Sunday, March 17, 2013

Does The Old Republic have a story to tell?

Here's the TOR problem in a nutshell:  The Old Republic lacks a grand and epic story that moves it.  Without motion, the story and the game stagnate.

Currently, the designers are trying to provide motion through mechanical means.  They feel that if they throw enough events, enough new stuff at the players, that all this "new" will simulate motion and the players will stick around to enjoy the frenzy.  I think that lasts as long as the "new" lasts.  Eventually, either the designers will run out of new stuff to throw at them, or the new stuff will be so similar to the old stuff that it won't have the same appeal.  Either way, the frenzy will only last a finite amount of time.

So what is the motion that I'm talking about.  Motion is the perception of development and change, the undercurrent of energy that provides life to a world.  The motion is provided through the elements of storytelling: through setting and plot.  The setting provides tension, between the Empire and the Republic, for example.  The setting provides a backdrop of crisis, like the invasion of the Burning Legion.  The setting provides a contrast between peace and conflict, like that presented in the Noble Houses of Aldaraan, or the Jade Valley in Pandaria.

More obviously, motion is provided by the changing developments of the plot.  We land on Belsavis when the war is in disarray, but by the time we leave the planet we have won the day for our side.  When we first enter the southern edge of Icecrown, we have to punch our way through a mountain side, but we slowly work our way across the killing fields and up to the the very gates of the Citidel, finally bringing the fight to the door of the Lich King himself.

Now, I claim that the problem with The Old Republic is that it lacks motion, despite having given examples from the game to define what motion is.  The game briefly hints at greatness, but the overall effect is flat and lifeless.

1.  There is no single grand story that is told collectively by all of the class quest lines.  There are, instead, several totally unrelated stories that may be occupying the same space.  I don't feel like the Jedi Consular and the Trooper stories are in any way related.  I don't feel like they are participating in the same epic struggle, nor sharing the same dangers.  They are two classes who happen to occupy the same galaxy but have little to nothing in common.  They are stories that advance in parallel, with very few intersections.

2.  The planets themselves seem completely self-contained with very little to tie them together in any kind of sequential way.  What the Jedi Knight does on Tatooine has no relation to what she does on Quesh  The class stories seem to be more of a saga or oddessy, a string of disconnected events, rather than a single narrative.  In fact, each planet more closely represents a short story on its own rather than part of some larger Chapter, as the game claims.

3.  The conflict between the Empire and the Republic seems static.  This is often the difficulty with faction based games.  It is impossible to have either side claim a lasting victory without creating bad feelings among the players of the opposite faction.  The deeper problem with TOR is that the conflict between the two sides is so ill defined.  The Republic hates the Empire for being selfish and manipulative, while the Empire hates the Republic for being generally meddlesome.  These don't easily develop into heroic struggles, however.  And without heroic struggles, it's hard to engender the kind of deep and unresolved tension that provides motion to a game.

4.  The game, in contrast to the first three movies that launched the franchise, has adopted a post-moral stance.  There is nothing particularly valuable about being good, nor anything deeply objectionable about being evil.  They are simply different styles of play.

While this is attractive to players who enjoy being sith, it robs the game of some of the basic narrative principles that guided the original trilogy of movies.  We fought the Empire and sided with the Rebels because we instinctively sided with the cause of freedom and justice over the cause of tyranny and oppression.  SWTOR has rejected the value of these ideals and in doing so has robbed the players of their motivation for fighting.  Are the sith really fighting for the right to oppress the weak? Is that what motivates the audience (in this case the players) to identify with them and hope they succeed?

The overall effect of these four missed opportunities is that it becomes very difficult for the players to feel as though they are part of a story larger than themselves.  Continually focused on the here and now, there's nothing that draws their vision "to the future, to the horizons."  And eventually, this group of sandpeople on Tatooine begins to feel very like that group of Ulgo soldiers on Alderaan.  This planet begins to feel very like every other.  And then the game reaches stagnation.

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