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.

stoic_pose.png

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.

mel_risha2.png
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_imp.png
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.

space_is_pretty.png

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.

cat_mel.png
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.

sith_girls
“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.

spaceships.png

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.

valkorion_arcann.png

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.

vaylin_sun_generator.png

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.

senya_vaylin.png

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.

mel_throne.png

Epilogue

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.

mel_lana.png

lana_letter_mel.png

mel_letter_lana

Advertisements

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.

20170902232421_1.jpg

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.

20170903021422_1.jpg

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.

20170903004355_1.jpg

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.

20170903021656_1.jpg

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.

20170903012201_1.jpg

Nar Shaddaa

Story Wars: The Old Mechanics

“Typical Jedi. Slaughter a roomful of men, and then apologize for it.” – Commander Graul, Sith Empire, Nar Shaddaa

The major difference between my Jedi Knight and my Imperial Agent, apart from being aligned with opposing factions, is that my Agent makes no apologies for what she does. Both characters have made Light Side choices almost exclusively – my Agent has a bit of a temper and can’t resist acting out at times, though. She has, by turns, backhanded a young, coquettish, female noble and murdered a roomful of men after witnessing a noblewoman’s husband backhand her. Double agent, double standards.

They’re both, however, ultimately aligned with the Republic: my Guardian Defender as the consummate do-gooder and my Marksmanship Sniper as a recovered brainwashing victim who sees the “rebels” as the lesser of two evils. As misfortune would have it, my duplicity is garbed in Plot Clothing which requires me to spend anywhere from an instant to a lifetime enduring the vicissitudes of the Empire in order to effect change from the inside. Color me unenthused.

Darth Jadus is not amused.
Darth Jadus was in no mood to accommodate my insolence.

When I first met Kaliyo Djannis, a bald-headed, grey-faced Rattataki with black facial markings, I understood her to be an amoral assassin enforcer who would not hesitate to gut me like a fish if given the opportunity. My first Dark Side choice was thus to declare my intent to kill her after I discovered that she had “broken into” my room in the pleasure palace of her employer, Nem’ro the Hutt. Much to my chagrin, my superior at Imperial Intelligence had already decided to make her my well-compensated subordinate. Her ability to tank meant that she remained my companion for most of the story unless I needed a healer or wanted to hear the unusually cheerful “Here, Sir!” of Ensign Raina Temple nearly every time I summoned her. By the time I met my second tanking companion, I had almost completed the third and final chapter of my Agent’s pre-expansion class story. I ended up finishing it off just in time for the release of Knights of the Fallen Empire in which all companions can fulfill all roles and no longer derive statistical gains from their equipment.

Cue the flood of female companions tanking snow beasts on Hoth in their bikini dancer outfits.

Kira Carsen in action.
“Eat lightsaber, jerk!” One of many reasons why Padawan Kira Carsen was my companion of choice for the entirety of the Jedi Knight story.

The accelerated pace afforded by the 12x experience available to subscribers prior to the release of 4.0 meant that I could experience the class stories of my choosing in a reasonable amount of time. Anyone with enough time to spare could have completed levels 1-50 (Chapters 1-3) on any given class in a single day. My somewhat shorter play sessions meant that I required roughly a week each for my Jedi and Agent. I also took the time to get the other six available classes off of their starting planets. If I had much more time and 12x experience were still around, I’d probably seriously think about completing the Smuggler and Sith Warrior class stories as well. Instead, I took the time to watch Chapter 1-3 for the six classes I wasn’t interested in on YouTube at 2x speed without loss of comprehension. Can’t say the same for interest, in some cases.

As it is, the new post-4.0 experience rates for subscribers, while noticeably more generous than those for non-subscribers, make leveling up somewhat more deliberate. Flashpoints (instanced four-player content), which were previously level-restricted, are now “tactical” and scale you to an appropriate level. This is as it should be. Numerous other improvements and quality of life features were added, none of which I’m terribly interested in at the moment as I’ve decided that this is a good stopping point prior to my subscription running out eleven days hence. We are presently beset with a cornucopia of spooky offerings in Guild Wars 2, The Secret World, WildStar, and elsewhere, not to mention the smooth-as-a-baby’s-butt launch of Heart of Thorns.

