Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Crimes.

Night in the Woods is one of the rare games that I've both been looking forward to playing and know almost nothing about. It isn't a sequel or from a familiar developer or based on an existing story. But it's frequently been mentioned alongside a variety of games that I know and dearly love, so I treated it with reverence, studiously avoiding spoilers or, really, any information at all.



In retrospect, I probably didn't need to be that paranoid. It isn't a particularly twisty game, and would probably still be as enjoyable if you went in knowing the characters and overall plot. Regardless, it's always nice to go into something cold and have it delight you.



From the minuscule amount of information I'd gleaned prior to playing, I'd vaguely thought that it would be similar to Oxenfree: following a group of young people revisiting a familiar place, encountering unusual phenomena, solving puzzles. However, it ended up being a lot more like Life Is Strange, oddly crossed with Dex. It has a marvelously relaxing structure for most of the game: you don't feel rushed, and can spend your time wandering the environments, chatting with friends and strangers, looking for hidden things in nooks and crannies. It focuses on relationships, both rekindling older ones from your childhood and forging new ones. It handles some of the same themes as Life Is Strange, treating serious topics with respect, albeit with much more humor. The actual gameplay feels surprisingly similar to Dex, a side-scrolling cyberpunk game I enjoyed recently. Both are prominently focused around city navigation, which is primarily side-to-side but with some interesting wrinkles that keep it from feeling too flat. Both make great use of vertical space and movement, Night in the Woods even more so, opening up entirely new vistas as you learn how to climb to the rooftops. They use parallax to great effect, giving a nicely 3D feel while keeping simple 2D controls intact. Dex has some fun hidden secrets you can find via exploration, and Night In The Woods has a lot more, which can easily become the main activity in the game.



I guess the dialogue is kind of similar too. It doesn't use the real-time system like Oxenfree, but more of a conventional system where your character automatically speaks most lines, and occasionally pauses for you to select a response. Where Dex and Life Is Strange both had menus of responses, though, Night in the Woods usually only has two choices. Most dialogue choices don't lead to significant branching plots; there are branching plots, but those are more due to actions you take than the lines you say. The protagonist Mae has a very well-defined personality and backstory, so roleplaying isn't exactly a huge part of the game, but it's still great to tune her responses to various situations.


One thing that's a little unclear is when a dialogue choice will have a big impact. Most of the game follows a fairly similar pattern where you wake up, explore the town, chat with friends, and end up doing something that night with one of them. (Which, now that I think about it, is actually really similar to the old "School Simulator" games I used to make back in the day.) Anyways, sometimes when a friend asks "You wanna hang out?" and you say "Yes" it ends all your activities for the day, and other times it means you do something together during the day but can keep on planning. It's definitely not a huge deal. You can't lose the game, and since you have multiple days to do things you can even finish optional side-content that you were planning on doing that day. I think it's actually written pretty well, as I can usually tell in retrospect that "Oh, yeah, I should have known that would happen". Just something to potentially keep in mind.


If you were to just beeline for those conversations and end the days, you could finish the game very quickly. It would probably still be fun, but I absolutely loved the vast array of stuff to do. Most of these are fun in and of themselves, again like Life Is Strange. You get more insight into characters, both your close friends and the background people who make up the town. And you learn more about the town itself: its history of mining, manufacturing, and labor strife; its crumbling local businesses and the efforts of the chamber of commerce to turn things around; what people do for fun and where they go and what they want to happen. And there are lots of nice little mementos to unlock: you have a journal, and add cool little doodles and notes as you find and do things, and occasionally earn a Steam achievement for accomplishing something off the beaten path.


It's also totally worth doing stuff just for the dialogue itself. It's so, so wonderful. I was going to say that it's natural, but it isn't in the same way that, say, Oxenfree is. It's maybe a little heightened, hilarious, clever, profane, alternating between delightful stupidity and running in-jokes and really elaborate metaphors and associations.


The personalities in the game are so strong and vivid. Late in the game there are some scenes that take place in total darkness, where you can just see the words being spoken, not who is speaking them, and you can immediately tell who is delivering each line: the vocabulary, the cadence, the style, have been so brilliantly and consistently defined that they are instantly identifiable. And those personalities carry through to the art as well, whether Gregg's adorably spazzy arms or Bea's perpetually downcast eyes. I love these people so much.

MINI SPOILERS

Starting to dip into the actual plot somewhat... yet another aspect of the game that I enjoyed and that reminded me a bit of Life Is Strange was its really nice portrayal of religion. Like Max, Mae isn't exactly a believer, but she's close to people who are, and they are treated respectfully and their faith is portrayed positively, as a source of comfort and strength. I especially liked how Mae's mom works for the church, and seeing how their family life intersected with the church felt very true to my own experiences in a similar family. The church is a spiritual place, but it's also a workplace, a very human place. I felt particularly strong nostalgia for the church library, a sort of sanctuary within a sanctuary, a calm refuge filled with books and peace.



Like so much of the game, the church isn't a core element of Night in the Woods; I'm pretty sure that you could complete the entire game without even laying eyes on the church, let alone going inside or chatting with the great pastor (who reminds me a lot of my Aunt Fran). But it's a key institution in Possum Springs, a respected moral voice speaking up and caring for the poor and disadvantaged people on the fringes of society.


In another part of the game, you chat with an old-timer who grew up with your grandfather, and she reminisces about how the church was one of several pillars of the community, along with the union hall. There's a really cool and strong economic message that builds throughout the whole game, starting off as a kind of vague and generic nostalgia for "the good old days" and morphs into a surprisingly explicit call for leftist mass action. The original founders of Possum Springs lived dangerous and dirty existences, risking their lives in the mines for the benefit of the greedy bosses, and they formed the unions and fought for a better lot in life. This resonated really strongly for me having recently read Strike! and similar books over the past year, and I was swept up again in the history of bold labor movements of the 19th century.

 
From the very start of the game, there's a consistent focus on the economic situation in Possum Springs and how that's affecting the local culture. There's plenty of "economic anxiety" to go around: like many rural towns around America, Possum Springs seems to be shriveling up. Once-grand stores have been shuttered, vacant businesses line the downtown, people who were once proud to work a union job in a factory are now bagging groceries or forced to live on charity. Near the end your father gets at the part that pains him the most: even more than the loss of high(er) wages, there's a lack of respect, on the part of the bosses and those who still wield influence. There's still great pride and culture in Possum Springs, but people are worried for the next generation: young people don't see any good opportunities locally and are leaving for big cities, forever. Those who remain feel a variety of emotions, from resignation to bitterness to fury. Selmers stunned me with her amazing poem: "some night i will catch / a bus out to / the west coast / and burn their silicon city / to the ground".


I'll talk in Major Spoilers about how some people are addressing this problem, but I'll note now how much this game seems to be tapping into the zeitgeist. Your friend Bea is a member of the Young Socialists, working for social and political change. Your dad decides to form a union, and you can promise to support him on the picket line. Anyways, it all reminds me a lot of the current energy around the DSA and Antifa and other elements of the resurgent left, and I absolutely love how this game connects the modern movement to its historic antecedents. (Again, without really making the game about that - it's a very strong part of the story, but you never feel like you're playing through a polemic. [Even though it probably is.])


