Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations says that “life is neither good or evil, but only a place for good and evil.” This seems particularly pertinent in this day and age as we are bombarded constantly by the media with images and stories of hope, joy, fear, loathing, and despair. Many people are attracted to MMO's for the pure simplicity of being someone else in a world with rules that can actually be understood. Thankfully the acquisition of pretty pixels to pimp out an avatar doesn't really have much to do with good versus evil. Or does it?
But can you resist the smile?
Everyone loves a good villain with an understandable motivation, and the final triumph over that palpable evil is always cathartic. It can be argued that the hero is only as important to a story as his villain (I’m looking at you here Batsy) and modern MMOs love to try to tell a good story to keep their audience logging in. Guild Wars 2, successful application arguments aside, is using this idea heavily by introducing story content with an expanding cast of villains at a rather dizzying pace.
All MMOs have to tackle the concept of content, and what it takes to keep their players involved, with the answer more often than not resolving into an ongoing story. World of Warcraft, contrary to the pace of GW2 content, adds to their ongoing story only sparsely as their expansions release on a longer timetable. Each of these expansions greatly shake things up though, and in some cases altering the entirety of the game in one go, as today’s epic villain becomes yesterdays achievement.
Who has a duster? Anyone?
The conceit they use throughout the game that guides player decisions, and forms their allegiances, however is not one of a black and white nature. Superficially it might appear so as you look to the light as being the one pure and good force in the universe, and the evil things that hide in the shadows where it doesn't shine. The characters in the game are all essentially cast as heroes in a world that is falling apart around them, be they knights in shining armor, or the outcast rebel with a cause. Even the villains that they rocket to the top of the hate-o-meter are usually a bit gray around the edges and were often once heroes in their own rights.
Is this called a murder?
Star Wars: The Old Republic handles this a bit differently, even if the concepts of evolving story are held in similar esteem. The universe is also divided into a driving force, but in this case it is not light in and of itself. The force is a tool used by the players and their actions are what form it into good or evil. The Horde in WoW, while the “bad guys” on the surface are still honorable heroes, but the Sith in SW:TOR cannot be mistaken as heroic. In this case you choose your allegiance and it is your motivation, your code, and your creed. Deviation from this is met with palpable consequences within the game. Good falling to evil, or evil giving into the weakness of good is not well received.
The connecting thread throughout all of these games mentioned is the fact that they are all themepark by the current definitions of such. The story, the heroes and villains, are meant to be experienced and you are lead along for a journey that you cannot really ignore. As a player you are either fighting the uber monster to keep your world turning, or you are struggling with banality and morality in all of your decisions. In the end the monster will die, you will collect your loot, and the story will move on with, or without you.
Fight by a lava flow? I can do that.
This brings us to EverQuest Next and it’s focus on sandbox elements. In the lore panel presentation during SOE Live the developers mentioned often that, while goals would be set, the story would be made by the players. The world has a rich history and a body of governing gods watching over everyone (theoretically), but this was only to set the stage for an unpredictable future. Looking at this built in uncertainty someone at the end of the panel asked how much room would be left for players to be evil if they so chose.
Historically the EverQuest games, arguably the origin point of themepark as we know it, have trucked heavily in the concept of good and evil. The gods run the full spectrum, each with their position in the world, with whom you can align yourself, and choose your calling, so to speak. If you wish to be evil then you can be evil.
Looking at the pantheon as defined currently in EQ Next you can see how the audience for the panel could be unsure of their footing for moral choices in the game. There is no column for good, and likewise no column for evil. Each god governs something that has aspects rooted in a gray area so that a god governing war can as easily be the patron of a righteous battle as a massacre.
If players are all starting in the shanty town Qeynos described by the developers, and trying to accomplish group tasks to retake old homelands, then how much room will there be to make moral choices? Wouldn't being evil undermine the goals of the returning warriors as they spread across the land? Are we all doomed to being heroes, regular or anti varieties notwithstanding, fighting the villain of the day once again?
Perhaps the nature of EQ Next as a sandbox will actually allow us more freedom over good and evil than ever. In SW:TOR you can choose between broad strokes as you either embrace being a horrible person for expedience or power, or hold to the path of good despite the obvious pitfalls. EQ Next could offer us all a deeper and more meaningful choice. The villain may, like Magneto of X-Men fame, not be completely unrelatable and may actually seem to have the reasonable solution to a problem. Theft and deceit could also gain you the fame and fortune you need to accomplish the task at hand more effectively than honorable deeds.
Conversely a player could also just embrace being a horrible person for the sake of it. We often forget that there is an RPG at the end of the MMO. Hopefully EQ Next in its released form doesn't forget that fact either.