Heroes of Might and Magic II, for those of you not in the know, it a turn based fantasy strategy game built around resource gathering and army on army combat. For a more detailed explanation, check here.
The campaign starts off with a cutscene explaining the premise of The Succession War the game is subtitled for. The old king that had united the continent under his rule has died and left two heirs: Roland the good guy and Archibald the not so good guy. Normally the royal seer would choose, but several ‘accidents’ happened and Archibald accuses Roland of killing and conspiring to take the crown. Roland runs off, fearing for his life and Archibald ‘influences’ the new seer and gets crowned king. Roland doesn’t like that and the two end up going to war. You are then given the choice of which lord to serve, nothing too complicated. The rest of the campaign is a series of missions set up by intermediate cutscenes that give an over arching flow to the campaign.
The game came out back in 1996, long before the industries present fixation on moral choice. Heroes of Might and Magic II starts off with a choice. The implications between the two men are rather clear in deed and imagery. One man offers a clean conscience and a place in the kingdom and the other monetary reward and a place in the kingdom. This is the truest sense of a moral choice, because yes there is an offer of reward, but it doesn’t happen within the mechanics of the game. The choice has no connection to ludic elements whatsoever. The only real difference between the two campaigns is which of the six castle types and therefore which troops you have access to. Each side gets three, an early martial based castle, a midlevel castle and hard hitting late game castle. The choice is between which man you are going to work for and given they offer the same thing it really is about which man are you going to help rule the kingdom.
Roland’s campaign has you starting out in the far corner of the continent with limited money to fight with so you have to gather allies by subduing the local lords, saving the Dwarven kingdom, and gathering resource rich areas before moving on to engage Archibald’s forces. A few extra missions to gather the additional forces and magic for the final assault against the capital where you’ve forced Archibald to hole up in.
Archibald’s campaign is directly opposite in tone, but mirrors the strategy. He forces any reluctant lords to accept his rule and crushes those that will not submit like the Dwarven kingdom. He then engages Roland’s forces and puts down any opposition he faces. A few extra mission as he gathers up additional forces and items before the final assault on Roland’s forces at his summer palace in the remote regions of the continent.
The campaigns mirror each other. The gameplay within the missions of gather gold and resources, build and recruit monsters is the same in both campaigns, so where is the moral choice? What exactly makes working for Roland different from working for Archibald once you’ve started? In this I think Heroes of Might and Magic does it better than Bioshock, inFamous, or KotOR.
The moral choice is in the context. For those who bother to pay attention and see the context the campaigns have set up you will see what your use of the game’s mechanics actually mean within the game world. Nothing is different mechanically, but the means is very different between the two campaigns. In fact, some of the missions themselves mirror each other. In Roland’s campaign you are give some forces to protect a number of Dwarven villages under siege that cannot be upgraded scattered across the map, while in Archibald’s campaign you are given a castle and more resources to go and conquer the Dwarven kingdom.
In Roland’s missions you never feel uneasy about the goal you are given, because the context never make you question what you are doing. You are courting allies, not subduing them. You are gathering resources, not taking them. And most importantly, you are defeating enemies, not destroying them.
In Archibald’s campaign you are working for the bad guy. Sometimes it’s cheesy, but it is never hidden right down to the maniacal laughing and the chained up Dragon king next to his throne. The mission that stands out most to me is the one where you have to put down a peasant revolt and are told to make an example of them. There are groups of peasant of wandering monsters armies that number in the thousands. They are the weakest creature in the game, but are powerful in such numbers. The only real strategy to defeating them is to build up some archers and keep your distance as they try to cross the field and cut them down. Then your hero’s necromancy ability comes into play after the battle by turning a third of those you killed into skeleton soldiers. Halfway through the mission I felt sick, realizing what I was doing in the context of the world. I was slaughtering thousands and then desecrating their corpses by having them fight their comrades who were fighting a totalitarian king. Yet there was nothing really different in my actions from when I played Roland’s campaign.
The title to the post refers to the Aesop fable “The Farmer and the Stork.” In it a farmer want to stop the cranes from destroying his crops and so sets up a number of nets to catch them. When he goes to check the traps he find along with the cranes, a noble stork. The stork asks to be released for he is not a crane, nor there to harm his crops. The farmer responds that the stork is as bad as the crane for being with them. The moral of the story is “choose your friends wisely.”
The story highlights another interesting point in that you are not playing as either Roland or Archibald, but a general who chooses to follow either one or the other. In this manner you are not good or evil, but are only a tactician ordering troops and working on strategy. There are only two moral choices in the whole game. The one at the beginning and one about halfway through before the fifth mission, aptly named ‘Turning Point’ for both the point in the war and your own choice. In both campaigns after you are given your orders from the lord you are following you are given the opportunity to change sides. Roland will appeal to your sense of decency and Archibald will appeal to your greed and sense of self-preservation. Should you change sides you are sent a message from your former commander, one of rage and threats by Archibald or one of profound disappointment from Roland.
Beyond those two decisions the only other choices you make are tactical. You are just doing your job. Like the stork caught by the farmer with the cranes you are judged by the company you keep. You are good or evil not by what you do, but by your association with Roland or Archibald.
There may not be more of a message about morality in Heroes II, but the game sets up a structure for examining ones own actions. Looking at your actions in the context given is what morality is about and trying to emphasize that in game is a better way to seek a message about morality than an arbitrary dichotomy within the game.