Today, the 4th of July, I can’t help but think of some thoughts that swirled around my head while playing “Witcher 3: A Wild Hunt”. If you weren’t aware, “Witcher 3” is a piece of art disguised as a video game. I haven’t put in a ton of time into it yet but I am incredibly impressed by both the beauty of the world and the storytelling.
Throughout the game, your character encounters a lot of morally ambiguous situations. Your reaction to these situations can impact what you experience in the future and what happens to other characters. Take, for example, a relatively minor situation (excuse me if/when I get some of the details wrong but I think the general gist will be understood). Also, spoilers(ish).
Near the beginning of the game your character (Geralt) is in an area that was recently occupied by an invading army. Geralt has no dog in the fight, he is trying to accomplish something unrelated to the war and really doesn’t need/want to get involved. He soon encounters a leader of the invading army, who seems like a genuinely good guy. He is relatively generous with the peasants and doesn’t seem overly cruel, but he is still the leader of an invading army. So, do you work with him or not? Is there loyalty to him or his cause?
Another character is a freedom-fighter who is fighting the invading army, but his methods are less than ideal. He basically assassinates unarmed medics and such. Is he doing the right thing? Should you turn him in for murder, let him go, something else? Nearly every mission involves some sort of moral grey area. When do the means justify the ends? Do you require peasants to pay you for your monster-fighting services? If someone is suffering from a terminal poison do you let them die peacefully or administer an antidote that may not work and, if it doesn’t work, will make the person suffer until their last breath? When is your mission more important than the overall war or a thousand other things going on? There are rarely, if ever, a clear-cut right decision. And, as such, it is much like real life.
So, that’s the background. I always struggle with RPG’s like this because I want a clear-cut path. If I’m playing a “good guy” then I want a binary choice “kill innocent person or protect innocent person”. I find it difficult to make decisions as another character and instead end up responding how I would respond in real life (or, more accurately, how I would hope I would respond in real life). It is tough, mentally draining, and a beautiful piece of art.
The only time I can RPG in a way that makes the decisions easily is to prioritize loyalty. If I decide I am going to be loyal to Nilfgard then I do what I’m ordered to do or is best for Nilfgard. Loyalty (patriotism, nationalism) in it’s extreme form means forfeiting my own ability to judge morality and giving it over to others. Loyalty is the most cowardly of virtues, it rejects free-will and discomfort and tough choices. Loyalty is for children, not free-thinking adults (and it probably isn’t really for children either. It is the cause of many of the world’s evils. Wars require loyalty instead of thinking. Hatred requires the same.
So, as we sit here on the 4th of July I can’t help but wonder why loyalty has become such a cornerstone for some Americans. The Founders certainly weren’t loyal to an institution, but I guess they were to certain principles. But those principles were antithetical to loyalty. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… these are pursuits that require one to say “I am going to live my life freely and using my own best judgment, and if you get in my way then I will overthrow you”.
Today may be a day of celebration (for some), but that celebration should not involve a pledge of loyalty or allegiance. It shouldn’t involve patriotism or nationalism. Today is supposed to be about casting off the chains of loyalty, of standing independent (as opposed to dependent), and saying “no, my government can be wrong, is wrong, and when it is wrong enough I will get rid of it. I have no duty to protect it.”
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Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”