Friday, 4 May 2012

What has SW:TOR done for Star Wars?

I figured there was no better time than May the 4th to write this article. It's something that's been occupying my mind in some way or another since the game was first announced, but until now I haven't really felt comfortable writing it. My question was: What will this game do for Star Wars? How will it expand upon and lay the groundwork for that which has already been written, filmed, and produced? What will its legacy within the Star Wars IP be?

The game having been out for a while now, and having experienced multiple class stories, I feel finally comfortable attempting to address this question.

A galaxy at war: The Setting

A duel on the shattered doorstep of the Jedi Temple. Yeah, that's not dark.

The most obvious contribution is that the writers at Bioware have written an entire time period for the Star Wars universe, complete with their own characters and events. The imagery and themes are, in many ways, unique. Yes, the galaxy is at war, but this isn't your standard galactic warfare plot. The setting itself is incredibly dark when compared to many other time periods in the Star Wars universe. Some examples (none of these should be spoilers, really):

  • The Jedi Temple on Coruscant is utterly destroyed, and the Jedi withdraw to Tython. 
  • Coruscant is occupied and then bartered back to the Republic. 
  • Alderaan, Corellia and Balmorra all become warzones. 
  • The Mandalorians more or less side with the Sith Empire.
  • As a result of the Sith Empire, slavery becomes a common, accepted practice in a large part of the galaxy.
  • An ancient Rakata Warlord awakens.

I could go on, but I think that's sufficient. I could point to many things that are definitely spoilers to enhance this point, but I won't. You should experience all the class stories for yourself.

In essence: things are bad for the Republic, and their survival isn't the only thing at stake. In fighting this war, they could lose the essence of what the Republic really is. This theme is very common on the Republic side of things, but I feel it is done very well here.

You also get a real sense of vulnerability from the Jedi Order in this period. In Knights of the Old Republic 2, the Order is almost completely decimated. We're talking about what is almost a "starting from scratch" scenario. By the time SW:TOR starts, the Order has bounced back somewhat, and they are looking to rediscover their past - but they are immediately thrust into a destructive conflict as some of the first casualties.

The setting as a whole fills a large gap in the timeline, but also manages to be unique and compelling. In a sense, it's a wonderful sweet spot for Bioware: they are still close enough to the Great Hyperspace War for those events and the Ancient Sith to be relevant and compelling (hence the historical analysis of Master Gnost-Dural's journals), but they still draw on their Knights of the Old Republic storylines and expand on what, exactly, the Republic has been through in the thousands of years before we finally get to the movies.

One last quick mention that goes along with the setting is the music. A massive amount of original music was composed for the game, and all of it is fantastic. It is recognizable as Star Wars, but maintains a uniquely dark feeling. You can find the game's music on the official Star Wars: The Old Republic Youtube account. 

Agents of change: The Characters

The characters that have been written for the setting are, in standard Bioware fashion, thought-provoking and convincing.

Darth Malgus is perhaps one of my favourite Star Wars characters of all time. I'm talking Top 10 material. Hate me if you must. Simply put, he is in my opinion one of the most interesting Sith characters ever written in the Star Wars universe.

His anti-racism stance and rejection of Sith Imperial decadence is a refreshing change. His theory that the Force is conflict, and that the existence of a Light and Dark side are evidence of this are extremely insightful and lead to a very unique philosophy.

In a strange way, you see how one could admire Malgus's viewpoint. He demands that passion be allowed to run its course, regardless of race. He demands that inhibitions be stymied, and that conquest be allowed to continue - because the survivors of the conflict become more powerful, and move closer to a perfect understanding of The Force.

I don't want to spoil too much here, because if you didn't read Deceived by Paul S. Kemp, you really should. Here are his words on Malgus:

"He's definitely not a hero, and he's not an anti-hero. My goal was to create a character that readers can respect but still abhor. I very much enjoy writing characters who live in a moral twilight."
―Paul S. Kemp, on developing Malgus for The Old Republic: Deceived

Besides main story arc characters like Malgus, though, are another important contribution: companions.

"Have I ever told you that you meet the most wonderful people?"
I think that the writing for the companions in the game is simply inspired. Most of these companions are interesting enough to be the focus of their own stories! I, for one, would totally read a story about Gault. I'm interested to see if these companions end up popping up in related fiction, and what is in store for them in the future.

The stories seldom told

I think that one of the great legacies of this game will be that it told stories that had been neglected, to varying degrees, throughout the Star Wars Universe. More specifically, while some of these stories had been told in other media, most of them were under-represented in video games.

An example is the Smuggler class. The Han Solo Adventures books by Brian Daley were some of my favourites as a youngling. However, in video games, there really was no equivalent that felt like you were in charge of your destiny as a smuggler. 

Yes, there were games where you played as a Smuggler. One of my favourite expanded universe projects, Shadows of the Empire, had an N64 game where you played as Dash Rendar, a smuggler. The story's focus really wasn't on Rendar though, but rather the Empire and Xizor's hunt for Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance's acquisition of the second Death Star plans. Even though you were playing a character who happened to be a smuggler, you didn't get the feeling that your status as a Smuggler mattered in the story at all.

The Imperial Agent is perhaps even a better example, with almost nothing having been produced about intelligence operatives in the Star Wars universe. I guess you can count the Dark Forces games, but even then, we know how that storyline turns out.

The Bounty Hunter and Trooper have had video games with them as the focus, but they are almost singular examples and, in my opinion, are not very exceptional games.

Igniting the blade of Fandom

Finally, one thing that I think that SW:TOR did that may not have been highlighted: it brought people back to the Star Wars Universe. 

Whether we're talking about long-time fans who had never considered an MMO before, estranged Star Wars: Galaxies communities re-uniting in the next iteration of the Universe, or even MMO fans who had never enjoyed Star Wars, one thing is clear - Star Wars is back on the map, and it's here to stay.

Feel free to share what you think SW:TOR has done for Star Wars in the comments! May The Force be with you!

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