The X-Wing Miniatures Game by Fantasy Flight has been teasing me for a long time. I’ve tried to keep my attentions elsewhere, but with the excellent review over at Shut Up & Sit Down has nailed the coffin shut on my intentions. Soon, I will be picking up the Starter Set, and I have the feeling I will be fielding the Imperial forces. Despite the fact that we are intended to sympathize and root for the heroic underdog Rebellion, we have to remember that every villain from our perspective is the hero from theirs, and when you get right down to it, the Sith have a point.
The Jedi are held up as paragons of virtue, galactic peacekeepers devoid of emotional attachment and personal ambition. However, if you give them more than a cursory glance, you start to see leaks in this presentation. They say that ‘only a Sith deals in absolutes,’ yet they consider Sith to always be on the wrong side of a battle. Always. No exceptions. An absolute. Makes you think, doesn’t it? There’s also the fact that the Jedi Masters that we find ourselves keying into – Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, etc – are often seen as renegades or iconoclastic among other Jedi. Others attempt to adhere to their strict adherence to being emotionless icons of righteousness. Absolute ones at that.
The Sith seem to have a different approach. While many of them do pursue selfish ambitions that result in others getting hurt or the innocent getting suppressed, the general philosophy embraces the strength of independence, free thought, and ambition. It’s certainly true that this sort of thinking can lead to people going down darker paths. However, it can be argued that a path of righteousness can also lead to dark places. Not that Jedi would ever admit this. Sith strike me as more honest in retrospect; the Jedi have good intentions but their strictures can yield rigid minds devoid of mercy as much as they are of emotion. As brutal as some of them can be, they have a point – passion can be every bit as powerful as rigid adherence to strictures, and in some cases, the passionate path is preferable, and not necessarily easier.
For all of the flak Lucas deservedly gets for some of his ill-advised creative decisions, the universe he created is not devoid of merit, and this dichotomy is worth examination. Instead of the naked good/evil conflict we see all too often, in the right hands it can be a crucial examination of the debate between free thought and organized discipline.
It can also be a simple backdrop for laser swords and dogfights in space.
Since I’m now done with rewriting, and will hopefully just be editing, it didn’t seem right to continue to call this “Rewrite Report.” I’ve started getting feedback on Cold Iron and it’s nominally positive. I know I need to always be writing, and as much as I look forward to starting a new project, some thoughts I’ve had give me pause.
I worry about Cities of Light being too stereotypically fantastical in some elements. I worry about Cold Iron‘s take on the modern supernatural. I worry about tackling sci-fi in a way that’s too soft, too camp. I find myself longing to see, cheer for, and write more pulpy, adventure-flavored, generally optimistic sci-fi, but the question I’ve been asking myself is “Why?” and I can’t seem to nail down the answer.
I guess I’m a little pissed at Star Wars and Mass Effect and other such tales that present a very interesting and in-depth universe with all sorts of story potential and hamstring themselves in one way or another. I think my motivation comes from wanting to do that sort of story “right”, but I’m wondering if there’s a broader reason why those stories consistently fail. I want to see John Carter to find out if the majority of critics are right in their rather negative assessment of it. I need to refine the universe I’m creating and, more importantly, ensure I have interesting characters and a good story to tell in it. I guess I could work on a sequel to Cities of Light or Cold Iron instead, but I’m leery to do that since I don’t know how the originals will do yet.
Summer is proving to be a busy time, and I can’t do everything I want. A family reunion is on the horizon, requiring a certain investment, and I plan on moving before September. In order to save money, I won’t be attending the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference this year. I was really looking forward to it, but practical matters need to come before others. I remain in the unfortunate position of needing to balance my need to write with my responsibilities as a nominal adult.
I’ll get there, but I’ll need to keep making decisions like these along the way.
Star Wars, as a franchise, is just a bit older than I am. I’ve gone through phases where I’ve loved it dearly and loathed its existence. I’ve appreciated the ability George Lucas had to conceptualize a universe that felt lived in and diverse, and palmed my face at the utterly stupid things he made come out of the mouths of his characters. And in this cynical, Internet-fueled, post-Plinkett world of critics and criticism, it’s trendy to hate on things, older things being remade even moreso, and Star Wars most of all.
