Monday, December 21, 2009

Great Stories in Spellforce 2: Dragon Wars

I recently finished playing Spellforce 2: Shadow Wars and the Dragon Storm expansion. It was for the most part standard fare, but there were a few really good subplots. These very short stories were told in bits throughout the main story arc.
In our last post I talked about the DreamStalker and the themes of the innocent and weak defeating the wicked and powerful. In this post, I'll examine the moral dilemmas presented by the Judge Caine.

In the world of Eo, there are otherworldly demons that offer power in exchange for one's soul. When the contract is up, the demons come and take what is theirs. However, they cannot enter holy ground, and so some parties hide from their fate by staying in such areas. When that happens, a human assassin is sent. Not being a demon, holy ground does not deter them. In exchange for these errands, these assassins are given the power to sustain their life indefinitely by drinking the blood of their targets.
Caine is one such assassin, and when out of mutual benefit and necessity he joins the protagonist's party (that is, "your" party, as you make choices for the protagonist in this computer role-playing game), he is accused of being a mere murderer.
But he is also a "Judge"--he examines the cases, and can choose to pardon the target. The contract is destroyed and his demonic masters are none the wiser apparently. Their souls, at least, are safe.
To give the protagonist some insight into his role, he lets the protagonist decide the verdicts in three tricky cases. We now have the power of life and death over three persons, and this is reinforced by making an actual execution an automatic thing: There is no fighting involved -- Caine just walks up and chops them down with a massive sword that is granted to him by his Abyssal masters.
This subplot has nothing to do with the main story, but it's definitely worth doing just for the mini-stories that go with each of the people named in the contracts. There is ultimately no difference in the outcome on the protagonist's side -- they get the same rewards / find the same items no matter which choice is made.
The stories are Ainur, Ironbelly, and Una.

Ainur was horribly abused by his employers/masters, who treated him like an animal yet managed to have a decent image in public life, so many were appalled by their particularly horrible murder. The law hadn't caught up to him at the time the protagonist confronts him.
With all the cases, there are different elements of the law with which the protagonist can uphold. For example, there is the matter of the contract into which they more or less freely entered. Although it may have been made under durress, the supernatural forces of the Abyss were not involved in creating the stressful circumstances (Ainur's captivity, for example), and therefore are merely (ruthless) merchants offering a service in exchange for a price. To destroy their contract would be to cheat them.
In Ainur's case, we also have to decide whether his torturous captivity was grounds for murder. Complicating this was the fact that some people actually did know about it. Why nothing was done is not mentioned, although it does convey the impression that it was up to Ainur to do something if anything was to change.

Ironbelly signed a contract with supernatural powers for wealth and success in business. As a result, lives were ruined and some competitors were even afflicted with illnesses by the supernatural, resulting in businesses lost to Ironbelly. The result was that he made more money than even the King of the Highmark. His current circumstance (which Caine notes came up after he signed the contract) is that his wife has a yet uncurable bone marrow disease, and he has since been a very generous benefactor to research. Without his support, the local healers could not afford the necessary imports to continue research and treatments, and it is made clear that without him, such could not continue. So in Ironbelly's case, we are forced to weigh past deeds against present and future benefits. Does his generosity count as atonement? And what happens to the people who need his money now?

Finally there is the case of Una. Her father made the contract, but he escaped it through some sort of exorcism which ultimately killed him. "The law", Caine explains, says the price must then be paid by his descendents (just as debts can still be collected from one's estate after death, perhaps)--which in this case is Una. Which law, exactly, is not revealed. All we need to know is that Una's head is the one under the axe.
Una clearly has wealth, and we may well suspect much of this was due to an inheritance of contract-gotten gains from her father. She is ruthless in business and bitchy in person. Knowing she is bound to a demon contract has made her hide on holy ground in the temple and pray to the Light Gods, but her heart holds none of their teachings.
Here, we are asked to decide on the basic fairness of her being bound by law to her father's contract -- and weigh with our previous decisions. If we have previously ignored the letter of the law--the fact that there is a contract with the Abyss--and made judgments in different ways, will we now conveniently resolve Una's case by debating law -- in this case, deciding that her inheriting her father's debt is unfair?

We often demand a game to have a long story and a long quest. But long stories aren't necessarily better than good stories (they just give more bang for your buck when you buy a game), and sometimes focussing on the essential emotional elements and moral conflicts -- making people stop to think by wrapping it around a story and engaging them with choices (as a computer role-playing game can, in some limited way) makes the *experience* of a story that much more fulfilling.

caine 2

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