Thursday, March 28, 2019

General RPG Theory: Acceptable Sacrifices for the Needs of the Many

WARNING: Significant spoilers for Dragon Age 1, Etrian Odyssey 1, Fallout 3 + 4, Final Fantasy 6 + 10, Grandia 2, Mass Effect 3, Millennium 5, Radiant Historia, Skies of Arcadia Legends, Suikoden 1 + 3, Tales of Berseria, and Wild Arms 3. And also the second Star Trek movie.

Time for yet another of those rants that’s really much more general than just RPGs, but because I’m just thrilled at the way words appear on the screen when I hit the letter buttons, we’re gonna roll with it on this supposedly RPG-specific blog anyway.

Sacrifice. As storytelling tropes go, it’s 1 of the most common you can find, possibly even the most common. The sacrifice of 1 person (or more) for another person (or more) saturates our literature, our television, our movies, our comics...hell, it goes way beyond our fictional media. Some of the most compelling and contested subjects of philosophy revolve around the idea of sacrifice, the act of sacrifice both mixes with and results from several distinctive cultures’ values (it seems to always crop up pretty heavily in the traditions of especially honor-based societies, for example), and many of our most noteworthy institutions and professions revolve around the idea of potential sacrifice (such as soldiers, doctors, and rescue workers). Heck, 1 of the biggest and most famous (and infamous) religions to date is pretty much entirely based around a guy who (according to said religion) sacrificed himself for the sake of the entire human species! So yeah, small wonder that the subject of sacrifice comes up a lot in RPGs, as well; it’d frankly be a bizarre anomaly if it didn’t.

While we somehow never seem to tire of sacrifice as an emotional and/or philosophical draw in our narratives, I have noticed that it seems to most often, in RPGs, exist in 1 of 2 capacities. First, and more commonly, we see the trope of the noble sacrifice, in which 1 character (sometimes more, but it’s usually a single-person deal) gives his or her life to ensure the safety and well-being of others. This can happen in a number of ways, of course, but it most often manifests as either A, the character volunteering to stay behind and fight some impossible foe as others (usually the heroes) flee, in order to guarantee the heroes a safe escape (Gregorio in Skies of Arcadia Legends, Mareg in Grandia 2, Shadow in Final Fantasy 6 and Pahn in Suikoden 1 if you let them die because you need to git gud, etc). Or B, there’s some manner of contrived magical plot bullshit, contrived technological plot bullshit, or contrived circumstantial plot bullshit (or some combination of the above) that demands the death of someone (often someone very specific) to work, upon which the fate of the entire world and story rest (examples: Jeane in Millennium 5, Yun in Suikoden 3, Mordin or Padok in Mass Effect 3...oh, and speaking of ME3, you can also check out the game’s ending if you want to see what this trope looks like when handled with extreme stupidity).

Besides the noble sacrifice, the other most common form of sacrifice in RPGs is found in cases in which a character or organized group is causing substantial and usually fatal harm to others, and justifying these actions with the logic that those being harmed is a case of the few being sacrificed for the good of the many. Examples: Ishmael Ashur in Fallout 3 seeking to create a civilization built on the backs of slaves, the Final Fantasy 10 Yevon religion’s use of Summoners’ lives as a way of delaying Sin for a few years, Etrian Odyssey 1’s M.I.K.E. wishing to use a weapon of mass destruction to destroy a world-threatening monster at the expense of a city’s worth of people, and Tales of Berseria's Artorius...well, just basically everything that guy's about. Also, you can again check out Mass Effect 3’s ending if you want to see this concept when it’s handled with staggering incompetence.

Although not always (Shepard in Mass Effect 2 has to make a decision in the Arrival DLC that sacrifices the (comparatively) few for the many, and several of the sidequests in Bravely Second pose a few-versus-many dilemma to Edea), most of the time, RPGs portray these cases of sacrificing the few for the good of the many as the morally wrong thing to do, and the characters and groups that engage in this practice are villains. I mean, have you seen what an outrageous pack of assholes the Institute from Fallout 4 is?*

And yet, doesn’t this mean there’s a conflict in how RPGs are approaching this concept of sacrificing the few for the many? Why does Dragon Age 1 portray Branka’s methods and plans of sacrificing the few to safeguard the lives and prosperity of the many as morally wrong, when the central figures of the game’s lore, the Grey Wardens, are a group of warriors who each give up her/his future, chance for happiness, and, sooner or later, life, in service to the greater good of humanity (as well as dwarves, elves, and whatever the qunari count as), and are clearly applauded by the game’s narrative for being a noble, morally right organization? Both are cases of sacrificing the needs of the few for the needs of the many. Why is it wrong for Yuna to sacrifice herself in Final Fantasy 10 for the sake of the entire land of Spira, and yet it’s shown as a wonderful and righteous thing when Tidus does so in the very same game? Why do the writers make Heiss’s disgust with the ritual sacrifice that protects Radiant Historia’s world so eloquent and sympathetic when the choice to make that sacrifice at the game’s end is so clearly shown to be a heroic act?

