Illusive Morality, Double Agency: Smuggling Stories into the Old Republic

I was engaging in a maiden play through of the classic single-player story shooter Mass Effect 2 one quiet November evening when something in the Normandy’s navigation map conjured up memories of my time in Star Wars: The Old Republic over two years ago. I thought of my pony-tailed, armor-plated, morally upstanding Jedi Knight and her quintessentially Light Side quest to defend truth and justice throughout the galaxy while eating a lot of peanut butter M&Ms. Her moral compass didn’t offer much in the way of flexibility when it came to handling situations that presented competing ethical considerations, so I had spent most of my time on her cruising through the story just to see where it led. My second character, an Imperial Agent, suffered the misfortune of being aligned with a wretchedly administered, self-cannibalizing Empire, but offered a great deal of operative freedom: she functioned somewhat like the Spectres in the Mass Effect series insofar as she was not beholden to the vast majority of the people with whom she had dealings. I was thus able to play her as a D&D True Neutral character, making in-the-moment decisions based on how she read the situation at hand. That her choices had meaningful impact on a superbly written story arc cemented the Agent experience as my favorite among the eight classes.

It was rather unexpected, then, when I ended up taking a Republic-aligned, fire-haired, gun-slinging muggle with no socially redeeming qualities all the way through her class story and beyond. I had left my Smuggler in a flashpoint called Cademimu after shooting up the place with three other people, presumably never to return. On a whim, I spent $15 to wake her from her carbonite dreams and subsequently spent the majority of my free time for the next three weeks taking her on a whirlwind tour of the galaxy’s latest expansions. On the whole, it was an experience that I found to be worth the price of admission despite several major plot flaws and the necessity of using the Force to hold the Fourth Wall in place to prevent it from being demolished by the nuclear dumpster fire of Unsuspended Disbelief that would otherwise barrel straight through it.


As I settled into the largely unfamiliar controls of my galactic starfighter, I noticed that my past-life doppelganger had turned my morality dials deep into the domain of the Dark Side. I figured that this would be the perfect opportunity to emulate Han Solo’s character transformation by making the transition from a Chaotic Neutral Captain Jack Sparrow type to a Neutral Good nerf herder whose greatest epiphany in life was that he really wanted to get with Leia. I decided to establish a basic personal code of conduct which would guide my actions but not dictate them: be good if you can, but don’t hesitate to be bad when you need to. These simple principles would prove to be rather interesting given that my Smuggler’s eventual romantic partner turned out to be a red lightsaber-wielding ruthless pragmatist – more on that when we get to the Knights of the Eternal End Game.

Smuggler Class Story, Chapter 1

My ship’s navigation computer listed the bombed out swamp planet of Taris as my first post-cryostasis destination. I asked my companion Risha, an adventure-seeking starship mechanic I had picked up on Ord Mantell, to remind me why we were headed there. She told me that if we wanted to complete the Epic Smuggler Quest that would reward us with vast riches, we needed to locate an astrogation chart locked away in a hidden vault. Among the Republic’s recolonization forces on the surface, the aftereffects of Darth Malak’s orbital bombardment three centuries prior could still be felt: a virulent rakghoul plague was sweeping through friendly encampments. The resident doctor dispatched me to fetch a cure.

The antidote was conveniently located in a cave filled with an endless supply of pirates who were all trying to kill me. After successfully defending myself a dozen or so times, the boss encounter turned out to be a depraved doctor who informed me that if I insisted on taking his supply of serum, he wouldn’t have any left to treat the sick pirates surrounding him – they would die cursing my name. As luck would have it, another cave not far from there also contained the remedy I sought.

As I exited the once pirate-infested cave with my newly acquired supply of serum in hand, I mulled over the moderately interesting thought process that had gone into making that relatively simple decision:

1. The only reason the sick pirates weren’t trying to kill me was that they were sick.
2. I am not a Jedi.
3. Therefore, I am taking your serum.

Upon reflection, I updated my personal ethos to include the following: not saving someone’s life is not the same as killing them, so I’m not responsible. Far be it from me to shirk responsibility, especially when it’s not mine in the first place.

Risha Drayen (left), my right-hand girl when it comes to avoiding responsibility.

My next shop was Nar Shaddaa where I got to actually engage in my profession – I was smuggling the last female Shanjaru beast in the galaxy to one of the ruling Hutts so that he could mate it with his male Shanjaru and use the resulting offspring in whatever sorts of spectacles bored tycoons indulge in on their pleasure barges. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems, of course – eco-terrorists had abducted the sire and I wouldn’t receive my prototype starship engine unless I found him. There was only one person who knew where he was and – surprise! – another one of those ubiquitous depraved doctors had kidnapped and infected our informant friend Momi with a lethal, physically painful virus. I made two choices here: I didn’t kill the doctor and I saved Momi after she had given us the location of Daddy Shanjaru. In the doctor’s case, I updated my standard operating procedure to clarify that I didn’t kill people who weren’t trying to kill me and didn’t possess the means or capacity to kill me if I let them go (no matter how wretched they were); when it came to the activist, this was one of the few cases in which it was impossible for me to ignore my meta-knowledge of tropes: if someone has a fatal affliction, there is always a magical cure for it.

Being the wretched hive of scum and villainy that it is, Nar Shaddaa one-upped itself by offering me a third memorable moral choice for the price of one planetary visit. I had contracted with the Hutts to recover some of their adrenals and stims with the promise of cash money on delivery. Along the way, I encountered a black marketeer who offered to scalp them and split the profits with me, rendering a net gain over what the Hutts would pay. I first considered enacting an ethical clause which would require me to remain faithful to a contract once taken, but decided to reframe my decision to decline the offer in more neutral, practical terms. Basically, I sized up the dude, decided that he was small potatoes compared to the Hutts, and came to the conclusion that long-term business with them would be more profitable than pulling a fast one on the Blob Crew. Besides, with the resources and credits they had at their disposal it wouldn’t have been too difficult for them to trawl their network of contacts and find out that they had been conned by a two-bit street hustler and yours truly.

At this point it occurred to me that all the grandiose philosophizing behind my decisions was predicated on things that did not exist. Moreover, my knowledge of the story’s presentation medium told me that the protagonist of SW:TOR is morally and physically invincible and can basically shit all over everything without compromising the overarching plot. As a foil to these truths, I treated my pretensions to agency as a meta-game: I would construct a parallel world in which my choices had the meaning and consequences that I wanted them to have, then use this alternate universe to guide and inform my in-game actions. This mode of operating proved to be not altogether dissimilar from the methodology I eventually employed to reconcile the disconnect between the game as played and its story as conveyed in cutscenes.

Upon leaving Nar Shaddaa, I responded to a rather suspicious distress call from the vessel Celestial Crow. As expected, it was actually a deathtrap devised by hapless spacefarer Feylara Raed to regain the favor of her former boyfriend and my obligatory nemesis, Skavak. (He had stolen a shipment of blasters I was delivering to Rogan the Butcher’s underlings on Ord Mantell; I pursued him, and now both Rogun and Skavak wanted me dead.) Feylara’s protective bubble disappeared shortly after I dispatched her attack droids because she didn’t understand how her shield’s energy source worked. I left her to ponder her own cluelessness. Addendum: don’t kill a backseat assassin who doesn’t pose a solo threat.

Risha stares down a subdued Imperial.

The desert planet of Tatooine was the home of my next starship upgrade, a vital sensor component needed to locate Nok Drayen’s legendary treasure. Our contact person was a rather reticent crime lord named Diago Hixan. It was while plowing through a warehouse full of his goons that I encountered the prelude to a pivotal case of ludonarrative dissonance: a Sith named Vaverone Zare showed up in a cutscene thinking that I was one of the underworld boss’s lackeys and requested a meeting with him. My Smuggler’s temper flared up and channeled itself through her blaster; everything you know about Star Wars movies tells you that the Sith’s response was to block all of the bolts with her lightsaber prior to Force-pulling my blaster out of my hand. She then chided me, handed back my blaster, and sent me on my way.

Later, an annoyingly preachy Jedi Knight named Nariel Pridence joined me in MMO combat against the Sith and Diago Hixan at the same time – the Sith swung her saber at me weakly while I emptied endless streams of laser beams into her face, sending her to the rocky cavern floor twice as fast as the non-Force-using gangster kingpin. I was so irritated by the entirely predictable way the encounter played out that I didn’t even bother to engage in the mental gymnastics necessary to retcon the Mary Sue out of what had just happened. I simply accepted the end state in medias res without reference to any preceding ludic exposition, real or imaginary. The cherry on top was when I had told the cantina’s owner about my first encounter with the Sith, to which he replied, “You fought a Sith to a draw? Does that even happen?”

My final point of contact with smuggling as a primary profession was Alderaan, where my crew and I were supposed to trade the preserved head of a dead Sith Lord for an Arkanian hyperdrive in the midst of an ongoing civil war between noble houses. Our patrons were House Teraan, wards of the Republic-allied House Organa, whom we were aiding in their spat with the historically opportunistic House Baliss located in House Teraan’s ancestral estate. As a Smuggler, my only interest in Forever Wars is the extent to which I can profit from them; Alderaan proved to be the starting point of my unintended and unwanted vocational shift to the business of being a mercenary. Instead of simply transporting provided goods, I was now regularly expected to hand-collect merchandise from hostile territory just as I had done as a one-off for the Hutts.

