I’m not surprised that I ended up enjoying My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I went into it expecting a charming, adorable, and occassionally funny kid’s cartoon. What I Was not expecting is that the show is probably the best cartoon to hit the air in ten years. (No, seriously, ten years. That’s how long it’s been now since Powerpuff Girls and Batman Beyond were in their prime.)
Part of the show’s winning formula is the level of complexity and nuance in its main cast. Most cartoons tend to define their characters in terms of one or two simple character traits, then spend a few dozen episodes ramming those traits into each other at warp speed. Indeed, MLP does this in its two-part premiere, where each of the main characters is introduced as the embodiment of a particular “Element of Harmony”. These elements take the shape of one of the positive aspects of friendship, like “loyalty” and “kindness”. This is standard kid’s show stuff. Where MLP stands apart is, well, after the premiere the Elements aren’t ever mentioned again (at least in the first season), and the characters just sort of ignore the part where they are magical friendship superheroes. The plots of the actual episodes still focus around the ponies and the traits they embody, but the focus is on how those traits create and alleviate conflict, how they interact with each other, when they are inappropriate (and to what degree), and so on.
Of course it’s impossible for me to enjoy a thing and not think of that thing in terms of video games I’ve played. As it happens, I have played a video game that is designed around the concept of exploring the conflicts and rewards of being virtuous: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. Years ago this was one of my favorite NES games. (I didn’t play the original computer version until much later. And yes, I still prefer the NES version, thankyouverymuch.) What I enjoyed about Avatar was, it wasn’t about going on adventures or destroying evil. You did both of those things, of course, but the main focus on the game was becoming a hero through small, simple actions rather than huge world-sweeping changes. In Final Fantasy you were a hero because you killed the most OGREs and then woke up a sleeping prince — and then you were rewarded for your actions. In Avatar you were a hero because you selflessly gave your blood to help the sick, and never short-changed the blind alchemist who sold you regeants. There was no reward; these acts were meant to be heroic in their own right. Even as a wee lad, the difference was not lost on me.
Once I realized MLP was, in a weird and roundabout way, exploring the same ground that Ultima IV does, my brain filled up with comparisons and contrasts. It’s obvious that neither entity is informed or inspired by the other. The timeline doesn’t work out, for one thing. For another, like I said, identifying virtues and then running your protagonists through them is pretty well-worn territory. And yet another, the target audiences are totally different; Ultima IV is a story about a burgeoning hero becoming a shining paragon of humanity — the perfect tale for dungeon hackers who loved Lord of the Rings and other high fantasy. MLP is meant to teach little kids about the nature of friendship by showing cartoon ponies throwing parties and eating apples in an idyllic fairytale setting.
But the idea of two mutually-exclusive fictional worlds defining the concept of virtue is too delicious to pass up. Two stories with different settings, goals and audiences — do they find any common ground when they attempt to define what a good person is? If so, do they take the same approach when it comes to the sorts of conflict that virtue might face? And if not, why not? Later Ultima games tackle some of these questions too, when the Avatar encounters new cultures with totally different sets of Virtues. How do Britannia and Equestria stack up?
In Ultima each of the Virtues is derived from some combination of the three Principles of Truth, Love and Courage. This gives us as good a place as any to begin.
Britannia: The Virtue of Humility (no Principles)
Equestria: (no Element analog)
Though it is comprised of none of the three Principles, Humility is sort of the ultimate goal of the Avatar. The Avatar doesn’t seek glory, wealth or prestige for his actions, but persues the Virtues for their own sake. In Ultima IV, Humility is embodied by a shepherd with no particular strengths or combat benefits. In Britannian lore the eighth Virtue was once Pride, the very opposite of Humility. However, the boastful town made to celebrate Pride ended up in ruins, as it is (in excess) the absence of the three Principles. The idea is something like this: the path of the Avatar, and the study of the three Principles, is a journey of self-examination. One cannot begin such a journey if one’s mind is clouded with pride of conceit. So Humility isn’t the absence of the Principles, so much as the place where they begin.