The difference is simple, and I’m sure you’ve figured it out on your own at this point--or perhaps you already knew. It is, simply, in the matter of choice. Gregorio, Mareg, Jeane, Yun, Mordin, Padok, the Grey Wardens, Tidus, Stocke and Heiss, and so many countless other RPG characters, they all chose to give their lives for the good of others, be those others few or many. Each one made an informed, personal choice to die so that others would benefit.

See, this is the place where all these well-meaning but ultimately morally bankrupt RPG bad guys trip up. It is, in fact, the place where people in real life trip up. That the sacrifice being voluntary is what makes it acceptable is a simple truth, yet the lure of just saying the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few and stopping at that point is strong enough that a lot of people never take the reasoning that important step further.

Many watch Spock’s death in the second Star Trek movie, and nod as he explains his impeccable Vulcan logic to Kirk--the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Yet an important aspect of this sacrifice is the fact that Spock himself has volunteered to be the few whose needs are sacrificed for the good of the many. When he talks of weighing the many over the few, he isn’t justifying a decision to send someone else to their death in order to save the many. He’s explaining why he has taken the burden on himself. If the reasoning stopped simply at one-versus-many, he would have sent someone else in there to do it, because he has demonstrated countless times that he is an incredible asset to the Federation--it would have been more beneficial to the Federation’s interests to lose a less capable and distinguished officer. If the caveat that the one being sacrificed be a volunteer were not a crucial part of the understanding of this sacrifice, then Spock’s logic would have demanded that he order another to take on this burden. Voluntary choice is an absolute necessity.

Of course, this scenario isn’t really allowed for in the trolley dilemma, the classic question of philosophy which, in spite of its simplicity and its use as an introduction to philosophical conundrums, perpetually confounds our species. The trolley problem, for anyone who isn’t familiar with it (and hasn’t read Humza’s guest rant), is a theoretical situation in which a trolley is out of control and headed for a group of people, and you, in control of a single junction along its path, have the choice of whether to divert it to a track upon which there is only a single person. It’s the classic problem of the needs of the many versus the needs of the few, and it describes a situation in which the decision-maker has no possible input besides a single choice: you’re too far away to do anything other than decide who is to be sacrificed. In such a dire scenario, you truly do have to decide who dies for the sake of others.**

And that sort of situation can, I suppose, exist...but how often does it, really? How often do the details of reality align perfectly to make you the judge of who dies for who, while arranging an insurmountable distance and only enough time to decide rather than change the scenario in some way? Some might say it’s unrealistic, my position that sacrificing a few others to serve the many is always morally wrong and that only self-sacrifice makes it right--I contest that a scenario so perfectly engineered to require an inescapable and unchangeable choice of others to sacrifice is what’s unrealistic.

At the very least, I can say that such an inflexible scenario very rarely exists in RPGs.*** Dwarven civilization is threatened, as it always has been, by the Darkspawn in Dragon Age 1, but it is not so immediate and impossible a threat that there could be absolutely no other solution than Branka’s using the magical forge she seeks to sacrifice people in order to create golem protectors. She’s acting like a far-off event, 1 which we don’t even necessarily know is inevitable, is so immediate that there is not and could never be any other possible way to prevent it--she’d rather take others’ lives into her own hands and use them as fuel for an easy, more obvious solution to a far-off problem than to use the time and resources that the problem’s distance provides her to commit to finding less costly alternative solutions. When the heroes of Etrian Odyssey 1 hear that the weapon of mass destruction meant to stop the Yggdrasil monster will result in such casualties, they reject it, and seek an alternative solution that won’t require any unwilling, uninformed sacrifices, which they do find--you can’t exactly blame M.I.K.E. for his single-mindedness the way you can blame most individuals in the “acceptable losses” camp, I suppose, given that he’s literally programmed not to consider possible alternatives, but the Gungnir superweapon is still clearly the wrong way to go. And it’s shown quite well that the Commonwealth of Fallout 4 can be rebuilt into a strong and forward-moving community of humanity if you side with the Minutemen and Railroad, and make generally moral and positive decisions through the game, without the destination-less pursuit of scientific advancement that the Institute purchases with countless human lives.****

There are almost always alternatives to the scenarios in which someone says the few must be sacrificed for the many--and when sacrifices must be made for the good of others, those giving their lives should only ever do so voluntarily. And, for that matter, that consent must be informed. That’s an important next step to this subject of sacrificing oneself for the good of others, because even just establishing that sacrifices must be voluntary to be morally acceptable isn’t enough--it still leaves open the possibility for others to take advantage, and use cultural pressures and manipulative tricks of psychology to subtly coerce someone into volunteering to give their lives for a cause.

