Monday, April 22, 2019

SW:TOR First Impressions: Story, Narrative and Choice

Coming in to Star Wars: The Old Republic cold, there was one thing I thought I knew: it was going to be all about the story. As I mentioned in yesterday's post, the concept of Story as the Fourth Pillar was an overriding principle of BioWare's master plan for their first (and so far only) MMORPG.

That shouldn't have surprised anyone. BioWare's reputation, which at that time was both considerable and largely unsullied, was built on an assured ability to provide branching narratives with meaningful choices. By the time TOR launched in 2011, BioWare had already published, among others, the Baldur's Gate series, Neverwinter Nights, Mass Effect 1 and 2 and Dragon Age 1 and 2, all of which used some variation of the choice wheel and/or companion system.

I played and finished both Baldur's Gate 1 and 2 at launch. I also played Neverwinter Nights, although I didn't complete the single player storyline, instead becoming all but addicted to tinkering with the Aurora world-building toolset that shipped with it.

I skipped the Mass Effect games (more accurately I didn't even realise they existed) but when Dragon Age: Origins arrived in 2009, I bought and played it immediately. DA:O marked my personal falling out of love with BioWare, not because it was a bad game but because ten years of MMORPG gameplay suddenly made the level of nitpicking detail and emotional micromanagement of NPCs seem not just purposeless but infuriating.

By the time SW:TOR launched a couple of years later, in the midst of a furious debate over the relevance or otherwise of Story to the MMORPG genre, I was already of the firm opinion that I wanted none of it. It wasn't just that the I.P. and setting did nothing for me, it was that I'd had enough - more than enough - of the kind of spurious, artifical "choice" I'd rejected in Dragon Age.

Don't try to read anything into the body language. They don't have any.

Very little that I've read over the years since then has threatened to change that fixed opinion. I've seen enough posts where bloggers discuss their character's relationship, romantic or otherwise, with various Companions to give me the heebie-jeebies. I've scanned accounts of supposed moral dilemmas that have made my eyes roll. I've pondered on the infantile duality of Light vs Dark, although not for long. Life's too short for made-up problems.

When I decided I'd give TOR a run the one thing over and above all else that I expected to have difficulty dealing with was The Story. I was well aware that, following the commercial failure of the game as a full MMORPG, it had been re-made and remodelled into a spurious online single-player campaign. In effect it had become the third entry in the Knights of the Old Empire series, games produced by BioWare and published by LucasArts, the first of which I own but have never played.

It would be overstating the case to claim I was dreading engagement with TOR's narrative but I very definitely wasn't looking forward to it. I expected that, at best, the chore of dealing with NPCs and their trite dilemmas, while simultaneously massaging the emotions of my toddler-like companions would feel rote and tedious.

Much more likely, I imagined, it would annoy the living hell out of me.  Even if TOR had other small pleasures, I half-expected The Story would overwhelm and ruin them, driving me to the point where I'd just up and quit. That's what happened with Dragon Age, after all.

With that background and baggage in mind, I am both surprised and delighted to say that, thus far, I have found TOR's storytelling to be engaging, entertaining and mostly not annoying at all.

I seem to run into a disproportionate amount of brother/sister combos.

The narrative itself is pulpy, which is wholly approppriate, but also sprightly and fresh, like an old, comfortable sweater clean out of the drier. The writing is crisp, uncomplicated and clean. There's a very welcome absence of florid description and unecessary adjectives. Most NPCs speak in plain, declarative sentences. Everyone sticks to the point.

If the greatest strength of the writing is that it doesn't get in the way, much the same can be said of the voice acting. In nearly twenty hours I have yet to hear a single dodgy accent, an oviously incorrect line reading or the least hint of hysteria. Every performance has been dialled back and the game benefits enormously from that restraint.

If the Gold Standard for both dialog and voicework in MMORPGs rests with The Secret World, which it does, then SW:TOR is solid Silver. The quality benchmark exceeds workmanlike and rests comfortably at professional.

TOR may not have the unintentional joys of the insane translations in Twin Saga or Dragon Nest, or the quirky, companionable, friendly familiarity of EverQuest 2, but instead it offers a reassuring, steady hand on the tiller that instills confidence. While playing I have that safe feeling that comes when you put yourself in the hands of people who patently know what they're about.

