As I write this, I have Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” on repeat. I am, for the record, not much of an Eminem fan, and as a whole I have a very tenuous relationship with rap. But this song grabs me with a combination of raw power and horror (and musicality) that I find utterly compelling.
Art that depicts terrible things is powerful and dangerous. Depending on the viewer, the terrible thing may be so terrible that the very prospect of any art about it, even art that lays the horror bare, is something they will simply refuse. This reaction allows for the kind of easy snobbery that reveals a true shallowness of understanding in the snob, but it’s a necessary risk in genuinely exposing anything terrible.
There are many terrible things, from the profound to the merely shocking. To me, the most powerful are those that force us to acknowledge that there are real people behind these horrors. That is, to put it bluntly, such a profoundly uncomfortable idea that we instinctively rebel against it. Bad things are done by bad people. They’re sick. Or evil. We don’t like to think of them having parents or children Anything that forces us to see ourselves in these monsters is frightening.
I have played monsters in my day, and it speaks to the real power of this hobby that I can say this with no small amount of discomfort. It is a rare game that allows for that possibility – when choice and context is bounded by the logic of adventure, then choices may get dark, but they rarely end up carrying the weight that forces you to internalize them. At the same time, playing the monsters as we see them teaches us little. Mustache twirling evil and stylish sociopathy can be shocking, certainly, but they are shallow things, little worse than putting on a monster mask and growling.
What a game, a good, deep game, can do is push you to the point where the choices you make are the only choices you can, and make them terrible. You can step through every door, feeling you have no other choice, and find yourself in a place you could not (and would not) have imagined when your journey started. There’s terrible power there, but also the promise of great and frightening insight.
I have played heroes. I have played villains. Both have been fun and rewarding, but few of them stay with me like the monster. I say monster, singular, since for all that I have to say about this, there is only one, and he’s never going to leave my head. This was a great character, fun to play, rewarding in every possible way, but when the time came he made the terrible choices because everything demanded it.
Every hobby has literature about how many valuable lessons you can learn from it. Baseball. Knitting. Checkers. RPGs are strangely short on this, and in fact if you try to talk about the positive things people can get out of RPGs, the strongest criticism you will get will come from within the community. This is a terrible pity. I can literally think of no other hobby that can better arm you to see things through the eyes of others, to understand another viewpoint without letting it become your own.
That understanding can be scary. Really scary and unwelcome at times. It’s a lot easier to live in a world of good and bad people. It’s easier to be able to look on the failings of others and say with all sincerity “I would _never_ do that!” But I sincerely believe that it’s an understanding worth having. Seeing the humanity in someone else’s horror is terribly enlightening, but seeing the monster in yourself, in a real, practical, non-angsty, non-dramatic fashion can blow the doors off. And in seeing it, and understanding it, you can become better.
I don’t write thousands of words about this hobby because I think it’s going to make me rich, or because I have some bizarre dice fetish.
I think better games can make us better people.
Disagree if you like. I’ll understand