But is it really worth hating?
I mean, yes, Lucas going against the final product he originally gave the world in ’77 is utter bullshit. And there are some monumentally stupid decisions that were made in Attack of the Clones. But let’s rewind the clock. Come back 13 years with me to the premiere of The Phantom Menace in theaters. I wasn’t as experienced, hardened or jaded as I am now; I’d yet to go through a few experiences that lead me to who I am today. However, I still tended to watch movies with the mindset that if the things I liked outweighed the things I didn’t, I’d declare it an overall success. Since it was harder for me to focus on aspects I disliked, I maintained my focus on Liam Neeson, Ewan MacGregor, Natalie Portman and the lightsaber fighting more than I did Jar Jar, Jake Lloyd, the tedious plot points and the tepid, stilted dialog. In fact, when I saw the movie for the first time, I liked it.
Yes. I liked The Phantom Menace when it first came out. And there’s no reason I should be ashamed of that.
I know I’ve pointed you in the direction of a certain Z-list Internet celebrity several times, so this may come as something of a surprise. But I don’t always agree with Bob Chipman. I don’t like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra as much as he did, I think he can get a bit nitpicky when it comes to superhero movie hype (then again, somebody has to as we can’t all be gushing fanboys) and I don’t quite understand the sheer amount of bile he continues to spew at first-person shooter video games. However, I highly recommend you check out his episode of Escape to the Movies where he discusses The Phantom Menace and why hating on it is a zero sum game.
In addition to all of that, there is a part of me that loves pulp adventure without a hint of irony, especially pulp science fiction and fantasy. I know that Flash Gordon and Krull are cheesy as hell, and there are elements of Stargate and the new Star Trek that go for broad, somewhat shallow action and adventure instead of deep character-driven introspection. I’m okay with that. In fact, I think that when we eschew that sort of entertainment entirely we lose some of the whimsy that gave rise to science fiction and fantasy in the first place. And The Phantom Menace had that.
Yeah, the kid’s acting was wooden, a couple story points were unnecessary or tedious, making the Trade Federation obvious stereotypes was an ignorant move and I still want to flatten Jar Jar with a cricket bat. But when the movie stops trying to tie into existing Star Wars canon while ignoring the hard work and imaginations of its own expanded universe and just lets itself be Star Wars, it’s fun. Chases though space ships are fun. Duels with laser swords are fun. Big, flashy space battles are fun. These are the things that Lucas showed us way back in the original Star Wars (I guess I should give up and just call it A New Hope), and The Phantom Menace tapped into that whenever it stopped getting in its own way.
It’s not great. In fact, it’s kind of mediocre. I’d still watch any of the aforementioned movies before The Phantom Menace. But I think it’s better than we’ve let ourselves remember. I think we should weigh the good as well as the bad. I think it’s time we let go of our hate.
Let’s face an honest truth. The universe George Lucas created back in 1977 is a better place than he originally imagined. With the exception of Empire Strikes Back, which was written & directed by guys that weren’t Lucas, the original trilogy established his galaxy far, far away and populated it with strange aliens, turbulent politics and an ancient battle between good and evil held in balance by a mysterious omnipresent energy field dubbed the Force. Have you noticed I haven’t said anything about the characters? That’s because they’re pretty standard adventure fare.
Think about it. Luke’s arc is so Campbellian in A New Hope one might think a copy of Hero With A Thousand Faces was stashed in Lucas’ trailer. The other characters are iconic, sure, but only because they’ve been in stories we’ve been telling for centuries. There’s nothing wrong with this, mind you, and I’d be the first to say that old stories are still worth telling as long as they’re told well.
That last bit’s the catch, isn’t it? We can look at the six feature films of Star Wars (and no I am NOT counting that CGI stuff) and see with clarity that while Lucas can dream up really neat settings, the population of those settings can get a bit dodgy at times. Hence fan fascination with the likes of Wedge Antilles.
