I am, in general, a fan of dark, gritty fiction. This includes books like Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, television shows like the new Daredevil series, movies like Bladerunner, and video games like Shadowrun Returns and Shadowrun Dragonfall. However, I recently came across a complaint that I think is somewhat fair when it comes to this kind of material. It is easy for writers to slip in more or less subtle prods towards their own moral opinions. Sometimes, as in Erikson’s series, this is consistently well done and the moral stances that the characters take generally fit with their overall beliefs and behaviors. However, Shadowrun Dragonfall, some players have complained, suffers from a case of dissonance.
For those of you who are not players, the Shadowrun world is a cyberpunk fantasy setting–that is to say that it is set in the relatively near future, includes some advanced technology (such as a living internet where hackers port their consciousness into the internet via avatars and, in bad circumstances, can even be killed by computer programs) along with elves, orcs, trolls, dragons, and various kinds of magic. The world of Shadowrun is not a nice place. Much of it is run by massive corporations that tend to view people as replaceable parts of a machine. Most people eek out a living totally beholden to such corporations, but there is some question as to whether the corporations are entirely evil or simply doing what it takes to take care of their own. Enter the shadowrunners, for whom the table-top game, book series, and video games are named. These are highly specialized experts in covert operations who sell their services to various governments, corporations, or private interests to perform a wide variety of black ops missions ranging from guarding valuable shipments, infiltration and espionage, assassination, etc. So, for all intents and purposes the shadowrunners are high-end criminals who steal and kill for a living. This raises the question: was that security guard you shot really a bad guy? Or was he just an everyday guy who was trying to earn enough money to feed his family? Maybe the corporation you stole that chemical formula from was going to use it for nefarious purposes, but are the employers for whom you stole it really going to do anything better with it?
However, in the storyline of Dragonfall the main characters are essentially presented as a group of do-gooders or something close. They may run the occasional mission that requires them to murder a few civilians, plant a bomb, or steal the plans for a new chemical weapon and hand it over to a terrorist group, but they are mostly interested in fighting the raging war against racism, poverty, and corporate greed. Now, it should be noted that in the game you do have the choice to avoid missions that will clearly involve acts like killing civilians or supporting terrorist groups, and even on those missions where there is some risk of this, you generally have the option of avoiding violence as much as possible. So, you can actually play as the Robin Hood of a small neighborhood of Berlin, investing your actions into making the neighborhood a safer, better place to live–which perhaps makes the criticism of this particular game less valid. However, this still raises the question: can we really believe that a bunch of professional criminals are devoting their time to protecting a small neighborhood and ending poverty, racism, etc? Would someone who wanted to pursue these goals become a professional criminal in the first place? Its kind of like saying that someone would join the mob to help drug addicts.
So, the background of your characters, their careers, skills, etc will inevitably influence their moral perspectives. A professional sniper is unlikely to be a pacifist, and a professional prostitute is unlikely to have strong sexual ethics. However, there are ways around this. For instance, a professional sniper who, after shooting a child, went through a significant moral conflict and decided that his former perspective was entirely wrong is a complicated, but realistic character. Similarly, a prostitute who works to support her mother and sisters, and has no other skills or opportunities, but still holds strongly to religious beliefs and thus considers herself morally defiled is also a complicated, but realistic character. The key is the character’s reasoning.
We generally don’t do things, especially not things like devoting ourselves to strong principled goals or acting against our firmly held beliefs, just because. So, we cannot simply say that a character who has been a career criminal can’t be devoted to ending poverty or racism. Instead, we must ask why the character is so committed and how the character reconciles his/her criminal acts with his/her humanitarian efforts. So, perhaps my team of career criminals in Dragonfall used to be in it for the money, but each of them had some epiphany that gave them cause to examine and reconsider the paths of their lives. Perhaps each then decided to find a way to use the skills nurtured by a life of crime to instead give something back to the community. I’m not going to make the argument that Dragonfall specifically does this well. Instead, I am simply making that argument that it can be done well, and that it is something that you should consider. As I tell my students, make sure to ask the ‘why’ questions. Why does your character say/thing/act in this particular way? What past events and line of reasoning explains this? Remember that complicated characters are a good thing. Characters that have made mistakes and learned from them are certainly a boon to a good story, but there needs to be a clear reasoning behind the complications.