Sunday, May 12, 2019

Goo Goo Barabajagal: SW:TOR

Three weeks ago, when I decided, pretty much on a whim, to give Star Wars: The Old Republic a try, I didn't expect to enjoy it anything like as much as I have. I'm still playing just about every day, although the relentless narrative drive does mean I have to stick to shorter sessions than I might in a less obviously structured game.

The sheer volume of story is quite astounding. I've put in more than eighty hours so far and I'm still on Chapter One of both the Smuggler and Agent storylines. I must have spent ay least a quarter of that time on the main plot, so let's say twenty hours, split 60/40 between the tow characters.

As far as I can tell, without reading anything with spoilers, all the original Class stories have three chapters and it looks as though they're roughly the same length. That would mean each class story would run somewhere around thirty hours.

There are eight of them, which comes to two hundred and forty hours of story, the equivalent of four to six complete AAA RPGs, given people generally expect those to have forty to sixty hours of content.

That's just me, though. I go really slowly. I still haven't used Quick Travel and I still don't own a speeder. I run everywhere and it takes forever. I could probably cut my hours taken significantly if I took shortcuts like those.

According to this 2018 Reddit thread, other players estimate fifteen to twenty hours per Class story. That sounds a lot more reasonable but it still brings the total in at 120 to 160 hours of gameplay, several times the length of a typical single-player RPG.

And that's just the core game class stories. The Planetary Story Arcs must add another RPG or two, not to mention all those Exploration Missions BioWare included back when they still thought they were making a regular MMORPG. And the Heroics, although, to be fair,  those tend to be more fist to face than face to face.

Someone had to write all that. And then someone had to say it all out loud. More than two hundred someones, actually.

At launch, TOR took a Guiness World Record for most voice acting in a video game. That must have had a great deal to do with the spiralling costs, believed by some to top half a billion dollars but agreed by just about everyone to be more than $200m.

With that in mind I can't work out whether it was belated fiscal prudence or creative burnout that led to the bizarre decision to have large numbers of NPCs spout nothing but incomprehensible gibberish.

Uncharismatic speaking-in-tongues becomes increasingly irritating the longer you have to listen to it and with this amount of narrative that's a serious problem. As Pallais pointed out in the comments to the post about playable species, "Even with subtitles, the average person gets weary of not being able to understand the character, especially since in Star Wars the same nonsense phrases get repeated many times over masquerading as another language".

That's the nub of it. It's not as if we were listening to quality voice acting in a language we don't understand. That could be both aesthetically valid and euphoniously pleasing. Instead, what we get are a handful of nonsense phrases strung together seemingly at random.

They don't sound remotely convincing as language even the first time you hear them, not least because the translation frequently includes proper nouns, which don't feature at all in the spoken version. As anyone who's used the universal language of football (soccer, if you must) knows, "Manchester United" sounds like "Manchester United" just about anywhere in the world.

Lack of authenticity isn't the worst of it. Not nearly. There's the endless, blatant repetition. Most species seem to have no more than a handful of phrases. Even gibberish becomes recognizeable if you have to hear it repeated often enough.

Pallais suggests there may be some canonical lore reason behind the apparent inabilty of some species to speak Galactic Basic Standard but Wookipedia seems to knock that idea on the head: "Most sentient species that made galactic contact could and did speak Basic in addition to whatever native or regional language they might have used on a daily basis". If it's not a problem for the species then we must be dealing with an extraordinarily large number of elective monoglots.

Whatever the reason, it's infuriating and it's made even worse by the lengthy pauses after each alien finishes their garbled gibbering and the game waits a few extra seconds for the slow readers to pick their way through the translation. For a game that feels polished in so many ways it's jarring and it feels cheap.

It's not even as though there aren't better examples of non-standard communication within the game itself. Droids of various kinds express themselves in types of fractured English while the soundtrack bleeps and boops, which is somehow nowhere near as annoying. The Gree have a fascinating, nuanced manner of expression that hints enticingly at their society. A bit of effort and imagination could have imparted that sheen to every species.  

Alien speech is the most glaring although by no means the only slipshod design choice. I still find my characters' lack of proper idling animations disconcerting. If I'm not actively pressing keys to keep them moving they turn into mannequins. I also wonder, every time I take a cab, why it's called a Taxi when I'm the one driving. And don't get me started on the appalling elevator music that plays in every cantina.