Oh, you know Wedge. He was in all three movies. Blew up both Death Stars? Escaped Hoth? First Luke’s wingman and then Lando’s? That’s gotta ring a few bells.
It was after the first three movies were finished back in the 80s that people started looking to fill in some of the missing pieces of the Star Wars universe themselves, and Wedge was one of the characters that stood out. He was reliable, loyal, an ace pilot and cool under fire. So people started writing about him. To this day, the novels and comics featuring Wedge and Rogue Squadron are some of the highly regarded works of the so-called Expanded Universe.
What made Wedge worth writing about was the fact that he was a blank slate. Any writer could have filled that slate with him as a traditional adventurous hero, but he was depicted as a more rounded, seasoned warrior, a man who’d seen the far side of the galaxy and came back knowing he was fighting for the right cause. In a universe where characters with realistic emotions and concrete motivations could be few and far between, where some technology and concepts can best be described as ‘magic in space’, Wedge thrived.
The Expanded Universe came to include calculating and ruthless military foes like Grand Admiral Thrawn, questionably motivated fringe operators like Mara Jade and the Black Sun criminal empire, Rebel-affiliated black ops commandos like Kyle Katarn… they even fished Boba Fett out of the guts of a desert monster (explosives are apparently a good expectorate). But it was still all within the confines of Lucas’ original vision. The good guys won, the bad guys lost. The only shades of grey could exist between and after the films. And even then, you only had a handful of the iconic warrior-wizards with glowing laser swords to set Star Wars apart from a plethora of other sci-fi settings.
Enter the Old Republic.
This is Ulic Qel-Droma. He’s one of the first characters introduced in the graphic novels that set the scene 4,000 years before the Battle of Yavin. Instead of following a Campbellian arc, however, Ulic is shown to be a headstrong and powerful warrior who’s heart tends to be in the right place but also leaps before he looks more often than not. His tale of pursuing justice only to fall to the Dark Side makes him, in essence, the Darth Vader of his time, and in my humble opinion is everything the six feature films should have been in terms of the development of such a character.
It’s pretty telling that when it comes to Star Wars gaming, the Old Republic time period has yielded some of the best storytelling thanks to a pair of RPGs produced by BioWare and Obsidian. Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel have become standards by which the likes of Mass Effect and Dragon Age are measured. People have been waiting to get their hands on a third game in the series, and instead BioWare has produced an MMO, which I’ve experienced a bit of first-hand.
While I still consider its gameplay safe and not terribly innovative, I keep thinking about the story. How do they keep things interesting? How does it change when more people are in the mix? And what role, exactly, are we playing in the unfolding events in the galaxy? Are we destined to be a teeming mass of Luke Skywalkers and Ulic Qel-Dromas all claiming to have stopped the same galactic threat? Or will players be more like Wedge Antilles, settling at a cantina and simply saying “Yes, I was there. I saw it happen” in the manner of a grizzled, battle-worn veteran?
I’d like to think it’ll be the latter. With so many MMOs giving no thought to the ramifications of millions of people killing the same NPC repeatedly, The Old Republic seems to be taking extreme care to make an individual player’s story a personal experience, rather than the same one everybody else is having. It gives context and meaning for the typically asinine goings-on in such a game in a way that belies the “been there, done that” feel of its mechanics. It gets away from some of the weaknesses of previous MMOs while polishing some of its mainstay aspects to a shine, just as the Old Republic setting does away with a lot of Lucas’ bullshit while maintaining the feel of his galaxy’s atmosphere, mood and themes, much as Wedge’s novels or earlier games did.
I can see why The Old Republic may not be for everybody. But the more I think about it, the more I may need to give it another shot.
I am a recovering Star Wars fanboy. I grew up on Star Wars. Before Star Trek grew into its Next Generation and into the myriad other permutations, there was A New Hope. From Alan Dean Foster to a variety of hacks, there’s been all sort of surrounding works with the series. Video games are no exception. They’re not all Dark Forces and TIE Fighter to be sure, but most folks in the know will point to BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic as perhaps the best RPG set in the universe.