Inevitably I came face-to-face with the bigshots in House Thul, the Imperial-dominated superhouse that counted House Baliss among its vassals. They threatened to execute 300 civilians if I didn’t surrender myself and my wares. You would be forgiven for thinking that this sudden spike in the number of lives at stake entailed a lengthy period of careful consideration on my part, but because I was still miffed about the narrative shenanigans on Tatooine, I decided to start using my character’s wildcard-eqsue persona as a “girl who gets lucky with blasters” to subvert the conventions associated with embodying a Republic-allied Light Side character. The upshot is that I added a temperamental element to my ethical considerations: anyone who tries to play hardball with me using human lives can go soak their head. The moral dials that had been cranked all the way into the Dark Side at the outset of my renewed journey were now turned back ever so slightly in that direction, a foreshadowing of some of the tough decisions I would make when smuggling was but a distant memory.

Prior to my departure from Alderaan, I made my final scheduled delivery as a Smuggler: the preserved head of Sith Lord Darth Bandon which was to be left in the care of a museum curator associated with the obscenely wealthy noble houses. He claimed he didn’t have enough credits to compensate me appropriately; I told him to give me whatever he had in addition to his most expensive museum piece. He feigned shock, I feigned interest. Moral principle: screw you, pay me.

The completion of our epic smuggling quest yielded an epic plot twist (“I am your father!”) whose white-crested waves we navigated without incident. Risha was descended from Dubrillion royalty, the treasure was her priceless crown, and in any thematically consistent tale that might have been the prelude to our adventures in claiming the wealth associated with her throne and perhaps also – if we could swing it – the throne. Alas, the narrative needed to pave the way for the Eternal Protagonist’s eventual role as Savior of the Galaxy; little did I know that I would be strapping in for a Series of Eminently Forgettable Events.


Smuggler Class Story, Chapters 2 and 3

The second and third chapters of my class story saw me make the occupational transition from full-time smuggler to full-time mercenary, part-time pseudo-smuggler. After saving fellow shyster Darmas Pollaran from an ambush by Rogan the Butcher’s guns for hire at a place called Port Nowhere, I was introduced to Galactic Republic Senator Bevera Dodonna who made the unilateral decision to contract me out as a privateer. I was only required to decide why I agreed with the story’s authors that this would be the case. My mission would be to bring down Imperial supply chains, networks, and resource depots in pursuit of Rogan and his boss, an Imperial Grand Admiral known as the Voidwolf to whom all the major players in the big league pirate fleets paid tribute. This presaged a great many mandatory lifestyle changes and living accommodations.

The first of these involved the acquisition of an unwanted crew member while undertaking guerilla military operations on the Forever Wars planet of Balmorra. Risha and I were slaughtering our way through the guards of an Imperial prison (“Prison administration must be one of the Imperials’ core competencies,” she remarked) when a Mandalorian Zabrak named Akaavi Spar jumped out of a side hatch in a cutscene, killed three of the hostiles we were about to dispatch, and proclaimed that we owed her because she had just saved our lives. I looked back at the trail of bodies Risha and I had left in our wake and shrugged my shoulders.

On the ice planet of Hoth, my mission was to dispatch Rogun’s supporters within the White Maw pirate organization. The frozen halls of the Republic base housed another ineluctable stowaway: Guss Tuno, a washed-up Mon Calamari Jedi Padawan, my would-be assassin (until he lost his nerve), and a decidedly unimpressive comedy relief figure. As if to taunt me, I was allowed to initially reply to his proposal to join my crew with, “No! Please! No!” before being “canonically” convinced to board a straggler whose most useful contribution was ordering decent food over the ship’s intercom.

As I made my way to the spaceport with an informant who had a legitimate reason for being on my ship, I was stopped by an unfamiliar Republic officer. He demanded my ID, my papers, and “a blasted good reason for jetting in and out of a war zone for kicks.” Strangely, none of the responses had Light/Dark Side symbols next to them, including the option to kill him. I decided to imagine this potential programming oversight as an extradiegetic representation of my Smuggler’s intuition: how does this guy not know who I am? Principle: shoot spies first, ask questions later.

In what appeared to be a temporary reprieve from my endless soldiering, smooth-talking Darmas hooked me up with the opportunity to plunder an Imperial vessel. He informed me that I would be going splitsies with a cheetah-faced footpad and a safecracking kid who would be opening the loot boxes for us. I was channeling Lady Luck when I encountered a lone Imperial officer at the cruiser’s docking station. The roll of the dice called for me to flirt with him, the first time I had done so with anyone; right on cue, the unforgivingly on-rails script had Captain Cat Burglar entering stage right and blasting the Imperial in the head. That he afterwards lambasted me for taking an inefficient approach only served to highlight the futility of my attempts at non-imaginary agency.

If Earth were flat, cats would have knocked everything off it already. Moral: cats are jerks.

Our heist ended in a binary moral choice with a modicum of food for thought in both directions: I could kill my partner and take everything or go 50/50 as agreed. He had been a ruthless operator, but nothing I hadn’t seen before when dealing with Imperials. I didn’t figure him to be the type to stab me in the back or come looking for me later, so I kept the terms of our original agreement. I briefly pondered what darker considerations would have entailed – if I had been greedy enough (and bloodthirsty enough) to kill him for profit, I would have had to take out Boy Junior as well to keep him from talking or seeking revenge, an act which would have required Sith Lord levels of depravity in my eyes.

Not to be outdone by the Imperials – even when it came to the nasty business of incarceration, the Republic had established a planet-sized prison on the world of Belsavis where I enlisted the aid of a man named Ivory, Rogun “the Butcher’s” former mentor. When the prison’s warden informed me that Ivory had killed half a dozen Jedi during his arrest, I shut my brain off and resolved from then on to ignore half of what was said in cutscenes in addition to everything that was not in a cutscene. I thought this was an altogether sensible response to the never-ending cascade of superlatives and Big Bads being trotted out before me: this squad of soldiers has been trained to kill Sith and going up against that person is like slamming into a durasteel wall and yet they all crumble before the fearsome might of a scrawny, sarcastic smuggler who isn’t exactly on speaking terms with the Force.

When I subdued Ivory, I decided to take things one step further: I imagined myself removing one of my leather gloves and backhanding him across the face with it, whereupon he got down on one knee and acquiesced to my demands without qualification. Not only did he dish up the dirt on Rogun’s whereabouts, he also agreed to Senator Dodonna’s cooperation incentive package which turned out to be something ridiculous like one droid-supervised shower per week.

My class story culminated in a paired heel turn and about face: Dodonna and Darmas were actually working for the Voidwolf, while Rogun the Butcher had been working against the Voidwolf. Dodonna and Darmas sent their lackeys after me; they surrendered and I sent them away with Republic forces rather than killing them because neither of them was a solo threat – Darmas talked a tough game but I saw through his boyish good looks. (Addendum: favor the Light Side if someone surrenders.) The Voidwolf, who was very much a solo threat, subsequently sent two pureblood Sith after me. Their timing was impeccable: they showed up right as I stumbled on Rogun.

“The joke’s on you,” the Sith girls said to me. Actually, the joke’s on all of us.

My decision to ice Rogun came down to a matter of pragmatism, a theme I would come to fully embrace later on. I understood his potential motivations because they weren’t that much different from my way of thinking: just as I had sized up the black marketeer on Nar Shaddaa in comparison to the Hutts, Rogun may have sized me up in comparison to the Voidwolf and had come to the conclusion, after considering everything that I had done while pursuing him, that I was likely more powerful than the Voidwolf, more likely to show mercy because I was allied with the Republic, and probably easier to work with than those pesky Imperials who might decide to straight up not pay a girl like me for a smuggled shipment because some Sith Lord was having a bad hair day.

But my personal code does not take an enemy’s motivations into account, so I responded to Rogun’s unsolicited offer to work for me by zapping him. I then tossed the Sith girls a timed thermonuclear device and shut myself up in the nearest fridge. Half a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream later, I opened my icebox and strolled across the ashy floor en route to a final encounter with the Grand Admiral. At least, that’s the way it played out in my mind: inserting my own ridiculous story into the already improbable set of events the game had presented seemed to be the most genteel way of maintaining my dignity.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that this is an MMO rather than a single-player game or a movie, so I willingly accepted many, many varieties of shorthand, ellipses, and dei ex machina for the sake of experiencing the most interesting elements of the Old Republic in a concise and timely manner. But I could not for the life of me, after seeing Darth Vader stroll through a corridor full of dudes with blasters and own them all, understand how Jyn Erso was supposed to magically take down two Darth Vaders at once by herself.

Story, please.

