Saturday, August 21, 2010

On Morality in RTSes

So, Flask recently wrote a post filled with lots of interesting complex analysis regarding dirty communists trying to steal from John Galt, who is apparently a baker or something in the Dragon Age universe.  He used lots of big words, and challenged us to ask "Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow?"

I am here to rant incoherently about the stupid simplicity of moral choices in Starcraft II.  To anybody who has not yet finished the game, please activate your spoiler-o-vision by clicking on this link.  Do not open it in a new tab, as that will diminish its effectiveness significantly.




So, you get three choices of consequence in Starcraft II.  One is purely strategic, so far as I can tell, though admittedly I haven't played it both ways, so I don't know if it has a plot impact.  One is uninterestingly obvious - trust a random character who sounds suspiciously similar to Azula and works for your archenemy or your ol' buddy and all-around great guy Gabriel Tosh, who most certainly isn't a psychopath, as he is quick to assure you.  However, one choice, at least the way the set it up, is an interesting moral quandary that left me thinking for a few minutes.

At the end of the Hanson 'quest chain,' you are confronted by a fleet of Protoss ships headed by Selendis, who inform you that some of Dr. Ariel Hanson's refugees are already infected by the Zerg plague that they have been trying to avoid.  The good doctor then reveals that she already knew, but is working on a cure for the infection (which she has, in the past, been unsuccessful at curbing).  Selendis has brought her fleet to purge the infected colonists, but she offers you the chance to do it yourself, giving you the opportunity to save those colonists who are still healthy.  Dr. Hanson tells you that if you 'stall the Protoss' (aka butcher them in droves), she is certain that she can save all of the colonists - but her past failure casts doubt upon whether or not this confidence is reasonable.

So, you've got the following known pros and cons to each side:

         Kill the Infected Colonists Yourself:

-Guarantee that some colonists survive, even if you have to kill the others yourself
-Guarantee that the infection is contained
-Maintain inter-species relations with the Protoss
-Avoid having to kill the Protoss, who are basically good people trying to do their job and not die horribly

-You can't wait and see if the cure can be found - you have to act immediately.  If a cure was possibly, you've killed lots of innocent people who you might have been able to save.
-Diminished chance of finding a cure in the future (since Dr. Hanson is pretty committed to THIS group of people)

      Fight the Protoss:

-Guarantee that all efforts to save the infected (who are innocent people) are made
-Greater chance of finding a cure that offers a permanent solution
-Improved reputation with your (at that point) potential love interest

-Risk the ire of the Protoss if this incident provokes them
-Loss of Protoss life (Protoss are people, too!)
-Danger of the infection spreading if Dr. Hanson fails
-Danger of the entire population being lost if Dr. Hanson fails

Personally, I'd say this is a pretty difficult decision.  The Protoss counsel safety and conservatism - avoid unnecessary bloodshed between allied forces and prevent the spread of the Zerg.  Dr. Hanson, on the other hand, is a risk-taker - gamble that she can come up with the solution or risk losing everyone on the planet and giving the Zerg a foothold in Protoss space.  Each side is prioritizing its own interests over the other's in a way that is completely understandable, and there are no meaningful incentives distorting the moral ramifications of your options.  Ultimately, I decided to abuse the system and play both routes, then choose the one with the better results.

I was pleased, if annoyed, that the game made me think so deeply about a choice.  I was NOT pleased when the ridiculously lopsided results came back.

       Fight the Protoss:

Dr. Hanson comes up with the cure, all of the colonists are saved, the Protoss suffer minimal casualties and their commander Selendis salutes your valor on the battlefield before leaving without even so much as raising her (psionic) voice at you.  Dr. Hanson gives you a kiss as she leaves to join her people on their new world of sunshine and unicorns.

       Kill the Infected Colonists:

The infection has already spread further than you thought.  You have to kill lots of colonists, and you save a few.  When you return to the ship, you find out that Dr. Hanson's failed attempt to find a cure has caused her to mutate into some kind of Hydralisk thing.  You kill her.  Emotional scarring ensues.  Selendis thanks you and departs.  A news update informs you that the refugee colonists who you saved are being turned away from Inner Colony worlds, left adrift in space.  Footage cuts to a boat drifting peacefully across a lake.

What the f*ck?  Seriously?  It might as well have said GOOD END and BAD END after those things!  I'm surprised that choosing to kill the infected colonists doesn't give you a non-standard game over, honestly, given the stark contrast between the two results.  It'd have been one thing if siding with Hanson had implied that, perhaps, relations with the Protoss were worsened by your choice.  But, if anything, beating Selendis seems to have improved your cred with the psionic space elves.  There are NO downsides to one path, and NO upsides to the other.  So much for moral complexity.

So, what's the lesson?  Remember, when faced with a catch 22, ALWAYS SIDE WITH YOUR LOVE INTEREST.  ALWAYS.

In other news, the end of the game was so f*ck-awesome that I have completely forgiven this hiccup in an otherwise flawless work.  I'm extremely excited to find out what happens in Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm, when it comes out in 2020, right after George R.R. Martin's next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire.



  1. Actually, if you listen to the Tosh conversation after the Kill the Colonists mission, it's stated (maybe implied, but heavily implied) that Hansen has been infected for a long long time, and this entire time she's been trying to move herself and the infected colonists closer to the core worlds for a covert strike (see: genestealers in DH). Thus by killing her and the infected colonists you save a lot of Imperi- er, Dominion citizens.

    And you get a Protoss souvenir on the cantina wall!

  2. I'm pretty sure that Hanson infected herself intentionally (while you are killing the colonists) because she needed a test subject to find a cure. After all, she locked herself in the lab to prevent contaminating others, as Stetman tells during the mission.

    There's no genestealer ploy. Tosh is just a paranoid psychopath, and assumes the same about everyone else. He's a cool guy, but he's still totally a paranoid psychopath. And as the cinematic you get if you side with Novazula instead of him reveals, he's a lot less on top of his sh*t than he seems to be when he's on your side (hitting Tychus with the voodoo doll meant for Raynor, etc).

    Finally, once again, I'm pretty sure that Selendis is actually *happier* if you fight her. Protoss are funny like that.