I talk a lot about GRRM. The guy was even around before Dragon Age, but I have to admit I didn’t start reading him until about a year ago. Since that time I’ve learned an unspeakable amount from him, don’t get me wrong, but most of the lessons I talk about I learned somewhere else.
Bioware made a game called Dragon Age. If I’m not mistaken, their third original franchise, after Jade Empire (which has tragically not been heard from and I feel it was one of the greatest systems RPG games every to come out), and Mass Effect. If you want to talk about a company that makes video games into art and literature, this is that company. They do an exquisite job of telling a story while letting you drive it, even in their licensed work, such as the original Knights of the Old Republic.
But lets get back to Dragon Age. This game was refreshing to me. The good and evil meters had become very commonplace in video games. Actions you took part in either registered as one or the other. You were always rewarded for being good and penalized for being bad. That was just the way of it. Sometimes the good looked bleak from the outset, but it would give me a new friend or toy that made the rest of the game easier. The bad option could make the immediate fight easier, but it would cost me that resource in the future. It was clear cut: the gaming industry wanted us to play nice.
Then Bioware said, “No.”
There are elves and werewolves. The werewolves are slaughtering the elves. Obviously the right action is to go in and kill the werewolves. But what if you find out the werewolves were created by the elves? You fight your way through the dwarves to an anvil that can create golems. The golems would be an indispensable part of your arsenal when fighting the ultimate evil. However, you find out it was abandoned because it required souls to power the machines. Do you take the significantly weaker dwarves, or do you strip their souls to put them into metal magical monstrosities of destruction?
No bar told you whether or not you were making moral decisions. Characters liked you based on your decisions, which generally was a great way to tell if you were a good or bad person. Morrigan thought what I did was wise? I obviously did the equivalent of sacrificing an infant. Alistair says I did the right thing? I could be a boy scout leader! You know what happens when you play boy scout in the midst of a Blight, though? People die. Good people. You don’t want to kill the thief because the death penalty isn’t just? Well there aren’t any jails, he says he’ll join the army and be a right good lad. You can trust him. He goes off and you cut him down when you catch him over the corpses of a family he was trying to rob. This doesn’t actually happen, but it really is the theme.
Back to what it taught me for my own writing! There aren’t good or bad people. There aren’t good or bad choices. There are choices and they either upset or please those around us. We have our friends for a reason and our enemies for a reason. If you make a habit of getting blackout drunk and mugging people, don’t expect boy scouts to be your friend. If you help old ladies cross the street and lead prayer vigils around the block, chances are the local crack house isn’t paying you a friendly visit. The decisions we make place us where we are, and they’re just that: decisions.
Now, I use a moral compass. Christ is my guide and all of that good stuff, but I make some unwise decisions as well. At times it seems out of necessity. Other times it’s because the spirit is willing but man is the flesh weak. But at the end of the day, my good and bad do not cancel each other out. They stand alone. They both make me up and make up who is willing to hang around me. Dragon Age, in no uncertain terms, taught me that.
Remember that when you write. Your people are neither good nor bad. They are a culmination of numerous decisions made before and during your story. Treat them that way. Especially in fantasy, where it seems so easy for us to lull into “What alignment is he?”
How have you used morality in your story? Do you view your characters as good or bad?