As if to atone for the previous double-Darth encounter, the game had me finishing off the Voidwolf in a cutscene by tossing back an explosive device he had thrown at me. (Thank you, game, for being reasonable.) I then assumed control over the pirate fleets at his erstwhile command and was given one of three options: have them work for the Republic, assume control as a criminal warlord who waylaid Republic and Empire vessels alike, or have the pirate leaders pay me tribute and then peace out. I’m not beholden to the Republic; I’m a kind-hearted, adventure-seeking opportunist rather than a criminal; and I have no desire to lead anyone but myself and my crew. I thus chose the third option and in doing so brought my class story – and career as a smuggler – to an end.

Rise of the Hutt Cartel

At this point in the journey, the few remaining interesting thematic elements surrounding morality and choice started to blend together into something like the scenery that passes you by on a nice Sunday drive through the countryside. Just as I had done on my Jedi Knight once upon a time, I decided to sit back and let the story drive me to whatever our eventual destination was. There were no ethical quandaries that were not already covered by my previously established guidelines; I simply let Lady Luck have her way with the fluff conversation options as I liaised my way up the chain of Republic command to the tune of invariably effusive praise regardless of how rude or obnoxious I tried to be.

The skinny on the Hutt Cartel business is that an insane Hutt named Toborro is mining the precious super-substance Isotope-5 from the core of the planet Makeb so hard that the planet is going to explode. He’s building a huge ark powered by the stuff to escape when that happens. I romance the mayor’s daughter, get a kiss from her, and she grudgingly gives me her holofrequency but it doesn’t matter because she never calls me once after that. I steal Isotope-5 from Toborro after dismantling his “Glittering Fury” super-droid (fantastic name by the way), one of two encounters in the entirety of Story Mode that feature a one-shot mechanic. We power up the ark and escape the collapsing planet with the majority of the civilian population in tow.

Shadow of Revan

The Revan storyline’s eponymous central character boasts an extensive history within the Star Wars lore. Blissfully unaware of this, my appreciation of this chapter’s antagonist centered on the themes of duality that orbit his inherently volatile nature. Time had torn Revan asunder: his light side resided within his spiritual form, while his darker energies were housed in his physical presence. For some reason, his body thought it would be a good idea to permanently vanquish the previously disembodied but not defeated Imperial Emperor Vitiate by returning him to corporeal form at the cost of all life on the moon Yavin 4 and then annihilating him.

Apparently Revan was so confident in his abilities that he didn’t consider the price of failure: this was an Emperor who intended to end all life in the galaxy as a means of achieving ultimate power. Neither the Empire nor the Republic were willing to afford him the opportunity; to my delight, they stopped fighting long enough to form an alliance whose goal was to take down Revan. Naturally, Revan’s charismatic personality and well-articulated convictions had garnered him followers from the Republic and Empire alike – this was to be a galactic mirror match.


Our uneasy alliance was bolstered by the battlefield presence of key figures from both sides: Jedi Order Grand Master Satele Shan was joined by her son Theron Shan of Republic Intelligence; their Imperial counterparts were Dark Councilor Darth Marr and Lana Beniko of Sith Intelligence. In addition to being my future (and only available) romantic partner, Lana’s redeeming qualities included an agreeable personality when she wasn’t angry and the ability to play nice with others. In the absence of a cute Jedi girlfriend, I thought it would be a fantastic idea for my convention-shirking ex-smuggler to strike up a romance with a snake-eyed, red lightsaber-wielding, purple electricity-channeling Sith Lord who was quite physically and intellectually attractive apart from the bit where she thinks of torture as a routine interrogation method.

Diegetically, my character professed to be unaware of this practice until she learned of it. When I tagged along with Darth Marr uninvited to capture Imperial Guards who knew of Revan’s whereabouts, I agreed to let Darth Marr question them rather than Satele Shan. My thinking was that this was an Imperial matter; allowing the Imperials to handle their own would help establish trust to the extent that it was possible. I also wanted to impress Lana with my pragmatism. After Marr’s torture session, the Republic representatives expressed horror that I had allowed such a thing. I responded by taking my new girlfriend aside and kissing her off-screen.

Knights of the Fallen Empire

Nothing ever happens the way it’s supposed to – Revan’s defeat did not prevent the Emperor from subsequently consuming all life on the planet Ziost prior to disappearing into Wild Space. The greatest shell game in recorded history thus unfolded: Vitiate had been secretly ruling the Eternal Empire of Zakuul using the hollowed out body of a warrior named Valkorion for centuries. Darth Marr and I were ambushed by his massive Eternal Fleet and taken prisoner aboard his command ship. He slew Darth Marr when Marr refused to kneel, then asked me why I was there. “To destroy you,” I said.


For reasons I still do not comprehend, Valkorion did not immediately Force throw me off the bridge of his command deck like any reasonable Immortal Emperor would. Instead, he used one extended hand to magically fend off the lightsaber blows of his frustrated son Arcann, a trained killer who had never received the approval he desired from his father. With a single blaster bolt to the spine, I administered the Mace Windu treatment to a centuries old Sith emperor who eats planets for breakfast, whereupon my superpowers faded long enough for Arcann to encase me in carbonite and take over the Core Worlds.

At that point I would have very much appreciated an on-screen guide as to which rules of reality were in effect at any given moment.

Like any good girlfriend would, Lana woke me up from my half-decade of cryostasis so that I could save the universe. As luck would have it, I had the instruction manual for galactic white-knighting at my fingertips: Valkorion had decided to take up residence in my mind in a bid to regain his throne. I actually enjoyed his lingering presence – so much so that I found myself wishing the story didn’t have to come to an end. Valkorion spent the next twenty-four chapters obliging me: he popped up at random to dispense wisdom, discuss existential philosophy, and make my life more difficult than it already was.

He began by taking advantage of battles in progress to offer me the opportunity to resolve situations decisively: if I would allow him to take over my body briefly, he would channel his powers through me. I accepted only once, when Lana was facing off against twenty-five blaster-wielding foes; Valkorion swept them away with a giant purple force bubble.

I guess I had a lot to learn about my ultra-pragmatic honey-bunny, because she was absolutely not amused. Afterwards, she told me I should not have done that. She was deeply concerned that if I allowed Valkorion to use my body as a conduit for his powers, he would eventually be able to forcibly expel my vital essence. As I contemplated her perspective, I began to think about the extent to which I was being punished for not having thought deeply enough about the context of my actions. Lana was a full-fledged Sith Lord wielding a lightsaber and the Force against twenty-five foes; while I might have balked at those odds, that encounter may have been a winnable fight for Lana. In retrospect, my “life-saving” decision may very well have been a product of ignorance and perhaps even somewhat insulting.

Where Lana operated from a position of strength, I operated sentimentally. She and native Zakuulan starship pilot Koth Vertana were in the process of extracting me from the capital city when Emperor Arcann’s psychotic sister Vaylin came after us. She took out a Sun Generator in a fit of pique, initiating a reactor meltdown that would kill thousands if not averted. My first instinct was to make a detour to prevent that from happening; Lana told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to leave the planet immediately.


Her interpretation of the Greater Good involved sacrificing those thousands of lives in the short term to save millions in the long term. I considered my next move carefully, eventually coming up with a sensible line of thinking that accommodated my crush: if I didn’t leave right then and there, who was to say that Vaylin wouldn’t kill thousands more as she pursued us? And who was to say that she hadn’t intentionally caused that catastrophe in an attempt to lure a do-gooding space captain into a known location?

Well, the game, that’s who. Again, our parallel universe comes into play, the one in which our choices have meaningful ramifications and consequences. The one which has little to no bearing on the events as presented in the game, but which is nevertheless granted primacy for the sake of reason.

The Eternal Empire rocked to and fro as the throne changed hands between Arcann, Vaylin, and a sentient hyper-intelligence named SCORPIO (don’t call her a droid). The first time I defeated Arcann, my eyes rolled all the way to the back of my head when he stuck his lightsaber through my chest and I lived. The explanation for this was that Valkorion’s power had saved me – the same Valkorion who wasn’t able to save himself from a blaster bolt to the midsection. I sighed in exasperation when Arcann’s mother, Senya, made off with her weakened world-destroyer so that she could “cleanse” him; I softened later on as I watched a beautifully rendered in-game movie that chronicled Senya’s struggles as a mother to protect her children from the imperialistic plans their father had for them. When I made the decision to remove Arcann for good, I thought to myself that perhaps I was more like Valkorion than I thought.


In the final chapter of Fallen Empire, I was slapped across the face by a seemingly simple dialogue option. In defending the Eternal Alliance from an attack on its base of operations, I made the decision to save a grave-robbing sneak thief named Vette rather than Torian Cadera, an accommodating Mandalorian who lived for glory in combat. Vette had been delightfully funny in Chapter 13: Profit and Plunder, whereas Torian struck me as a more serious-minded warrior, so I left him to fend for himself against overwhelming odds. I was later asked to make a statement about his reunion with the Force. Choices are presented on a wheel in the form of short phrases or sentences; often, what your character says uses radically different vocabulary but retains the spirit of its shorthand predecessor. I chose the option “he did his duty” – what came out of my mouth was, “He was a soldier. Soldiers die in war.”