The game is also very modern in its matter-of-fact handling of orientation and identity. Gregg and Angus are an absolutely adorable couple, high-school sweethearts now making a life together, well-liked by all. Well, almost all. Late in the game Bea shares her harsh-but-realistic take on the couple: Angus can do a lot better than Gregg, and sooner or later he'll realize that. But it's the same sort of criticism that would apply to any small-town 20-year-old pair. I'd kind of shipped Mae and Bea for most of the game, but Bea seems pretty clearly straight. Mae, though... I absolutely loved the party scene where she discovers how much she loves to dance and flirts with that occult college girl. The game never pins down her sexuality, and never asks you to define it either: she's just a girl who really wants to wrestle people and talk about their feelings.


I got to know Bea really well over the course of the game, while Angus remained mostly a mystery. I really liked how the game seems to reward you for focusing on the people you care most about: when you spend more time with them, you learn more about them and they open up more to you and you build a stronger relationship. It's the opposite of how most games seem to be structured, where you have a perverse incentive to save the stuff you care about the most until the end and do the less interesting things first. Here, I'm pretty sure that I missed out on Angus's whole mission by putting it off for so long, and I'm guessing that I might not have spent that night in the city with Bea if I'd waited too long. Anyways... I sometimes get bummed by knowing that I missed out on some content, but I absolutely loved it here, since it was the direct consequence of what I cared about and how I spent my time.

MEGA SPOILERS

So, the big question: just who were the people in the Death Cult of Conservative Uncles? They're definitely individuals within Possum Springs, but are they people we've actually met in the daytime, and if so, who? During that scene in the mine I'd speculated a bit based on the attitudes they articulated: perhaps your cranky neighbor, or the stoop-sitter near Selmers, or someone on the Chamber of Commerce? But they're still around the following day, so I guess not. (Or perhaps they were able to escape?) It's interesting to think that, for example, the gravedigger really could have been the ghost after all, reconciling the apparent conflict between your and Bea's theories.

It feels like a solvable mystery. The people have such distinctive voices, I feel like you could probably match those words against other voices in town and find some matches.


I'm also left wondering what they look like under their robes. When you see them all gathered together, everyone looks so uniform, but Possum Springs is so unique, with distinct profiles for cats, alligators, birds, bears, and so on. I'm curious if the cult is drawn exclusively from one particular species of animal, or if the robes are deliberately concealing their varied body types beneath. Or it could just be an art aesthetic thing that the game designers liked and I might be reading way too much into it.

I'm still mulling over and cheering on the Big Reveal at the end. It is so cool and so hard to thread that needle between the supernatural and the realistic, and it feels really disappointing when stories mess it up, and frustrating when they sidestep it after establishing that tension. This was just a huge tour de force, and I was reminded a bit of, say, David Mitchell's climactic metaphysics unveiled in The Bone Clocks, revealing a detailed system and purpose behind decades of foreshadowing. I adore it when a work goes on record and goes: yep, there is something supernatural going on, and this is how and why and with who.


The whiplash made it all the more fun: you're in a dreamlike state and see the ghost and are convinced it's all real. Then Gregg shoots it with a crossbow and the ghost yells and swears and runs away: the mystique is broken, reality re-established. And then you find what's beneath it all, and the awe grows even larger. The cult members are all mortal, even mundane, regardless of what they serve. That said, though.... if you look closely, you see that that one particular "ghost" does have a bit of a fading effect on his sprite; he's slightly shimmering into the background in the cave, even while the rest of the "ghosts" are firmly opaque. And it does seem like he's flying at the end when he comes up out of the mine shaft.

 
Could he be possessed by the spirit in the well? There seems to be some precedent for this; we've learned that the cult's founder could walk through walls, so perhaps this one has been "chosen" in some way to carry out the spirit's will. But that's also odd, since it seems like the spirit wants you as a disciple, and doesn't want you to be hurt, so why would it support one who intended harm for you? I dunno. And I suspect that this particular mystery will remain unknowable.


Among other things, the big reveal seems to give some forgiveness to Mae and her history: she wasn't crazy, or wasn't just crazy. This is another area (the last one, I promise!) where NitW seems to dovetail with LiS: both games address mental health in honest, serious, and respectful ways. In the end, though, Night in the Woods is both more detailed (Bea diagnoses Gregg, seemingly accurately, with bipolar tendencies) and maybe a bit more optimistic. Depending on how you play Life Is Strange, mental health might seem like a difficult-but-manageable challenge or an insurmountable obstacle. Night in the Woods closes on some really sweet messages, though. I teared up a little when Bea tells Mae something like, "I can help you find someone who can help you." I've never heard that before, and I'm definitely filing it away for future reference. There are ways to support others without becoming responsible for them, and help is out there: even if you've run into your own Dr. Hank, there are better options, you just need to find them.

END SPOILERS

I liked this game a lot! It may end up being one of the rare indie games that I replay some day: now that I know how to make all of the jumps, I want to explore more of the town during the early days; and I want to spend more time with different people and learn more of their own stories. It's a lot of fun to play, and can also feel really important in the topics it handles and the weight it gives to them. And I haven't even talked at all about the wonderful music, or the wonderful way Mae's eyes swivel up to watch Beatrice on the porch, or the beautiful stars, or the rat babies, or.... well, there's a lot. And still more to find! Judging by the concept art unlocks, I still have about half (!) of the secrets left to find. I do feel satisfied by the game I've played and the story I've heard, and I'm glad to have the option to head back for even more. Like a delivery pizza, this game is good as hell.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

The Hutt Cartel Also Rises

I've finally finished a major chunk of brand-"new" (post-launch) content for Star Wars: The Old Republic. This post covers Trel'ves's progress through the Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion, including the various side-quests and other content associated with it, up through the Prelude to Shadow of Revan.


But before hitting plot and content, some technical (boring) details:

This game is made by BioWare, which means it's published by EA, which means it is infuriatingly difficult to take in-game screenshots. It actually has a dedicated screenshot key, but it seems to only work about 4% of the time, and never during cut-scenes, which are the ones I actually want to capture. There's no in-game feedback, so it isn't until after I finish, say, a 1-hour session that I'll open up the official Screenshots folder and find that it holds only 2 pictures instead of the 40+ I expected.


I've come to discover that the best way to run EA games is through Steam, which is dumb but at least lets me use Steam's infinitely more reliable and convenient screenshot capture utility. At first, though, this didn't work for me: I wasn't able to access the Steam Overlay or any associated utilities even after adding SWTOR to my library and opening from there. After some digging, I eventually discovered that this was because SWTOR requires you to run in administrator mode, which is also why you get that annoying permission prompt each and every time you open it. (Why does it require Administrator Mode? Excellent question! And one that nobody seems to know the answer to! The official answer, dating back to the 2011 launch, is that it's because the game needs to be able to patch itself. But that seems incredibly wrong to me. I mean, Steam itself is self-patching, and can run in user mode; Lord of the Rings Online is self-patching, and can run in user mode.) The solution? Launch Steam in administrator mode, then open SWTOR from within Steam. And finally! Screenshots!