A great example of this comes from Wild Arms 3. Shane, brother to major party member Gallows, gets it in his head that he’s going to perform a sacrifice that will help his brother Gallows protect the world. He explains to Gallows that he loves this world and is happy to give his own life to protect it...but Gallows isn’t having it, and bitch-slaps that nonsense in the face with the cold, steely hand of logic. He points out that Shane hasn’t seen this world he claims to love so much, having lived his whole life in a small village. “The world” is, to Shane, just a pretty concept that he’s convinced himself he likes, without actually experiencing it enough to know a damn thing about it. It’s a solid argument, and I like the fact that Gallows, who has seen the world by this point, doesn’t even try to argue that the world isn’t necessarily worth giving one’s life for--he simply makes the point that Shane can’t possibly be informed enough to know that this is something worth dying for, because it’s just an idea, rather than a concrete thing he has experienced. It’s a great and memorable scene even for a game full of great and memorable moments. And it’s worth noting that Shane has only come up with this idea because of another entity’s manipulating him--again, driving home the point that a sacrifice for the needs of others is not right just with consent, but with informed consent, because others can manipulate an uninformed individual into giving his/her life for something that he/she doesn’t properly understand.*****

The idea that one’s noble sacrifice must be made with informed consent is why Radiant Historia’s Heiss is fully in the right to hate the ritual that his bloodline is expected to partake in, as it expects the sacrificed to give their lives for a world and cause they can only understand conceptually. The idea that a child who has not yet even lived within the world be expected to die in order to save that world is, indeed, terrible. But that’s why Stocke’s willingness at the game’s close to become the sacrifice is acceptable and seen as good: because, as he himself tells Heiss, he’s had a chance to live the kind of life where he’s seen his world, and he’s lived a life in which he’s surrounded himself with friends and family that he cares about and wants to keep safe. Stocke’s voluntary sacrifice is just and moral, because he is doing so with a concrete connection to what and who benefit. And the same is true, if you get the true ending, of Heiss’s decision to replace him, because Heiss now has something he cares about that he knows his sacrifice will protect.

This idea of noble sacrifices requiring informed consent is 1 of the reasons why Tidus’s sacrifice is seen as heroic, while Yuna’s was something to be resisted and fought against, even though both are voluntary: the repeated sacrifice of the Summoners in Spira is performed by men and women who only know part of the story of how such sacrifices came to be needed, and aren’t aware of the ways their noble deaths perpetuate certain evils of their society. Tidus, on the other hand, knows exactly why his death at the game’s end will be necessary, what will come of it, and who will benefit from it--the entire world, yes, but of more concrete importance to him, his friends and the woman he loves. The informed consent thing is why it’s okay for Chris in Suikoden 3 to allow Yun to go through with her own sacrifice: yes, she’s been raised from a young age with the expectation that she will give her life to unseal the True Water Rune, so you could say that she’s been culturally coerced, but Yun is able to see the future, able to see what happens to the world if she doesn’t give her life, so the idea that she’s dying for a better future isn’t just an immaterial concept for her: she has a personal experience and knowledge on the matter. Additionally, she has an emotional connection to Chris, giving Yun a specific person that she cares about to give her life to protect. And the informed consent thing is also why Fallout 4’s Institute would still be in the wrong, even if its victims actually had consented to be killed and/or experimented upon--because with no clear goals, no clear vision of what the world of Mankind Redefined looks like, no concrete steps to take towards its better tomorrow, the things the Institute strives for are nothing more than pretty, empty ideas (in fact, “idea” is overstating it; ideas usually have better definition), even less worth dying for than the world that Shane has no understanding of in Wild Arms 3.