Theron and Lana disapproved, as did I while muttering a curse at the screen. I took the time to reflect on my response just as I had done when I made the decision to use Valkorion’s powers to “save” Lana. I came to the conclusion that I had misread Torian: he was not a duty-bound Trooper like Aric Jorgan of Havoc Squad, but a battle-hardened fighter who sought glory and honor for himself and his clan. As in Lana’s case, if I had stopped to think deeply about what I was doing before I did it, I could have steered events in a more agreeable direction. But by accepting responsibility for the outcome of things that may have been impossible for me to predict, I was able to retain a consistent sense of imaginary agency in a narrative that arbitrarily enfeebled and super-charged my character in a violent display of whimsy.

Knights of the Eternal Throne

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the second ten chapters of our saga involved deciding which of our story characters and companions would live and die. It wasn’t until the postscript that I found out it was possible to spare Senya, but only if you also spared Arcann – an outcome that my personal ethos simply would not allow. As a Knight of Zakuul, Senya had been a ruthless enforcer, but at heart she was a caring mother who only wanted the best for her children. That I had to be the one to deprive her of this opportunity was something I chalked up to “destiny” – a meaningless word that I chose to use for lack of a better term.

My destiny also included an alliance with the Sith Empress Acina who had taken over in the absence of anything resembling leadership. She had seemed pleasant enough when she proposed to me, even gamely flirting with me after our shuttle crash landed in the middle of the jungles of Dromund Kaas. When later offered the opportunity to sweet talk her in Lana’s presence, I declined.

Eventually, we emerged victorious in climactic battles extraordinaire, including a game of Ring Around the Reversed Rosies with Valkorion and his children. Valkorion had programmed his daughter to become utterly submissive at the sound of the phrase “kneel before the dragon of Zakuul.” When she became aware of these linguistic restraints, Vaylin traveled to the Force-weak planet of Nathema to remove her conditioning. In our final, muddled confrontation, she then used this phrase successfully on her father. This unexpected reversal went a bit too far, in my opinion, so I mentally revised Valkorion’s response to one of simple surprise.

My final act was to choose between ruling as Empress or arbitrating as peacekeeper. I sat down on a throne I never wanted to keep it from ever being used for conquest again.



A story that isn’t presented in MMO format might show a denouement montage of rebuilding, diplomacy, and cooperation. Since this is a game that is mostly about the interesting things that happen as a result of intergalactic factionalism, I wouldn’t expect to see scenes of Lana and me enjoying a nice vacation on the beach. When we received word that the Republic and Empire were fighting over a superweapon that potentially had more power than even the Eternal Fleet, I accepted my transition from Mary Sue to Mary Super Saiyan with bemused resignation and strapped on my not-so-trusty plot blasters.

My first major strategic move as peacekeeping Commander of the Eternal Alliance was to take sides with either the Republic or the Empire, never mind that I had just assumed an all-powerful Eternal Throne that had previously brought the two factions to heel. To demonstrate my commitment to an equitable, bilateral alliance as well as to taking my partner Lana’s advice, I decided to support the Empire. No sooner had I done so than my formerly honey-tongued friend Empress Acina was declaring her uncontrollable desire to bathe in the blood of the Republic. Clearly, I made the right call. Our quandary was resolved by the appearance and hasty disappearance of a scrap metal MacGuffin monster named Tyth that talked in all caps – ahem, I meant to say: ANCIENT SUPERWEAPON WAR DROID GOD OF RAGE.

Our adventures culminated on the Chiss planet of Copero, where we were to secure and deliver a sharpshooting Chiss traitor in exchange for access to sudden turncoat Theron Shan. With the markswoman subdued, our handler altered the terms of our exchange by demanding her execution. I stonewalled his hardball play by allowing her to walk free. I then tracked Theron to a snow-covered mountain enclave whence he made a shuttle escape.

It turned out that Theron had gone rogue in order to gain the favor of a Zakuulan snake-worshipping cult based out of the capital city’s Breaktown District, a place where the fallen go to keep falling. After telling Lana the truth about the Chiss traitor – that I let her go because our liaison pissed me off – I planned on reminding her of her own actions: she had previously put both myself and Theron in dangerous situations without telling us because her infiltration strategies would not have worked if we had known what was going on. We needed to consider the possibility that Theron was doing the same to himself for unspecified reasons.

This is where the main thrust of my return to the Old Republic’s story ends. It was an altogether enjoyable experience that I plan on continuing in bite-sized pieces whenever the mood takes me. While I won’t be making any further time-intensive narrative investments like the one I’ve documented here, I will continue to daydream about what life with Lana might look like when that “scheduled personal time” she occasionally mentions materializes into a story of its own. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a missive from her that let me into her head and her heart more than anything else did, followed by the response I might send in a world that leaves a little less to the imagination.





Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Life is Strange: Before the Storm is a story I didn’t know I needed until I learned of its existence. It’s a dream come true for those of us who are in love with the original. It must, of necessity, come in the form of a prequel: the bifurcated ending of Life is Strange, Season 1, is predicated on player choice, and as much as any of us would like to see a canonized continuation of the adventures of Max and Chloe, it has been made clear that the existing body of thousands of works of fan fiction constitute the officially sanctioned epilogue to an emotional journey. This burgeoning fandom reflects the extent to which the people at DONTNOD have captured the hearts of many, many people with the compelling tale they’ve woven – one with room for embellishment in the right places.

The unveiling of the mystery behind the question mark that was Rachel Amber in Life is Strange serves as a vehicle for a look into Chloe’s life in Arcadia Bay during the five years that Max is away in Seattle. In her absence, sixteen-year old Chloe is beginning to blossom into a woman, and the references to sexuality that were somewhat more diffuse in the original are made increasingly direct and explicit in Chloe’s journal: entry one features a drawing of dreamy-eyed Max with hands in her pockets, the dialogue bubble above her head inviting Chloe to “Put your thoughts in me.” Chloe talks of her desire for Max’s return, saying that she’d take her back in a heartbeat and talking about what they’d do “after we kiss and make up.” And then, in her third entry, she tells Max that she first thought about Deckard, then Pris from Blade Runner while “rubbing one.”

So it’s quite convenient that attractive, young, blonde-haired, jasmine-scented Rachel shows up and takes an interest in Chloe at a time when Max was not there for her. More than anything, Rachel offers an escape from the drudgery of Blackwell Academy, a personal life that has begun to dissolve into nothingness, and a home life with a mother who has moved on too soon by shacking up with a man whose personality embodies the antithesis of her life-loving, warm-hearted father, William. William’s cold, lifeless body now rests in the earth, and somewhere down there, Chloe’s soul has begun to settle in as well. Her daily habit of smoking weed offers only a temporary reprieve from the bullshit of being trapped in a seemingly loveless existence.


The static-infused, ethereal anthems of indie folk band Daughter give voice to the themes of abandonment that Chloe has been forced to shoulder; in All I Wanted, a heavy double-bass line drives the chorus: “All that I wanted / Was that I’m wanted.” Her mother Joyce’s decision to date a hard-nosed military veteran who is more inclined to treat Chloe like a soldier than a step-daughter echoes throughout the sad, mournful organ chords and gentle piano strokes of I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Prior to being driven to school by her future führer-in-law, she has the option of checking the mailbox for a postcard from Max that never comes. “No love for Chloe.” Her sigh bears the weight of the emotional wasteland that is Arcadia Bay. (“Whoever said ‘You can’t go home’ was probably from Arcadia Bay. And he didn’t want to go home.”) There is a hole in Chloe’s heart that mirrors the Hole in the Earth in which her father rests; the refrain could just as well be a pained love song that Chloe sings to Max – or now, Rachel: “You have very childish qualities / Friend make sense of me (x2) / I have very destructive qualities / Friend make sense of me (x2).”

Chloe has been left vulnerable and we sense that Rachel sees an opening for fleshing out her own desires. She makes a habit of “running into” Chloe at the most opportune times: once at the Firewalk concert during the game’s opening sequence, and once again at Blackwell Academy right as Chloe is about to enter the main building to attend her chemistry class. In both cases, Rachel is able to utilize these encounters to lay the groundwork for a bond between the two of them, a bond whose ambiguous purpose and nature serve as a source of speculation for the story’s readership. We know from Season 1 that Rachel used money and sex to score party favors, but what exactly does she want from a lone wolf pothead who sometimes forgets to shower?

We could be forgiven for sighing in exasperation at the cliché pairing of Chloe the Social Outcast and Rachel the Golden Girl. They are teenagers who are suffering through their own personal forms of grief, and yet, they are also human beings with hearts – hearts that seem to be seeking each other out. Indeed, Life is Strange encapsulates a story that is best experienced while wearing your heart on your sleeve – logic and continuity are rendered secondary considerations. This may be problematic for those unable to ignore the existence of the fourth wall in the face of glaringly obvious solutions to otherwise agonizing dilemmas, for example: why didn’t Max just warn every adult she could about the coming tornado and have the town evacuated beforehand, rewinding her way through Arcadia Bay until she found someone who would listen? Answer: Max has social anxiety, Max doesn’t think like that, Max is too focused on helping Chloe. If you’re unable to come up with a plausible explanation for questions of this nature, you may find it difficult or even impossible to suspend disbelief.