This was also the first time I've subscribed to the game since my original run in the pre-Free-to-Play days, and I thought I'd note what that experience looks like now.


First of all, if you spend any time with SWTOR stuff online, you'll see lots of referral links. BioWare runs a program where subscribers can refer non-subscribers to the game, and both of them get some rewards. You can still use a code if you were previously a subscriber, as long as it hasn't been in the last few months. The program works a little differently from what I had thought, based on what I'd read online: I was under the impression that you had to actually subscribe to receive the benefits. Nope! You essentially get a 7-day Subscriber-lite trial. You can do this without entering any credit card info or other payment stuff. During this time, you are essentially a Subscriber. This carries a lot of benefits, but the big ones for me were:
  • No credit limit. You'll receive all credits currently in escrow, and can accumulate and spend unlimited in-game money.
  • Removes weekly limit on Space Missions. You can fly as much as you like.
  • Six quickbars.
  • More inventory space.
  • Unlimited crew skills and simultaneous crew missions.
  • Free and unlimited Medical Probes (revivals after dying in combat).
The relevant things you don't get are:
  • Higher level cap. (Will still be 50 if you haven't previously subbed.)
  • Access to expansions.
 But it's still really good! The credit limit thing is particularly nice; there are quite a few Legacy unlocks that cost more than the 350k non-subscriber credit limit, as well as a few pricey items like certain housing and speeders, as well as Galactic Trade Network auctions. I'd previously thought that all that stuff would be out-of-bounds for a non-subscriber, but now it looks to me like every couple of months you could use one of those codes, do all your shopping with the credits you've accumulated during that time, then lapse without ever subscribing.

If you do subscribe within 14 days of using the code, your referrer gets a benefit (probably Cartel Coins?). That's a 7-day grace period after the end of psuedo-subscriber status. There are tons of codes out there; I used one from Swtorista, who has created some really great non-spoilery guides for solo players that have helped me out during my run.


When you do subscribe, the best thing is probably to set up a monthly recurring subscription, then immediately cancel it. This gives you all the subscriber benefits, including permanently unlocking the expansion story content and the current level cap. You'll continue to get all the subscriber perks through the end of the month. It's all very easy to do online, no need to contact support or anything like that.

One other minor thing that I had misunderstood: Based on information I'd previously read, I was under the impression that, like excess credits, excess XP was saved, and after you subscribed you would automatically advance to your new level. Nope! All the XP I gained while a non-subscriber at level 50 is lost. Which is totally not a big deal at all - as always, SWTOR is overly generous with XP grants, and I ended the expansion (which is supposed to be for levels 51-55) at level 67, without any grinding or multiplayer or operations or multiplayer flashpoints or space missions or anything. But if you do care about that, it might be worth doing your one-month subscription starting at level 50 and not at the end of the F2P story content.

 
Okay! I think that's it for nuts and bolts, bytes and dollars. Now into the expansion proper.

MINI SPOILERS (for RotHC, MAJOR for the base game)

A whole bunch of stuff gets unlocked with this expansion: new areas, flashpoints, operations, side-quests, game mechanics, and so on. The single biggest addition is probably Makeb, the planet where most of the story missions take place. This is where the titular Hutt Cartel flexes its muscles: Makeb has been independent for some time, has entered into disadvantageous trade agreements with the Hutts, the Hutts (well, at least some of them) are recklessly industrializing and mining the planet's core, and you are called in to try and sort out the planet's problems and bring them into your faction's fold.



I was particularly pleased at how the game acknowledges your character's elevated stature. It's tempting for expansions and sequels to hit the reset button and push you into a new culture where nobody knows or cares who you are. Here, though, you've already accomplished great things and are recognized throughout the galaxy, and you are acknowledged as an important asset of the Republic war effort. It's kind of nice to be in that position, where characters will thank you for paying attention to their problems while they worry that they might be keeping you from grander conflicts. It can be tricky to have a high-power campaign where the stakes are still believable, and they did a great job at pulling that off.


The actual plot is pretty interesting, I'd say roughly on par with one of the original planetary arcs like Alderaan or Voss. There are some cool layers of plots to dig through, a wide range of minor and major characters, some distinctive cultural elements. There don't appear to be major branching plot lines within the arc, but you get quite a few Light Side / Dark Side decisions along the way, and a significant choice at the end. From a lore perspective, I'm always interested to see corporations depicted within Star Wars; the big players like Czerka have cropped up in the past (and make a bigger appearance later in the expansion), but here we get to see some slightly-smaller-scale businesses, including the individuals who run them. The game doesn't appear to have much of an appetite for critically examining capitalism, which is totally fine, as that's never really been a part of the Star Wars DNA (and is also one of the reasons why The Last Jedi was so nicely shocking). At the very least it's cool to have some flavor outside of the normal lightsabers-and-blasters-and-robes deal, and it does give a venue for you the player (not necessarily you the character) to question why the galaxy is the way it is.


At the time of its release, Rise of the Hutt Cartel might have been most anticipated due to its delivery of long-anticipated same-gender romance arcs, or SGRAs. I remember there being a lot of drama around this at the time of the game's initial launch. By this point, BioWare had cemented a reputation as an LGBT-friendly company with a commitment to writing diverse characters, and quite a few players were understandably bummed that all of the romances in the game (a total of nineteen!) were exclusively heterosexual. This led into one of the predictably tedious fandom "debates", with a minority arguing that gay people don't exist in the Star Wars universe, and more pointing out that KOTOR already had a lesbian romance with Juhani. The Austin studio seemed much more reserved on the issue than the Edmonton (Dragon Age / Mass Effect), but there were some vague promises that those kind of relationships would appear in the future.

At the time I'd been curious if they would do this by editing and expanding existing characters; for example, it seemed odd that female Imperial Agents can't romance Kaliyo, who is canonically bisexual. Instead, BioWare opted to add SGRAs for future characters, the first of which are introduced here. That's a minor bummer, as players might need to play through a significant amount of the game before being able to start that content, but I suspect it's a lot simpler and less risky to do this than to mess with stuff already in the game.

Up until this point, Trel'ves's only romance option had been the cocky and insufferable Doc, and it was kinda nice to start a little something with Lemda, the daughter of a wealthy CEO and a geologist who has been researching the earthquakes wracking Makeb. The "romance" is very tame: You get a couple of [Flirt] prompts over time, and if you do it often enough, there's a quick but fairly sweet kiss between you two. It's all rather light, but then again, so are the standard romances for class characters: again, this is probably in keeping with Star Wars' lighter tone, and they are firmly PG connections, as opposed to the more PG-13/R ones you can see in the M-rated BioWare games. Unlike the companion romances, though, Lemba purely lives on Makeb: she'll never travel with your party or hang out on your ship or whatever. Still better than nothing!

 
Oh: Also worth mentioning here that Makeb is gorgeous, one of the prettiest planets in a game willed with pretty planets. Particularly after the stark and cold beauty of Ilum, I really enjoyed spending time in such a lush and verdant world.