I enjoyed my time in the story, less so in the game. Star Wars: The Old Republic is really nothing new to anyone who’s played World of Warcraft before: if you like tab targeting and hotbars but prefer droids and blasters to orcs and elves, then SW:ToR is your playground. PvP was, as it usually is, a visceral and thrilling experience. Otherwise I found myself wishing that I could simply skip the in-between bits which invariably had me disabling shield generators of all shapes and sizes prior to returning to the story bits. No, I don’t want to do another load of laundry before I can turn the page, thank you.

Kira and Kelestria in a loot-cave,
“Kira, dear, I’m going to need you to run back to the spaceship and do the dishes before we proceed to the next level of this instance.”

The upshot was that I paid a month’s subscription for 30-40 hours of story. It’s not terribly different from having purchased Skyrim or Dragon Age: Inquisition, I suppose, with the caveat that DA:I completely does away with gender-locked romance options. (Getting a smooch from Lemda Avesta in Chapter 4 of the Republic story is hardly a whirlwind affair.) I am perfectly happy with this financial decision. Once my subscription has lapsed I should have enough Cartel Coins to un-hamstring the characters of my choosing on my Preferred Status account. I may end up letting the Star Wars universe percolate in the background for a while; it took a bit of doing to get myself to pony up the money for a month’s non-cheapskate status in the first place after witnessing first-hand the extent to which programmers had been made to remind non-subscribed players that equipping purple-text equipment modifications without the corresponding “authorization” from the cash shop to the tune of 1200 Cartel Coins (approximately USD$13.33) would make them less effective and then, once equipped (which was allowed in-game), literally make their characters far less effective. How wretched. I would have to have a rather compelling reason to dedicate more time or especially money to this proposition.

It’s apparently a running joke that SW:ToR is an excellent single-player MMO. I would have to agree. I am not the only person to independently come to the conclusion that they intended to play the game primarily (or solely) as a single-player story experience. It’s not my fault they made three or four really good stories and slapped a bucket list of MMO features on top of them. It is my fault, however, for disappearing into a rabbit hole for over a month and ignoring everything else, including games with things I like (fewer/no levels, limited skill bars, action combat). At least with Star Wars I knew when to stop and didn’t complain too much. Going to pat myself on the back for that one.

Jedi Knight Meets Star Destroyer

Nights in the Old Republic

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.

Coruscant

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.

Imperial Agent

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.

Murder by numbers.

Murder by Numbers

I’m operating at a Zen level of contrarianism these days due to having spent the last two weeks binging on Final Fantasy 14’s Heavensward expansion. It’s another session of blind obsession that has seen me level to 60, complete the Main Story through the credits, and begin working on obtaining the highest level of equipment possible whose acquisition does not involve teenage angst levels of pain and suffering. I’ve narrowed down my desires to combat tanking on my Paladin job exclusively with a bit of personal room decorating and equipment dye experimentation on the side. I’ve ruled out pursuing any of the other jobs, including the three new ones which I’ve unlocked and have sitting at level 30. I will not be leveling any of the crafting jobs. I have never been a crafting person, even in games with robust and interesting crafting systems such as EverQuest 2 and Vanguard. I rarely visit the Manderville Gold Saucer these days, have no lasting interest in any of the fluff activities such as training chocobos or racing them, and am similarly not interested in acquiring any more minions or mounts than I already have. As for Triple Triad, well, I’ll be playing it in Final Fantasy VIII which I recently purchased on Steam during their fire sale. Yep, that’s the right Roman numeral. I have a hot date with the Queen of Cards – we’re going to see who has the better hands. Come what may, I suspect we’ll both end up winners at the end of the night.

