Heroism and Replacement Goals: Game Design and PUBG

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Submitted by SuperSayu on Sat, 01/27/2018 - 12:45

In an August 2017 podcast, NPC Cast discussed what Player Unknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG) might teach tabletop game masters and people who were making role-playing games in general. At the time I started to write this essay, which got set aside and forgotten, the summary of which is this: in a round-based game where you are more likely to fail than succeed, players are constantly making their own objectives. I would argue that these are not "side quests" or "side objectives" in the sense of coexisting equally with the "main objective", but rather to a degree they replace the seemingly unreachable main objective. Keeping this in mind might help game designs, both professional and tabletop, from feeling oppressively difficult.

It actually kind of flies in the face of everything we are taught by heroic games, but it's supposed to be part of every "heroic" character. A heroic character is always risking their life in their "adventure"; in spite of how games actually work, the implication is that any given fight might be a hero's last, and indeed their first fight might be their only fight. The sad truth is that most "hero" characters are meant to have gotten where they are because normal life did not work out for them; a farmer's son who cannot stand the life presented to him, a young witch thrown out of her home town after an accident or simply on suspicion of being evil, a nobleman who threatens a more powerful noble's claim of succession. Because their first goal in life is impossible or undesirable, they choose another, and the replacement goal that they choose says more about them than the goal that was chosen for them in the first place.

After becoming an adventurer, and before becoming a hero, such a person will face challenges, and each challenge makes it more and more difficult for them to be a "normal person"; if they could, they would not end up continuing to fight, and therefore they would not be ready to be the "Hero" that the story later needs. Eventually, they embrace what is necessary and grow stronger, not because it was their original goal in life, but after despairing that they would never get what they wanted. Heroism, in some ways, is spiteful; a hero wishes to live, and the world wishes to take life from them, and these heroes have the strength, determination, skill, or je ne sais quoi to not break under the pressures of the world. And that, the ability to face the pressures of the world, eventually gives them what it takes to be a hero.

In that sense, when you constantly play a game like PUBG while knowing that you will fail, and endure hardship after hardship to become stronger, you are living the hero's journey more accurately than in many narrative-focused games. Although the in-game canon has your failed characters dying, the effective narrative is the same as in most computer games, where deaths are "non-canonical" and only your eventual success matters; however, unlike in roleplaying games, there is no mechanical stat progression which would make your success inevitable. It has more in common with Roguelike games, where your progression restarts to zero with every attempt; while luck plays a part, player skill is a larger, and maybe even constant, change between games.

Ideally, a hero's journey is full of these things, setbacks that prove the worth of a person so that we can call them, unironically, a hero. But perhaps the real takeaway is that the narrative behind the hero's journey is denial; that denial is in some ways a constant in the world, denial which common people handle by not confronting it and instead taking on the lesser challenges of life. A hero must learn to face denial on an emotional level while at the same time learning to face the physical challenges of the world. Failing to do so leaves the so-called hero shying away from the challenges that have the greatest rewards.

To put this in the perspective of a tabletop game master, I think that this lesson about denial should be considered a constant in the world they create, but not a denial targeted specifically at the player. The player should witness and feel a more universal denial that other people around them also feel, for example, living in a town where trade is cut off and so food is growing dear. It is not enough (although your players might put up with it) to call someone a hero when all the challenges they face are challenges that only they *have* to face; for instance a prince who foils assassins is less of a hero than a price who foils bandits, not because the banditry matters more, but because the common person, and indeed the player, have more in common with a bandit's victim than an assassin's victim. Bringing this home may involve not telling the players to do something, but instead letting them see others feel the sting of banditry, and allowing them the choice of becoming heroes or being common.

Because again, what we choose to do matters more than what we are told to do by others. Is a soldier who follows orders to be commended as a hero, over people who risked life and limb on their own initiative? You can certainly argue with rewarding and honoring them, but the argument that soldiers are heroes shifts power and control to the ruler, who determines what tasks the soldiers do. The same argument, to a lesser degree, applies to the metanarrative where a game master or game programmer decides what course of action the players will take. So long as they cannot refuse, is what they are doing really laudable? If the hero's task is easy, do you consider those who finish it to be worthy? If it is normally difficult but has been laid out specifically for them, is the victory truly theirs?

What this means isn't making it hard for heroes, but making it hard for everyone. In a situation where everyone suffers, the people who shape others' lives instead of focusing on their own, those people can be called heroes. It may not have been what they originally wanted, it might be spite against the unfair world, but it certainly makes them rise above others.