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Writing a Neverwinter Nights Module: Do Contemporary Issues and Video Games Mix?

I’ve been working on an NWN module that explores working modern issues into video games stories. Is there untapped potential in this or a fool’s errand?

Rebecca Phoa, Blogger

March 20, 2015

13 Min Read

Do gamers want socially relevant games? I actually typed this into the Google and the popular search engine came up with a number of links to general Wikipedia pages on video games, social network games, two links to the U.K.’s governmental regulating body for commercial gambling such as the lottery, the rather infamous Leigh Alexander ‘Gamers are over’ article, a Kotaku article on real life to playing games balance, and a Polygon opinion on the argument that games need to be ‘fun,’ and not commentary. Out of seven shots, one deflected off the goalpost, while the rest went wide off the net.

I don’t blame the Internet—or people who play video games, or make video games for that matter.

Video games are commercial projects—they need to make money to justify and offset the cost of production. It is not a matter of asking: do I want to make yet another escapist commercial product or do I want to make something that I hope will change hearts and minds?

And unlike the Polygon opinion piece, I’m not talking about implementing LGBT characters or same sex marriage into a life simulation/ant-farm piece. Having more diverse video game characters is good—it is a sign that the video game industry wants to be more inclusive because it’s the right thing to do.

Instead, I’m talking about working contemporary issues into storylines, which is a lot more difficult because depending on the issue, one might think that there are complexities that can’t be watered down and the game will end up being preachy. Or the issue is too important and a video game is not the proper medium (perhaps a documentary or a book instead).

When I was in university, I read about a game called ‘Darfur is Dying’ in an IEEE Computer Society magazine (my brother had a subscription to it because he majored in Electrical Engineering). I was fascinated by the fact that this game was developed solely to give awareness to the crisis in Darfur that saw tens of thousands dead and incurred immense human rights violations. The main character was a boy who had to maneuver his way to a well while avoiding dangers such as militants.

It didn’t occur to me that video games were being used in this manner—as a ‘canvas’ for serious topics. The games I play which are overwhelmingly RPGS involved a lot of monster killing, and general exploration (which actually describes a lot of video games actually)—nothing earth shattering. They were just diversions.

But the context of those games were always about ‘saving the world’ from some menace—power hungry tyrants, long forgotten demons, something awful in whatever form the game developer dreamt of. In practice, the villains all tended to sit back, wait until you grind to level 100, and then you beat it to a pulp in five minutes. Watch the credits roll. Onto the next world that needs saving.

Saving fake worlds is enjoyable, but what about the one that we all live on? A loaded question: is saving the Earth ‘less fun’ than saving, I don’t know—Thedas, Abeir Toril, Hyrule?

--This section contains a long diatribe about the current Canadian political climate regarding a specific issue. You don’t need to read this. This after all is your right.--

‘Most Canadians’: Rhetoric with a Capital R

In Deus Ex, the player can eavesdrop on a conversation between two members of the terrorist NSF faction. The line—‘Rhetoric . It’s always rhetoric’ is spat out in disdain and illustrates just how cynical the world of Deus Ex is. I played the port of the original PC version on the PS2 sometime after 9/11. That the world in the game was struggling with terrorism and that the real world was struggling with terrorism—Deus Ex seemed relevant without being preachy. Despite the game being set in the future—it felt close.

Rhetoric is really just discourse—persuasive talk on any given subject. It isn’t just for the political arena, though a lot of modern rhetoric tends to be political.

An example of Canadian political rhetoric is the debate surrounding the niqab. As the general political climate heats up on Islamic extremism, this kind of talk may not necessarily be isolated to just Canada, but other western nations.

As reported by the CBC on February 12, Prime Minister Harper announced that he would appeal a federal court ruling that would allow women to wear a niqab to citizen oath ceremonies. A Mississauga woman Zunera Ishaq launched a motion to allow her to wear her niqab when taking the citizenship oath despite the 2011 ban on full face veils. She was allowed to unveil privately to a woman citizenship official during her citizenship test.