So much for the content. How about those mechanics? In Dragon Age (and even, if I'm honest, in Baldur's Gate), it wasn't so much the writing that raised my hackles, it was the endless preening and posturing of the characters.

Frankly, I'm surprised Corso didn't up and walk out on me the moment I put on that hat. The hat is getting its own post soon.

I got so tired of managing the mismatched expectations of my raggle-taggle bands back then. I'd spend hours trying to Do The Right Thing only to have one of them storm off in a hissy fit because of something I'd said. I was dreading those post-battle debriefings, where everyone gathers around the fire (or the syn-coff dispenser) and rubbishes everyone else.

And guess what? There's none of that! I get constant updates on whether Corso Riggs "approves" or "disapproves" of what I've said or done but so far he keeps his opinions on my performance to himself. I'm starting to get a rough idea what he does or doesn't like and generally it's there or thereabouts in line with what I was planning on doing anyway. I don't yet feel like I have to manage his emotions to keep him onside. I can just observe them, which is fine.

Whether this is "Early Days Syndrome" and later in the game, as I acquire a mulltiplicity of companions, the dreaded emotional micromanagement will make itself known, I can't say. For now, though, Corso is effectively my MMORPG "pet" or "henchman" or "mercenary". He does what I tell him and doesn't argue about it. Long may that continue!

Despite monitoring my choices for moral turpitude, Corso loves a bribe. This is something I've always found an odd trope in RPGs. It's not unique to BioWare; Project: Gorgon makes extensive use of the mechanic, whereby giving NPCs presents makes them like or respect you more. Why or how this works is never explained.

It's understandable that you might go up in an NPC's estimation if you hand over something useful or valuable. That's being a good employer or a good friend. Why anyone should like you more because you gave them the carapace of a beetle you found on a random monster is beyond me.

When there's an option that looks like it's going to give me lore I always take it. I have no idea what that implies on the Dark/Light scale.

There's even a description on each item telling you in advance how much a given companion will like the object in question. Of all the obviously gamelike mechanics in TOR, this is perhaps the most blatant. You could make a spreadsheet. I'm sure someone has.

Much, much better is the Conversation Wheel. Color me impressed.

I've seen countless iterations of the mechanic. In MMORPGs, where choices are rarely allowed to be meaningful for eminently practical reasons, the goal is usually "flavor". In that context you might expect to choose between "Polite", "Funny"  and "Rude", allowing you to create a head canon version of your character without changing anything that actually happens in the game.

TOR, being an MMORPG, is also limited in how much impact your choices can have on the world. Most of the tension is going to rely on how they might impact your character. I was expecting that to be predictable. From what I've seen so far, it's not.

I began with the intention of keeping my Scoundrel as close as possible to true neutral but it became apparent all too quickly that there were going to be serious problems with that. In theory, I should have been able to play off Light and Dark choices to steer a middle course. I probably could still do that, if I could stand it. Which I can't.

Instead,I've been picking the options that feel natural. In character, you could say. Even that's harder than you'd imagine.

Almost all conversations have three responses. I expected those to represent Light, Dark and Neutral. That doesn't seem to be the case. What's more, even if it is, I can't reliably tell in advance which is which.

A very rare binary choice. And even that didn't turn out how I expected.

The Dark choice is often plain because it's also very rude. But sometimes it isn't. I have a significant Dark minor chord rumbling beneath  my underlying Light melody because I have taken several options, which I was sure were Neutral, which turned out to give Dark points. Also, since the one, defining character trait I gave my Scoundrel was that she wouldn't do anything pro bono, it turns out asking about money all the time isn't great for your soul. Who knew?

Conversely, I began to pull strongly towards the Light just from taking what I thought were Neutral options long before I finally threw up my hands and accepted my Scoundrel was more Calamity Jane than Bonnie Parker. And so many of the options just seem too harsh. I find myself drifting towards the light even when I'm trying to hide in the shadows. I'm just too good for this world.

The happy confusion is enhanced by a couple of very simple functions of the system itself. The category of choice is largely independent of the order in which the options appear. The Dark choice does appear at the bottom more often than not, but by no means always. You can't allow yourself to drift into a pattern of always clicking #3 or you will come unstuck.

Much more subtly, the options from which you choose are mere approximations of what your character will say. There's no space on the wheel for long dialog entires and while my Scoundrel is on the terse side, she doesn't speak in fragments. I am frequently suprised by what she actually says after I press the button that hints at what it's going to be.