Humility isn’t one of the Elements of Harmony. “Be humble” is not an easy concept compared to “be nice” or “be generous”. It’s not like pride is such a bad thing, after all; it’s as important to get a sense of satisfaction from one’s talents as it is to resist boasting about them. The various ponies are prideful and humble in various degrees, and one episode in particular deals with how excessive application of either one is undesireable.
Britannia: The Virtue of Valor (Principle of Courage)
Equestria: (no Element analog)
Pure Courage leads to the Virtue of Valor, and is tested by one’s ability to stand up for one’s beliefs and convictions. In Ultima IV this means standing your ground against monsters. Running away and giving up is cowardly, and therefore unvirtuous. Simply by being an RPG, it’s pretty easy for the player to uphold this Virtue. After all, ignoring it means throwing away all that precious EXP and gold.
Courage is a big part of the ponies’ lives, as they face their share of adventures and danger. It doesn’t play an active role in maintaining and uphold friendships, however, so it didn’t make the cut as one of the six Elements. When it does come into play, it takes shape as one pony overcoming her fears in order to stand up for her friends.
Britannia: The Virtue of Compassion (Principle of Love)
Equestria: The Element of Kindness
Pure Love begets the Virtue of Compassion, empathy for one’s fellow man. Compassion would be on anyone’s list of virtues, and is one of the easiest to uphold. Moral dilemmas involving Compassion are usually a slam dunk; it’s hard to justify being cruel in any situation. In the games you can prove you’re compassionate by refraining from killing townsfolk and giving to beggars. Most modern games that feature some kind of morality system generally revolve around these sorts of acts. (Most modern games give rewards for being evil, though, so they aren’t worth considering for this discussion.)
In Ponyville, Kindness is the Element that is most difficult to pinpoint. This is a world where everyone is nice to everyone else pretty much all the time. The pony who carries this Element doesn’t get a lot of opportunity to “show it off”, as it were; whenever she’s a source of conflict, it’s usually because of one of her more prominent character flaws (silence, meekness, cowardice). She does, however, have a strong empathy for animals and other creatures, thereby demonstrating Kindness in directions other ponies may overlook.
Interestingly, this Element is “ignored” more than the others. Because the other Elements have negative applications and can therefore create conflict, the only way this particular character can “be bad” is to forego Kindness completely. This usually happens when she becomes so frustrated or terrified that she simply explodes in a comical burst of anger. The end result is, because being unkind is so out of character for any pony, the one who is supposed to be extra super nice had a hair trigger built right into her personality.
Britannia: The Virtue of Honesty (Principle of Truth)
Equestria: The Element of Honesty
Like Compassion, Honesty is a pretty essential part of any virtuous toolbox. Telling the truth is such a universal good that it’s one of the earliest things we instill in our children… and yet it’s one of the hardest things to consistently uphold in our adult lives. It’s far easier to hold yourself to the standards of Honesty in games like Ultima IV, where telling the truth is as easy as picking the proper option off the in-game menu. The Avatar proves himself an honest person simply by not stealing the things he finds in towns. This is most visible in the case of the blind regeant vendors who sell magic ingredients. You get to choose how much you pay for your adventuring groceries, but paying less than the proper amount is, of course, dishonest. You can run around the game with near infinite amounts of every magic spell, if you so choose — but of course this is Ultima IV, so you’ll never win the game that way.
Honesty is the only Virtue that translates directly into an Element of Harmony, name and all. The pony in charge of this Element does have cause to be dishonest at certain points, but it’s clear she’s always incredibly uncomfortable doing so, and it never actually benefits her in an appreciable way. In one episode she is running a race with clear rules. Though she never violates any rules herself, she does cheat when it becomes apparent her closest competition is doing everything in her power to sabotage her. Of course neither of them win the race, and there’s the lesson for the week.
What I find most interesting in how these two settings treat Honesty is the stark contrast in which character they chose to personify it. In Ultima Honesty is the realm of mages. Which, in RPG terms, means combatants who are physically weak, frail and slow. In MLP, Honesty was given to the strongest, most physically capable pony of the bunch. The concept of “don’t lie, it’s not nice” is applicable in so many different directions that it could be attached to just about any style of character. That isn’t true of the other entries on this list.