The federal court ruled ‘that the law is inconsistent with the duty given to citizenship judges. All that's needed, the judge ruled, is for citizenship applicants to sign a form saying they've taken the oath. The judge declined to comment on the charter aspects of the case because the decision could be made on a non-charter basis.’

Critics questioned the motivation of the government’s appeal—chalking it up to Islamaphobia and the broader strategy talking about jihadi terror. Lorne Waldman—the woman’s lawyer stated that in regards to the no-veil policy ‘There is no security issue involved here, there's no legal basis for this policy in my view. I find it disturbing that the government would persist in pursuing a policy that, in my view, has no legal foundation.’

Further debate about the niqab surfaced in Canadian politics when Harper again denounced the niqab as rooted in a culture that is ‘anti-women.’

Off on a tangent: it is possible to contest that western society has been ‘anti-women’ in their own way. According to author Jill Lepore, Harvard University banned suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst from speaking on campus in 1911 (Lepore, J. The Secret History of Wonder Woman, p. 8-11). The Harvard corporation was not keen to be seen to endorse women’s rights—in a previous lecture, Florence Kelley had made a statement linking the women’s vote to bettering the lives of the working poor. The corporation did not allow women to speak—the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage submitted a petition—the corporation relented provided Kelley’s lecture be closed to those outside of the university. The corporation wanted the Men’s League’s next speaker to be opposed to women’s suffrage. Instead they invited Pankhurst—that caused the ban with the reiteration that women were not to speak on campus. Suffrage in the U.K. was much more ‘militant’—resulting in arrests and eventual force feedings due to hunger strikes—Pankhurst was one of them. The protestors even chained themselves to the gates of 10 Downing Street.

In response, opposition MPs wasted no time in expressing their criticisms.

Charlie Angus, an opposition NDP MP had this to say, ‘If I was a Muslim Canadian, I would be very, very, very concerned about where our prime minister is going with this hot-button race rhetoric.’

Upping the ante, Justin Trudeau—leader of the Liberal Party likened niqab rhetoric to Canada’s 1933 ‘none is too many’ anti-Semitic policy which turned back Jewish refugees of the Holocaust from entrance. 

In response to Trudeau’s speech, Minister of Defence Jason Kenney slammed the Liberal leader for conflating public citizenship ceremonies with an anti-Semitic bar on refugees fleeing the Holocaust. Then in a tweet, posted up photos of chained veiled Muslim women and girls saying ‘On #IWD2015, thank-you to the @CanadianForces for joining the fight against #ISIL's campaign to enslave women & girls.’

It was pointed out that the images used in Kenney’s tweet were stock photos from a pantomime celebrating the annual Shia festival of Ashura, in which women re-enact a medieval legend about the revered Imam Hussein. It is considered no different than re-enactments of Jesus hauling a giant cross on his way to the crucifixion (Via Dolorosa).

I don’t think I need to tell you that reaction was swift and negative. Not that the Minister of Public Safety, Steven Blaney was any better at avoiding the same pit Trudeau fell into. You can see rather quickly why rhetoric is such a dirty word these days. It is difficult to acknowledge that rhetoric has become divisive and angry.

If this is what rhetoric has become, I don’t want it.

-- This ends the section regarding the current Canadian political climate regarding a specific issue. If you read it, you can understand my frustration.--


The way modern rhetoric is being used, I can understand the resistance to serious topics in video games. If games are ‘fun,’ the only part of a rhetoric based video game that will be ‘fun’ is the part when the player is boots all the politicians out the door. Cynical politics—this rhetoric is not about opening up meaningful discussion, it’s about shutting it down.


When in Doubt, Make it Anyway

While the people who run the country I live in continue to bicker over what women can or can’t wear and for what reasons; I’ve been working on a pet project and yes it is rhetoric based.

I wanted to create a detective story NWN module because there was a gap in similar content in the NWN mods that I saw. Many of the modules were stock fantasy stories and monsters are the main targets. Rather I wanted the player to solve criminal cases in a city. That meant less monster hunting, and perhaps more talking.

My initial writing of the various crime cases the player would solve was going to be similar to a police procedural. You would have the victim, the motive, the player would gather evidence, talk to witnesses, solve puzzles if needed, and be given a reward—pass or fail.

