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.