Blog Post

Star Wars, Narrative and Choice

 

Over break I’ve had a little bit of time to play and think about the new release of Star Wars: The Old Republic. As a fan of trying different MMOs in general this one has stood out for me and I’d love to hear what others’ experience has been.

The narrative and perception of player choice (within the narrative) is a huge component that makes this game play experience different from other MMOs. I think it has affected my pace of play (intentionally slowing it down rather than pushing through) and acceptance of perceived depth of my character. Perhaps it is due to my existing sentimental investment in Star Wars or the draw of a new game and play space but I think it may be due to a couple slight changes in game mechanics.

First, there aren’t NPC chat bubbles. Anecdotally, I’ve seen a few complaints in general chat about this design decision but never anyone applauding the decision. I rather like it. The act of only listening to a conversation as attributed to the NPC’s rather than providing chat bubbles to read and/or click through concretizes the NPCs existence in the world. The NPCs don’t display any more agency than NPCs in other MMOs (WoW, LOTRO, Warhammer) but this small change in design makes them appear a little more real.

Second, the narration and architecture of choice is constructed in such a way that it appears my decisions have consequences (and not just in an algorithmic sense) to the storyline. I haven’t played any alternative characters to explore how much the actual storyline alters (aside from Light and Dark choices) but on some level, because the story is so engaging, I really don’t care. One reason may be because the choices listed on-screen are written slightly different than the script of my character’s response (as opposed to the on-screen text being a verbatim display of what my character says). This slight design approach forces me to listen to my character because I’m uncertain exactly what her/his response will be. Listening to my character’s interpretation of my response choice is a moment where I experience my character as someone other than myself.

I have to admit I haven’t had the time to investigate and read SWTOR game reviews and there may be all sorts of opportunity to examine this in a bunch of different theoretical frameworks but I’m curious to know if others, engaged in digital humanities, have similar play experience (Star Wars or otherwise!).

Thanks for reading :)

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5 comments

Hi Theresa! It sounds like we're doing similar stuff  - aside from playing SWTOR :)

I've got 3 Empire-side alts at 17 and 3 Republic alts at 11: as with other Bioware games, the conversational choices don't affect gameplay. Light/Dark points change the character appearance and enable purchases from respective specialty vendors - and there are titles available if you're 100% one side or the other.

The light/dark points are notoriously capricious: there's been a fair amount of blogosphere discussion trying and failing to find some consistency. "Always tell the truth" seems to hold for light-side Jedi, but "the good of the many outweighs the good of the one" isn't consistently applied. Being a dick seems to be the key to dark side points, rather than promoting the cause or following orders of the Empire or Sith. Go figure.

A couple years ago I applied Miguel Sicart's criteria for game ethics to SWTOR's single-player predecssor, KOTOR, testing them against a specific sequence. Here's the presentation. It'd be fairly easy to do the same thing for SWTOR, though of course the voice acting forces a reliance on transcription over screencapping.

If you're interested, maybe a joint paper/presentation for a conference? SWTOR should represent at this year's game conferences!

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Hi John! I'm super happy you pointed to Sicart. A few weeks ago a fellow HASTAC-er (or is it -ian?) Terry Schenold gave me a copy of Sicart (which I haven't read yet) specifically for Sicart's use of Gadamer's hermeneutic circle (I've been thinking about this and Gadamer's sense of "understanding" as it relates to learning). However, your presentation really helped me prepare for reading Sicart with some additional context in mind. Particularly, as you point out, Sicart's ideas on reflection. There may be an interesting intersection between Sicart's notions of play and reflection (as limited or supported by game mechanics) and the necessity of metacognition for learning. If games are to be used for educational purposes there has to be some component of critical thinking in the form of self-reflection  or metacognition.

Now I really have to get to reading that book! I would love to talk more and I really like the idea of collaborating on a paper/presentation.

btw, I played one Empire during beta and switched to Republic (level 22) for launch. I've enjoyed both sides so far but I wonder what it would be like to be neutral - does the polarity make play more interesting? :D

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Sicart's very much a product of the ludology school - I'll be interested in your take on him, coming from the humanities.

Let's talk about doing something - I sent you a friend invite here with a bunch of contact information. Do you do GLS? It'd be kind of tight to get something in, but it's possible, and I'm sure something on SWTOR would be really welcomed. ir13's another option, if the travel's possible.

I'm playing my Sith Sorcerer "as light-side as survivable" - it's a fun challenge, and I don't think anything other than my head-canon narrative is affected by it. I'm trying to do my Sith Warrior as ruthless but dispassionate, and that's actually a harder theme to sustain, as both Bioware and the Star Wars mythos tend against that combination (the only one of passionate/dispassionate, moral/amoral that doesn't have an exemplar in canon).

The lack of tight integration between the morality system and gameplay mechanics I think makes for both better gameplay and better RP (solo or social) than KOTOR did - one doesn't constrain the other, where in KOTOR trying to play "gray" seriously gimped your character. But we'll see how it plays out along the way...

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I haven't been to GLS yet but I hope to be able to go this year. I'm gearing up for exams so I'm afraid to commit to such a tight timeline but I'm definitely interested in talking more about Sicart when I get to him in a couple of weeks - I think it would be great to collaborate!

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Ping me whenever you're ready - I'll be looking forward to it!

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