Anyway, that’s about all I have to say today. This rant has (very obviously) been mostly about my getting certain thoughts off my chest on the overall question of the needs of the many versus the needs of the few, so it’s been kind of rambling, but if I were to put a point to it, I’d say that, over the course of their genre, RPGs have shown us pretty effectively that it’s wrong to demand the lives of others just because it serves the needs of the many, that one’s own noble sacrifice is usually the only time in which it’s okay for the math of few vs. many to play out, and that such sacrifices are only acceptable when made by someone who fully understands the situation and what his/her sacrifice will accomplish, and for whom. And I think that’s a good overall opinion that RPGs relate to us, because for all the attractive simplicity of the trolley problem, the fact of the matter is that there really aren’t all that many scenarios in our lives which are as rigid and uncompromising a case of either-or as the trolley problem is. More often, we wrongly apply the idea of the many’s needs outweighing the few’s to situations and policy that allow for enough freedom in time and personal action that alternatives could be pursued and willing sacrifices could take the place of the proposed victimized few. If the cause is just and the need necessary enough, someone will step up to be the one to sacrifice themselves for others...and if no one does, then maybe the cause and necessity should be reevaluated, before choosing others’ fates for them.

* Although I will admit that the Institute are an uncommonly egregious example of this mentality being evil. Most bad guy groups will settle for sacrificing the needs of the few for the needs of the many in just, like, 1 or 2 ways. The Institute, on the other hand, views every single human being not in its employ as expendable and meaningless, AND engages in frequent assassinations, AND kidnaps children from their parents, AND employs what is essentially racial slavery, AND performs experimentation on unwilling human subjects, AND purposefully destabilizes local governments, AND releases the organized, gun-toting, super strong, man-eating giants it’s created into the region, all for the sake of a better future. A better future, incidentally, that they have neither defined, nor laid out any concrete goals to progress towards it, meaning that there’s basically no planned point at which their already over-a-century-long cruelty will have achieved its purpose and stop being necessary. The better tomorrow of the Institute also happens to be the tomorrow I keep mentioning to myself in which I get my life together and stop being such a pathetic RPG weeb: it’s never gonna fucking happen. So yeah, the Institute is an atypical example for being 3 or 4 times more diversely evil than most other “needs of the many outweigh needs of the few” RPG organizations.

“Mankind Redefined”...yeah, unless what the Institute means is that it wants to modify the definition of mankind to prominently include the word “extinct”, I ain’t buying it.

** Although there are other schools of thought on the matter.

*** I will admit that 1 of the scenarios I mentioned earlier DOES mimic the trolley problem closely enough, and realistically, that it is a scenario in which the sacrifice of the few is justifiable and not inherently evil: the Arrival DLC for Mass Effect 2. This miniature adventure creates a scenario in which Shepard has only 1 possible way of resolving the situation and keeping an entire galactic civilization’s worth of lives safe, without the option to be the sacrificial few himself. While we’re on the subject and series, Mass Effect 1’s situation on Virmire where you have to pick which squad member to save and which to leave behind is equally well-constructed: the clock, distance, and enemy opposition truly do make for a situation in which Shepard HAS to make the decision.

**** Ironically (well, sort of), the biggest threat to the Commonwealth’s future by the end of the game, provided that you side with the Minutemen and/or Railroad, the 1 dangerous and hostile faction that you can’t more or less stamp out over the course of the game’s events, is the that which the Institute put there in the first place: the super mutants. Thanks again for the contributions to humanity’s better tomorrow, Institute, you fucking sods.

***** Humza got a first peek at this rant a little ways back, and actually wrote a very thoughtful and compelling response to it, which he shared with me, and which calls a lot of my words here into question. In most of these cases, I think he's simply expecting me to explore certain threads of thought in this rant further than I believe suits my purpose here, but he did bring up the question of how one defines "informed consent" on this issue, since obviously situations vary greatly, and there are plenty of examples of noble self-sacrifices in RPGs in which the one letting him/herself die doesn't actually know for sure that anything good would come of it (Humza brings up my example of Mareg, who can't actually know that his dying to give his friends more time to flee will actually save their lives).

I think the answer to this question of what acceptable informed consent is, is that a sacrifice can only be asked of someone who A, knows as much of the sacrifice's situation, cause, and purpose as possible--as in, as much as is known by anyone about the situation, inasmuch as time allows. They have to know what has caused the need for a sacrifice, why there are no alternatives, and who will benefit from their death (and how). And B, any and everyone who has a hand in asking/convincing this person to give his/her life has to be doing so without any conscious attempt to psychologically, emotionally, or logically mislead: the one sacrificed must be convinced through honest means (or, perhaps, at the very least be fully aware of what attempts to manipulate them are being made). Not every situation can be understood fully in the time it takes to need resolution, and sometimes the sacrifice situation in RPGs have plot-twist elements that no one knew about beforehand, but it's only right that the one doing the dying is, at least, among the most knowledgeable about the situation and what it requires in whatever capacity is feasible, time- and content-wise. And, of course, that knowledge has to have something solid behind it, it can't just be reasonless conjecture that if Person A dies, Persons B and C magically benefit for no adequately proven reason.


