(In light of Star Wars: The Old Republic going free-to-play this week, I thought I’d revisit the game with this critique I wrote back in its heyday)
If Star Wars: The Old Republic was a TV series, it wouldn’t be a particularly compelling one.
Yes, SWTOR is very much an MMO — not only did it graduate from the Blizzard school of MMOs, it also sat behind World of Warcraft and cheated off of it during exams — but from the start, Bioware was pushing the game’s story potential. Your character wouldn’t just adventure forward and level up; no, they would embark on an epic space adventure worthy of the pedigree that the Bioware and Knights of the Old Republic names carry.
In order to achieve this, Bioware seemingly took notes from the world of procedural television.
Progression feels very much like an hour-long procedural drama: you have your Planets of the Week, each with its own cast of characters and problems to solve. Driving all this, meanwhile, is the class-specific story arc. My Jedi Paladin, for instance, was questing around the galaxy to figure out why various Jedi were lashing out and acting crazy.
There is a reason why shows like House or NCIS remain popular for so many years. For occasional viewers, there’s an interesting story which will be resolved by the end of the hour. For more ardent viewers, there’s usually a season-long story arc underpinning proceedings, not to mention the opportunity to see familiar characters react to new plot developments and, on a grander scale, develop and grow.
The Old Republic has none of these features.
It’s not through a lack of trying. From the biggest dungeons and raids to the most banal of fetch quests, everything in SWTOR is given context through voice-acted cutscenes. And in Bioware’s defence, it is effective in delivering story to some extent; when I am fully aware of the context to your dumb fetch quest, then your writing team has done something right.
On a grander scale, however, the game doesn’t deliver on this opportunity. Take Alderaan, the sixth planet in the Jedi Consular’s first story arc. It’s set up as this planet with myriad factions on the brink of war. Right there, you have so many opportunities for storytelling; the Showtime series practically writes itself. And yet by the time I finished up on planet, I could barely recall anything of note.
There was nothing done to differentiate the houses apart from the fact that one is a bit douchier than the rest. Any potential depth and political intrigue is reduced to “Us good, them bad” (although considering we’re talking about Star Wars here, this seems fairly faithful to the source material). One could very easily excise this planet from the game and have no impact on the larger narrative.
Do you know what the worst part is? This was the most interesting planet in the story arc!
There isn’t even an interesting cast of characters to keep things interesting. I completely understand that your character is supposed to be a cipher for the player to fill in with their own motivations, but at times it feels like everyone in the game is a cipher! Sure, the companions you pick up through the game have back stories and traits, but there just isn’t enough substance to make any of them interesting.
The episodic structure has the potential to really work in gaming. I don’t speak specifically of an episodic release schedule like that of Telltale’s games; rather, I speak of the game’s structure. Think of any number of games and I can guarantee you that almost all of them will be about some unrelenting push to the finish. This isn’t a bad way to tell a story, far from it. But there are a handful of games that have implemented the episodic structure and have been all the better for it.
One instance of this is the critically acclaimed JRPG Persona 4. There’s an overarching storyline wherein you are tracking down a serial killer. Each ‘episode’, though, you’re adventuring through the ‘TV World’ saving a new character from joining the ranks of the mysteriously murdered. This pacing gave the game room to develop these characters and establish their inner-secrets. This character work is partly the reason why Persona 4 is held with such high regard to this day; for one, it remains my favourite game of recent times.
The same definitely can’t be said about The Old Republic. It took this potential to tell some small-yet-memorable stories about its world and completely squandered it. The narrative ends up just being a veil for some standard MMO gameplay. So with base characters, little back story worth caring about and a focus on immediate gratification, one could argue that SWTOR is actually less like a procedural TV drama and more like, I don’t know, a porno.
Come back on Thursdays for more thoughts and views from the NG+ cast and crew.
[Image credits: Screened, SWTOR.com, Giant Bomb]