When I wrote my first response to a game I had purchased for $1 as part of a Humble Bundle on Steam, I had been bitten by the love bug ever so gently but wasn’t really aware of it due to mostly having brushed off the milieu and its seemingly inane fluff as yet another variant of Saved by the Bell. A full blown romance did not bloom until ten months later, when winter had vanished and was riding back in on the coat-tails of chill autumn winds. The Life is Strange series, as it has now become, slowly kindled and ignited my interest in choice-based interactive stories, regardless of whether those choices fundamentally alter the narrative arc or simply add flavor to a predetermined outcome. It’s that first experience of having played through the story using one’s own instinctive decisions that sets the soul humming and crystallizes the totality of the play-through into a fond memory infused with the myriad possibilities electrified by mutually exclusive yet peacefully coexisting decision branches.

As Chloe, I played through a session of Dungeons and Dragons with tabletop nerds Steph Gingrich and Mikey North, also fellow Blackwell students. The hip-shot decisions I made during those ten minutes resulted in an epic, climactic battle complete with body animations (Chloe sat on top of the table), masterfully rendered facial expressions, and fully voice acted dialogue that drove home the power of telling a story through a video game. “RIGHT. IN. THE. DICK.” is a line that is best delivered diegetically, in person. Static text on a page has its place; to fully appreciate Chloe and the world which has been thrust upon her, we need to hear her speak.


On the whole, the voice acting in Before the Storm remains faithful to the spirit of its predecessor. The ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike precludes the use of the original cast on Deck Nine’s project; there was, understandably, considerable trepidation about the actress who would be selected to fill the shoes of Ashly Burch as Chloe, a multi-talented veteran whose work on Adventure Time with Finn & Jake recently won her an Emmy award. And while Rhianna DeVries does not possess the nasal, sarcastic delivery that Ashly brings to our blue-haired girlfriend, she does perform her role admirably alongside co-star Kylie Brown as Rachel Amber. They are not perfect – nobody is – but I have come to embrace them as the canonical voices of their characters and have even joined their cheerleading squad, wishing them the best as they breathe life into the lines crafted by Zak Gariss’s writing team, a team which includes Ashly Burch in her capacity as a writer.

With that said, there are some misses here and there: David’s gruff, gravelly bellowing has been replaced by a much smoother voice that doesn’t quite convey the authoritarian discipline which serves as his modus operandi in his interactions with the Price family. Chloe’s father, William, comes off as robotic in his dream sequence delivery – even if this is intentional, it is somewhat off-putting. Rachel’s reaction to Chloe’s baritone confession in the junkyard is met with the sort of “Ah…” one might expect to hear after having spilled a glass of milk on the floor. This comes on the heels of her seemingly simple response to Chloe’s unspecified invitation to check something out (the junkyard): “What?” The micro-spittle release at the end of the word masterfully conveys Rachel’s well-lubricated articulation after having chugged her way through the better part of a bottle of red. Victoria Chase is particularly on point; Nathan Prescott is not far behind. Bootsie Park as Chloe’s mother, Joyce, conveys a much more subtle Southern accent than Cissy Jones’s commanding presence does without fundamentally altering Joyce’s personality. It’s the sum of this vocal give and take throughout Episode 1 that renders, in my mind, a balanced performance.

As such, it’s essentially a story told in a different voice by a familiar narrator. And it’s fitting that this story is told differently because brash, pot-smoking, concert-going Chloe Price is quite different from shy, socially awkward wallflower Max Caulfield. The male crooners of Max’s indie rock/folk library (Foals, Local Natives, Syd Matters) are complemented by a harder driving brand of ethereally voiced female indie folk (Daughter) that reflects Chloe’s straightforward, I-open-doors-with-my-head personality. The Right Way Around, Before the Storm’s title screen music, sets the tone for the journey with its heavy bass line, deep electric guitar chords, and uncomplicated drum-and-bass beats. The gently muted piano tones that accompanied our read-through of Max’s journal are replaced with distorted, white noise-filtered guitar renditions that serve as the background hum of Chloe’s fatherless, friendless existence in Arcadia Bay.


Friendless until Rachel shows up – Rachel, who quite conveniently bumps into Chloe more than once, almost as if she’s placed a GPS on her. There is room for Rachel in my heart despite her flaws and manipulations, just as there is room for potty-mouthed, back-talking Chloe. As in Life is Strange, there are plenty of opportunities to take a break from exploring the painterly minutiae of scenes and spaces to plop oneself down wherever one pleases (whether Principal Wells approves or not) and take time to reflect. One of the most memorable scenes for me is when Chloe shares her earphones with Rachel (you did share, didn’t you?) and together, they listen to Through the Cellar Door by Lanterns on the Lake while taking in the passing evergreenery of the Oregonian countryside from their perch on the edge of an open-doored boxcar in transit.

It’s a relationship whose still-sparse canvas lends itself well to brushstrokes from other sources; in my mind, I painted around the edges with references from Gone Home, a mansion exploration game in which Katie Greenbriar comes home from abroad one evening to her family’s empty, sprawling estate, wherein she spends several hours learning about her sister Sam’s blossoming relationship with fellow high school senior Yolanda “Lonnie” DeSoto through journal entries, pictures, letters, and answering machine messages. The most immediate similarity for me was the cassette tape in the bottom left corner of the screen that indicates one’s progress in Before the Storm is being saved – the style mirrors that of the cassette tape displayed on the loading screen of Gone Home. The open-ended buzzing of the background chords that introduce Daughter’s Glass remind me of the distant, midnight humming that accompanies Gone Home’s title screen. These are, perhaps, subtle coincidences or even inventions on my part, but it gives me warm fuzzies to pretend that they aren’t.

That we know Rachel’s eventual fate does little to detract from the magic that is present in Episode 1: Awake. I like to think that Max is still here in spirit – as Chloe certainly does, addressing her journal entries to Max and frequently musing on what Max would do if she were there. She seems to accompany us in the music that plays such a vital role in telling this tale: her freckles are the notes of the piano scale melodies on upbeat tracks like Hope, and again, in Voices, where they twinkle like stars in the night sky as Chloe looks around Blackwell’s drama lab dressing room. Glowing guitar chords, the steam locomotive swishing of a snare, and cooing that sounds like a railyard whistle serve as a musical prelude to the train ride Rachel and Chloe will soon be taking.

It’s a ride I would recommend to anyone who will listen.


Secret World Legends, One Month In

The tree house you see above embodies the essence of the secret world as we’ve come to know it: dark, mysterious, enigmatic. Moonlit. The reintroduction of The Secret World as Secret World Legends essentially turns up the gamma a few notches and subtly defogs the intentionally shrouded. If you’ve played The Park with the darkness settings at the recommended level, you can barely see anything – just enough to stumble about and eventually find your way to where you need to go. Turning the brightness up to normal levels lets you see more than you need to, rendering a fundamentally different game experience.

This is what Secret World Legends has done. I’ve reached level 50, completed all of the missions, and soloed two-thirds of the powerful champions and story mode dungeons; SWL strikes me as the reorganization of existing elements overlaid with more generous opportunities for monetization, the kind you’d find in a casino. And while the cash options and solicitations are not at first blush overly intrusive, recurring mainstays such as the glitzy daily login rewards screen and future-tech Agarthan Cache interface don’t exactly fit in with the game’s overarching “once upon a midnight dreary” motif.

So, what’s different? This is the same game that uses the same clunky engine with the same wonky physics and possesses many of the same seemingly invincible bugs that existed when I first started playing The Secret World in June of 2015. The mouse-centric action combat is slightly more mechanically tactile, the main story’s mission flow has been streamlined, many activities have been simplified (e.g. the Beaumont fight, tuning Gaia engines), active and passive abilities have been reorganized and mixed with permanent statistical gains, the old crafting system is all but gone, story mode dungeons are easy and role-agnostic, and the time/money investment gap between the average player and the most powerful players has been made absolutely staggering in a bid to attract the fattest of whales and the firehose streams of cash spewing from their blowholes.

With that said, I’d like to offer my thoughts as a moderately invested lone wolf player on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly aspects of the first thirty days of SWL’s existence.

Hemitneter is still my spirit animal.

The Good

The story mission can be completed alone in its entirety should one so choose, as can the associated action, investigation, sabotage, and side missions. I would estimate that play sessions of two hours perhaps two to three times per week accompanied by judicious use of talisman and weapon empowerments should allow the average player to get through the entirety of the current offerings – Solomon Island, Egypt, and Transylvania – within a couple of months. This is quite worth the price of zero dollars and is recommended for anyone who has not yet experienced the dark and fascinating story of the Secret World or who got stuck somewhere along the way in TSW and wouldn’t mind having a second go at it under more forgiving circumstances.

Indeed, Funcom can truthfully refer to this part of the game as an “Action RPG”: players focus chiefly on combat, exploration, and plot building. Managing gear upgrades is a fairly straightforward secondary activity provided one concentrates on increasing their attack power. Your average solo player’s point of contact with anything resembling a trinity role would be perhaps a pair of health or healing talismans if it suits their fancy.