While Makeb is the single biggest element of the expansion, it probably accounts for less than half of all the new content unlocked by it. The remaining elements include both new content set on old worlds, and smaller brand-new areas and missions. The first of those are two new game modes kicked off from Coruscant, Seeker Droid searches and Macrobinocular landmark identification.

Seeker Droids are D U L L. I ran into something similar while searching for HK-51 droid parts, and this is even worse. The idea is that you travel to a planet, then find a zone within that planet, then start searching it for content. There's usually a huge area to search, each search takes, I dunno, maybe 10 seconds or so. The idea is that you get feedback over time so you can gradually narrow in on the right location, but that never seemed to work properly for me, even while using consumables that are supposed to make it more accurate. Once you finally find it, you're done, and move on to the next planet.

Macrobinoculars were a lot more fun. You travel to an area, pull out your binoculars (think of the ones Luke used to observe sandpeople in A New Hope), and pan them across the landscape looking for a target. Part of what's cool about this is finding good vantage points: the target is shown on your map, but you might be able to actually spot it from much further away if you find good sightlines. Some targets are easier to find than others, but the hardest of them are still far less frustrating than the seeker droids.


What finally crushed my spirit, though, was the way that both of these quests eventually lead into flashpoints that cannot be completed by solo players: they require a full 4-person Flashpoint team. Some of the new Flashpoints have been rebalanced for solo players, but not those ones. I knew that going in, thanks to Swtorista's guide, but it was still extremely disappointing. I'm pretty sure that they're designed as on-ramps for group content: solo players like me will get as far as they can, then be forced to join a group, then discover that they like multiplayer stuff after all and start running operations and become subscribers. But, nah. What's especially annoying about these is that the underlying quests themselves as incredibly solo-oriented: you're basically being a tourist, going to a place and looking at a thing, which is the least group-incentivized activity in the game.

It was at this point that I actually decided I'd stop playing. My initial plan had been to sub and then play all the way through to the current endgame, but after spending so much time on those missions and then hitting a wall I'd had enough. I think the final straw came when I attempted one of the Macrobinocular-linked Flashpoints, finally completed a very long and unfun platforming section (yet another game mechanic that SWTOR technically does but does not do especially well), then faced the boss, who, during a very long and challenging battle, knocked me off the edge of the platform and auto-killed me. I realized I was no longer having fun, and hadn't had fun for a while, so I resolved to wrap up the other Hutt Cartel stuff and stop playing as soon as my subscription ran out.


But that left three other elements to check out, and fortunately each was better than the one before. CZ-198 was very small, more of a daily area like Section X than anything, but it still felt nice to actually do something again, and it didn't overstay its welcome. Then came Oricon, which was actually quite cool. It had a nicely ominous atmosphere, some deep lore, good cut-scenes and a couple of vivid characters. The plot here deals with a group of ancient Sith known as the Dread Masters, who have become another rising faction; on Oricon, they are using their immense telepathic powers to project madness and despair into the minds of their foes, including the Jedi and Republic troopers attempting to establish an outpost here. This planet is dramatic: volcanic, with lots of flowing lava and tall, rough rock pillars. Once again the story culminates in group content not available to solo-ers, but this was another place where I felt more or less satisfied by the missions that were available to me.


The last part was the best: the Prologue to Shadow of Revan. Somewhat like the False Emperor arc at the end of the original game, here we have a set of Flashpoints that link together to tell a single story. This is where I absolutely have the most fun in SWTOR. They are relatively quick, fairly linear, the combat is challenging, boss fights have unique mechanics, you can see some cool cut-scenes, there are a handful of decisions to make, the stakes feel high, the loot is all good. This new arc depicts a bold plan to destroy the Sith Academy on Korriban, which eventually segues into a conspiratorial plot that shifts attention beyond the Republic and Empire, shines additional light on the Infinite Empire, and ends with the dramatic reappearance of Revan himself.


As if that wasn't enough, it also introduces still more SGRAs. The one intriguing me is Lana (LANA!!!!), a rogue Sith Lord who becomes an improbable ally. You only meet her shortly before the end of the expansion, so there isn't enough time to get too far along the arc, but I'm already intrigued by the few [Flirt]s there so far. I now think that this is probably the single best way to keep players engaged and convince them to subscribe as soon as a new expansion is released: tease them with the preview of an upcoming romance. Hey, we're suckers like that! (And, as a side note, this is also why I am still uninterested in Anthem.)


END SPOILERS

As noted above, I'm suspending my planned full playthrough of SWTOR: I want to get to some of the shiny new games populating my Steam queue, and I've been playing this for a long time. That said, the last few missions of Rise of the Hutt Cartel reminded me of just how much fun this game can be when it's firing on all cylinders, so I still would like to come back. I don't think I can wait for too long, though... more so than many other games, late-stage MMOs require muscle-memory-memorization of tons of hotkeys and macros and such. The few times I've loaded up Seberin, my original agent from 2011, I can barely move him at all because I'd optimized his commands so much that none of the standard buttons do what I now expect. But anyways, I remain impressed at the sheer scope and ambition of MMOs like this, and am at least somewhat curious about the plot arcs currently underway. Despite my griping, I do appreciate the efforts BioWare has made to make the game more solo-friendly, and I feel reasonably confident that I'll enjoy what lies ahead if and when I finally return.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Queue

Due to the largesse of my brother (thanks, Andrew!), I have received three brand-spankin'-new games. In addition to being fun new things for me to play, these also push me above a milestone: I now own over 100 games on Steam. (A not-insignificant number of which hail from the same dedicated gift-giver.)


People who play a lot of games often bemoan the state of their queue: the number of unplayed games they have accumulated, potentially forming a source of dread rather than joy. Those of who grew up in an era when games invariably cost $50 apiece are predisposed to reckless acquisition when the notorious Steam Sales offer a panoply of desirable games for single-digit prices.

That said, in recent years I've attempted to tamp back on the habit somewhat: putting off buying new games until I've finished ones I want to play, periodically reviewing my queue of unplayed games, and, perhaps most crucially, avoiding my favorite genre, epic role-playing games that can demand hundreds of hours to complete. "In the time it would take me to complete Dragon Star XIV: The Endarkening, I could complete ten non-RPG games!" I whisper quietly to myself as a single tear rolls down my cheek.

Anyways: For no particular reason other than this snazzy new Steam badge, here is the current state of my Steam queue at the end of 2018, after 12 years on the platform.

