I’m an admitted thief. I break into houses at night, burgle the valuables inside, and pawn these items for cold hard cash. It doesn’t matter if I’m wandering the Mojave Wasteland or strolling the streets of Beregost, I’ll never pass up an easy mark. Some may call my actions reprehensible, but I prefer the term chaotic neutral.
Theft is a hallmark aspect of morality in western roleplaying games. Picking locks, hiding in shadows, and pickpocketing have become staple skills in this genre, regardless of the era or setting of the game. It’s not hard to see why. The choice between earning a desired item or stealing it is one of the most fundamental moral decisions a person can make. Abiding by the law provides us a sense of moral satisfaction; breaking it allows us a cloying childlike glee, akin to stealing a cookie from the jar when your parents aren’t looking. Because of this, stealing has become the base measure of any virtual morality system.
It’s a moral choice that’s distinctly absent in Japanese roleplaying games. Non-player characters in your typical Final Fantasy or Breath of Fire installment nonchalantly meander about their homes, ignoring the player as they intrusively rummage for potions, herbs, and other miscellaneous tinctures. Locked doors are either impassable until a certain plot point is completed or erstatzly painted on the wall, yielding to no amount of roguish chicanery. Theft isn’t something that is implicitly discouraged by the player’s real world experience; rather, it is explicitly disallowed within the game’s universal rules.
Not to say this is necessarily a bad thing. In many ways, stealing is an incredibly tedious mechanic. The original Baldur’s Gate, which I’m currently enjoying the enhanced re-release of, is a good example. I wager 98% of what is available to steal from non-player character dwellings is completely worthless. Locked chests often conceal only mundane books or crossbow ammunition – and occasionally nothing at all. The carrot-on-a-stick that keeps the player motivated is the promise of a rare magical item, gem, or potion, but these treasures are few and far between. As a result, crime sprees end up feeling more like scratch lottery tickets.
Fallout 3 and it’s sequel New Vegas suffered from the same problem. Locked safes and footlockers were abundant, but many contained wasteland scrap or token amounts of money. The limited supply of lock picks aggravated the issue, making the player feel especially stupid for blowing seven or eight bobby pins on a safe holding three bottle caps and a bottle of Abraxo cleaner.
One could argue that online walkthroughs exist that point players to valuable caches, but this is an obtuse answer. There are many novel features that could be added within the game to make stealing less aimless of a pastime. My suggestion is the addition of an appraise skill. This skill would allow a player to accurately estimate the value of any item they see as well as the relative wealth of non-player characters they meet. Not sure if a home is worth burgling? Poke your head inside and appraise the first couple of items you see. Bump into someone adorned in valuable trinkets? Stealthily follow him home and rob him once he falls asleep. This extra information would deter the tedious “scorched earth” methodology of robbing everyone, in every city, every time.
Non-player characters could play into this as well. Peasants might comment disdainfully about the avarice of local nobility, subtly dropping the names of certain wealthy citizens and where they reside. More directly, a roguish connection could tip the player off to where the greatest treasures in a city reside – for a price. The Elder Scrolls series has implemented this to an extent, but the errands doled out by the thieves guild in Oblivion always felt more like fetch quests than acts of thievery.
Stealing in video games isn’t going anywhere. The guilty pleasure of instigating a one-man rise in crime resonates just as much today as it in 1998. But the mechanics behind stealing have not aged gracefully since Baldur’s Gate, and I implore developers to knock the rust off this iconic component of the roleplaying game genre.