an out so you don’t have to abandon the whole quest line. I have done the Grizzly Hills quest you mention as well and was quite pleased in how it turned out.

    Dickie, what you say about warlocks is true but again that’s within the context of that class just as it is with the death knights. Having a hunter suddenly acting like a death knight or a warlock seems out of place to me.

  5. The only thing wrong here is that you play an Alliance character.  raspberry

    FOR THE HORDE!!!!

  6. Oh I’ve got a level 68 horde hunter on Fenris too, but I do spend more time with the Alliance on Durotan.

  7. I too felt a little uneasy about that quest, but did it anyway. This is despite the fact that I play a human paladin and supposedly deliver righteousness and justice.

    In the grand scheme of things it’s possible to skip it – you can still go to the Nexus, you can gain reputation with the Kirin Tor through many other means and though the quest rewards at the end of the quest chain are good for that level they are easily replaced later on.

    In terms of the lore, you later discover that many of the humans that the blue dragonflight has enlisted (like the guy that you torture) are there against their will. That makes it even more morally questionable…

  8. I did this quest two days ago. I thought it was a bit odd as well. I was surprised there wasn’t another way to finish the quest. You would think with all the magic and ability to control mobs, that some other method could have been used.

    It occurs to me that WoW does have some brutal storylines were really bad things are happening to pretty much everyone. It does make for a grittier world. I do wish there had been a way around it though. Meh…

  9. Les: In you post you made the comment

    If you’re playing an Alliance character, which I am with this toon, then you’re a “hero” or “the good guys”

    While I think it might just be a miss use of the worlds and if that is the case my appoligies for pointing it out. The Alliance are far from the good guys. They have just as a violent past as the horde do. Like most political structures there is no clear good and bad. I would also to talk about your comment of torture being out of character for a hunter. I think while it might be out of character for how you envision your hunter it is not totally out of character for every hunter. If you look at Classic RPG the hunter would be the same as a ranger. They are survivalist they would do what it takes to survive. I think if you could line up 10 hunters in a room you would find each one is quite a different person. So I am not saying that all hunters would torture but I don’t think it is out of character to say that some would.

    Moloch: I think the same could be said for a pally. Pallys are holy warriors but just like in life many holy men have committed untold evil in the name of good. Even in Warcraft lore you have several paladins who have committed much evil in the name of the light. How many priests have harmed someone they thought was possessed. They were doing what the foolishly believed was right.

    Though I would admit it does make for an interesting roll playing for your characters to choose not to do the quest line. Obviously my warlock had no moral issues with doing the quest. My priest also did the quest because he is my main character and the one that I want all the achievements on.

    Of and if anyone cares since I brought up the horde vs the alliance issue. I play a Alliance Priest and Warlock.

  10. Personally I don’t mind doing “evil” things in a video game. I think there should be more of it in games. I love playing “evil” characters. It doesn’t bother me because I know it’s not “real.” I always do the opposite in games then what I would do in “real” life. It’s more fun! Tell Richard it’s just a game.

  11. It’s a good topic of debate because there is a line to be drawn. Nobody mentioned the peon bashing quests or the dismemberment of dead bodies. Whats in the next expansion? A quest that forces you to rape?

    The game has a language filter and you can be suspended for cursing. This is the part that confuses me. I’m allowed to bash a peon who is sleeping on the job but if I yell ‘Get back to work you fucking peon!’ in General chat as I’m doing it, this warrants a suspension?

    This game is a moral quagmire and I believe where the line is drawn is a very accurate representation of our world today.

    And yes, I play more than all of you~

  12. Regarding the torture quest, why would a character that has spent a career gaining power and wealth mostly as a hired mercenary, slaughtering countless humanoids and wildlife, looting the corpse of every fallen enemy, plundering enumerable dungeons, temples, ruins, tombs, and villages, and barely answerable to the lords of the land…why would said character have any problem performing this quest?

    No class, race, or faction has been above this behavior in this universe, and to pretend that some are more noble than others is simply hypocritical.

    Richard should be thanking Blizzard for this quest – it’s one of the few that don’t involve murder.

  13. There’s two things that both Les and Richard (can I call you Richard?) are missing here.

    #1: Fictional Characters such as Jack Bauer often torture people for information to attain “the greater good.” So even if you’re playing a Paladin of the Light, you still have it as an option^^

    #2: In the proper back story of World of Warcraft the Alliance are NOT the good guys, they’ve enslaved entire races into concentration camps and passed extermination orders as “preemptive” strikes.

    These two things are emotional reasons why you shouldn’t be bothered, an additional reason is that this IS fiction. There is no Geneva Convention in Azeroth, and if we were to inject that level of realism into ever facet of our forays into fantasy then we’d essentially be breaking the 4th wall, as actors would call it. Given the amount of critters you conk, people you slaughter, and the general amount of chaos your character had to produce in order to ding 80, it’s a silly thing to let a little zap in the name of torture bother you. You’ll kill a bear and steal it’s guts to trade them in for a shiny new dagger that you’ll plunge into some scarlet crusader in order to get that nifty new enchant recipe, but you balk at the idea of nudging someone with a hot poker, or tazering them to get a spot of info.

    Truly this has become a round robin of hypocrisy.

  14. Well, think about it this way.  Yes, the quest forces you to torture someone to complete it.  Yes, torture is bad.

    But look at it like this.  You aren’t hurting anyone.  It’s just data.  Therefore, it is no more wrong than killing thirty or forty of the npcs in the game.  They respawn, unchanged.

    Or, if you prefer, think about the fact that every humanoid you’ve killed is intelligent.  They probably have a family.  Kids who are asking why daddy isn’t coming home anymore.  Children who will starve because no one is there to provide for them.

    If ‘torturing’ a chunk of code is going to bother you, leaving all those orphaned ones and zeroes behind should bother you just as much.

    As for the “who’s the good guys” debate, no one.  By the lore, both sides have blood on their hands.

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