Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Makes No Sense At All: SW:TOR

Star Wars: the Old Republic has a lot of story, most of it delivered by typical MMORPG quests. They aren't called "quests", of course. SciFi games have "Missions". Call them whatever you like; if you're following the plot, you're going to have to talk to plenty of NPCs. And all of them want something.

Every Mission begins with a playlet. The NPC talks and you listen. Then it's your turn to reply. A dialog wheel offers three (or, rarely, two) choices. It's meant to make your progress along the pre-determined path seem less inevitable.

As well as making you feel like you have some say in what's happening, there are, supposedly, potential repercussions to make your choices meaningful. Your Companions might like or dislike you more depending on what they hear you say. Your slider might move up or down the Light/Dark scale.

These are things that sound like they might matter. They don't.

Last night my Agent managed to piss off her companion, Kaliyo Djannis, so badly I thought there was going to be a fistfight. Kaliyo threatened eternal enmity then my agent gave her some trinket she found in the bottom of her bag, Kaliyo gosh-wowed her thanks and the two of them went off to do another Mission together as though nothing had ever happened.

I wasn't surprised. It was established a few posts back that nothing you do makes much of a difference. In later expansions, I hear, miffed Companions can storm off and never come back but in the core game the most they can manage is empty bluster.

If we're going to settle this with a staring contest, Kaliyo, you're going to have to take thos ridiculous glasses off.

Companions' opinions are irrelevant. The Light/Dark system is purely cosmetic. There's still the narrative, though, right? Your moral choices must be stacking up to something there, surely?

Nope. Not so far as I can tell. Do what you want: all Missions have the same outcome, regardless, because whatever the Player Character decides is just fine and dandy with everyone involved. Execute or excuse, imprison or pardon, help or harm. No one gives a damn. You did the job, here's your pay, now let's all get on with our lives.

Oh, your handler or your boss or whichever random NPC handed you the job for absolutely no explicable reason in the first place may kick off for a moment but they'll always come around. At most it might take them a few hours before they realize they were wrong and you were right.

On a couple of occasions it's looked as if I might have made an actual enemy. No such luck. Just wait. Even if they left mad, soon enough mail will arrive explaining how everything turned out alright in the end. With a cash bonus attached, just to thank you for being so clever.

Playing a Light-inflected character on the Republic side, the anomalies were easier to handwave away. I was working with the grain. Sure, it was disconcerting to hear my Smuggler spouting homilies about sparing the innocent only seconds after she'd slaughtered forty or fifty data entry clerks for a Bonus Mission, but that's MMORPGs for you. At least Stealth meant she didn't always kill everyone that got in her way.

If it's relatively easy to  look the other way when my Smuggler's halo slips, playing Pollyana for The Empire takes a blindfold. The game wants to offer everyone equal opportunities to win Light or Dark points but it's a lot easier to be a loose cannon on the good team than a saint on the bad.

Where indeed? I'm basically The Empire now, right? What exactly is it the rest of you do, anyway?

Taking the the path I've chosen, Mission after Mission ends in an outcome that ought to see me on trial for treason, always assuming someone didn't just shoot me dead on the spot. I could cite literally dozens of cases because, to a greater or lesser extent, it happens almost every time but I'll stick to one particularly egregious example.

I'm jogging down some corridor when someone from the upper echelons of the Empire's military hierarchy buttonholes me as I pass. As usual he's mistaken me for Supergirl. He explains that Revan (aka The Ravanchist aka Revan the Butcher aka Darth Revan) left an active but abandoned facility on Nar Shaddaa. It's guarded by seemingly inexhaustible autonomic defenses that The Empire has been trying - and failing - to breach for years.

In the attempt they have lost a thousand men and ten thousand droids. He quotes those exact numbers. He's convinced I can do better. On my own. With no preparation. Now.

