Or: How The Old Republic Engaged a Cynic
Or^2: How Bioware Put the RPG Back into MMORPG
Or^3: Star Wars: The Old Republic Review
Okay, first of all, a quick foreword to this - this is the longest non-fiction piece I've ever written. So...y'know...go with it.
I'll come out of the cupboard for a moment to admit that I don't get MMOs really. Yeah, the likes of World of Warcraft, Age of Conan, and EVE Online are all incredible pieces of software – with EVE in particular getting my seal of approval thanks to its outrageously deep economic system – but I've never really seen the appeal.
I get bored of – well, not bored;I'm done with – a game usually after around two or three months, with intermittent periods of intense attention paid to the latest triple-A shooter release. It's around this time that I feel I've received my money's worth back from the developer, that they've fulfilled their end of the contract by providing me with a world or scenario that I can get caught up in.
With MMOs, they are intrinsically designed as time sinks – and skip this part if you're familiar with these kinds of games, as the following statement may contain some uncomfortable truths. Everything is deliberately protracted, from the occasionally ludicrous distances that you have to make your avatar travel just to receive a quest reward, to the sheer logistical nightmare that is organising groups to tackle the high-level areas (or raiding, to the WoW enthusiast), it takes time to get literally anywhere.
Content that might be in the first four hours or so of an ordinary RPG is stretched out over the course of days of gameplay, not just hours. Requirement after requirement piles up, and constant rewards are dangled in front of you should you meet them. Just one more hour, and you can have that awesome sword! There's some psychoanalytical angle here regarding Skinner boxes and operant conditioning, but Google – and in particular, a little webshow called Extra Credits; look it up – explains it in far more detail then I ever could.
There are inherent strengths of the MMO, though. The key is the second M – multiplayer. I'm a fan of multiplayer – in particular, cooperative multiplayer. There's something about shared effort to tackle a challenge that is a lot more satisfying than breezing through it on your own. After all, human beings are social creatures – so I'm told... - and we like working together to accomplish things. MMOs have this down pat, of course – nuturing an atmosphere of cooperative competion as guilds, coorporations and factions fight it out for dominance.
Tangentially, a key facet of gaming – and yes, I'm including all forms, not just video games - is that the medium itself is an inherently ingenious method of storytelling. Having someone progress a story through their own decisions? No other medium asks so much of the person experiencing it, and this is one of the many reasons that gaming maintains a constant presence in my life. I find the method of story-telling fascinating, to the extent that I'm willing to forgive a game technical flaws – though not that many, Fallout 3 – difficulty frustrations and flat gameplay in favour of a well-told story.
My favourite game of all time, at present? Red Dead Redemption. One of the buggiest games released last year. Flying cowboys, horses in walls, weird physics – it didn't matter. I adored every moment that I spent as John Marston. The quirky characters, the wonderfully epic plot and the earthy, endearing tone with which it was told. I would liken it to being told a tall tale by a weathered old gent, sat next to a campfire, strumming a few melancholy chords on a battered guitar as the heavens seem to listen in. It was genuinely magical.
Conversely, you can have among the most meticulously detailed and well-crafted stories currently being told, along with gameplay so deep there's entire encyclopedias dedicated to delving its crevaces; but if you fail to tell it in an engaging manner, it becomes more like a poorly taught history class. You sit there, getting battered by facts, figures, politics, plot points and a whole host of other nonsense that you don't really care about. You're just there because you need a decent grade.
This is where the protracted nature of MMOs comes to bite them in the backside – you cannot tell an engaging story through the medium of dialogue pop-ups. Not when the time between these pop-ups is being excessively padded with lengthy walks, irritating minor enemies that bite at your heels and long waits attempting to cobble together something resembling an effective four-man team.
Ask me what the story of World of Warcraft is, and I genuinely couldn't tell you. Something about the Horde coming out from somewhere, and the Alliance being none too happy about that. But the fine details? I have no idea. And I played that game for three months. I ended up on autopilot, not even registering the flavour text as I accept quests. Where do I go? What do I kill? Do I need help? Those were the three things that mattered. Everything else was just so much hot air.
