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On the Drawing Board #17: Religion and Morality in Gaming

Posted 2 Dec 2009 by

Religion and morality are huge topics, and possibly even off topics, for an installment of On The Drawing Board. But I think they are issues we can discuss in game terms, without straying too far afield.

By “religion” I don’t (necessarily) mean an earthly religion, but a religion in a game. Many games with a story have some mentions of religion, but these hardly ever affect the gameplay. They certainly don’t in the Diablo games, as I will discuss later. Likewise, a gameworld can be steeped in religious concepts, or concepts borrowed from known religions. Diablo; with its DiabloWikiangels from the DiabloWikiHigh Heavens and DiabloWikidemons from the DiabloWikiBurning Hells is an easy example, though nothing in the gameplay or world fiction are taken directly from elements of Christian literature. It’s not like Jesus, or Satan, are act bosses.

Which isn’t to say that games don’t go there; though developers seldom risk the heresy of involving religions anyone still believes in. God of War is an easy example. The game is set in ancient Greece and draws its plot from Greek religion mythology, with the hero battling for and against the Greek gods, ultimately triumphing over and usurping Ares, God of War.

The issue of morality in games is a different one, and is included in the play mechanics or many RPGs, generally with a “reputation” stat that rises and falls with your character’s actions and determines how NPCs will treat your character. Most versions of Dungeons and Dragons, whether played with dice or a computer, have something like reputation, as well as fixing character “alignments” that shaped your character’s actions. The Ultima series of games took this to a further level with the system of eight Virtues, Richard Garriot’s effort to impart moral considerations into the gameplay.

Nothing like this is found in the action-intensive Diablo games, where all characters are basically “good” in that they constantly kill evil men and monsters, rather than working with the demons against humanity. (Leaving aside the mythical concept of a role-playing PK.)

But why not include some morality? Why not require players to think about something other than maximizing their magic find while they decide whether to spend the next hour running Pindleskin or Meph? Plenty of games allow players to think and deal with moral issues, and not just RPGs. Check out Scott Jennings’ account of the instantly infamous “No Russian” mission in the brand new mega-seller Modern Warfare 2.

Morality in Diablo 3?

Would adding some sort of morality to the mechanics of Diablo III improve the game, or just complicate things? Off the top of my head it seems like an unnecessary complication. Moral issues or reputation or alignment or other such features sound nice in theory, but in practice they just become another stat to tweak. It usually has players doing this sort of math in their heads: “I need to kill 50 more monsters to raise my rep to “lawful,” which will let me buy a new weapon, with which I can gank another noob, which will force me to kill another 50 monsters to get back to lawful.”

Of course there’s no way to tack that sort of a system on to Diablo 2 at this point. A game needs to plan for morality from the beginning, include punishments and rewards, provide quests that differ depending on a character’s reputation, and so forth. And it’s possible that that sort of considered gameplay would never fit into a fast-paced, action-RPG like Diablo anyway.

How about some quests that at least provide food for thought?  None to be found in the series. Every quest involves killing bad people or monsters, returning items to selflessly help out NPCs, saving lost kittens and puppies, etc. In the Diablo world you can’t be bad even if you want to. (Leaving aside the issue of PKs, which isn’t addressed in any way in the game lore or story.)

Everything you can attack in the Diablo games is a monster that needs to be destroyed. You can’t attack the NPCs in town, there aren’t any missions where you can accidentally kill friends, etc. About the only moral issues to be found in Diablo 2 are underfoot; ambient life. Do you go out of your way to step on, or avoid, the bunnies? (Incidentally, the D3 team is clearly pro-stomping. Snakes in the D3 desert try to flee when you come near, but they wriggle directly away from you, which makes it very easy to step on them if you just keep running straight ahead. And they splat very messily, providing additional “stomp them for fun” feedback.)

There is one sort of moment of moral decision in Diablo 2. In Act 3, once you destroy the Compelling Orb in Travincal, the remaining Zakarum warriors will run away from you, instead of fighting. The Zakarum mages still attack, as do the Vampires who spawn there, but the foot soldiers become non-violent. They were “compelled” to fight, you see, and with the Orb broken, they return to normal. They don’t talk or beg for their lives, but they do run away. They’re still worth experience though, and they still drop items, so in terms of moral dilemmas, this one isn’t exactly The Fat Man and the Train. And they get caught in corners, so can be easily herded along the stone walkway around the perimeter of Travincal. Not that I?m recommending that, or anything. *cough*

Religion in Diablo 3?

We don’t yet know quite how this issue will be handled, but if the new developers follow the lead of the guys who made D1 and D2, religion will exist, but be irrelevant. There will be religions; the DiabloWikiMonk class is said to worship 1001 Gods, which must make for a lot of holidays. The other cultures have their own gods as well. But it seems unlikely that any of this will actually matter, in terms of gameplay. The various religions will flesh out the story and provide the motivation for some quests, but I’ll be shocked if what the characters are said to believe actually affects the gameplay.