Plenty of Missions have set ups as utterly ridiculous as this but the set-up is the least of it. Off I go to do what a literal army hasn't managed in a decade of trying. And I succeed because it turns out I am indeed Supergirl, assuming  Supergirl solved every problem with a burst of automatic gunfire.

I take out all the defenses then I trot back to the military man to tell him the good news. He musters the troops and sends in a strike team to secure the target they spent all those years and lives trying to secure.

Oh, wait, no he doesn't! because that would make sense! What he actually does is ask me to go in, alone, find out what's there, then come back and tell him. So I do.

10,000 droids and little ol' me.

I find nothing much. Only a few aliens, the remnants of the slave force Revan brought in to run the facility. They're not aggressive so I'm not allowed to shoot them.  Not until I get that dialog option, anyway.

I talk to them and they explain they're maintaining something called The Infinite Engine. I could choose to kill them and take it or accept their gift of a "fragment" that will eventually grow into a new engine. If I do the latter the implication - no, actually, the stated outcome - will be peace and continued, unchallenged occupation of the facility for the aliens.

Being Little Miss Goody Two-Shoes I opt for the fragment. I take it back to the officer who sent me. He's not impressed. "Is that all you found?" he asks, looking at the speck of who knows what I've handed him. I assure him it is.

"Oh, well", he says. "Fair enough. I'm sure you did your best. Here's some money. Buy yourself an ice cream". Or words to that effect.

Excuse me? You're a (presumably) senior officer in the armed forces of a galaxy-spanning military dictatorship, who spent years of your life, a thousand of your men and ten thousand of your machines trying to get inside this place, but now you're going to take my word for it that there's nothing in there worth bothering with? You don't want to take a look for yourself? Send in some experts? Get some photographic evidence? You're going to leave it at that, walk away, never think of it again?

Are you clinically insane??

Seven hundred and ninety-seven credits? Seriously? I guess you blew the entire budget on those droids.
 It would be one thing if this was a freakish exception but it's so very far from that. It's pretty much the standard result when my Agent does anything you'd imagine she'd be put in irons for suggesting. In my experience so far, the player character can literally do no wrong. It's like living under some sort of reverse curse, where everything that can go wrong... doesn't.

I understand the gameplay reasons behind it. Most MMORPGs do something similar, if rarely so blatantly. The problem is that TOR's reputation rests in considerable part on the quality of its storytelling and as far as I can see, this blows that reputation out of the water.

Long before the end of Chapter One, my Agent should either be dead, on trial, in prison or on the run. Her name should be on Most Wanted lists across The Empire, her face on posters, every guard primed to arrest her on sight. Instead her reputation for reliability and efficiency grows and grows and she's entrusted by more and more important people with more and more important tasks.

I understand she's supposed to be an improviser, an innovator, a self-propelling bomb. I understand that results matter more than methods. What I can't understand is how any of that allows her to get away, repeatedly, with doing the exact opposite of what she's been ordered to do. Once in a while she'll lie to cover her tracks but mostly she just strolls back in and tells her superiors to their faces that she's disobeyed them and they'll have to put up with it. And they do!

Maybe this is all going to turn round and bite her later on. Maybe I'm just not seeing the long game BioWare are playing here. We'll all have a good laugh when I find out just how hard they pulled the wool down over my eyes.

Or not. I'm betting on not.


  1. How the companions liked you did use to matter. I remember trying picking choices that pissed off a companion and then buying them gifts from a vendor to fix it. They were more effective in combat and in the crafting missions you sent them on. No idea if that has changed.

    1. It still affects their combat-effectiveness. That seems to be the only function. I was thinking of the way in which your companions' opinions of your actions might affect narrative outcomes. If that ever used to be the case I have seen no sign of it so far. That said, I haven't even made into Chapter 2 of either story so far so I might yet be surprised...

  2. I'm curious what you would consider a "good" amount of consequences following your actions? I may be misremembering, but I thought that before you started the game, the idea of your choices influencing outcomes and having to worry about making the wrong choice was something you found very off-putting.