Now, ask me what the story of The Old Republic is – and yes, we're finally getting to the point of this article. Well done for getting this far!
To date - and this is just for one of my characters – I (or Jayk, as I have dubbed him) has...
(I promise, I won't go into too much detail!)
…landed on a planet called Ord Mantell with a cargo-hold full of munitions. Before I could deliver my cargo, I had my ship stolen, and in an attempt to locate quite where it'd gone, I found myself embroiled in the local conflict between the authorities and a separatist movement. Admid the chaos, I teamed up with another smuggler named Corso Riggs, who proved invaluable in a fight, and also had connections to the criminal underworld. Through him, I met a kingpin, and in exchange for using his information network to track down the thief who stole my ship, Skavak, I provided my services as a gun for hire.
Whilst out doing these errands, I saved a few orphans and the lone doctor protecting them from the anarchy, I gathered some valuable intelligence for a Republic spy, saved at least three different lives and generally made a bit of a name for myself as a man who can get things done.
After a few intense gunbattles, - and declaring myself a 'Scoundrel' - I chased Skavak to the city-planet Coruscant. Through the connections I'd made – and again, in exchange for a few favours which saw me fighting for my life against the notorious Black Sun criminal organisation - I finally was able to waylay Skavak whilst he was attempting to make a deal with some Imperial spies. Defeating them, Skavak escapes by the skin of his teeth, and has the cheek to contact me with threats of 'hunting me down'.
My ship now firmly back in my possession – and my protocol droid C2-N2 dithering at every possible moment - I've got an entire galaxy to explore. And there's a strange woman in my cargo hold. I should probably go ask her what she's doing there...
The point is, I know what's going on. My character has a story. My characters have never had stories when I play MMOs. Yeah, I pick their race, their gender, and I control them for a bit, during which they forge some kind of loose-knit, jumbled narrative. But they don't have actual character traits.
My smuggler does. Yes, other smugglers will have the same major plot-points. But no experience will be identical – what I've described above is but the prologue of my story, and what makes it special is that I, the gamer, have written my own flavour text. The minor story beats that connect the major ones are my decisions, and that makes this particular story, the story of Jayk, mine.
This appeals to the very heart of my gaming fascination, and this is in no small part due to Bioware's mastery of video games as a medium for story-telling. There is no one aside from perhaps Rockstar who does it as consistently brilliantly as they do – even their recent misfire, Dragon Age II, was rarely criticised for being poorly told; instead, criticisms were focused on the stripped down nature of the gameplay, and the relatively limited scope of the setting.
I am not going to stand here and claim that Bioware have revolutionised the genre. The MMO is still standing on ground unbroken – the same tediums that plague WoW and EVE abound in The Old Republic.
What Bioware have done, though, is provide us with their take on the genre, by adding the single flourish of an entirely player-driven, constantly evolving and changing narrative. But not just that – every single character that you can speak to has a voice, has an opinion, has an intriguing quirk. I could go on about the great script, the fantastic voice work or the wonderful way that the individual stories of players magically intertwine through wonderfully staged 'flashpoints', and how Bioware have done for story what CCP did for player-driven economy with EVE. But I'm going to skip ahead ever so slightly to the very crux of the matter, as I've been yammering on for a bit now.
It reminds me of old times. I know, I know, it's ridiculous for someone in his very late early twenties to refer to any times as old times, but go with me. When I was a slightly awkward social pariah of a teenager, I had a few refuges from an insistent world. One was video games, but the other was tabletop roleplaying games.
Playing The Old Republic feels like I'm back there – only I'm privileged enough to have one of my idols, my heroes, serving as the story-teller. Particularly, and this really is the entire point of this article, when I'm playing with my wonderful friends Al and Nathaniel.
They were two of the folk whom socially debased themselves enough to partake in Dungeons and Dragons, the D20 Modern RPG and the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, and so there's of course the 'nostalgia' value to that, but there's also more to it.