Those are mere quirks. Easy to ignore. The gibberish-spouting aliens are much more problematic. Does anyone really want to hear a pig choking on a turnip, which is what you get every time you're unlucky enough to take a Mission involving an Ugnaught.

If this was a single-player RPG you know someone would have produced a language-pack mod by now to do the job BioWare should have done in the first place. Since it's an MMORPG I guess we'll just have to put up with it.

I might have to invest in ear plugs.


  1. From a game development perspective I know why they have so many aliens speaking gibberish: you can change the quest dialog without needing to redo the voice lines. Since the voice recording seems to happen earlier in the development cycle I'm sure it is a special hell to alter quests if something in the story line needs to change because of other things not working out.

    I do know the Devs have said that the voice actings costs weren't a major contributor to the huge costs. Prior experience with heavily voice-acted RPGs had given them enough experience to budget that part of the game reasonably well. I suspect feature and scope creep was what got them. As you say, eight big class stories, planetary arcs, side missions, etc. were huge efforts to create.

    As a practical matter since I'm a fast reader I'll read the text and then space bar the gibberish to get to the next line of text faster. It always feels awkward because the normal spoken rhythms aren't there, but it is less annoying for me.

    1. I haven't used the space bar to skip through conversations. In fact, I didn't know it was an option. I wouldn't normally do that but I will seriously consider it next time I'm faced with an Ugnaught.

  2. Back when I still wrote on my blog, and when the game was only a few months old, the alien gibberish was also one of my major gripes with the game. (The other one, reading what I wrote back then, apparently was bad optimization, making a jet plane out of my PC even at modest quality settings. I don't notice that any more now I gave the game another spin. Either they did some optimization work in the last years or, more likely, that issue solved itself they way it tends to do as hardware becomes more powerful.)

    So I was warned when I came back to the game. What I had forgotten, though, is how badly those ever-repeating lines are fit into the overall conversation. It happens regularly that an Alien says its gibberish, followed by 2-3 seconds of awkward silence before the conversation moves on, almost as if everybody's doing a double take or frowns inwardly at what was said. It's a surprisingly shoddy job for a game that otherwise polished the conversation mini-game quite well.

    Also: gaaaah! Did google recently change the button layout on the comment box, or have I just become senile? This is now not the first, but the second time in a week that I clicked on "sign out" when I meant to click on "publish", which immediately logs you out without asking for confirmation. Worse, it wipes the contents of the comment box, so you need to type out everything again. Bit of a bother.

    1. On the comment button, I haven't noticed it but probably. Some other stuff has changed in Blogger recently. Google never seem to announce any of this, they just do it. For years now I have been in the habit of copying every comment I make everywhere to the clipboard. I save like I'm playing a Spectrum game in 1985.

      On the main issue, yes, it's the sheer shoddiness of the whole thing that surprises me. Surely they could have done better with the tiniest fraction of that huge budget?

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  4. Now that you mention it I'm a bit surprised that it didn't bother me much, but it really didn't.

    I guess the main reason is that this is, in fact, a Star Wars thing. I'm not talking about anything Wookiepedia or any other SW lore site says (I've never cared about any of that), but the movies themselves. Granted, there obviously isn't nearly as much repetition in the movies, but it all sounds and feels exactly as it does in the game, at least to me.

    1. I thought about that while I was playing. I don't remember it being an issue in the movies either, but I haven't seen the original trilogy for thirty years so it's hard to be sure.

      After reading your comment I watched several clips of Jabba the Hutt in return of the Jedi, that being the prime example I could think of where alien language is used. There are three crucial differences. First, as you say, the dialog is not repetitive. It may be gibberish but it's individually crafted gibberish. Second, the issue of proper nouns does not arise. You can clearly hear Jabba say "Jedi" at least twice after someone has mentioned "Jedi" in English.

      Last, and most important by far, there are no translations. The viewer isn't required to understand what's being said, or indeed pay attention to it. Sometimes English-speaking characters give a brief mention of what has been said but mostly they just react to it and we get as much information as we need from that, from context and from visual clues. That makes an enomous difference.

      In brief, the alien languages in the movies are background or flavor whereas in TOR they are foreground and need to be understood (or you can't make informed dialog choices). That makes the flaws very much harder to ignore.


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