Games I Have Completed

Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition
Doki Doki Literature Club
Pillars of Eternity
80 Days
2064: Read Only Memories*
Analogue: A Hate Story
Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear
Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition
BioShock Infinite [incl. various DLC]
Cibele
Cultist Simulator
Dex
Dragon Age: Origins - Ultimate Edition
Dreamfall Chapters
Europa Universalis III
Fallout 3 - Game of the Year Edition
Fallout: New Vegas**
Half-Life 2**
Hate Plus
Her Story
Highway Blossoms
Ladykiller in a Bind
Life is Strange: Before the Storm
Life is Strange
Mass Effect
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
MURDERED: SOUL SUSPECT
Oxenfree
Portal
Princess Remedy in a World of Hurt
Psychonauts
Remember Me
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Sam & Max 104: Abe Lincoln Must Die!
Shadowrun: Dragonfall - Director's Cut
Shadowrun: Hong Kong - Extended Edition
Shadowrun Returns
Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth
Sid Meier's Civilization IV**
Sid Meier's Civilization V
South Park: The Stick of Truth
Sunless Sea
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit
The Binding of Isaac
The Cat Lady
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The Longest Journey
The Red Strings ClubThe Witcher 3: Wild Hunt**
Torment: Tides of Numenara
Transistor
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
Vampyr

Games I Have Started And Expect To Complete

The Lord of the Rings Online

Games I Have Started And May Not Complete

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Braid
Dishonored 2
Divinity: Original Sin
Jagged Alliance 2 Gold [I think this is my oldest unfinished game, at about 11 years since my last attempt.]
LIMBO
Lone Survivor: The Director's Cut
Mirror's Edge
On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode One
Saints Row 2
Sorcery! Parts 1 & 2
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
The Witcher: Enhanced Edition
Wasteland 2: Director's Cut

Games I Have Not Started But Plan To

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
FTL: Faster Than Light
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Night in the Woods
Planescape: Torment: Enhanced Edition***
Pyre
The Next BIG Thing
VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

Games I Have Not Started And Do Not Plan To

Bully: Scholarship Edition
Disciples II: Gallean's Return
Disciples II: Rise of the Elves
Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga
Divinity II: Developer's Cut
Fallout***
Left 4 Dead 2****
On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode Two
Super Meat Boy
Team Fortress 2
Wasteland 1 - The Original Classic

*: Played the original release version, no plans to replay the expanded version.
**: Includes various DLC, which I think may contribute towards the 100 total? I have played most of the DLC for these games.
***: I finished a pre-Steam version of this, but have not played since purchasing here.
****: Why do I own this???

I'll try and clean up this list and maybe add a bunch more links later. Looking this over, a few random thoughts:

I may be overly optimistic on the games I intend to play. Then again, looking over that section, each individual item in it should be pretty reasonable.

This probably goes without saying, but there are a couple of games that I've completed which I enjoy less than games I haven't. I hate-played through much of Shadow of Mordor; on the other hand, I was very gripped by Divinity: Original Sin and Wasteland 2 before I got derailed in my playthroughs (by life in the former case, by a game-breaking bug in the latter). Likewise, I'm genuinely interested by several of the games I don't plan to start. It's just a brutally honest self-assessment of what I'm likely to accomplish.

Indie games seem overrepresented in the "started but will not finish" section. I generally enjoyed these games a lot, but when I reach a platforming puzzle or 2D fight that's overly difficult for me, I tend to put them aside, move on to other things, and never come back.

On the whole, I'm pretty happy with the breakdown. I've completed more games than not. And for all my earlier bellyaching about long RPGs, that genre is very well represented in the "finished" column.

Edit: I only have a couple of multiplayer games on here, which are hard to fit into these categories. Or would be, if I actually played them at all! I've moved LOTRO to the "Games I Have Started And Expect To Complete" category. I haven't posted about it lately, but I'm currently at Edoras, with a level in the high 70s, and am vaguely thinking I'll eventually make it to the endgame. In the action-multiplayer category, I have some hours logged in both Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead 2, but upon further reflection this was probably just to get their trading cards, I don't remember actually playing any matches, so I've moved them to "Do Not Plan To Play".

Friday, December 21, 2018

Domus Aurea

Gosh, The Golden House turned out to be a great book! I liked it fine from the start, but I think I was expecting it to be a particular kind of story: the sort of New Yorker-ish family drama that turns an unflinching eye on painful relationships. It evolves, though, and turns into an astonishing, urgent, almost revelatory tale. It's very tempting to read it as a commentary on our present moment, and there's ample content within the text to support that, but it also swings towards an almost Philip Roth-ish project of using a hyper-local neighborhood to reveal something profound about America.



I think this kind of effort almost requires a certain amount of distance, some degree of outsider-ness, being surrounded by America while remaining aware of its perplexities. Roth got this by growing up Jewish, Rushdie gets it by immigrating as an adult. Where Roth infamously self-inserts, Rushdie's presence is more diffused and interesting. The narrator René is ethnically Belgian but was born into the Manhattan enclave The Gardens, living the majority of his entire rich life on a few city blocks. He is a filmmaker rather than a novelist, tends towards timidity, and other than his politics I suspect he shares little with the author. The novel is more focused on the Golden clan, who share Rushdie's Indian ancestry but are even further apart from (what I know of) his personality. Incredibly wealthy, infamous, connected, and dramatic, they are completely compelling and mysterious. It's remarkable just how quickly they are absorbed into this particular neighborhood, which in turn shifts slightly to accommodate them. We're constantly reminded that everyone here came from somewhere else, whether that's Italy or Africa or Myanmar or the subcontinent.

While reading this book, I eventually realized that this was the one I heard Salman Rushdie speak about last year at City Arts & Lecture. I've forgotten a lot of that evening, except for the crazy dude who bum-rushed the stage, but do remember that he spent a fair amount of time talking about the 2016 election and his perspective on it while living in New York City. He had a sinking premonition about the outcome in the weeks running up to it, partly due to an unnerving experience he had with a Sikh cabdriver who proved to be an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump. Rushdie, nonplussed, asked why the Sikh would support a man so vocally opposed to him and his culture, only to find that it was this very fact that made Trump so appealing: "Donald Trump, a straight shooter! Says what he means!" American politics has long prized style over substance, but for Rushdie it was a sign that substance had been completely abandoned, and elections would turn solely on a candidate's ability to entertain.

He also recalled his frustration when, weeks later, he joined in an Inauguration Day protest outside of Trump Tower. At first he admired the enthusiasm and vigor of the young twenty-something protestors, but when he began speaking with them he realized that not a single one of them had voted in the November election. This infuriated him, and his anger was still palpable a year later on the San Francisco stage. Especially for someone who grew up in a country that had won independence, then lost democracy during the "Emergency", suffered political assassination, and saw nations around the world experience coups and dictatorships. He eloquently and fervently spoke in defense of democracy, not a luxury that we can choose to admire when it suits us, but a hard-won advancement of the human race that must be diligently defended and exercised. Those of us who have never seriously faced the threat of a totalitarian regime are at far greater risk of discarding our freedoms than someone who has seen the alternative first-hand.

MINI SPOILERS

So, with all of those memories fresh in my mind, of course I was thinking a lot about the election and Trump while reading the book. And with good reason: the action begins shortly after Obama's first election, with René recalling the giddy disbelief of victory in 2008. The novel isn't primarily about politics, but as in real life those events provide much of the backdrop, and we mark time as the years go by and the turn draws closer.

Early on I thought that the patriarch, Nero Golden, was intended as a stand-in for Trump. It's especially easy to think this given the cadence of his speech, as in this utterance at one of his first parties.