    As for cases like your particular example: I guess I just never found it hard to believe that a lot of quest givers simply aren't very clever. In the case of the Imperial military in particular the game presents you with a lot of characters who clearly hate their job and/or only hold the positions they do because of connections.

    1. Hehe! My lifelong motto - well, since I first learned it in my mid-teens, anyway, has always been Emerson's aphorism "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" (although I got it from Lou Reed, not Emerson). Yes, I did start out by saying how much I disliked genuine "moral" choices with actual (in-game) consequences. There's a paradox, though: I would prefer not to have in-game moral choices at all, but if that's what I'm going to get then I want them to feel convincing.

      That definitely doesn't mean I want to run up against a team of high-level assassins I can't escape six weeks after I chose not to rescue a littel girl's kitten from a tree but it also means I would at least like the options to be structured in such a way as to present a convincing facade. If I do the opposite of what I've been instructed to do by a superior officer in a military dictatorship I would at least expect to have to justify my actions and maybe prove my decision was valid.

      I think there's a case to be made for The Empire's military establishment not being all that bright: I seem to vaguely remember that from the movies. It's not just them, though. My handlers in Intelligence seem to be incredibly gullible and/or forgiving. Watcher 2, whose picture leads the post, barely seems fit to teach kindergarten - she believes anything I tell her!

      I think the real "problem" that got me to write the post is summed up by the paragrap h near the end, when I say "I understand the gameplay reasons behind it. Most MMORPGs do something similar, if rarely so blatantly." It's the bare-faced cheek of the writers not even paying lip-service to believability as they fudge the results that amuses me.

      It in no way detracts from the fun of playing. In fact it adds a quirky level of pantomome comedy that I enjoy. It seriously damages any claim the writing has to gravitas, though.

  3. Maybe it's because I ignore exploration missions or maybe because I tended to try to stay loyal to the Empire in my playthrough, but I honestly can't remember encountering a lot of contradictions like you describe. It all felt fairly logical to me.

    It does seem worth offering a reminder that for three of the four Imperial classes (bounty hunter being the exception), you exist outside the standard military rank structure and ostensibly have authority over most of the NPCs you meet. A military officer -- even a high ranking one -- who questions a Sith or an Intelligence operative is likely to find themselves quietly erased from Imperial records and never spoken of again. So if they seem overly eager to accept your word, that's probably just self-preservation.

    On the subject of branching narrative, it is true that your choices rarely change much, but I will say I was surprised to read about how many different endings the agent story has. Of course in game mechanics terms you go to largely the same maps and have largely the same fights regardless, but the narrative "fluff" around that can change a fair bit, apparently.

    I can't say too much without spoilers, but now I'm *really* curious what you'll make of agent chapter two...

    1. The issue of who has authority over who is a bit of a wild card. I don't claim to have much understanding of the Imperial hierarchical structure but I had realised that, as a representative of the Secret Police, I was going to be given a pretty wide berth by most of the people I was likely to meet. Even so, the storyline seems to suggest that I'm still fairly junior, if rising fast, and I'm not a Sith, while the people I'm dealing with have ranks like "General". You'd think that would give them some measure of seniority.

      More to the point, though, I'm able to get away with what amounts to open insurrection within my own Intelligence structure. I have Keepers and Watchers and so on, who are presumably my line managers and supervisors, but they defer to my judgment, even when it's the opposite of what they told me I should do - and it usually is.

      This would be less of an issue if I played each class as you would imagine someone brought up in that culture would behave. It does affect bosth sides, too. I started out attempting to be morally neutral as a Smuggler but the game really doesn't like that and tries very hard to steer you to either Light or Dark. Because I mostly allow it to push me towards the light, I run into fewer outright fudges on the Republic side, whereas, on The Empire team the game is quite happy to let me cleave to the light side of the force but the writers have a lot more trouble explaining how that's happening.


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