Saturday, November 03, 2018

Helping Others Is Both A Duty And An Honor

And now, Chapter 2 of my Jedi Knight playthrough of Star Wars: The Old Republic is in the bag. Or wherever people in a galaxy far, far away store their playthroughs.

I'm digging it more as I get further along. I'm already having trouble recalling the plot of the first chapter, but so far the later developments have been more intriguing.


I neglected to discuss the companions in my prior post. Kira is by far my favorite: I almost always bring her along, and I really enjoy her personality and her story. She is a Jedi, but comes from an unusual background: she grew up in poverty, ran away from home, and was a criminal for many years. (And, as you learn at the end of Act 1, she even served the Empire for a time.) She has a nicely sardonic and cynical worldview that's a fun change of pace from the generally self-serious Jedi you otherwise encounter.  Her dialogue reactions are interesting: she generally likes you espousing pro-Jedi and pro-Republic views, but also appreciates when you poke fun at those institutions. Her deprecating asides about institutions and planets are always a lot of fun.

There's a long gap between meeting Kira and Doc. Doc comes on way too hard; I'm playing as a  Jedi woman, and almost every single dialogue choice with him is responding to his aggressive flirting. This was mostly annoying - take the hint, already! - but I did kind of laugh at how he responds to some of the putdowns. He always pretends that they're compliments and continues on unfazed. This is especially fun when he has an audience. He implies we're seeing each other, I coldly shoot him down in the most devastating way possible, and he says "See? She's wild about me!"

Since my initial playthrough, BioWare has changed the Approval system to an Influence system, and my interactions with Doc make me very glad that they made that change. Virtually every interaction I had with him was negative, but it still "counts" as Influence. Now that we're past the final rejection dialogue, I can finally lighten up and build our friendship. (I marked the occasion by giving him a new custom appearance. He has the same voice, but I can kinda pretend that this is a new guy on my ship who actually respects boundaries.)

That said, the whole Doc experience has prompted me to think more about romance design in video games. (Which, granted, I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about anyways.) I'm used to having only a limited few number of opportunities to start a romantic arc, which has conditioned me to mash that "Like" button a bunch when I want to hook up: I'm always worried that I'll miss an on-ramp to the content I crave. In this game, it felt a bit tedious and unrealistic to repeat my "dislike" options so many times along the way: how many people in real life would keep trying? But, from a storytelling and roleplaying perspective, it is kind of nice to have a sort of tsundere path, with resistance before acquiescence. "I didn't like you and now I do" is a much more interesting arc than "I always liked you." Granted, this is probably trickier to handle now in a Me Too, "no means no" environment: I think that in just a couple of years pop culture has moved from seeing persistence as admirable to seeing it as creepy. I dunno. It's tough to do right, and important to do right, but it ultimately might be more interesting to let a player experience approval and disapproval at various stages along their romantic journey. I love the idea of being able to set specific boundaries, and see those boundaries honored, without necessarily killing off the romance as a whole.

Along with my periodic frustrations at Doc, the most striking feature of Chapter 2 were the incredibly repetitive choices. SO MANY MISSIONS come down to a final decision of "Should we keep these experimental weapons to aid the Republic, or destroy them so ensure nobody uses them in the future?" It's kind of an interesting choice, but they return to that well way too often and it ceases to be interesting. It's kind of like BioShock's question of "Will you kill this little girl?" - if you said "No" the first time, why the hell would you say "Yes" any of the next 20 times?

There were also a ton of choices of the form "You've defeated [bad guy]. What do?" One option is to kill (always Dark Side), and there are also choices to arrest and/or release them (always Light Side). That structure is also very repetitive, although here I did occasionally mix things up: I generally took the Light Side path, but there were one or two cases where, based on the circumstances, it seemed like all parties would be better served by execution.

It's been many years since I played the Imperial Agent storyline, and I've been trying to remember if those choices were better or if I was just more forgiving of them. From what I hazily recall, a lot of those choices had more to do with alliances: whether to honor agreements with non-Imperial forces, and how to handle misbehaving elements within the Empire. Those still had LS/DS annotations, but I thought their real-world implications were a lot more nuanced and debatable. And, ultimately, I think it's inherently more interesting to play as a good guy inside a bad hierarchy than as a good guy in a good hierarchy. Playing a Light Side Imperial Agent is inherently conflicted; a Light Side Jedi only has the conflict you create for yourself.

I feel like the game doesn't even acknowledge what could be one of the most devastating conflicts: the morality of mindfucking your opponents. I was stunned to see that, most of the time, the [Force Persuade] option has a Light Side value associated with it. It seems deeply wrong to me that hypnotizing someone else and violating their inner self, forcing them to do your bidding, would be seen as a good action. But it is! The game appears deeply confused as to whether or not the ends justify the means: yelling at someone to get your way may be Dark Side, while brainwashing them is Light Side. As with so many of my concerns, though, this really goes back to the source material. We all had a good laugh when Old Ben Kenobi did it in Episode Four, so it's canon that good guys do it, so that gets carried forward in derived media.


I was still playing the game, but rolling my eyes ever-harder at each fresh iteration of "WhAt ShOuLd wE dO wItH tHeSe WeApOnS?!?!111!one!" That said, the story got really good once Chapter 2 finally hit its climax. The plot all along was really dumb and ambitious - not the plot of the story, I mean, but the scheme hatched by your Jedi masters. They're like, "Hey, why don't we just go get the emperor!" And I'm like, "Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, how has nobody ever thought of this before?" It's self-evident that the plan is doomed to failure and incredibly risky and dumb, but I still was all-in for it, since I love big, dumb, ambitious gestures.