I think he was using his immense capacity for bravado to stave off the inevitable. "I'm a man of reason," he informed his dinner guests on the night of Petya's meltdown. (He had a weakness for self-praising orations.) "A man of affairs. If I may say so, a great man of affairs. Believe me. Nobody knows affairs better than I do, let me tell you that."
- p. 52

On paper, there are a lot of linkages there. Both men are elderly real estate developers, with a vast array of projects across New York City and beyond. Both have ties to shady financiers and mob-affiliated associates. Golden starts out much more subtle than Trump, but after a few years in America he also yearns to have his name emblazoned in bold letters on the side of the tallest and most prestigious buildings in Manhattan. Both have a weakness for Eastern European women. Both have children from multiple marriages. Both are deeply secular, looking to the dollar as the most real and tangible marker of worth and value. Both have hazy and shallow political ideologies that started in a somewhat cosmopolitan consensus, then grew increasingly reactionary and paranoid as they devoured Fox News during the Obama presidency, and eventually coalesced into a malign misanthropy.

And yet, by the end, I'm almost completely convinced that Nero isn't intended as an analogue to Trump. The end of the book deals a lot with identity, both its importance in itself and its importance in its current perception, and the identity of a Bronx-born "billionaire" and the identity of an Indian émigré are worlds apart. Nero is certainly not a good man, but we come to learn his origins, his dreams, the rational steps that brought him to his present station. I hesitate to call him sympathetic, but I'm sure that Rushdie has far more affection for Nero than he does for Trump.

And his children are far more sympathetic than the Trump clan. Not only that, they're a lot more interesting than the wooden, hollow figures we see on television. Nero is the animating force that drives the plot, but I find myself thinking most of the three sons. Serious, brilliant, damaged Petya, who begins as a fragile manchild and devolves into a dark and obsessive incel. The outgoing, flamboyant, worldly Apu, who dons an ill-deserved political mantle and wears it convincingly for years, caring deeply about whatever he faces at the moment, then leaving it behind. And the tragic, compelling, questioning D, who just wants to be and not to become.

So, the Goldens are almost certainly not the Trumps. That said, Rushdie does, once the time come, face Trump head on, and, hoo boy, it is amazing and terrifying. I'm so grateful for the novelist's gift, to make us notice and care about the ordinary things we see each day. Living in the Upside-Down for the last two years, it can be hard to remember that this is not normal, that things used to be different. Rushdie's creative, imaginative, evocative treatment of the campaign crashes through the numb memories we hold and makes the outrage of 2016 fresh again. Apologies for the very long passage quoted here, but this is so ridiculously good that I couldn't help myself.

    To step outside that enchanted - and now tragic - cocoon was to discover that America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe; D.C., Suchitra said, was under attack by DC. It was the year of the Joker in Gotham and beyond. The Caped Crusader was nowhere to be seen - it was not an age of heroes - but his archrival in the purple frocked coat and striped pantaloons was ubiquitous, clearly delighted to have the stage to himself and hogging the limelight with evident delight. He had seen off the Suicide Squad, his feeble competition, but he permitted a few of his inferiors to think of themselves as future members of a Joker administration. The Penguin, the Riddler, Two-Face and Poison Ivy lined up behind the Joker in packed arenas, swaying like doo-wop backing singers while their leader spoke of the unrivaled beauty of white skin and red lips to adoring audiences wearing green fright wigs and chanting in unison, Ha! Ha! Ha!
    The origins of the Joker were disputed, the man himself seemed to enjoy allowing contradictory versions to fight for air space, but on one fact everyone, passionate supporters and bitter antagonists, was agreed: he was utterly and certifiably insane. What was astonishing, what made this an election year like no other, was that people backed him because he was insane, not in spite of it. What would have disqualified any other candidate made him his followers' hero. Sikh taxi drivers and rodeo cowboys, rabid alt-right blondes and black brain surgeons agreed, we love his craziness, no milquetoast euphemisms from him, he shoots straight from the hip, says whatever he fucking wants to say, robs whatever bank he's in the mood to rob, kills whoever he feels like killing, he's our guy. The black bat-knight has flown! It's a new day, and it's going to be a scream! All hail the United States of Joker! U.S.J! U.S.J.! U.S.J.!
    It was a year of two bubbles. In one of those bubbles, the Joker shrieked and the laugh-track crowds laughed right on cue. In that bubble the climate was not changing and the end of the Arctic icecap was just a new real estate opportunity. In that bubble, gun murderers were exercising their constitutional rights but the parents of murdered children were un-American. In that bubble, if its inhabitants were victorious, the president of the neighboring country to the south which was sending rapists and killers to America would be forced to pay for a wall dividing the two nations to keep the killers and rapists south of the border where they belonged; and the country's enemies would be defeated instantly and overwhelmingly; and mass deportations would be a good thing; and women reporters would be seen to be unreliable because they had blood coming out of their whatevers; and the parents of dead war heroes would be revealed to be working for radical Islam; and international treaties would not have to be honored; and Russia would be a friend and that would have nothing whatsoever to do with the Russian oligarchs propping up the Joker's shady enterprises; and the meanings of things would change; multiple bankruptcies would be understood to prove great business expertise; and three and a half thousand lawsuits against you would be understood to prove business acumen; and stiffing your contractors would prove your tough-guy business attitude; and a crooked university would prove your commitment to education; and while the Second Amendment would be sacred the First would not be; so those who criticized the leader would suffer consequences; and African Americans would go along with it all because what the hell did they have to lose. In that bubble knowledge was ignorance, up was down, and the right person to hold the nuclear codes in his hand was the green-haired white-skinned red-slash-mouthed giggler who asked a military briefing team four times why using nuclear weapons was so bad. In that bubble, razor-tipped playing cards were funny, and wishing you could have sex with your daughter was funny, and sarcasm was funny even when what was called sarcasm was not sarcastic, and lying was funny, and hatred was funny, and bigotry was funny, and bullying was funny, and the date was, or almost was, or might soon be, if the jokes worked out as they should, nineteen eighty-four.
    [...] In Gotham we knew who the Joker was, and wanted nothing to do with him, or the daughter he lusted after, or the daughter he never mentioned, or the sons who murdered elephants and leopards for sport. "I'll take Manhattan!" the Joker screeched, hanging from the top of a skyscraper, but we laughed at him and not at his bombastic jokery, and he had to take his act on the road to places where people hadn't gotten his number yet, or, worse, knew very well what he was and loved him for it: the segment of the country that was as crazy as he. His people. Too many of them for comfort.
    It was the year of the great battle between deranged fantasy and gray reality, between, on the one hand, la chose en soi, the possibly unknowable but probably existing thing in itself, the world as it was independently of what was said about it or how it was seen, the Ding an sich, to use the Kantian term - and, on the other, the cartoon character who had crossed the line between the page and the stage - a sort of illegal immigrant, I thought - whose plan was to turn the whole country, faux-hilariously, into a lurid graphic novel[...] a comic book in which elections were rigged and the media were crooked and everything you hated was a conspiracy against you, but in the end! Yay! You won, the fright wig turned into a crown, and the Joker became the King.
- p. 248-250

Isn't that something?! I'm kind of reminded of the amazing passage about the Widow in Midnight's Children, which is similarly poetic and vivid, with a compelling cadence and rhythm that draws you into the awfulness while illuminating it.