Rather than engaging in my customary habit of relaying a novella-length description of my own ethereal navel-gazing, I’m going to talk primarily about something you’ll find much more relevant: what I thought of the hot new expansion to Baby’s First MMO. To begin with, we can no longer call it that as it’s made strides toward developing an endgame with moderate levels of job complexity: there are substantive, formative discussions emerging on the theorycrafting behind priority queues; the conversations regarding equipment statistics are becoming more nuanced; the top tier endgame dungeons are beginning to evince some of the demands on one’s situational awareness and ability management that we had previously only seen in the top tier raids in versions 2.0 to 2.55; and the fact that the Extreme version of Heavensward’s Trial #2 requires a preformed party of exactly eight people with no role requirements is interesting from a philosophical standpoint: it conveys the message that players are responsible for establishing motivation and party composition rather than being automagically matched up as one tank, one melee DPS, one ranged DPS, and one healer via the Duty Finder. The training wheels are off.

I’ll readily admit that these are all personal opinions based on my experience through all of the available dungeons and Main Scenario content and as someone who’s been playing MMOs for ten years or more; however, I do think that most people would agree that the expansion introduces a new, higher level of challenge for players who have reached that point in the story. If there’s one thing that Final Fantasy 14 is absolutely great at, it’s taking someone who has never played a game in their life and teaching them how to MMO from level nothing to godmode. It is very, very slow and gradual. It is guided. It is on rails all day, every day. It is also very effective.

With that said, I’m going to talk about some of the things I didn’t like. I’m in the unique position of having my head both in the clouds and up my own ass simultaneously, so take my personal perturbances with a dump truck full of salt. The music is wonderful with the exception of some of the “we’re being whimsical now” pieces in which the instrument selection is somewhat grating to my ears. Specifically, the bagpipes, which are otherwise normally totally cool. I didn’t find their inclusion among the sweeping orchestral pieces and hushed piano melodies to be thematically appealing. I rolled with the disco themes that popped up out of nowhere from time to time. I guess I just didn’t “get” it the same way others don’t “get” the zanily cartoonish super-spaz telegraph world of WildStar. The same goes for the inclusion of anthropomorphic factions whose presence in the Main Story provided all the narrative potency of Jar Jar Binks. I’m not talking about familiar factions, kupo, lest you mistakenly think that I’m slandering everyone’s favorite floating friends.

A Moogle at rest, kupo.

And the nodding – my god, the nodding. Liore dubbed it “stoic nodding” and I find this to be painfully appropriate. The level of nodding in cutscenes is over 9000. Pregnant pause? Set phasers to nod, Ensign. At one point my character nodded to a fucking dragon. Had the dragon nodded in reply I think I would have lost it; fortunately, it transcended the tiresome customs of mere mortals and alit into the sky with the flapping of wings too ancient and world-weary to care about such things. Praise the Twelve and thank you, Wind-up Chibi Alphinaud, for not leaving the fourth wall in a heap of smoldering rubble.

It’s quite clear from all of this that this is Square Enix’s story and that your character is the vessel via which their tale is being told. You are simply being given the privilege of controlling the Warrior of Light behind the scenes. This doesn’t make the story any less fantastic, but it is what it is. When I first started playing the game, I wrote about how my character’s lack of voice pissed me off. I later stated that I had come to terms with it. Having played through Heavensward to the rolling credits and beyond, I’m back to where I was when I first started playing: I do not at all like the fact that my character has no voice. It’s part of an overarching dramatic license in which the potency of my character’s agency waxes and wanes as the plot calls for it. A novice wishes to lead you around by the nose? Off you go without complaint, champion of Eorzea. What’s convenient for the plot becomes true for the story.

These children have enlisted your aid without consulting you. Thank you for your cooperation.
Thank you for agreeing to take time off from your universe-saving duties so that you can protect us as we lead you about on domestic adventures.

And thus on more than one occasion did a band of sackcloth-garbed bums see fit to challenge my world-destroying cat Paladin whose fiery rage had decimated many a Super Saiyan to mortal combat despite the fact that, yes, they had heard of me and my exploits. It came as no surprise to anyone, then, except the gauntlet-tossing challengers that when I punched them in their level 1 face with my level 100 fist that they were completely and utterly wrecked with a capital KEK. Turnabout is fair play, though: had the plot called for them to take me prisoner, I’m sure the next scene would have seen me in chains groveling at the feet of a barroom brawler whose greatest life accomplishment was waking up in the gutter one morning without having pissed himself.

