Hyperspace Beacon: Illusion of choice

Before I begin this little rant about Star Wars: The Old Republic, there are a couple things I want to make clear: This edition of the Hyperspace Beacon will have a lot of spoilers, and I really like SWTOR as a whole.

First off, the spoilers mentioned here will be about the DragonAge and Mass Effect series of games. If you have not played through either one of those games and do not want to know how some of that story turns out, then you may not want to read this article. Secondly, SWTOR is a wonderful game. I have played it on a couple of occasions, and I believe it exhibits some of the qualities that have been missing from many of the current MMOs -- specifically, story. By no means do I want to discourage anyone from playing or pre-ordering this game, so if you're on the fence about this game, you may not want to read on because this article is not for you.

Surely, fans of BioWare have played games like Mass Effect and DragonAge, and I hope you have played Knights of the Old Republic. These games really define what BioWare is and the types of games it can make. However, given some of the most recent announcements, I have to wonder if some of the staples that made these BioWare games great are going to be missing in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Have BioWare games gone from having choice to just the illusion of choice?

I don't plan to get too deep into the philosophical debate of what is choice. However, I do believe that as far as video games are concerned, that if a game developer is going to proclaim that its game has real choices, then the ending of the game should be quite different, depending on the choices made. Do I mean that you should fight a different end boss? Maybe, but that's not required. Ultimately, in Knights of the Old Republic you are going to fight Malak no matter what. Your renegade choices in Mass Effect 2 do not mean that you will suddenly side with the Reapers. However, your choices within the game determine who you take with you, and the ultimate ending of the game.

I try to make it through BioWare games keeping all my companions. It gets really tough sometimes, especially in Mass Effect when you have to choose between Ashley and Kaidan. However, that choice was a sure thing. One of them had to die, but the decisions that are really tough are the ones that are of your own doing. In Mass Effect 2, there is a scene where Jack and Miranda get into a fight and it is your job as Commander to break it up. Despite how fun it would be to see these two fight it out, it is your job to choose between the two. When I made my choice to side with Jack, I thought I had enough influence to work it out with Miranda afterwards. Apparently, I was wrong. Given the build I had with my Shepard, Miranda was the best to take with me in the final boss fight, but unfortunately, since I lost her loyalty, that means that she died in the end. That really sucked, yet it is also one of the things that makes Mass Effect 2 a great game. Your choices build to something.

When Star Wars: The Old Republic was introduced in 2008, LucasArts and BioWare created a video documentary explaining the vision for the game. The last time these two gaming giants forged an alliance, they created the ground breaking game Knights of the Old Republic. This game really brought back the feeling I used to get when I played pen and paper RPGs as a young teen. Even though there was a script, I really felt that Revan was my Revan. He was the character I created. As a fan of that game, I expected the same from SWTOR, and the developers sold that to me. In this documentary, Lead Writer Daniel Erickson said it best: "A huge dramatic choice comes up you're sitting there realizing that you can't save it, reload it, and say, 'Hey, I wonder what would have happened the other direction.' These are real choices that are going to make real impact on the story and where your narrative goes that you have to live with forever." This was exactly what I am hoping for!

Now there are two things that have been said in the last two years that lead me to believe that maybe our choices do not add up to as much as we originally thought. First, is a quote from Daniel Erickson on the official forums about if a player is disconnected during dialogue. He posted: "The same thing happens if you hit the escape key in the middle of a conversation. It quits out, dumps your choices, and you can start over. It's not until the end of the conversation that it saves it out and sends it to the server." Usually, conversations in BioWare games don't end with a major choice. Most of the time, you have at least one more choice before the conversation ends. Basically, if you don't like the choice you made, just escape out -- it will be as if it didn't happen.

The second piece of evidence is this quote from Game Director James Ohlen at Comic-Con: "We don't want to take away your companion character forever because, unfortunately, what we found through testing was that players would make that choice just to see what happens, and they would get really mad that their companion character is gone forever. You can't reload the game." You're telling me the moment like the time when my Dark Side Revan had Zaalbar kill Mission Vao will not happen in this game? What about the climatic moment in DragonAge 2 when Bethany dies? That will not happen in TOR because your companions will not die. Not only were these moments impacting to the story and me as a player, but they also affected my gameplay. I had to find another companion that could act as my group healer. Of course, I was mad when it happened, but that did not make the game less great -- I would say it made it more great!

I don't think BioWare will turn around again on these matters, but I do believe that there are others who share my opinion. I believe the decisions mentioned above were about putting gameplay too far above storytelling. It is my sincere hope that there are others in the character stories that I can grow fond of, while still making hard decisions based on their existence. And as interesting as it is, blowing the engineering crew that I just met 30 seconds before out the airlock is not emotionally impacting. Here's hoping that BioWare remembers what made their staple games as incredible as they are, and makes future decisions based on that.

The Hyperspace Beacon by Larry Everett is your weekly guide to the vast galaxy of Star Wars: The Old Republic, currently in production by BioWare. If you have comments or suggestions for the column, send a transmission to larry@massively.com. Now strap yourself in, kid -- we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!
This article was originally published on Massively.