As a side note, I was brought up short by the toss-away phrase "the black bat-knight" in the above, which is intriguing if you think about it relating to Obama. It isn't a fully-developed thesis, but is still cool: Obama and Batman are similarly reserved, intelligent, responsible, and viewed by their enemies with respect and fear. Joker and Trump are, as developed at length above, unpredictable, nihilistic, selfish, cruel, and unreliable. Sigh.

I kind of like the idea that 37 years have passed between Midnight's Children and The Golden House, and in that time Salman Rushdie has moved from Marvel Comics to DC Comics. My memory of Midnight's Children is a bit hazy, but I remember the Children as being a quintessentially Marvel-esque collection of heroes, a sort of Indian X-Men who cheerfully team up to face their deadly foes. The Golden House is the darker, less humorous world of DC, and must grapple with the institutional heroes of its universe rather than growing its own.

This observation has been made many times before, but comics seem to have fully supplanted biblical and classical literature as a common cultural touchstone for a society. A hundred years ago, people of culture who had attended university would recognize the Greek or Roman names in a book and had some premonition of what those characters would do, or smile when they recognized a scene from the Old Testament played out in a modern setting. We're now a much more diverse and secular society, so those biblical allusions would go unrecognized in a post-Faulkner world; and the classics are boring and problematic, so fewer people know less of those stories. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, just that it's a transition which has been well under way for a while, which is part of why it's so interesting that The Golden House straddles the old and the new: it opens filled to the brim with classical references, Apollo and Dionysus and Rome and Nero. It's a powerful world, a wealthy world, but one that doesn't quite fit in modern America. Its value diminishes, and we segue into the new argot, the language of film and comics, the new mythology that every American is expected to know.

Everyone knows that Stan Lee has defined a common language for us, but Rushdie knows far more, and I was struck again and again by just how plugged into the zeitgeist he is. The man is a septuagenarian, and yet he writes with authority and conviction about ideas that I'm used to finding in the corners of tumblr. I was mildly shocked when Gamergate entered the story: not just a tossed-off topical reference, but conveying the horror and the vileness of that putrid misogynistic mob. Petya's aloofness in the face of this existential threat damns my perception of him more than almost any other action could have. Or there's the discussion of TERFs, which I doubt the vast majority of Americans have heard but consumes many online communities. Here, too, Rushdie shows that he knows what he's talking about, and it compellingly illuminates a character, in this case the seeking D.

I thought D's story was especially interesting and sad. I was surprised by the directions it moved in, much as Riya must have been. I absolutely love how Rushdie sticks the landing here, which does a great job at articulating some of my own thoughts around identity and labels and dogma.

The truth is that our identities are unclear to us and maybe it's better that they remain that way, that the self goes on being a jumble and a mess, contradictory and irreconcilable. [...] That should be all right. Flexibility should be all right. Love should dominate, not dogmas of the self.
- p. 297

There's enormous pressure to pick a side, to declare what you are, to claim your team and then fight for it. I'm fine with that in sports, and in politics, which are fundamentally about cooperating with a group of people to accomplish goals. But we're being asked to do that in our souls as well, to filter out the stew inside and turn it into a bisque. It should be okay just to be. What happens in an individual's body and heart should belong to them, not be held up to the world, whether for affirmation or ridicule.

MEGA SPOILERS

There's a lot of sadness in this book, but it's a good kind of sadness, which acknowledges the real pain and loss in the world, and also reminds you that it isn't the only thing in the world. Near the end René grapples, as we all have, with the new world in which he finds himself, and discovers that he's lived here for years without realizing it.

Sometimes the bad guys win and what does one do when the world one believes in turns out to be a paper moon and a dark planet rises and says, No, I am the world. How does one live amongst one's fellow countrymen and countrywomen when you don't know which of them is numbered amongst the sixty-million-plus who brought the horror to power, when you can't tell who should be counted among the ninety-million-plus who shrugged and stayed home, or when your fellow Americans tell you that knowing things is elitist and they hate elites, and all you have ever had is your mind and you were brought up to believe in the loveliness of knowledge, not that knowledge-is-power nonsense but knowledge is beauty, and then all of that, education, art, music, film, becomes a reason for being loathed, and the creature out of Spiritus Mundi rises up and slouches toward Washington, D. C., to be born.
- p. 359

What's the path forward? We can create comfort for ourselves, in our lives, in our personal relations. And we can build on that to make connections and movements and try to roll back the tide.

It had been more than a year since the Joker's conquest of American and we were all still in shock and going through the stages of grief but now we needed to come together and set love and beauty and solidarity and friendship against the monstrous forces that faced us. Humanity was the only answer to the cartoon. I had no plan except love. I hoped another plan might emerge in time but for now there was only holding each other tightly and passing strength to each other, body to body, mouth to mouth, spirit to spirit, me to you. There was only the holding of hands and slowly learning not to be afraid of the dark.
- p. 365

END SPOILERS

There's, uh, a lot of politics in this post, which is a bit misleading. Politics has been very much on my mind, in life and in art, and that aspect resonated very strongly with me, but this novel is getting at something deeper and more important. Politics is ultimately people working together and making decisions, and The Golden House is at its most beautiful when it looks at individual people making their own decisions and seeing how those ripple through a community.

I liked this book a lot. It's definitely shot up to be at least my second-favorite Rushdie novel, and by the end I was pretty sure it had dethroned Midnight's Children. It can be a hard book, and I'm not sure if I'll want to revisit it any time soon, but these characters will linger in my memory for a very, very long time.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Pub/Sub

You'll be pleased to learn that the galaxy is now safe. You're welcome!


This has been a bit of a whirl, but Trel'ves is now up to about the point where Seberin left off back in 2012: Level 50, completed the class and faction storylines, and dipping into the Interlude end-game content. The difference, of course, is that Seberin eventually segued into true multiplayer guild business, while Trel'ves has a large amount of new single-player content to look forward to.

I've remarked before that leveling and progression is much faster now than at launch, as seems to generally be the case for maturing MMOs with receding endgames. That said, it feels like it's taken roughly the same time to reach this point. I guess the fights and stuff along the way have been easier this time, but as I'm still hitting all of the same sidequests and stuff, I'm spending about as much time as before in cutscenes and walking around, which still adds up to quite a long time. It's kind of amusing that I started this off thinking that returning to SW:TOR would be a quicker experience than picking up a brand-new CRPG. Nope!



There are quite a few quality-of-life improvements that helped streamline this playthrough. A lot of these are tied to the Legacy system, which I think is really good design: a brand-new player's initial playthrough will be a bit slower and guide them through the systems gradually, while subsequent characters can hop around to the spots that interest them. These include things like teleportation options to a variety of locations (I find the trip back to your starship most useful), and purchaseable cooldowns on Quick Travel. You can get this all the way down to 0, which significantly cuts down on the tedium of retracing your steps to turn in quests.