Britannia: The Virtue of Sacrifice (Courage + Love)
Equestria: The Element of Generosity
An act of Sacrifice is the giving of oneself, be it by coin or blood, to the benefit of another. It’s, ah, never really explained how giving blood (that is, HP) is supposed to help the sick and needy. Perhaps Britannia invented blood transfusions centuries before we did. The basic concept is simple, though: greed is evil, and if you have wealth it is virtuous to share it. The more you give, the further along you are in this Virtue. If you give even to the point of your own detriment, the game recognizes that as your sense of Sacrifice being all the higher.
MLP puts an interesting twist on the concept, because the most generous pony is also the greediest and most vain. She is constantly seeking and amassing wealth, and isn’t above taking advantage of her friends in pursuit of that goal. However, she is never selfish. She is in a constant state of giving; she is always making promises and doing favors, and on multiple occassions has shown up to help do things she personally finds distasteful.
The contrast here is that Britannia is a world where pain and want exist, and Equestria isn’t. In the former, Sacrifice is exemplified by acts of charity. In the latter, Generosity means offering services or giving gifts. Selflessness takes on a different shape depending on what sorts of things are in demand in a particular setting. In Britannia, that’s blood and gold. In Equestria it simply means being thoughtful. Therefore, the use of two separate terms for the same basic concept makes perfect sense.
Britannia: The Virtue of Honor (Courage + Truth)
Equestria: (no Element analog)
When Britannians speak of Honor, they are speaking of classical chivalry. In my opinion Honor is the least well-defined of the Virtues; upholding Honor sort of happens automatically by upholding Honesty and Valor. It was, however, the Virtue I most often found myself playing as; selecting Honor as your primary Virtue let you play as a paladin and, well, I’ve sort of always had a thing for paladins.
Chivalry obviously has no place in Equestria. In the broader sense of the word, “honor” is pretty much a synonym for “honesty”, which has already been covered. We often use the term in situations where one demonstrates honesty outside of simply telling the truth. For example, by not cheating, or going back on your word, or betraying someone’s trust. The closest we get, after disqualifying Honesty, is Loyalty. But man, that pony is about as far away from a paladin as you can conceivably get, so the whole comaprison breaks down.
Britannia: The Virtue of Justice (Truth + Love)
Equestria: (no Element analog)
Justice is defined as “Truth tempered by Love”, and is held in high regard by Britannia’s system of law; the precarious balance of punishment and forgiveness. Wrongs must be righted, but not by exacting vengeance. Without Love, the pursuit of Truth may well lead to cruelty and tyranny. This Virtue is better defined in the lore than is Honor, but it has a hard time fitting into gameplay. One becomes more just in essentially the same way one becomes more honest. (I think a truly just hero isn’t allowed to attack certain enemies, but I also think that’s a gameplay contrivance that was left out of the NES version, so I never had to deal with it.)
MLP tackles issues of fairness in much the same way as it tackles issues of courage: they tend to crop up as broad elements of the current situation, rather than as aspects of any one particular pony’s personality. Because this is a cotton candy cartoon world, conflicts are always resolved in the fairest way possible, and transgressions are always cheerfully forgiven. If Equestria has a justice system in place, I haven’t seen it. (There are mentions of being exiled, thrown into dungeons, and exiled and then thrown into a dungeon in the place you were exiled to… but no indication that these things actually happen.)
Britannia: The Virtue of Spirituality (Truth + Love + Courage)
Equestria: The Element of Magic
Spirituality is a very nebulous Virtue that has no set definition. Because it contains all three principles, it also contains all of the Virtues, and as a result you might think of it more as “the sum of all Virtues” rather than a Virtue all to itself. In game terms, raising Spirituality happens by praying at the shrines of the other Virtues… an action you have to do many times over the course of the game. As a result, you don’t really raise Spirituality the way you do the rest of the pack; it just happens naturally in your pursuit of the other seven.
The mystical, loosely-defined pony equivalent is the Element of Magic. Where the Virtues of Britannia are presented as a complex heirarchy, the Elements of Harmony are independent entities… except for Magic, which is a “secret Element” that only appears when the other five are gathered together.
