Saturday, May 18, 2019

Rewrite Or Revise? SW:TOR, GW2

Yesterday I posted about some shortcomings in Guild Wars 2's storytelling. A few days earlier I made some similarly jaundiced observations about Star Wars: The Old Republic. Some new evidence arrived today which might have made a difference. Timing is everything.

Not too long ago my Agent did a series of Missions involving Watcher X, a superannuated, super-intelligent, clinically paranoid, possibly psychotic operative. The Empire, valuing his skills but wary of what he might do with them, were holding him under what amounted to house arrest.  Some kind of explosive device implanted in his head was meant to keep him from getting any funny ideas.

My own Watcher, Watcher 2, sent me to do some business with him. Naturally I ended up doing Watcher X a few favors I didn't tell her about. She is astonishingly gullible. The upshot was that Watcher X escaped and he owes me.

I didn't think any more about it but when I logged her in this afternoon, my Agent had mail: two slightly garbled transmissions from Watcher X. Instead of the usual thank-you note with a few credits attached he'd sent me information. Some of it on Watcher 2. Some on my Companion, Kaliyo.

The first memo offered a possible explanation for Watcher 2's apparent incompetence. It seems her genetic modifications aren't performing as they should and she is "unable to integrate new variables". That certainly would make her gullible.

The second told me some things about Kaliyo's background that my Companion had kept to herself. It also made some suggestions about how I might use the information to "control" her if need arose. Given that she and my Agent recently had a major disagreement that ended with Kaliyo making some scarcely veiled threats, that could prove very valuable.

There was also some additional information about Watcher 2: her real name, gender and species. It appeared to have been appended to the wrong message as a result of the garbling caused by Watcher X's advanced encryption.

This all seemed to me to go well beyond the standards of creativity I'd seen anywhere in the game before. It created an impression of something moving beneath the surface, a sinuous and sinister undertow seeking to draw me in. And succeeding.

Putting all that behind me for the moment, I set out to adventure a little, make some XP, earn some credits. In short order I found myself promising to do a certain thing for someone, then doing something entirely different without asking them if they approved. As usual.

It was a military man who wanted me to plant doctored comms units on dead rebels, the idea being that the remaining rebels would salvage them and blow themselves to oblivion, possibly along with their base of operations. The chap who supplied me with the devices was concerned that children might get to the bodies first.

He had a plan to use some rigged grenades instead, his logic being that children would leave those but soldiers would take them, thereby limiting the damage to genuine military targets. He also assured me, confidently, that my military contact would be pleased with the results so there would be no comeback on either of us.

Being the bleeding heart liberal snowflake she is, my Agent agreed. I planted the grenades and went back to the officer for my reward. He asked me if I'd used grenades instead of comms units and I said I had. I also told him whose idea it was and that I'd decided it was a good one because it meant no civilians would get killed.

Based on previous experience I fully expected him to roll over and thank me. He did not. He was steaming mad. He told me that killing civilians was entirely what he'd had in mind; he pointed out that the whole point of the plan, which he had explained to me when he first told me about it, was to spread fear and despair among the enemy, something the death of a few children would do a lot more effectively than would the demise of any number of soldiers.

He then told my Agent that, to his regret, there was nothing the social structure of The Empire permitted him to do to her, but that no such restrictions stopped him from sending the idiot who gave me the idea in the first place to the stockade, where he would be soundly beaten. Finally, he gave me a warning: it's a bad idea to get on the wrong side of people who make bombs and conceal them in everyday objects for a living.

I was so taken aback by all of this I forgot to take any screenshots.

In a way, one, angry soldier had effectively undercut much of the argument I'd made against the way this sort of anarchic, undisciplined behavior by my characters had been handled so far. In another it strengthened my case that much of the writing I'd seen up until then had been poor. If genuine, convincing, logical reasons why my characters can get away with murder (literally and figuratively) exist, then good writing ought to be able to bring them out. This was good writing (or at least better). It proved it could be done.

