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Pondering the Force in SWtOR

Posted by Bart

I can now admit to having a two week obsession with the Star Wars MMO (SWtOR).  It sort of reminds me of my MMO project days playing and working in EQ, WoW and LoTRO but I’m actually more nostalgic for those early and heady discussions in MMO studies with the ole gamecode students at Concordia and with the broader game studies community.  Good times – inspiring times.

How apt that while Terra Nova is on a downer I find myself pondering the color shades of the Force as a level 20 Jedi Consular while reading a gathered collection of various essays on boredom and technology for a chapter of my book. As usual a bunch of things have converged that allow me to render a preliminary assessment of SWtOR as nothing short of fascinating.

Its true but then I can always count on a conversation with Will Robinson (an MA student at TAG)  to help me make sense of why.  Will couldn’t stand SWtOR  — no gameplay/no challenge — he’s right!  But that’s the point… I felt that familiar tedious rhythm of questing in MMOs return.  That steady pace, ever incremental, always one more thing on the horizon… time slows, workdays are neglected, worries recede.

And what’s this?  Time to ponder, time to think, time to reflect.  Playing SWtOR, like all MMOs, brackets time and space — its a virtual world excuse to chat and socialize  for some and it’s time alone for others.  But what is the nature of this time alone?  You are occupied at the keyboard but barely occupied cognitively… this is why MMO players are great multi-taskers.  You can play the game while chatting on the phone, watching television, doing email and even playing other games, or…  you can ponder and muse about stuff.

You see you are trapped.  As long as you are playing you can’t really do anything useful or productive (even though many certainly try). So you will either resent the uselessness of the time as either work or play or you will embrace it (go ahead my young padawan – trust in the tedium).  Unlike “real” video games you can’t really become that occupied with the gameplay itself — this is no Demon Souls and actually its not even Farmville with its myriad clicks… it doesn’t totally consume you and it doesn’t fit in the interstitial times like a good iOS or facebook game.  Sure you will set goals, plan the most efficient routes around the zones, try to min/max the system and maybe even have a challenging MOB encounter or two (especially if you are surprised) but I suspect you will be bored.

Most of the time though (once you figure out the wash, rinse, repeat schema for your class) you find yourself just pondering stuff… not real stuff like “to do” lists, deadlines and relationships but random stuff.  I am reminded of an ancient argument I once made about Splinter Cell 2 and stealth games in general; that the time spent in the shadows waiting for guards to pass was a fantastic time for reflection.  You don’t get this much in adventure games and shooters and the rest… because you are always “on”, always “occupied” and always “at play” — the sin qua non of immersive design.

Not so with MMOs and especially not so with SWtOR.  The Bioware stamp is all over this game… just imagine it — the soap opera morality of the Star Wars franchise wedded to the binary ethical palette of typical Bioware narrative design. The idea of the Force has such a cultural hold on those of us who grew up with Star Wars (the authentic experience of Star Wars yo) how could we not sit and wonder about the light side and dark side if and when we are given half a chance (and really there is no other opportunity for 40 somethings to ponder these things ’cause we are simply too busy). How else and where else could I begin to wonder if Ted Castronova is a Sith Lord in disguise?

It works and I am amazed.  I started by playing a Jedi Knight – human, male, all goody goody – just to see if I was inspired about anything at all.  I was quickly too bored and abandoned the character at level 7. Then I tried an Imperial Agent…   amazing prologue storyline that does a pretty good job at echoing some cinema conception of the predicament of regular german military having to deal with the Nazi’s circa WW2 (you know Sith are Nazi’s and the Imperials are just fascists but some are benevolent fascists).  That was pretty cool ’cause you could try and play the obvious route of being a light side imperial agent who is anti-Sith.  Add to the mix that my character is a female Chiss and all sorts of plots and imaginings take place on top of the usual MMO mechanics. That was fine (I am at lvl 18 on that toon) but childhood nostalgia demanded I return to the Jedi and their own brand of messianic fascism (they are fascists on both sides you know… somehow I imagined a more talmudic model of Jedi faith but what can you do)

So back to a male but alien Jedi Consular (the green skinned guy but with a manga haircut).  I now lament the name I chose: Kishke, but you can’t have everything.  If I was going to avoid goody goody self-destructive boredom then i’d have to try for a dark side jedi. That made sense — who wouldn’t want to play a jedi on the edge?  Hopefully I might get turned to the light side by some meaningful encounter down the road or the love of a companion — who knows.

It was harder than I thought — If Will was playing he’d game the system and mix/max for that Dark Side score (I don’t even know what you get yet) but I seemed to attend enough to the dialog wheel and the narratives of the quests that when faced with the epic dark side score for killing Tychen in chapter 1 (long story…  a jedi gone bad but it wasn’t his fault) I just couldn’t do it. I feel I can’t game the dark side/light side stuff now at all.

Now some will credit this moment to Bioware’s narrative design but really… I was only half listening to and reading the dialog and I didn’t have any empathy for Tychen.  This was about me and my relationship with Star Wars culture, with childhood jedi discussions, and playing with lego star wars incessantly with my son trying to convince him that Darth Maul is not a hero. This was me reading into the game because I had the opportunity to do so and no opportunity to do anything else that mattered more.

nice, nice…  now maybe I’ll actually talk to someone else in the game and see if there is an MMO there.