And it’s very important to understand that for the purpose of experiencing the game’s story, this is as it should be. If one is not specifically playing for the MMO aspects, which absolutely do exist outside the confines of the superbly written and voice-acted narrative, one’s “role” is more thematic than anything: Dirk “BladeRunner” Gently wields heavy steel in melee combat against the living dead; Mai “PurpleHair” Hasegawa slays demons using her fists and custom-made magic bullets; and Dixie “DeepSixes” Cox is a former nightlife manager who wields chaos and the elements in her personal crusade against the army of vampires that siphoned off her clientele.

Our three friends have the option of teaming up and making their way through Story Mode dungeons, breezy easy-mode smash-throughs that allow agents to focus on the mysteries and goings-on contained within. These can be soloed provided you are five (rough going) to ten (smooth sailing) levels above the recommended level, but I would really recommend doing it with a pair of people you know. If you’d like to duo the dungeons, be sure to check the “Private Team” box in the Dungeon Finder interface before queueing up.

If one goes to the trouble of completing most of the available missions, one’s level should be advanced enough to progress without considerable difficulty using the cues and clues provided. For example, Carter Unleashed now provides a visual reminder about the immunity ward in your quick access inventory after the first time you die to Carter’s mobile, baseball field-sized swirling vortex of instant death. This is an excellent addition; I completed the mission before this reminder was added and didn’t notice the ward until after my seventh death. It’s important for players to overcome such obstacles relatively quickly when first starting out, so Funcom can be forgiven to a certain extent for holding the player’s hand a little too tightly in other cases (e.g. “reach character level 12” before proceeding with the main story mission).

As you complete these missions and dungeons, you’ll find yourself ticking off boxes on the Daily Challenge checklist. Dungeons and scenarios (which at the Elite 1 level have been simplified in a way that is quite pleasant) count toward main mission completion; both defeating the final boss of a dungeon and completing local bounties (random “kill X” missions that pop up in certain areas) count toward side mission completion. Empower a handful of items and kill 50 to 100 monsters, and you’ll have your daily allotment of 10,000 Marks of Favor (12,000 for patrons) which can be used at vendors, on the Auction House, and elsewhere. This is a refreshing change from the very specific requirements of TSW’s challenge completion system. On the whole, it’s much better to reward players for doing things they like rather than carrot-sticking the most tolerable things they don’t like. Thankfully, Funcom has emphatically demonstrated that they are listening to what players like and don’t like and have implemented changes accordingly.

I’m the ghost in the back of your head.


The Bad

If you decide that you like the game well enough to spend at least $12.99 per month on it, patronage’s most notable benefits include increased experience gains, a daily Agarthan Cache key, and double AP/SP gains. This accelerated influx of Ability Points and Skill Points as you level up will help you unlock weapon abilities, passive effects, and permanent stat boosts fast enough to keep you interested in learning about the dynamics of your chosen primary weapon, with a moderate decrease in acquisition speed once you hit maximum level. This moderate decrease becomes substantial if you are not a patron.


Where SWL differs from many other free-to-play games is that contributing monthly does not confer a stipend of cash shop currency (in this case, Aurum). In a game where Aurum can be used to buy so many different things from increased sprinting speed to additional AP/SP to items that increase the quality (but not rarity) of weapons and talismans, it makes sense to reward those who commit to scheduled payments with a little bit of the good stuff. Quite frankly, it doesn’t make sense not to do so given that even buy-to-play TSW rewarded subscribers with monthly Funcom points that could be used to buy the aforementioned perks, including roughly thirty inventory slots a month if one were so inclined, up to a maximum of five hundred.

And it becomes apparent that once a player begins to amass items and reward bags to any significant degree that inventory space is much less fluid than it was in TSW, a stinginess that is endemic to SWL in general. Players begin with 35 inventory slots (up from 25 originally) when starting out. After a while, things begin to pile up despite one’s best janitorial efforts – More Space is required to accommodate More Things. The first two five-slot upgrades can be purchased for nominal amounts of Marks of Favor; the second two five-slot upgrades must be purchased for 400 ($4) and 500 ($5) Aurum respectively. At current median exchange rates (140 MoF = 1 Aurum), this amounts to five and six days’ worth of challenge completions for those who do not want to inject cash into the process.

If one chooses to transcend the confines of the Secret World ARPG novel’s dust jacket and venture off into the game’s MMO offerings, sooner or later one brushes up against SW:ToR-esque restrictions designed to entice players into making their inconveniences go away with a charitable donation. Herein lies one of the poorly implemented features of SWL’s time-is-money model: a lot of these things are fabulously expensive. Sprint V is $10 (125% speed increase). Sprint VI is $15 (150% speed increase). 45 to 55 inventory slots is $9. Bypassing the need to level a second talisman to purple 30 for mythic orange fusion is $15. Increasing a talisman’s pips from two (medium strength) to three (maximum strength) is $25 (Anima Imbuer). And so forth. The impression that I get is that the MMO side of the game is unfortunately quite stingy in general, even for patrons.

There’s a reasonable fix for this, though: tiered pricing and generosity to a point. A green (superior) Anima Imbuer is $0.50, a blue (epic) Anima Imbuer is $1. A red (legendary) Anima Imbuer is $25. Players are going to be doing a lot of empowerment and fusion; when they give you cash, give them a generous helping of basic inventory space. $1 a slot? $1 gets me 72 slots in Guild Wars 2 before I have to buy another bag slot unlock. You need to be less stingy, initially.

Indeed. I’m learning about inventory Tetris more than anything.

Personally, I think these sorts of things can be dismissed as growing pains provided Funcom continues in the vein of listening to players, looking at works and what doesn’t, and making sensible changes. What really rubs me the wrong way in the Bad category is the philosophical direction in which this transition has taken us. The above-mentioned empowerment system, which involves feeding lesser weapons to a very hungry Greater Weapon (or talisman or glyph or signet) to make it stronger, costs anima shards, a new currency which turns a notionally supernatural essence into a preternatural, discretely quantified entity.

The introduction of anima shards as concrete units of currency is as about as philosophically appealing as the insertion of midi-chlorians into the Star Wars universe: it is entirely unnecessary and erodes the mystique of the experience. This is the signature theme that has been introduced by Secret World Legends, a game whose new name unfailingly makes me think of a Candy Crush-style mobile app every single time I read it. Here and there the story’s unseen undertones have been laid bare presumably for the purpose of attracting new players with a less opaque, more vibrantly presented backstory – the image of a Dreamer’s bird holding a man’s limp body (an Orochi employee, undoubtedly) in its filthy talons has been replaced by an attractive, red-toned image of Rose White’s face framed by a vertical white line and high-rise buildings while a young woman holding a pistol in one hand and an atomic fireball in the other poses before her in miniature. (“You’re pretty good with a fireball,” an NPC once said to me while I blasted zombies with a shotgun.)

This is all part of a Modern Promethean cosmetic update that sees our new face gazing out toward the end of the update roadmap where we’ll finally stop Laying Low in the Limelight some time in Late 2017 / Early 2018. That the roadmap explicitly mentions where we got our powers is a harbinger of Kinda Dark But Not Too Dark Days to Come. Changing the title from “The Secret World” to “Secret World Legends”, turning Agartha into a social club complete with the banners of the three main factions hanging up, and straight up affirming cynical Sam Krieg’s description of our raison d’être as a “fight against evil” are broad brushstrokes that paint a picture much too bright for a game that has always been at its most seductive when it is dark as fuck. I mean, the entire world goes blank for a split second at midnight to herald the appearance of the bogeyman in Atlantic Island Park and here we are atop the roller coaster playing Connect Four with different types of shoddy pistols.

I’m being facetious, of course. The real Bad in this category is the UI. I have to click a small, thin blue bar to the left of my abilities to even know that my seven deaths to Carter’s impromptu volcano have resulted in “Anima Degradation” and I need to pay 100 anima shards per death to fix it. How about just fixing Anima Degradation instead? By removing it. And the little blue bar.

Once upon a midday cheery…


The Ugly

Seeing other players in the world is not always a good thing. They’ll depopulate your mission NPCs in limited spawn areas (looking at you, Ghoul Tools) and one of you won’t get credit for a kill if the other tags it and isn’t in your group. If your lair run has more than ten people, sorry eleven and twelve. The ten of us are going to have enough problems as it is getting into the same lair instance and staying there. Sharding playfields into ten-person affairs is great for maintaining that feel of isolation but not so great when people band together organically to engage in group content.

Weekend warriors are left out in the cold – there’s no system for banking anything other than Agarthan Cache keys, so it’s not possible to burn through a bevy of free, banked dungeon keys in a marathon session or spend Marks of Favor obtained by completing weekday challenges.

Static NPCs that can be destroyed have a very annoying habit of keeping you in combat for long, long periods of time, even when you are not attacking anything and nothing is attacking you, e.g. blood stocks in Transylvania. Being in combat prevents you from regenerating your weapon power quickly and also keeps you from sprinting, leaving you hamstrung while you wait for the random number generator to finally decide that you are out of combat. One of the important parts of keeping your players excited about playing is making them feel fast: your combat experience should be a romp through the zones in which players zip around at their own pace rather than being beholden to the whims of a fickle combat flag or unending waves of trash mobs. In any case, there is something going on with the combat in Trash Mob Legends that makes me feel slow as molasses – maybe it’s all those Filth microparticulates in the desert air.