All of this, taken in combination, makes me more optimistic for the future of the narratives in TOR. I'm hoping these are the first shoots of a quality that will flower as the plot develops. That said, something else occured to me: if it wasn't for the progression mechanics of the game, I would never have stuck with the storyline long enough to find out if got any better.

In TOR so far, I haven't done a single Mission that wasn't a genre staple, which is no refelction on the game itself, just a fact of life when you play MMORPGs. It's more of an issue for me here than it is in most games because the a plain, unavoidable fact is, I don't find much of the Star Wars mythos all that interesting to begin with.

The backdrop is generic and even in the movies the plot is the least important element.  For me, the whole thing relies entirely on character, which is why I'm still fond of the first two original movies and can't remember a thing about the rest.

It's no coincidence that in a total of 85 levels, the only characters I have really responded to thus far are Watcher 2, Watcher X, the angry soldier and Kaliyo. That's largely because they're the only ones I've encountered who seem to have even the glimmerings of an inner life. Or a personality.

It's also why, for all my whining and whingeing about the very considerable flaws in GW2's lunatic farrago of a plot, I still slog through the frustrating set pieces just to get the chance to hear what every last character has to say. Dragon's Watch and its fellow travelers may be a ragbag of cliches and stereotypes but I know them and that counts for plenty.

I don't think GW2's story is better than what I've seen so far in TOR .I'm reasonably certain that as I discover more about the Agent's story in particular it will prove to be more coherent and less insane. On today's evidence, I'm hoping that a few of the characters, at least, may stick around for long enough for me to get to know them.

I suspect, though, that the structure of the game, with its eight classes all with their own, presumably discrete, storylines, will mitigate against any long-term familiarity developing. One of GW2's peculiar strengths is that everyone who plays knows the same imaginary people. Love 'em or loathe 'em, you can't help but meet them, unless you opt out of most of the core game altogether.

Whatever, it's been an interesting couple of days. I feel as though I've learned something. Even better, I feel as though if I keep on I might learn more.

Someone must be doing something right.


  1. I had a similar moment when I was playing up a sith warrior.


    I kept being an arrogant prick to one of the NPCs that I really should not have been able to get away with doing it to. After making a few threats that I completely ignored, the NPC actually finally got sick of it and straight up killed me. It being an MMO that lacks permadeath, of course I woke up in a med bay. However, I started choosing my words much more carefully around that NPC.

    I can't say that the entire game is that well done. But the narrative does show flashes of brilliance here and there.

    I also know that during development they backed off of some of the more meaningful choices because players felt that it was too easy to essentially break the game. For example, there was one companion that you could choose to murder after a really egregious betrayal. However, in beta that was also the only healing companion that particular class had access to. It put players that made that choice at a considerable disadvantage in solo content, so they changed it.

    It was only with the launch of KOTFE, when the companion system was changed so that anyone can fill any role, that it became feasible for them to let you permanently kill companions. That's why you get to murder them (if so inclined) occasionally from that point on in the story.

    1. I had no idea you could ever kill a Companion or that an NPC could kill the player character. That's very interesting.

      In the old days of MMOs it was often possible to gimp your character, as the expression went, by doing something as seemingly innocuous as choosing the wrong race for your class or allocating a handful of stat points inappropriately at character creation. It was always deeply unpopular which I guess is why it got written out of most MMOs from the early 2000s.

      I never really bothered too much about it - I played both a gnome cleric and a human druid in EQ for years - but I can't say I'd lobby for "meaningful" stat allocation and race/class choice to be brought back. I certainly wouldn't want to get to Level 60 and then find my only healer had walked out on me never to return!

      I was wondering the other day how hard it would be to play TOR without using a companion at all, though...

    2. People have leveled to 70 wearing the starter gear and not using a companion. There's a few spots where the game requires you to have your companion out, so you have to do that. There also may be a few fights (depending on class) where you do need a bit of gear to make the dps checks on some boss fights. I assume having all the datacrons unlocked across an account makes a nice difference. I haven't read about anyone doing it without unlocking any datacrons. That would be an interesting, if tedious, experiment.


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