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Hyperspace Beacon: The BioWare schtick


I'm going to dote a little on BioWare for a bit. Specifically, I would like to dote on Knights of the Old Republic, the precursor to Star Wars: The Old Republic. I want to accentuate the positive up front here, because in a moment I will say things that may be construed as negative. However, they're not. I have complete respect for what BioWare has done and is doing.

KOTOR was built on an original gaming engine (the Odyssey Engine). This gaming engine was designed as a 3-D version of the Infinity Engine, which is video game engine specifically designed to emulate mechanics found in the Dungeons and Dragons pen and paper game. In 1998, Baldur's Gate (Infinity Engine) -- which was said, at the time, to be like Diablo but more story-driven -- won the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Computer Game. KOTOR, using a 3-D version of the same engine, is not lacking in its awards. It won game of the year from the Game Developers Choice Awards, Computer Gaming World, IGN, GMR Magazine, PC Gamer, Xbox Magazine, and G4, among other awards too long to list here.

The point of this is to show BioWare's track record and to show that BioWare went so far as to build a story-making game from the ground up. Now, based on reports from Gamasutra, BioWare is using the HeroEngine for SWTOR, but that, obviously, does not mean there will be less focus on storytelling in the game.

But has BioWare's storytelling energy finally run out? Have the original ideas presented in KOTOR and Baldur's Gate diminished to monotony? Has BioWare become -- dare I say it -- predictable? If it has, is that a bad thing? Continue reading to explore these ideas.

It is often said that there is no original story idea. At any given moment, there are 20 or more scripts about the exact same plot being sent to movie studios right now. In fact, you can simplify that even further and say that nearly every movie being created has the same basic storytelling formula. The three-act process is quite well-known. Act one is the setup with the introduction of the protagonist and supporting characters; act two starts when the primary plot is introduced and continues until the twist or maybe the lowest emotional point for the protagonist; finally, act three is the push towards resolution.

This formula is seen in BioWare games like KOTOR. The Endar Spire and Taris are used as the set-up locations. Nearly all the major players are introduced at those locations: Carth, Mission, Zaalbar, Bastila, Ordo, and even Malak. This act ends with the [spoiler alert] destruction of Taris and the crew's escape on the Ebon Hawk. The second act of KOTOR, even though it is quite long and complicated, can be summed up as the quest for the Star Maps. Because the third act usually begins right after the twist, everything from Korriban and on would be considered the third act for KOTOR. (That's right, the twist is finding out that you are Revan. Dum dum dum.)

BioWare follows the three-act formula for the majority of its games, but to be honest, if we were to discount all the games, movies, and books that follow this model, we would probably only have a handful left. According to some writers, the BioWare formula is even more predictable. To a point, I agree. There is quite a pattern to its games.

A year ago, a fan asked on the BioWare forums, "Has anyone noticed that KOTOR 1/2, Mass Effect and Dragon Age all seem to have roughly the same story/map layouts?" He pointed out that these games followed the pattern of an intro area, four story areas, and a fifth area that, once revealed, leads to an end boss. Another fan, Ian Miles Cheong, infamously tried to break down the BioWare formula in a chart originally hosted by But when you examine the chart, it is quickly obvious that only two BioWare games actually follow the suggested formula. That is not to say there isn't a formula to the BioWare madness. In fact, the one site that I believe has come the closest to truly cracking the BioWare code is However, that article mostly focuses on the supporting characters.

If you really want to slice into the mainframe of BioWare's storytelling, you will have to step outside the proverbial box and look at the storytelling as a whole. Many players, including myself, believe that playing KOTOR was like stepping right back into the Star Wars films for the first time. I don't believe this was by accident.

The Star Wars films were heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell's study of the mythological hero, Hero with a Thousand Faces. George Lucas discussed the influence in the biography Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind: "It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classical motifs." At that point, Star Wars really started taking the shape of the memorable story it would become.

The Hero's Journey described in Hero with a Thousand Faces was not meant to be a formula for writing, but rather a study of similarities between existing heroic stories. However, many film directors, from James Cameron to the Wachowski brothers, have used this study as a springboard for their own creations. BioWare is certainly a part of this group that uses the Hero's Journey as a theorem for its tall tales. Below is a chart that compares the Hero's Journey to KOTOR and classic Star Wars.

Hero's Journey
Classic Star Wars
The call to adventure Carth asks Revan to search for Bastilla The message from Leia
Refusal of the call The verbal confrontation with Carth in the apartment Luke's uncle needs him
Supernatural aid By luck, Bastilla is freed from the Vulkars Ben aids in the Tusken Raider attack
Crossing the first threshold Leaving Taris Going to Mos Eisley to leave Tatooine
The road of trials Training on Dantooine Training as a Jedi
The meeting with the goddess Meeting Bastilla Meeting Leia
The temptress The ultimate culmination was Bastilla tempting Revan The Dark Side (in the guise of Vader and the Emperor)
Atonement with the Father Realizing that he was once Darth Revan Luke meeting Vader on Endor
Apotheosis Turning Ajunta Pall from the Dark Side Luke becoming a Jedi
The ultimate boon The fall of the Sith Empire The fall of the Empire
Refusal of the return The dialogue suggests many ways to back out, but ultimately Revan continues on Leia tells Luke not to go to Vader again
The magic flight The Ebon Hawk Anything on the Millennium Falcon
Rescue from without The captured Jedi being "released" *sigh* the Ewoks
Crossing the return threshold Stepping onto the Star Forge Luke stepping on the Death Star
Master of the two worlds Revan overcomes the Dark Side and turns Bastilla back to the Light Luke tosses aside his saber and refusing to fall to the Dark Side
Freedom to live Returning to the Jedi Order Vader's pyre and vision of the Force ghosts
Mythic Elements
Two Worlds (mundane and special) The living (Kashyyyk) and mechanical (Taris) The poor and lavish (i.e., Tatooine vs. Bespin)
The Mentor Jolee Bindo Obi-wan Kenobi
The Oracle The Dantooine council Yoda
The Prophecy Revan's dreams "The last of the Jedi will you be"
Failed Hero Carth Onasi Han Solo
Wearing Enemy's Skin Dressing in Sith Armor and the guise on Korriban Dressing as Stormtroopers
Shapeshifter Canderous Ordo Lando Calrissian
Animal familiar T3-M4 and Zaalbar R2-D2
Chasing a lone animal into the enchanted wood Hunting down a crazed Wookiee in the Shadowlands The tree cave
At this point, the question is, "What does this mean for the The Old Republic?" Specifically, only the writers know for sure. However, this definitely give us something to look forward to. Expect things like temptation from companions to sway your quest. Look for companion characters like the Mentor and the Oracle. Revan's caverns will probably be similar to the Star Forage motif. Characters like Satele Shan or Darth Malgus will come to your character's aid to start you on your journey. We know gaining your ship will be a climactic moment. Daniel Erickson mentioned to TOROCast that there will be a return to your starting zone, so look for an "ending" on those worlds.

Does this make SWTOR less interesting or monotonous? Ultimately, that will be for you to decide, but for me, it only makes the game more interesting.

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 Now strap yourself in, kid -- we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!

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