So, the bulk of Chapter 2 is you doing busywork leading up to two big achievements: finding where the Emperor's hidden space station is located, and acquiring a cloaking device that will allow your team to safely approach it. You eventually head to the station. This is where Star Wars' faux-sci-fi trappings really start to strain. It's supposedly a "thousand-year-old" station, which seems incredibly dumb in a sci-fi context - you would think that technology had significantly advanced during the past thousand years, rendering the initial construction obsolete. Just think of if, say, Theresa May retreated to a fortress constructed before the Norman Conquest. But, really, Star Wars has always been a fantasy story, wrapped in a thin sci-fi wrapper, and it makes a lot more sense here. The Emperor is ultimately an Evil Wizard, and the space station is ultimately a magic castle, and of course a thousand-year-old magic castle is gonna be more impressive than one which was built last year.

Some decently surprising stuff happens at the climax. Your party is discovered (shocking!) and defeated (wow!!!!!), and you're brainwashed by the Emperor and turned into his slave (okay, that's actually kinda unexpected). Your dead master shows back up, helps you shake off the mind control, then you rescue Kira and sneak your way off the station. At the end you meet with Lord Scourge, who you spared back in Chapter 1, and join forces with him as you leave.

So, yeah, that was a lot more plot-dense and interesting than what had come before, and helped Chapter 2 end on a particularly high note. But, the more I've thought about it, I've realized that it's almost exactly ripping off the Imperial Agent storyline. Mind control? Check - though in the IA case, it lasted for quite a while and was an interesting overarching burden you dealt with across multiple missions, whereas here it's introduced and overcome within a few real-world minutes. A spared lieutenant from the enemy returns to aid you in an hour of need? Check. I think that, in the Imperial Agent storyline, Ardun Kothe's fate can be decided by you, which makes the eventual reactive outcome more personal and meaningful. On the other hand, though, Lord Scourge actually joins you as a companion in the Jedi Knight storyline, which may feel like a more impressive result in the long run.

On the whole, though, I do really appreciate how different the class stories are. One of the most immediately obvious is the diversity. Throughout the IA storyline, you're constantly embedded inside the Imperial hierarchy, and thus constantly surrounded by humans. I remember feeling minor shock when, very late in the game, I arrived on Hoth and, for the first time, experienced being in a human-minority structure (as the Chiss compose the majority of Imperial power there). In contrast, the Republic and Jedi cultures are filled with a wide variety of non-human species, which lends a lot more visual interest and a sense of a patchwork alliance. For the most part I really dig this, but after playing for many hours, it's impossible to ignore the fact that a relatively limited number of "alien" dialogues were recorded, and then replayed over and over again across multiple planets, species, and individuals. You start to recognize these nonsensical but very distinctive phrases and anticipate exactly what they're going to say: "Ah hoka noka no pisto" is one of several favorites. What they're supposedly saying is different each time, as reflected in the subtitles; but the subtitle length bears little or no connection to the length of the recorded line. This leads to some very long and awkward silences within alien dialogue, as they wait for you to read their words long after the last syllable in a sentence has been uttered.

It's also, as I expected, interesting to see the same larger political story from two perspectives. Each players' story covers the same timeline, as a cold peace between the Republic and Empire flares into a series of proxy wars and instigated uprisings, and ultimately erupts into a full-fledged hot shooting war by the end. I remember thinking during my initial playthrough that the whole sequence felt very reminiscent of the run-up to World War 2, and I was even more struck by those parallels this time around. I'm fairly certain that the connotations are intentional, as this is yet another thing that is embedded in the Star Wars DNA. The Imperials have always been coded as Nazi Germany, from the Hugo Boss-inspired uniforms to the enormous hangars and banners evoking the Nuremberg rallies. In the game's earlier timeframe, an earlier devastating war resulted in an armistice, although it seems like in this case the Allies were the weaker party by the end. The terms of the Treaty of Coruscant are subverted and violated by the Empire, and the Republic is divided between those who seek to maintain the peace, and those who believe a new war is inevitable and are alarmed by the rapidly increasing strength of their foes. I think this metaphor is especially strong on the planet of Balmorra, which seems to be a stand-in for Czechoslovakia. While Balmorra is a relatively weak state, it has a highly developed industrial base and enormous capacity for weapons manufacturing. As with the annexation of Sudetenland, the Empire seizes this pre-existing infrastracture, which makes it a far deadlier threat as the two sides march towards an inevitable confrontation.


I'm just now dipping into Chapter 3, as my Knight attempts to wrap up the fallout from Chapter 2 and, well, we'll see what happens next. As always, there's plenty of nuts-and-bolts stuff to criticize in this game and its hundreds of quests, but the big picture continues to be a hell of a lot of fun.

There's a good chance that this will be my last playthrough of the game. If I do start a new one in the future, it's encouraging to know that I'll easily be able to just focus on the new class storyline, without replaying faction and planet quests. Those have been fairly enjoyable, but are also the most repetitive aspects of the game, and I'm glad to see that BioWare has rebalanced the early game to make them optional.

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