I love this. It makes the whole process entertaining, amusing and alive. It also adds a frisson of risk that I find refreshing. I always think about what the written response might mean and I always try to pick the one that's going to take me where I want to go but I don't always get it right. I can imagine some people finding that infuriating but I like it a lot.

Here's where I have trouble. I want to talk about pay because that's my motivation but I hate not knowing what's going on.

It does have the effect of turning "my" character something other than the typical MMORPG player's avatar. After spending twenty hours together I feel a strong affection for her but it's the kind of emotion I'd feel for a character in a book or a movie I was enjoying, rather than a character I'd created or a facet of myself. I want to see what she's going to do next but I don't necessarily feel I'm in complete control of what that might be.

And that's fine. Actually, it's more than fine but it's also weird. I find myself talking out to loud to my character as I play, not something I am prone to doing in other MMOs. I also talk to Corso. It's almost as though the three of us are engaged in some kind of dramatic production, possibly with an invisible audience. Perhaps I ought to think about livestreaming...

Thus far, then, I am both much happier and considerably more impressed by TOR's storytelling than I imagined I would be. The mechanics work much more effectively than I expected, the writing and voicework are solid if unexceptional and the storylines are of a standard approrporiate to the source material.

Contrary to some things I have read, I am also finding the non-narrative missions to be well worth doing, not just for the extra XP but for the interesting side stories they tell. Some of them have been more interesting than the main plot, or at least more emotionally affecting. It's always the little stuff, isn't it?

Whether I'd want to go through all eight Class stories is another matter. That might be altogether too much of a good thing. For now, though, I'm enjoying the ride to fifty, seeing the sights and hearing the tales as I go. I'm in no hurry to get there, either. I think I'll just carry on as I am, poking my nose into other peoples' business and seeing what turns up.

So long as I keep getting paid, of course.


  1. Love the hat. Looking forward to reading more about the hat.

    Knights of the Fallen Empire has some of those post-battle debriefings where people complain about your choices and storm off in hissy fits (just like the good old days indeed), but before that you should be fine.

    Reading your thoughts on the writing and dialogue, I think it's very fortuitous that you chose a smuggler as your first character. While the generic quest givers are the same for everyone, Force users and their ilk have a habit of being considerably more flowery in their language. Jedi waffle on and on about how the Force is with them, while Sith take unexpected turns towards sounding like psychopaths when you choose the rude option by suddenly talking about wanting to bathe in people's blood.

    1. Yes, I was very aware of the Jedi problem when I chose my class. Jedi are unbearable in the movies so I can't imagine they're any better here. I was hoping for Han Solo, a world-weary cynic with a conscience that hasn't quite atrophied and that's pretty much what I got.

      I can't help notice that, as usual, I'm slowly turning into The Littlest Hobo, though. I blow into town, trot up to anyone willing to pat me on the head and toss me a bone, run around for a while pulling kittens out of wells and somehow helping Pa save the farm, then I wag my tail one last time and head off for the horizon. Every MMORPG ever. No different here.

  2. It's funny how many -- not all, but a lot -- of the things you praise about the story are things I dislike about it, like the vagueness of the dialogue wheel. Interestingly, though, the way you say you feel about your character -- as something external, like a character in a book -- is how I feel about all my video game characters, always. Probably some interesting lesson to take from that, though it escapes me at the moment.

    As Shintar pointed out, the kind of personality management you dread doesn't appear until the Knights of ___ expansions, and even then it's much tamer than in, say, Dragon Age.

    In the base game, there's literally nothing you can do to make a companion dislike you so much they abandon you (believe me, I've tried). They also rarely interact with each other, and when they do it generally doesn't require you to pick sides or mediate their disputes.

    It's worth noting that Influence only affects their combat prowess and not the story. So they'll like you just as much regardless of whether or not you shower them with gifts or otherwise curry their favour. You also can't lose Influence with them. Disapproving of your choices just rewards less Influence than when they approve. In actual fact, from a meta-game perspective the worst thing you can do is take actions your companion has no opinion on, because that's the only thing that doesn't award Influence.

    In case you haven't already figured it out, I should also point out the Light/Dark points are pretty much pure fluff. What little rewards they do offer tend to be purely cosmetic. Basically Light Side versus Dark Side boils down to "do I want red or blue armour."