I’m a fan of the Old Republic in general. I’m of the opinion that ancient fallen Jedi Ulic Qel-Droma is one of the most interesting characters in the whole Star Wars universe, but that’s a post for another time. Setting the stage thousands of years before Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi are sent to Naboo cleans the slate and allows for expansion on history, culture and adventure within the galaxy Lucas created. It certainly offers more options than a galaxy where there are two, count them, two Jedi to speak of and the Empire’s in shambles until Grand Admiral Thrawn shows up.
This brings us to Star Wars: The Old Republic, a MMORPG created with LucasArts’ universe, BioWare’s storytelling chops and EA’s marketing monstrosity. I’ve had the opportunity to test it twice, and while I never got as far as double digits in terms of character levels and thus can’t speak to things like class balance or dungeon content, I can talk about the mechanics, the storytelling and the atmosphere of the universe and how well it’s captured.
I couldn’t find where the game stashed the screenshots I took, so… have some concept art.
I will admit that I more than once felt the pull of the old familiar nostalgia trying to pull me in as I played. The music, the set pieces and even sound effects appeal to that eight-year-old that lingers in the back of my brain and tries to convince me that Star Wars never came close to being ruined at all and those other Transformer movies never happened because Optimus Prime is not that much of a callous, bloodthirsty douche. Tempted as I am to give that little jerk a wedgie for being so naive, I will admit that the design team is doing their job in evoking the feel of the Star Wars universe. I got a little bit of a nerdy charge when I recognized names like Naga Sadow, Marka Ragnos and Exar Kun… while my wife had to ask who they were and why it matters. Star Wars fans will be pleased by this, non-fans may feel a bit on the outside looking in.
The stories are perhaps the strongest part of The Old Republic, chalked up as mentioned previously to BioWare’s experience with such things. Within the household we experienced several and the consensus is that the Imperial Agent has the best story of the bunch. Most MMOs have you chasing down rats or collecting bits of twig for someone nailed to the ground, Old Republic flings you into an espionage yarn worthy of Alpha Protocol. With fully voiced NPCs, cinematic cutaways devoid of overpowered happenings and dialog choices that actually matter (eventually), there are times when the game feels more like a single-player RPG than an MMO. I was never in a group long enough to experience the way the game weighs the attitudes of multiple players against one another in conversation, but the idea does intrigue me from the standpoints of storytelling and mechanics.
It’s on the mechanical side of things, however, where I found my enthusiasm waning. Each class gets a set of particular skills with cooldown periods and linked mechanics (Sith Warriors with rage, Imperial Agents with cover and so on) that they can purchase new ranks of with each level they gain. Sound familiar? And while there’s no auto-attack and you must push a button to initiate an action, there’s no denying this is essentially WoW in space. The potential of the game is also undercut by the shortage of character creation options. While male characters can come in sizes from “barely out of their teens” to “hitting the Krispy Kreme once too often”, females are limited to four different sets of voluptuous curves with no real appreciable difference in frame, and all in rather tight outfits. It’s possible that this is due to beta constraints and higher levels will see these ladies in practical armor, but somehow I doubt it.
While I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that a new MMO has to be radically different to survive, I find myself having difficulty getting excited for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Yes, it brings me back to the sense of adventure and sweeping story that drew me into Star Wars in the first place, and the story beats do crack along rather well from what I’ve seen. While the gameplay isn’t necessarily bad by any definition, it also isn’t blowing me out of my seat. What The Old Republic is, in a word, is “safe”. It builds mostly off of the success it’s main competition and tries to draw in players with story and atmosphere. While those things are good, it will be difficult to sustain a player base on those things alone. When the goal of the game is the delivery of top-level dungeons and PvP matches, both endlessly repeatable, the story eventually has to peter out and the atmosphere becomes mere window-dressing. Players with a hankering for story will turn to one of BioWare’s single-player titles or a game like Skyrim while those craving good atmosphere would do well to try out smaller indie titles like Bastion if they’re in the mood for atmospheric gameplay with strong story elements, or Amnesia: the Dark Descent if they feel like crapping themselves.
Personally, I’m holding out for a Mass Effect MMO. Oh, and Guild Wars 2.