Crowd control effects are still way too long. This has knock-on effects in PvP, which isn’t terribly relevant at this point given that we’ve only got Shambala to work with (which people are suicide-farming for anima shards), but there is little that is more frustrating to a player than losing control of one’s actions, especially for lengthy periods of time. It strips the player of their sense of agency when used too liberally; anything longer than a couple of seconds should be tossed out the window unless it’s being used as part of the story, e.g. Cassie King’s “Wicked Witch of the South” stun.

I married the afterlife in a shotgun wedding. I’m holding the shotgun.

Concluding Thoughts

Just as Ptahmose “lovingly” murdered his children and sealed them inside statues in the City of the Sun God where they sing a song that keeps the Black Pharaoh imprisoned, so too have our old selves been rendered impotent and sent into stasis. We have been recast into bodies with faces that sometimes scarcely resemble our old features; the many hours we spent in our previous life have been wiped away and supplanted by a new siren’s song designed to prevent darkness from overtaking the balance sheets.

As a parent of young children, I cannot forgive Ptahmose for what he did, even though I understand that what he did was presumably for the greater good. As he labors over his children’s bodies, he chants praises to Amun, the god who is not-Akhenaten, and I mutter a curse under my breath. I will not bless this reskin of a game I’ve spent hundreds of hours in even as I prepare to spend many an evening retracing my steps. Secret World Legends has turned the erstwhile secret world into the only legend of note – it is the one I think about while this plastic body of mine traverses familiar streets and fields in a slightly off version of a place that was once a shade darker, one whose gambling parlor decor and transparent mysteries must now be endured if we wish to see it persist.

Secret World Legends: Tear down the Heavens to Rebuild the Underworld

In a world of unicorns and rainbows, the second incarnation of The Secret World may aspire to reimagine its predecessor the way Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen seeks to recapitulate classic EverQuest. But there are no rainbows and unicorns in this dark and mysterious – oh, wait. There are. I was going somewhere with that.

Sometimes in order to turn your artistic vision into reality, you have to tear everything down and start over, rebuilding the foundation from existing pieces. This is what makes great art, and that’s the way I see The Secret World, primarily: as a work of art that functions as a support system for life. Exploring the dark underworld that exists within our dreams makes the tedium of the waking world more bearable. I am probably an idealist in this regard; I leave an analysis of the game studio’s marketing, public relations, and financials to more capable and invested entities, not least of which the game studio itself. Ahem.

I’m more interested in the extent to which this rework emphasizes the narrative, a shining gem in a sea of numbers ground into sawdust. Many players are already understandably upset about having their Numbers and Stuff trivialized; I sympathize with them as I wear my cheekiest innocence-is-bliss grin and sip my coffee in anticipation of journaling my dormant character’s dreary, fog-shrouded meanderings. I measure my experience bar in screenshots and short stories. My nearly maximum-capacity inventory’s lattice grid of signets serve as trinkets more than anything, reminders of the paid-monthly journey I have at times cursed and worshipped. The talismans that will only cease to protect me when the Eleventh Hour arrives remain hidden under my clothing.

The information we have so far shows us a work in progress, one which highlights improvements (more interesting combat), integration (a popular topbar mod is now part of the UI), and growing pains (a key-activated mouse cursor mode à la SMITE). The default reticle emulates a soft-targeting system which highlights whatever’s underneath it. Fantastic, minus the concentric circles in the center of the screen. (I was getting tired of spamming tab.) The Overwatch-style mouse button usage will eliminate my need for AutoHotkey: I’ll be able to smash my primary ability without having to worry about left-hand cramps. I’m hoping this will make it easier to enjoy the freneticism of five-button combat in counterpoint to my ethereal countryside strolls – executing optimal damage rotations is the sort of ledger-balancing Liling would be doing if she had chosen to take up a nice, non-lethal desk job with regular tea breaks.


Levels are no longer hidden variables. The philosophical value in deliberately hiding this information is overshadowed by the usefulness of being able to gauge your presumed effectiveness at a glance. Each level up now bestows a chunk of base hit points, another form of shorthand which vitalizes the otherwise static dead/not-dead binary. The upshot is that when you walk into a new area such as Blue Mountain, you’ll be armed with a more accommodating skill floor as well as the information needed to reasonably size up threats. No longer should you spend warm, wine-infused hours painstakingly crafting a new build for your favorite weapons, only to be flattened by the first giant insect beast that rushes you.

Much has been written on the virtues of selecting your own difficulty – if you want your audience to stay until the end of a movie that challenges them, you need to be able to take them outside of their comfort zone without frustrating them. Later, if they decide they’re up for it, they can choose to engage more difficult subject matter on their own terms. Forcing those terms on them by default via complex systems that require extensive research and experimentation may result in alienating those who just wanted to turn the page to the next chapter of your story without having to take a quiz on the mechanics of your fantasy world.

While character levels reflect one’s progress through the story, the notion of being able to “level up” your weapons is one that engenders lasting attachment and emphasizes one’s identity, the face that one shows to others. Once you’ve acquired an appearance you like, you are then free to focus on becoming more proficient with it rather than mentally reserving room for its successor. Space also exists for those who wish to min-max: each weapon type has an associated “always-on” character-level passive which requires a certain degree of mastery to enable; this passive remains even when you switch to other weapons. This appears to be a more meaningful system of progression based on a specialization-diversification dynamic as opposed to the straight-up grind demanded by augments and AEGIS.


Indeed, the most powerful intrapersonal and interpersonal bonds are formed in cooperative environments that support the expression of one’s identity in communion with others. My play sessions are fairly anti-social apart from my interactions with friends – I generally do not want to see other people out in the world while I am playing. When I do interact with others, however, I want us to be able to accomplish our goals without having to get up in each other’s business: I shouldn’t be able to “kill steal” or disable an interactive object. The proposed culture of softening the emphasis on competition between the factions and replacing it with a sense of belonging to one’s own faction must be accompanied by game play systems which support this. To take a phrase from elsewhere: seeing another player should always be a good thing.

Even in Secret World Legends, where playing fields are going to be capped at ten players. Even in places like Kingsmouth, which is sharded – not mega-served – to preserve the sense of isolation. Big Brother informs me that shared participation with no grouping requirements and personalized loot rewards is The Way Things Have Always Been. For once, he’s absolutely right.

I just hope that he sees fit to provide an option to turn off the swirling anima “ding” effect when you level. I don’t want to be a legend – I just want to continue the story with a minimum of fuss.

Reflections on Having Written a Fan Fiction Novel

Nearly four months after I typed out a breathy introductory chapter in December of 2016, I’ve finally finished “After This“, a fan fiction novel which continues the “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay” ending of game developer Dontnod Entertainment‘s episodic, choice-driven narrative Life Is Strange. I was inspired to do so by the lingering emotional vulnerability I experienced after completing the game; the bonds I had formed with the story’s protagonist and deuteragonist, Max and Chloe; and the myriad possibilities hinted at via the determinant nature of one’s decisions throughout the game.

My novel weighs in at ten chapters and exactly 50,000 words. Varying definitions of where a novella ends and a novel begins have long served as conversation starters over a pint; the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America set the threshold at 40,000 words, so that’s what I’ve opted to use. Prolific authors such as Steven King might place it at around 80,000 – then again, Mr. King’s phone books frequently clock in at 200,000+ words. I figure I need to give people something to complain about in addition to whatever they find in the substance of my writing.

Personally, I’m satisfied with what I’ve written to the extent that it withstands repeated read-throughs; the statistics kept by Word indicate that I spent 15,607 minutes, or just over 260 hours, drafting, writing, editing, revising, and proofing. That works out to 192 words an hour, or 1,596 words a day if we assume an eight-hour writing “shift.” But we can’t, really, because like other human beings I took time off and wrote in binges. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all this, it’s that one must write regularly in order to improve and remain comfortable with the art of sculpting statues out of thin air.


To wit, some things I’ve learned from published, professional sculptors whom I follow on Twitter and whose writing I admire:

  1. Your first draft should be fast and shitty (Delilah S. Dawson)
  2. Writing in the second person (Alyssa Wong)
  3. At some point, characters must fuck or it’s trash (Sam Sykes)

The canon continuation of Max’s story, according to its authors, is the one that you write. My drafts were fast and shitty, my chapters alternate between first person Max and second person Chloe, and they eventually fuck in one of Max’s dreams. This canon that blossomed out of my heart and mind found its home on Archive of Our Own, a fan fiction website with a reasonably active readership and an agreeable layout. It boasts well over a thousand Life Is Strange works, a testament to the game’s popularity and its power to inspire storytelling. Readers can leave comments and “kudos”, a way of saying they liked something without having to type anything.

And so I left my story there, chapter by completed chapter, expanding on some of the darker themes that had been touched on in the narrative. I based my imaginings of Max and Chloe and Kate on what I had seen and heard while I was playing. I let them do whatever they wanted after long, thoughtful meanderings through mental landscapes on quiet, moonlight nights and, later, when I righted my sleep schedule, on sunny mornings. Sometimes scenes and chapters did completely unexpected things after I had taken the time to daydream about them. I didn’t even have a climax in mind until halfway through the novel. I wrote organically, not knowing what would happen in the next chapter. A terrible practice, from what I’ve gleaned – but I’m a novice novelist, so what do I know?

