I’ve recently undertaken a comprehensive program of treatment designed to remedy my historical lack of gaming breadth. The cure involves researching new games on a regular basis, selecting suitable candidates, and playing them daily for a minimum of one week. Having done so, I then catalog my experiences and make a decision as to whether to continue playing based on a thorough review of existing literature combined with several hours of meditation on my play sessions.
Yeah, right. It was on a whim that I downloaded and started playing Star Wars: The Old Republic.
When I first loaded up the game client, I was under the false impression that I had never been particularly attached to the Star Wars universe. I watched the opening cinematic and found myself as close to being enthralled as one can come in the mundane world of interminable parenthood. In an instant, memories of my childhood came back to me: Star Wars action figures, the Millenium Falcon under the Christmas tree, my sister’s Ewok tree fortress, and an insatiable hunger for watching movies that I had already seen dozens of times.
I remember at one point having watched Return of the Jedi thirty-seven times and eagerly anticipating the thirty-eighth viewing. I was utterly delighted when my aunt one evening threw a bag of licorice in my lap and took me to see it at the theater. Lightsabers and blasters lit up my dreams that night.
Nowadays I don’t remember terribly much of the plot beyond the major thematic arcs. The Old Republic’s opening cinematic recalled the raw thrill of suspense, intrigue, and action I had first experienced over three decades ago. I can genuinely appreciate the exorbitant amount of money spent creating the game and its wealth of cinematics and cutscenes. While I may be a responsible, financially accountable adult these days, I’m not particularly concerned with whether the development studio was able to recoup its production costs – somewhere, someone else is getting paid to care about that. Meanwhile, I’m dreaming the day away in a fictional universe that has been providing an unexpectedly fertile backdrop for my Force-infused imaginings. It seems I’d forgotten that I was a child, once.
I’m assuming that most of the people reading this are familiar with Star Wars: The Old Republic already, if not intimately so. This relieves me of the burden of having to recapitulate the basics of the game’s rather uninspired tab-targeting combat in which the imposing cinematic figures cut by its villains (or heroes, depending on your perspective) are brought back down to space as they stand atop you while firing their blaster or swinging their lightsaber every three seconds. I likewise have no intention of engaging in a lengthy discussion of the flaws I perceive in their implementation of free-to-play. To put things in context, however, I will mention that I’m doing all of these things on a Free account. At some point I may spend five dollars on Cartel Coins to achieve Preferred status if only to stem the tide of insidious reminders that I am still a cheapskate after having been afforded the privilege of playing the game for several hours. In the meantime, I’m going about my business with nary a care in the world – least among them is the monetization of fun. The game’s got my imagination running, so that’s what I’m going to talk about.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with my character creation habits that the extensive race-locking in place for non-subscribers did not at all affect my ability to create human females from here to infinity. After five minutes of playing with the customization options, I hit upon a combination that “stuck” and joined the legions of Jedi Knights who had come before me.
I’ve since made it through the starting area of Tython and have moved on to a place called Coruscant. Between there and here, I didn’t so much mind having the story interrupted by frequent commercial breaks. The animation of my lightsaber and the accompanying sounds are satisfying embellishments on the press-button-receive-damage combat mechanics. More delightful, however, are the conversation options offered by the majority of the individuals with whom you interact. While the choices you make in your engagements with minor characters ultimately amount to no more than using a different set of stepping stones to get from one side of the river to the other, navigating through the dialogue branches “in character” for the first time has an intoxicating appeal that would be completely rubbished by treating the game as a leveling race.
The allure of these options was so strong that I ended up creating an Imperial Agent in my second character slot just to see things from the other side. This is saying quite as a bit as I normally have very little capacity for playing characters who are not on the “right side” of things. My Agent was given her own unique look within the parameters of my constrained aesthetic sensibilities to distinguish her from her chaste, do-gooding Jedi counterpart.
The choice of Jedi as a first character should be quite understandable. I chose an Imperial Agent as my second character for two reasons: first, the Agent’s story is consistently praised by narrative enthusiasts for its quality and the impact of the player’s choices; second, the appeal of dodge-rolling into cover and blasting away with a laser rifle at range speaks to me much more than shooting lightning from my fingertips, plinking away with comparatively weak pistols, or assuming the role of a run-of-the-mill backstabber in a world of high fidelity science fiction. Having been delivered unto the planet Hutta bearing an appearance and moral compass which reflect her imperial, British-“accented” upbringing, I found my alternate self gravitating toward the Light Side choices my Jedi would make reflexively with the caveat that I have the freedom to interact with those I meet without restraint.
Whereas my goal as a Jedi is to thus walk a path of serenity and peace, killing where I must but otherwise comporting myself as my ideal self would in an ideal world, my goal as an Agent is to be an asshole to everyone I see. At the same time, I’m making a meta-game out of not killing anyone unless they really, really piss me off. So far, I think I’ve done a good job of it: I bullied a hostage-taker into releasing a captive by threatening to shoot him in the face without actually doing so; later, I went to find a husband who had taken his son and fled from his angry wife. He was supposed to have taken his young progeny to Korriban with him so that they could both train to become Sith. Father ended up running away because being powerful and evil is hard and his wife was not amused that her son was not going to grow up to be an unstoppable badass. So, I went and found them hanging out in some random space building and instead of taking the Dark Side option which would have meant murdering Father in front of his son, I told them to get the hell out and never come back. I then reported back to Mother and told her that I had killed her husband and put her son on a ship to Korriban. Without blinking, she voiced her approval and paid up.
Apparently you have to make efforts to distinguish yourself as a psychopath in these parts. Everyone I meet melts like butter when I start talking tough, though. I had decided against simply murdering all those who were unfortunate enough to encounter me after watching a YouTube video in which a Sith Warrior chooses the slaughter option every time it’s available. This particular character chose to display the effects of the Dark Side on their face which had the comical effect of making them look like the Joker from Batman. There’s no nuance in being a murder-clown, I decided, so I’ll let my words be my primary weapon against anyone who isn’t looking to put me in the ground.
It’s the substance of my words rather than their inflection that causes those who cross me or stand in my way the most consternation. I find the subtle expressiveness of British voice actress Jo Wyatt’s Imperial Agent to be quite endearing. The American accent of my Agent’s undercover persona is technically perfect; it is only when I don a pair of headphones and listen carefully that I’m able to chart the contours of her practiced pronunciation. Likewise, the steadfast warmth conveyed by American voice actress Kari Wahlgren’s Jedi Knight enabled me to bond with my character much in the same way that April Stewart’s strong, confident human female endeared me to my Mesmer in Guild Wars 2. It was perhaps because I had already heard Ms. Wahlgren’s voice that I found comfort in its inexplicable familiarity: she is also the voice of Guild Wars 2’s Caithe as well as a handful of minor characters and vendors.
It’s the production value, then, that has sold me on first-person participation. I can re-imagine my childhood in a familiar world whose distance is measured in time despite being set in a galaxy far, far away. I’ve briefly reviewed the stories behind the game’s other classes and could quite honestly see myself playing through them as well if I had an infinity of lifetimes to work with. (Watching them on YouTube only whets the appetite.) For now, I’m busying myself with what I consider to be the gems of the collection: the experiences that speak to me.
There’s something to be said for recapturing that child-like sense of wonder uncomplicated by knowing too much. Ignorance is bliss, as the saying goes. Right now, I’m quite content.