Why? Look at Diablo 2. In the aforementioned Act 3 storyline, the player’s mission was to wipe out the corrupt High Council. Who were, incidentally, the heads of the Zakarum church. Of which the Paladins were members and protectors. So if you were playing a Paladin in Act 3, you were basically killing your commanding officers and religious superiors, who had betrayed all you had pledged belief in, and who had destroyed the spiritual foundation of your life. Yet the Paladin did so with no more inner turmoil or need for reflection than if he were wiping out another bunch of giant mosquitoes.

So yes, there will be religions in Diablo 3, but will they matter, in terms of game play? I’m guessing no. It never has in the past, since the developers haven’t given that aspect of the game much thought.

Over the past decade I’ve had several chances to speak with Erich Schaefer, Max Schaefer, and Dave Brevik about their original collaborative creation of the game that grew into Diablo, and I can honestly say that never once did any of them mention religion or the game’s cosmology. In the early days they were focused entirely on making a fun game, and only added in the plot and story and world setting as they went, and needed a skeleton from which to hang the meat of the gameplay. (Since I’m partially cut out of that photo with Dave, I uploaded two others from different interviews in that same room, just to prove it was me talking to him.)

Here’s a quote from an (unpublished) interview I conducted with David Brevik in 2007.

Flux: The D1 manual was really nice. It had stories and legends and monster info and more story than the game.

Dave Brevik: Oh absolutely. (laughs) Because we came up with the story after we came up with the game! (laughs heartily) The game was halfway over and we were like, “Well, we should probably put a story in here!” That was really more the reason than anything.

I’m sure DiabloWikiChris Metzen at Blizzard Irvine contributed a lot of those story ideas as well, but I’m fairly certain that the designers had created all sorts of demons to populate the game, and they knew the main bad guy was going to be called Diablo, and since they’d grown up in an American culture permeated with Christianity, they naturally gravitated towards a version of Hell for that. With a hell in the game it was only natural to have a sort of heaven, with warrior angels to counter the demons, and so on. Though the basic concepts of the Diablo cosmology are similar to those in Christianity, there are no “gods” in the Diablo mythology. Neither in Heaven or Hell.

Diablo’s Mythology

The overall cosmology of the game will likely be further explored as well, (it’s been largely developed in the Diablo novels) with what appear to be planned cinematic scenes from the High Heavens. We also expect more interactions with Tyrael and perhaps some other Archangels, and it seems likely we’ll get more info about events in the Burning Hells; the plot info the developers have teased thus far tells us that everyone expected a demonic invasion twenty years ago, after the Worldstone was destroyed, but that it didn’t happen. And no one knows why.  I’m betting we’ll find out, though.

Interestingly, I got the idea for this column over the weekend, while resurrecting the last eleven columns of Salem’s Fire. It wasn’t one of the last 11, but Salem’s Fire #32 was entitled, Monk, I need a monk!  I was, of course, curious about that one, written in 2004. No, it’s not a psychic discussion of a Diablo 3 character to be announced 5 years hence. It’s actually about how games usually duck the subject of religion, and how Monk characters have some religion, but it’s never anything that’s important in the gameplay.

Okay, so maybe it was slightly psychic…

Power Corrupts

Interestingly, the principle bad guys in Diablo 1 are figures of authority; King Leoric and Archbishop Lazarus. Both are controlled by or in service to Diablo, but as the game’s plot unfolds the king and the leading religious figure of the land are the enemies most often referred to by in-game sources.  (I bet their reputation scores really took a dive!)

The theme of fighting corrupted figures of authority continues in Diablo 2, most notably in Act Three, where the player’s mission is essentially to kill the entire ruling authority of the Holy Zakarum religion. To throw in a real life analogy, imagine God of War 3: Massacre in the Vatican, or Splinter Cell 6: Target Dali Lama? We don’t know much about the plot of Diablo 3 yet, but I wouldn’t rule out more of the same, at some point in the game.

I don’t think there’s some unified theme here; it’s just a useful plot device to have rulers in a medieval setting be evil, since they have all the power and are dangerous enemies. Look at the rest of Diablo 2; the Rogue leaders and Jerhyn in Act 2 are friendly, as are the leading Barbarians in Act 5, with the traitor Nihlathak a treacherous exception. More functionally, evil humans are fun enemies, just since they provide a break from the slaughter of scaly monstrosities that makes up the bulk of the game(s).

Morality and Religion?

This installment of On the Drawing Board is a bit of a scattershot take on the issue, but what do you guys think? Would you like to see more morality in the game? Do you want to be rewarded for being good, or have the option to be bad? Would you like some quests that required you to kill the innocent, or forced you to be careful to avoid doing so? What if the Barbarians you had to rescue in Act Five of D2X could die, if you were careless, and you didn’t get the reward, or as good a reward, if not all 15 of them made it back to town?

And would you like the religions seen in the Diablo games to matter more? Perhaps your character will refuse to complete some quests, since they offend his/her faith? Perhaps there are special quests you get only because of what your character believes in? Perhaps you have to accomplish some quests with alternate methods than the rest of the players?


On the Drawing Board is written by Flux. These articles examine crucial game design issues and decisions in Diablo 3 by explaining the issue and presenting arguments for and against. On the Drawing Board aims to spur debate and further the conversation, rather than converting readers to one side or the other. Conversation and disagreement is encouraged. Have your say in the comments, or contact the author directly. Suggestions for future column topics are welcomed.


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