One thing that I would change if I were to do it again – and I am not inclined to write another fan fiction novel any time soon – is the manner in which I published it. I would either not release chapters serially or request the pre-publishing assistance of beta readers: people who read your polished drafts and give you feedback on all the things you’ve become blind to after your first ten thousand words. I say this not because I’m unhappy with the tone, consistency, and overall quality of my novel, but because there are some tenuous points in the first couple of chapters that I would have gone back and solidified with much more editing had I not blasted them out into the stratosphere as soon as they were done. As is, they remain milepost monuments to the evolution of my writing over the past four months.


I’m genuinely appreciative of those who took the time to tell me they liked my story, just as I am appreciative of the people who were courteous enough to express their dislike (and educate me on how to improve) using constructive criticism. Probably the most heartening praise I received was in a DM on Twitter from an artist who is active on DeviantArt – I follow them there and have marked several of their fantastic works as “favorites.” They sent me a message telling me that they normally don’t read fan fiction because the characters are invariably written so OOC (out of character), but that they loved mine. This really made my day.

With all that said, this is what I learned from writing a fan fiction novel:

  1. Writing takes practice
  2. Writing at length takes lengthy practice
  3. Quality takes time (best aged like a fine wine)
  4. Structured drafting preserves sanity
  5. Fan fiction is a cesspool of iniquity

So, when I say that fan fiction is a cesspool of iniquity, here’s what I mean: you have to lower your standards. Like, really low. This is what I didn’t understand when I decided to start writing this novel (you can call it a novella if you like – I would agree): people are not looking to swoon over your references to Greco-Roman mythology and Hamlet and Edgar Allan Poe – they want characters to bang in the locker room, to have adventures, to engage in warm fuzzies and catfights and sleepovers. They want their favorite characters to do their favorite things, and if there’s any sort of drama or conflict, it can be tropified using quotes and catchphrases for all they care so long as their honeybuns are fucking rock stars at the end of it.

I understand this now, after having written to my heart’s content, and the lasting effect is that I probably won’t write anything else in the realm of fan fiction that goes beyond the length of a short story or maybe a novelette (7,500 – 17,500 words). I still balk when reading the author’s notes to some of Archive of Our Own’s most beloved works, however: they tell their audience how they wrote this 12,000 word chapter in a single four-hour caffeinated binge or how they cranked out their latest 10k monster while listening to the same Adele song on repeat 35 times in a row. I look at the sixty hours I spent on Chapter 8 (12,885 words) and make myself another coffee. What’s all this, then?

At the very least I’ve learned quite a bit about writing at length, even if some people would look at what I’ve done and chastise me for not having spent that time doing actual writing. I’d just reply that I did it because I enjoyed it. I’m like anyone who plays games for fun instead of learning how to play the piano or taking up martial arts – I’m not spreadsheeting my free time to find the optimal intersection of usefulness and enjoyment. I’m having fun, damn it. And it just so happens that my preferred writing milieu – those dark and mysterious midnight haunts in the realm between life and death – best manifests itself elsewhere. Lesson learned.

We Bathed in Moonlight, Drowned in Sorrow’s Embrace

They told me I had been dead for ten months when they pulled my lifeless blue body from the bottom of Lake Delavan. Why I was now staring at the dull brown ceiling of the hospital in the Salma Quarter of Divinity’s Reach instead of slumbering peacefully in the cool embrace of the Mists was not something the priests and priestesses were able explain to my satisfaction. When, after several hours, I regained the color in my face and the feeling in my fingers, I felt an anger that should have remained dormant forever.

I returned their dispassionate gazes, face up in my bed, as my cheeks flooded with uncomfortable heat. This is what the White Mantle looks like when they imbibe bloodstone, they told me. They’re dangerous. White. Mantle. For as long as adjectives and nouns continued to exist, humans would agglutinate them in endless permutations and use them as rallying cries in their idiotic wars against each other. The fact that my parents had once shared a bed in Kryta did not obligate their offspring to care about the kingdom’s politics.


I don’t give a damn, I replied. Tell me how you brought me back, since you won’t tell me why. They offered conflicting answers: Engineers had concocted a potion that had the power to reanimate the departed; Rangers had called upon the spirits of the forest to imbue my skeletal frame with verdant life force; Mesmers had conjured up an illusion which was temporarily housing my essence; Lyssa had personally bartered with Grenth for the return of my soul until the Elder Dragons had been vanquished and the safety of the Six Gods’ human subjects had been secured.

I want to go back, I growled through clenched teeth. Tell me what I have to do.

Meet your old friend Logan Thackeray in the Upper City. He and the Queen will help you understand what needs to be done.

So I did. It was as if I had never been gone. The Pact still called me Commander, even though it was clear to me that I wasn’t commanding anything or anyone. Braham wouldn’t listen to me. Marjory wouldn’t be told what to do. Kasmeer was conspicuously absent. Anise had developed a thirst for blood, while Canach had developed an endearing brand of wit. Taimi and Rytlock were the only ones I felt I could trust – Taimi’s burgeoning genius needed an adult catalyst to ensure her transition from progeny to practitioner; and where there was a battle to be fought, as there typically was when I was around, Rytlock would be there to guard my back and tell everyone exactly what he thought of them.


Logan was the one person who hadn’t changed. As much as we had been through, he wasn’t good for anything but commanding human forces. When he told me that General Soulkeeper had offered him the position of Marshal within the Pact, I stopped caring about the organization altogether. Call me what you will, friends. I’ll go where I need to go and do what must be done. The flow of time wraps itself around my sword and shield while Queen Jennah kills with a flick of the wrist and erects a reflective dome over the entirety of Divinity’s Reach by simply willing it to exist.

Tell me again: why do you need me?

Once we’ve slain the remaining Elder Dragons I am going to fill my lungs with as much of Lake Doric’s water as they will hold and return to Eir in the Mists. We’ll spend our eternal twilight leaving heavy footprints in the frosty snow beneath us as we make our way toward the sound of howling wolves on distant ridges.

Going Home

I had Help Me by Hako Yamazaki blasting in my ears when I walked into Daimon Kiyota’s renovated “office” and told him I was done. It wasn’t until halfway through his response that I bothered to take the earbuds out and let them hang from my phone’s audio jack almost all the way down to the floor. My deadpan gaze made him stop and rewind back to the beginning, this time with a shit-eating grin in place of his usual Blackbeard smile.

To my surprise, he stopped himself before he started speaking. His suddenly blank expression masked an eerie calm.

“Everything is Jake, Liling.” That got my attention: it was the first time he had ever used my real name – or any name at all. I felt a bit taken aback, briefly. He wasn’t dealing with my usual humorless bullshit and he was no spring chicken when it came to reading people. I could tell that he was just as serious as I was.

“You’ve been on the lam for a long time. There’s nothing going down in town.” He shrugged dramatically for effect. It didn’t have any, so he put a smile back on his face. “Zip your lips, don’t double-cross me, and you can high-hat every drugstore cowboy and gold digger from here to Big Sur. Copacetic?”

“Copacetic,” I said.

I glanced to my left and right, looking for the Bong Cha treatment.

“We’ll skip that part,” he crowed. “You’re too strong, now.”

I nodded curtly and thought about bowing. To hell with it. I put my earbuds back in and walked out the door of the Dragon’s main temple in Seoul for what I hoped would be the last time.

Kingsmouth is on the other side of the country from my parents’ home in California, so there was still the business of arranging a cross-country flight. I traded in my Pax Romana for a modest sum in pounds at one of the black market vendors in London – apparently the council’s currency is worthless outside the not-so-secret circles that float it.

It was enough to take care of transportation to the West Coast and then some. I bought new clothes for the first time in ages and dumpstered the black-and-purple hoodie that had been my mainstay for the past two years. Mixed memories, more good than bad, none of them worth dwelling on.

I still think of Shani, sometimes, when I look up at the moon at night. Probably better to forget about that one, too.

When I arrived in front of the light-blue rambler my parents called home, the door opened before I had even stepped out of the taxi. As I tipped the driver my mother called out to me with such agitation in her voice that I nearly tripped over my own toothpaste-white shoes running up the sidewalk.

“Oh, Lily. Thank goodness you’re here.”

“Mother! What’s wrong?”

“I made too much for dinner and your father and I can’t eat it all up by ourselves.”

“Oh…” I laughed stupidly, as if I were a six year-old child again. And then it dawned on me that my mother had just called me by my American name for the first time I could remember since I had been born. I looked down at her brown eyes behind thick-rimmed, thick-lensed glasses that cost more than mine did. Her smile, well, you couldn’t put a price on that.

“You’re not angry, mother? After everything that’s happened?”

She pursed her lips and pinched my left cheek between her thumb and index finger. “Just forget everything and start over. Oh, and Liling…”

“Yes, mother?”

“Welcome home.”

Going Home The End.jpg