As I worked on fleshing out each case, I ended up reading a lot of news stories—depressing as they were, all were informative for my project.

Now I don’t work in a bubble, I get ideas for stories all the time through what I read, view, and play. It was not my intention to build stories from the Canadian newsfeed. But like good police procedurals, their strength is in how up to date with current events they are.


So let’s try this—the Forgotten Realms mixed in with climate change. In converting 3rd edition to 4th, WOTC made the FR a wasteland through the usage of a literary device called the Spellplague. In places where wild magic was most prominent, these areas got hit the most. Wild magic was a byproduct of a previous literary device called the Time of Troubles.

The Time of Troubles is a storyline used to explain a host of events. In the video game Baldur’s Gate, it is used to explain how and why the Lord of Murder—Bhaal ended up with a lot of demi-god children. The Time of Troubles also ended up killing and creating various gods and goddesses—one of which was the Goddess of Magic Mystra. Upon her death, all the magic in the land went haywire and the by-product wild magic was created. In addition, zones of wild magic and even dead magic zones appeared. A dead magic zone is where magic just doesn’t work, and wild magic zones are areas where magic is distorted or damaged.

So we know magic isn’t real but climate change is. Yet with some creative wrangling, a DM can ‘create’ a basic idea of transplanting something like climate change to the FR.

In DnD, Wild magic is described as being chaotic and untameable. Mages who indulge in wild magic do not try to reign in wild magic—rather they let the raw power flow which can lead to the magic backfiring—having its effects fizzle, dramatically increase in strength, or change someone’s gender.

In the real world, an ice storm is considered an event of ‘wild weather.’ Wild weather has been scientifically linked to climate change and such events can cause physical damage or drought. If an ice storm were to happen in the FR, then it could be chalked up to a minor ice spell ballooning into something much greater due a wild surge, and have it hit a village ruining crops and homes. Or at least that’s how *I* would write it. All mages who practice wild magic can damage their world—they are the idling cars of the FR.

Granted it’s not perfect, but it is better than not trying.


Interesting Stories

Each case the player needs to solve incorporates at least one issue from the real world. For the first case which acts a basic tutorial, the player needs to track down a missing factory owner. As the head of a corporation, he has a large reach in society. He provides jobs, taxes for the city, and economic growth. By having the player search for a businessman—it lays down the foundation that this ‘world’ will be worse off if the player fails in his/her task. The business will be dissolved, people will lose their jobs, and the economy will falter. It is not just about finding a man—but someone who greatly affects the society he lives in.

But it wouldn’t be an interesting story without incorporating fantastical elements. What if this businessman wasn’t just a suit—but a former adventurer that suffered from guilt stemming from a past expedition gone wrong? What if his factory was the end result of that trauma?

The player eventually finds out that the businessman encountered a powerful foe. Though the businessman got away with riches, he lost his team and invested all his wealth into a factory to ‘make up’ for his sins. But it wasn’t enough—someone from his team survived and wanted revenge so the businessman was lured into a trap. The player is required to ‘negotiate’ for the businessman’s life. The player not only drives the narrative forward, but a player’s actions can affect how much reward money is received (which is tied to player levelling) and a variable setting which determines which (of 2) conclusions for the case is given when the player finishes the module.

In addition to the main quest line, the player can choose to complete side quests. The optional nature of side quests allow for the exploration of related topics. One side quest involves the player looking into an old industrial accident where all the workers were killed. The factory workers now all haunt the place looking for someone to put them to rest. The player is told that the foreman took the blame despite his warnings that the factory needed mandatory repairs. By revealing the truth regarding the accident, the ghosts are put to rest.


In Conclusion

This is an uneven post—there are things I want to say about traditional video game content in that it needs to go beyond cleaving monsters into two and justifying it as ‘saving the world’.

I am heartened by the increase of independent game developer efforts in this general direction. Serious games, Papers Please, and This War of Mine for example offer alternatives to mainstream entertainment such as a Skyrim or Call of Duty. Both kinds can exist with each other in the same eco-system. It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game—something all politicians can learn from.


Book References

Lepore, Jill. The Secret History of Wonder Woman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

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