Another really nice change has been transitioning Flashpoints to Story Mode. At launch, Flashpoints were group-only content that you could only complete with three other decently-well-geared and competent human beings. A lot of these have now been retuned so a solo player can finish them. These are a blast! I'd tried a couple of them with T'may back when I was leveling her, and have been more consistent about playing through the story-mode ones with Trel'ves (thanks to this very useful story order guide). They're a significant step up from the normal landscape questing process. They're a lot more exciting, cinematic, and fun: instead of roaming back and forth over an area juggling simultaneous quests ("Defeat 5 Wampa Rats," "Disable 3 Uplink Poles," "Retrieve the Crystal Trigger"), you have a strong narrative pull along a single path with a clear, compelling objective. The fights along the way are all more interesting: not overly hard, but they feel more substantial, call for some tactics, and have more engaging animations and sound effects. There's the same amount of choice-and-consequences as regular story quests, but because you're following a single plot line, you can more easily remember what you did and trace through the implications, instead of squinting at the screen and muttering "Who are you, again?"



My focused playthroughs of the Flashpoints also highlighted an oddity. Star Wars: The Old Republic is an MMORPG, but it's also a quasi-sequel to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, a beloved single-player RPG. The plot of the MMO picks up roughly one generation after the end of KOTOR 2. Most of the links are just in background and atmosphere, but the direct continuation of the KOTOR plot happens entirely through Flashpoints, which, at launch, were the one part that you couldn't complete as a single player. I'm still curious why this was: was it an attempt to strongly urge the solo players who only bought the game because of KOTOR to get involved in multiplayer? Regardless, it makes a ton of sense that these segments have now been rebalanced for solo play and make them more accessible to people who want more KOTOR.

MEGA SPOILERS (Imperial Agent and Jedi Knight class stories)

That said: It's also interesting that the story is split across mutually exclusive faction arcs. My years-ago run through the Imperial-only flashpoints gave crucial insight into the fates of KOTOR's companions; my more recent excursions into the Republic line finally shared a glimpse of Revan. I guess that's a nice way to keep subsequent playthroughs / alts more interesting, and it also makes the worldbuilding feel really cool and vast and interconnected.



I think that, ultimately, that's one of my favorite things about SW:TOR - just how big the universe seems, and the prismatic effect you get at watching the same events unfurl from different perspectives. Or even different outcomes. Regardless of whether you are playing as a Republic or Imperial character, the overall story has to be "You are the hero and did great stuff and the galaxy has changed as a result!", while the actual facts on the ground have to be the same regardless.



I feel like the Imperial progression makes a bit more sense. Again, it's been ages since I played, but I feel like there was a strong sense of momentum there: as you contributed to the war effort on each planet, you won a string of victories, pulling those planets into the Empire's control and setting the stage for future planets who were cowed by your actions. So your early work on Taris and Tatooine emboldens the Imperial faction in Alderaan's civil war; conquering Quesh and Hoth and Taris inspires the uprisings on Belsavis; all of this makes the Voss open to alliance; and finally, as a capstone, you launch an all-out assault on the core Republic world of Corellia, finally crushing them with a decisive victory.


The Republic side goes through almost the exact same progression, but instead of regular momentum, it's always two steps forward, one step back. You put down the Empire's play for a Hutt alliance on Nar Shaddaa...  oh, but now they're trying to win the civil war on Alderaan. You take care of that and pull Alderaan back into the fold... but now they're trying to seize Balmorra's weapons factories. You thwart their plots on Hoth... but now they're stirring up trouble on Belsavis. So you put that down, but the folks on Voss are still super-interested in them. You defeat the Empire everywhere in the galaxy, but they're still launching an all-out war on the core world of Corellia. It feels like you're constantly putting out fires, running around and reacting to the Empire's incursions.
 

Which... I guess that's how it usually felt in the movies, and also the usual good-guy/bad-guy dynamic in games and novels and such. It just feels kind of odd to have such a strong difference over such a long period of time, and to see it from both perspectives. The good guy needs to always be the underdog, fighting a more-powerful enemy against overwhelming odds, but that gets kind of hard to convincingly maintain over a hundred hours where you're constantly winning.


Aside from the general shape of each arc, though, it's really cool to have information gleaned in one playthrough help illuminate events in another. There are tons of examples even just from these two class stories, but the big one I'm thinking of now is the climax of the game, with Darth Malgus seizing control of the stealth fleet and declaring the New Empire. First, the world state of this event can be very different: if you're an Imperial, then Malgus is a traitor launching a coup against the true Emperor; if you're with the Republic, though, the Emperor is already dead, and Malgus is just making a bold move to succeed him.



Now: In the Jedi Knight story, you got to know the Emperor rather well during the game. In contrast, the Dark Council is an enigma: I think they're referenced in passing a couple of times, but aren't really highlighted as a major threat. You're mostly concerned with the head, not the underlings.


In the Imperial Agent storyline, it's the exact opposite. The Emperor is a total enigma: you never hear from him, or even get the impression he's very involved in running the Empire. He's a distant, brooding figure: pursuing his long-ranging arcane schemes, leaving his Council to manage the actual administration of the Empire and the war, while desperately vying for the favor of their disinterested liege. You get to know the Council very well: their factions, their rivalries, their tensions with the civilian and military infrastructure driving the Empire.



All that to say, I think the whole False Emperor arc is a lot more interesting if you've been through both of those paths and know both the Emperor and the Council. It doesn't necessarily need it - the story makes sense with only a few pieces of the puzzle - but it gets cooler and more compelling once you add the other facets to the story.



I'm like 99.5% sure I won't replay this game with yet another class, but this experience makes me very curious about just that: what additional lore and characters will be illuminated by their own stories, both for their own sake and to help add more dimensions to the stories I've already played.

This seems like a good point for a quick rundown on the Jedi Knight storyline:

Favorite companion: Kira Carsen



Favorite planet, aesthetics: Tie between Corellia and Nar Shaddaa



Favorite planet, gameplay: Tatooine

Favorite skybox: Illum



Favorite alien species: Voss



Favorite side content: Space missions


Favorite flashpoint: Maelstrom Prison

Favorite quote: "I'm in the prime of my life and I'm spending it with people who enjoy running around on exploding planets." - Doc


END SPOILERS

I was planning to roll right on into the expansion content, which is kind of the whole reason I started this playthrough in the first case. But it sounds like a new content update is dropping in December, so I might postpone my planned one-month subscription to overlap with that. The way SW:TOR handles expansions and subscriptions is kind of unusual and very cool: whenever you subscribe, you automatically and permanently get access to all the content in the game at that time, even after you unsubscribe. It looks a lot simpler than LOTRO, which usually requires a combination of subscription, expansions, and quest packs to get access to everything.


Anyways - I think there are still a few Level 50 things I can do in the meantime, but I'll probably slow my pace down for a bit, while checking in often enough to keep my key combinations memorized. But I'm definitely looking forward to making my way through all of the expansions and meeting the new companions in store!