Okay, so as virtues go, “spirituality” and “magic” are both kind of cop-outs. Isn’t it interesting, though, that both of these fictional morality systems needs a formless “sum of all good things” to sit on top of them? Perhaps there is some instinctual understanding that having a moral center is more than just adhering to a set of rules and actions, but that understanding is nearly impossible to define. So slap some duct tape on it, give it a nice name, and move on.
Britannia: (no Virtue analog)
Equestria: The Element of Loyalty
Loyalty means never abandoning your friends, even when doing so would benefit you or otherwise prevent you from embarassment or harm. Tests of Loyalty come into play when a pony is given the choice between her friends and something else she wants. So far as I’ve seen (the complete first season), this particular pony has chosen her friends every single time — and in fact is the only pony who has never stepped outside of her Element. (Of course, she’s also the quickest pony to do something selfish, unkind or dishonest, too, so maybe it’s a wash.)
How strange that Britannia doesn’t regard Loyalty as a Virtue. Looking back over their system of morality, it does seem to be a pretty large hole. It almost looks like it’s tied up with Honor, if you squint, but that ended up being a much broader brush. There aren’t any points in Ultima IV where you could choose betrayal even if you wanted to, but I don’t think this has anything to do with why it was left out. After all, during the game’s development the Virtues came first, then the systems which would test the player on them.
Personally, I think Justice is much better defined as Truth + Courage (that is, the courage to apply punishment fairly, without regard for emotional appeal), which frees up a space for Loyalty as Truth + Love (the ability to keep your words and deeds, as an act of respect and compassion), and jettisons the otherwise hollow Honor entirely. I am officially smarter than Lord British, you guys.
Britannia: (no Virtue analog)
Equestria: The Element of Laughter
…and now we’ve come full circle. Just like Humility has no real place in defining and upholding friendship, neither does Laughter really embody any aspects of the Three Principles. In fact, I don’t think there’s anyplace in all of Britannia where the subject is even addressed.
…I stand corrected.
Neither avatars nor ponies have a monopoly on designing a fictional setting around a moral framework. Where they stand apart from the rest of the flock is the way their conflict arises from the Virtues/Elements themselves, rather than from some dark, evil force which opposes them. Both worlds have such dark forces, but they’re almost incidental. The message is, you can’t hope to stand against that kind of true, elemental darkness unless you are rock solid in your own morality. In Ultima this means first mastering the Virtues and becoming the Avatar. In MLP it means maintaining good friendships, without which the magical Elements simply won’t respond.
The clearest example of this conflict in Ultima IV is in the very beginning. You don’t roll up a new character by picking your stats and job off a menu. Rather, you take a brief personality test where the game determines which of the eight Virtues is most important to you. You’re asked to solve moral dilemmas which have no right or wrong answer, but which reveal something about your nature. (“A burly knight accosts thee and demands thy food. Dost thou Valiantly refuse and attack the knight, or Sacrifice thy food unto the hungry knight?”) In this way we are taught that the Virtues, while all important, sometimes stand against one another. That’s why upholding all eight is such an heroic feat, and why the avatar is such a special dude. (This contrivance falls away once the game actually starts, of course, or it’d be impossible to finish.)
Meanwhile, the Elements of Harmony rarely stand in opposition to one another. Rather, each individual Element tends to create situations which place stress on the ponies’ friendship. Generosity causes one pony to make promises she has trouble keeping, while Honesty causes another to have difficulty keeping secrets, and Kindness prevents a third from sharing her opinions for fear of hurting her friends’ feelings. They aren’t presented as virtues which, once attained, lead to perfect behavior. Instead, they’re general guidelines to be adhered to but which, like all things, can lead to complications.
Moral ambiguities are a part of life, but they’re rarely a part of our media. Our movies focus on generic “just be nice” messages, while our games give us all-or-nothing decisions and encourage us to be either paragons or villains. That has to be why this subject is so fascinating to me. What other games/shows/cartoons are out there which explore the concept of virtue as a journey, rather than a destination?