When you play with friends, the game very cleverly involves all players in any given conversation with a non-player character. You're all there – each with your own unique character and perspective, and a deeply embedded (thanks to the prologue) idea of who your character is. Then it throws some chaos into the mix – randomly determining who, of the players involved, gets to actually speak and control the conversation.
Initially, you'd think this would create conflict, but it's a subtle mechanic that works incredibly well. You receive points and bonuses as if you answered with your own response – so ultimately, you can't be forced to accept perceived penalties if you don't want to - but the physical nature of the story plays on the whims of a random dice roll.
To wit, I was playing with Nathaniel. I've got my mildly gung-ho smuggler on the go, and Nat is controlling a Jedi named Kai-Lai. We're doing a story-driven scenario – one of the above mentioned 'flashpoints' - whereby we must defend a ship from an attacking Imperial cruiser. Now, after all is said and done, and we've had a bit of a laugh at my smuggler's cocky attitude juxtaposed against the wall of tranquility and compassion that is the Jedi, eventually it comes the point where we're to be rewarded.
Now, being a cocky smuggler, I initially headed for the 'About bloody time' option. But then I paused, and realised that I didn't want to look bad in front of the Jedi. I mused a moment on why I was doing this - realising that points must be given to Bioware for actually making me give two hoots about what path my Smuggler follows, even if it'll only matter to me personally.
Regaining control of my senses, and subsequently the mouse, I clicked the option that, to paraphrase, would've said 'That's very nice of you. Thank you!'.
Only to be foiled. The game rolled the dice, and Kai-Lai won with an impressive 135 to my measly 17. 'There is no need for a reward,' she said serenely, 'service to the Republic and her people is reward enough.' Then some nonsense about giving it to someone who deserves it more. Only I'm not listening.
Because my smuggler really wanted those credits. He's got speeder bikes to buy! Caught up in this tidal wave of character-based angst, we proceeded to have a relatively long conversation where I wasn't certain if we were in character or out of character. Essentially...
I want my money!!!!
Of course, I'm kidding really – I'm not actually going to full-on demand the money from Nat. Instead, we've generated a memorable moment that we can reference in future story beats. And in truth, that's probably how I would've written the scene, were I tasked with it.
But what gets me is how true a roleplaying moment that was. Nathaniel could've easily stuck to the mindset of previous MMOs - 'I must have my reward', which I had only adhered to because my character's dialogue options, coupled with my predisposition towards Han Solo-esque bravado, had inclined me to do so.
There're three moments there that prove how true a roleplaying experience The Old Republic is. My rethinking of my dialogue choice based solely on an ultimately inconsequential detail; Kai-Lai's adherence to the Jedi moral code; and finally my reaction to it.
Without even realising it, and for no in-game benefit – only me and Nathaniel will ever care about those decisions and that turn of the dice – we both found ourselves roleplaying our characters properly. It was as if we were fifteen again, huddled around those forever multiplying rulebooks, grinning with satisfaction as we played through a particularly satisfying set piece that we had sculpted ourselves. It was genuinely magical.
Yes, there are occasional moments where the immersion is broken. There's an attempt to prevent characters of the same class – and thus, similar back-stories – from mingling in their personal quests, which goes a long way to encouraging you to team up with players of other classes, which in turn results in a fuller experience. But the fact that it's a multiplayer game means that every so often you'll see another smuggler who's got the same companion and equipment as you, and the prologue occasionally feels a little crowded in this regard. But it's not game-breaking – and given the circumstances a mere smudge on the gemstone.
From the get-go, Bioware throw you into an entirely different state of mind to most MMOs. You have a story. Yes, other players will have a similar story – but it's given extra meaning and weight not just by the fantastic, player-driven story-telling, but by the friends and even strangers that you experience it with.
This is why, in my opinion, The Old Republic – for all its conformity to genre tropes gameplay-wise – is still a complete triumph. It doesn't revolutionise anything, nor is it the most technically adept of the current line-up of MMOs. What it is is entirely engaging – eight unique character stories, masterfully intertwined with an over-arching plot of grand galactic conflict. Industry take heed – story-telling this brilliant isn't solely confined to single player. This is the bar – let's set about meeting it.