    Furthermore, under the new system your character chooses their allegiance to one or the other (and I believe you're set to one by default from character creation, though it can be changed), and you earn Light or Dark points based on your allegiance from every mission. The points you get from story choices are fairly trivial by comparison, so if you want you could make all Dark choices and still be a Light character and vice versa.

    Finally, I agree you probably picked a good class in smuggler to start out with. Sounds like a good match for your tastes. Sith warrior can also have a similarly light and pulpy feel if you make the right choices. I maintain one of the most delightful things you can do in this game is play a Light Side warrior, take Vette as your companion, and pick all snarky dialogue options. You're the perfect wise-ass chaotic good hero.

    1. Even as I was appreciating the gnomic vagueness of the options I was very aware they would drive some people to distraction. I thrive on not knowing what's going on. I do like to find out eventually but my ideal TV or comics series are the kind where you watch 22 episodes or read a couple of dozen issues and by the end you have less idea what's going on than when you started. Don't get nearly enough of that in MMOs for my taste although back in the old days it was a lot more common, if only because we didn't get canned narrative, just distributed lore.

      Talking of not knowing what's going on, my time in TOR so far has been unusual in that I have yet to look up anything at all. Doing these posts has given me a lot of very helpful tips and pointers in the comments, for which I'm very grateful, but as far as specifics go I know only what I see in game. Your explanation above tells me an awful lot about the way both the Dark/Light system and Companion Influence work and I'm a bit surprised to find both of them are mostly window dressing. I was anticipating some kind of practical outcome for the choices I've been making. I guess I've been wrong to think of them as "meaningful" at all.

      My plan at the moment is to get this character to 50 without actively researching anything. Then I will do my normal due diligence and read a whole load of guides and wiki entries before I start another Class. I'm halfway through Level 31 now. Shouldn't take too much longer.

  3. The dialogues are TOR's absolute strong side as far as I'm concerned. I liked that aspect of the game very much, for the reasons you stated.

    I know you prefer to play solo (as do I), but in this case you're really missing out. That whole cutscene- and dialogue-thing is cranked up to 11 when there's more than one player in the party. It's so well done, I haven't seen anything like it in any other game ever.
    We used to play with two RL friends every now and then; I have countless screenshots of the four of us starring in cutscenes, it's glorious. We used to call ourselves the A-Team.

    Now do your post about the hat please, I'll wait.

    1. That's the first time I've heard any mention of different voice acting or dialog for cut scenes featuring multiple players. The only mention on watching cut scenes while grouped that I've ever seen have been the usual complaints about some people wanting to click through them while others wanted to watch. I might have to look into that; it sounds like something that should have had a lot more publicity.

      I think the Hat thing may be getting a tad over-hyped. I am going to post about this morning but there's not much to say!

    2. I think that 'waiting for other players'-thing, aka 'press SPACE, press SPACE already!!', is indeed the reason why the system didn't get much praise overall.

      I don't want to sound like a bittervet, but the total lack of patience and relaxedness (is that a word...?) of at least 90% of strangers I played with during the last couple of years is the main reason why I don't want to play with strangers at all anymore. I just can't stand it.

      Now, it sure could be argued that implementing such a system in an MMORPG was a questionable decision in any case. Some people read much faster than others after all, so even if everyone's patient and relaxed, the faster folks will always have to wait a bit for the dialogue to continue, which of course makes the whole thing feel unnatural.

      Still, when were were playing with friends, guildies or just by ourselves we always found this system to be pretty special and all around great.

      Maybe you could convince Mrs. Bhagpuss to give the game a try? ;-)

    3. You know, for all its legit problems, especially with impatient pugs, I really find myself missing the way cut scenes work for groups in SWTOR when playing through story content in other MMOs because it serves one important purpose: It makes sure that everyone in the group is on the same page about what's happening.

      I just spent the last weekend doing two zones worth of quests in ESO with my husband. From what I remember from the early reviews, launch was a real mess for people playing that game in groups because of phasing issues. Those seem to have largely been fixed, but progressing through many story-focused quests as a group is still a pain because the well-intentioned idea of quest credit being shared among all group members turns into a hot mess when it means that your NPC friend suddenly runs off or outright disappears while you were only halfway through reading their dialogue. And it doesn't matter how well-intentioned your co-questers are, because you simply don't always know when clicking through to the next bit will suddenly trigger an action as opposed to just showing more dialogue.


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