  1. I think an interesting offshoot of this sacrifice topic is the trope where the character shows a willingness for self-sacrifice and performs a heroic act that should end in sacrifice...but then the character turns out to live, anyway, for whatever justified (or, more often, unjustified) reason. Xenoblade 2 is a game I've played recently that did this, but it's only one example among many.

    1. That certainly is a common one, yes. Sometimes it's really appreciated (Zidane dying in the Iifa Tree would not have sat right with me for Final Fantasy 9), and sometimes it's nice but kinda random (Leene just popping up out of goddamn nowhere in Grandia 1's ending)...and sometimes it's something you really, really, REALLY hope will happen in a sequel please Namco please let Velvet come back and find real happiness please for the love of Palutena that ending is still KILLING ME...but yeah, this does happen pretty often. I'm a guy who likes happy endings, so I rarely object.

  2. An utilitarian would favor the need of the many in the same way a Doctor would cut the hand of a patient instead of letting them die. It's a fall-back, not the main way to solve ethical problems. Utilitarianism want everyone to be happy, but in real life usually this is just not possible.
    Imagine being President. Do you think you can turn your country in a perfect Utopia where everyone is happy and only Dies of old age? Do you think there is someone that could pull it off. I think not, so anyone that vecame presidebt can only do any of the follow:
    1) adress some problems that can be adressed, while ignoring those that cannot be solved. People would die as a consequence of.
    2) try to adress every single problem, likely failing and in the worst case scenario achieving nothing.
    This is where imo RPG fail. In real life you can usually take a third option, but te third option is usually very unsafe. In rpg people pick 2) and almost always pull it off, in real life people that pick 2) always fail(no civilizziation was ever better and whitout problems) and sometimes leave a world that is worst than before their action. RPG are consteucred in such a way that a golden ending where everyone is happy is possible, real life lack such construction. The need of the many is a way to pick wich problem to solve, by using the number of affected people.

    The need of the many is a City wide, Nation wide, and sometimes Humanity wide life or limb decision. What if after the informed consent the hero decide to not do that? Everyone dies?This is another thing RPG often don't discuss, because heroes are, well, heroic, so if the sacrifice is proved to be necessary, then someone will always volunteer. But if no one does is really forcing someone wrong?
    It's easy to unperson the many, because "a single death is a tragedy, a milion death is a statistic."
    More people cried for ff10 ending than for lavos destroying the world in chrono trigger, because for us Yuna and Tidus are people, the bilion of inhabitants of CT world are nothing. But they exist, and they matter. Try to imagine ypurself in the shoes of a nameless NPC in one of the RPG that employ this theme. You did not choice to live in this unfair world where someone has to be sacrificed, you don't want to die and you never chosed with informed consent to live in a world on the brink of destruction. You may be ok with taking the Hero place if given the chance, but it's not guaranteed that you can, and you may be willing to look for a solution that don't require anybody to die, but if this solution don't exist everyone is gonna die. You are gonna die, your loved ones are gonna die. It's fair to use bilions of lives as a gambling chip because maybe, just maybe, there is a scenario where 0 dies instead of 1 dies? It's easy to say yes a posteriori after such a solution was found.

    1. I would actually argue that since real life doesn't need to constrain itself to the simplified necessities of a narrative, there's usually far more alternatives to choose from, not fewer.

      The CT vs. FF10 scenario...doesn't really work, since Lavos's complete destruction of the world is a historical fact in that game. It's either fight him and win, or don't and be annihilated. There's no better third option the heroes are striving for.

  3. After i wrote that, i found a way to make a trolley problem out of my thought.
    Say that there is a second lever: if you pull it at the right moment, the trolley would derail in such a way that nobody dies, but if you miss the timing, the trolley would derail in auch a way that it kill all 6 people.
    Is attempting to pull the second lever a better option compared to pull the first or not pull either?

    1. Well, the scenario is now even less realistic than ever before, making it even more irrelevant to a serious discussion on this matter than it was in the rant, but what the hey, I'll answer anyway. Assuming that the timing in this scenario is fair and possible, within the normal limitations of a human being, I'd attempt to pull the second lever. I can't accept just casually letting an innocent person die because I couldn't be bothered or was too afraid to do everything in my power to keep them alive.

  4. Reading your description of the institute I realized it's a pretty good metaphor for US foreign policy, screwing around with everybody in the name of vague ideological goals. They're still dumb as a joinable faction though.

    1. Huh. It seems silly in retrospect, given how eager I am to identify US history and foreign policy with other Fallout games' factions, but I never really considered that. Interesting insight!