To put the cherry on top of this tasty, sugary cake, there were also places where our band of well-dressed round pegs in round holes were seen to express the sentiment that a particular thing was to be avoided at all costs. Grace made the astute observation that the next quest the game sends you on requires you to do that very thing no fewer than eight times. Well, then. This is clearly the right thing to do because I’m doing it. Your protestations to the contrary are duly noted.

If you’re reading this and thinking to yourself that I somehow have the gall to criticize a game with several million active players, keep in mind that I’ve been playing the game for the last month or two while complaining about the fact that I’m still playing it. It’s because it’s a great game. Fabulous. Brilliant. Superb. Too good for its own good. Any quibbles I might have with it or its features are subsumed by the excellence of its design. Heavensward is an outstanding expansion that I can recommend to anyone without hesitation. The content in 3.0 will easily take the average player 40-60 hours to complete – and that doesn’t count the regular content additions such as this coming Tuesday’s Alexander raid.

In the course of completing another eleventy billion quests, I was able to use the side quests in conjunction with the Main Story Quests and job-specific ability acquisition quests in order to level my Paladin almost all the way to 60; I had to resort to clan hunts and dungeon runs for the equivalent of perhaps one level. It was the customary business of running errands and acting as courier that saw me thoroughly exploring every section of every map via multiple tedious backtracking quests. The back and forth got pretty serious at one point. Did I enjoy it? Not particularly. I relied mostly on dungeons to instruct me on the proper ability rotation; open-world questing was monotonous health bar whittling with crap DPS because I refuse to wear STR gear. Disagree if you like – I’m a tanking Paladin and will be using VIT on every gear slot that offers it. I prefer not losing to winning and am willing to sacrifice personal DPS at the expense of minutes and hours of my life spent killing things more slowly than other people. As for materia melding and such, I’ll probably just end up reading a guide and asking someone in the Free Company to meld the appropriate statistics for me that will allow me to reach the critical and parry and accuracy caps or whatever they are so that I can get back to the business of twitch-spammy, telegraph-dodging tanking.

Paladin tanking is where it's at.

Now that I’ve diligently completed all of the pre-Elder Game things that I wanted to complete, my goal for this game is to play it more like a game and less like a job. I’m aiming to put things on “farm status” so that I can log in once a day to complete the daily Duty Roulettes for the Tomes of Law required for i170 gear. (I could also spam Dungeons #7 and #8, but that takes us back into “second job” territory.) After that, I’d like to log in a couple times a week to run statics with the Free Company to tackle the more challenging content and acquire i175/i190 gear. (Greysky Armada on Cactuar, totally cool people. Look us up.)

From where I am right now, I’m looking back and thinking to myself that the questing was worth the story. It engaged me and got me interested in the events and characters. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to become acquainted with it; at this point in my life, though, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have rather watched it in the form of a movie and then played the video game spin-off in which I immediately jump into dynamic tanking action. I’m even rethinking my relationship to WildStar as a result of this – WS is a game in which the theorycrafting and gear set management is rather involved; Final Fantasy’s armory and automatic hotbar/equipment/stat allocation swapping when changing jobs makes life a breeze and I can intentionally be an airhead about statistics without serious consequence. I’m not sure to what extent I want that level of managerial complexity nowadays. In short, Final Fantasy 14 has damn near beaten the desire to commit persistent mental resources to games out of me. I think. More TSW and GW2 are in order – games that allow you to jump into the action immediately, one of which is a bit better at it than the other, and in which the game’s story-movie operates much more in the forefront as part of the player experience.

To sum up: I want FF14 on farm status and nothing else. I want more story games and time to reflect, ride emotions, and navel-gaze. Less jobby, more gamey. I will also spend several more weeks babbling about life outside the confines of my self-imposed, self-designed gaming prison as if I had a clue.

This prison is very pretty.