Star Wars: The Old Republic: David Brin, Star Trek, and how much it sucks being special

>> Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I've been playing Star Wars: The Old Republic a bit since it came out. I've never particularly been an MMORPG player, and TOR is the first real one I've played (the first one I've played at all if you don't count things like Echo Bazaar or Urban Dead).

It's been a decidedly mixed bag, but I think on the whole--at this point, at least, about six months since the release--more negative than positive. The first couple of weeks, when the servers were full and the whole experience was new, the sight of avatars for hundreds of people from all over the country bouncing around my screen was something else, and if you've been a Star Wars fan for nearly forty years, there's something about standing on a rendered version of Coruscant watching the jetcars pass overhead or futzing around with your very own lightsaber. Looking at two suns setting is an experience that doesn't get old wherever or whenever or however it's rendered for you.

But over time, the experience has turned into something repetitive and unspecial--grinding in the worst sense of the word. A lot of quests are duplicated for every class and every storyline in the game--go here, kill this many guys; go there, interact with an object, return. A lot of that may sound like your typical videogame experience, of course, but BioWare, the company helming TOR, had a reputation for putting stories and characters at the forefront of the gaming experience. Games like the original Neverwinter Nights; Baldur's Gate; Dragon Age: Origins;the first two Mass Effect games; Jade Empire and Bioware's first Star Wars offering, Knights Of The Old Republic, were all justly heralded as standout contributions to the field of computer gaming and sometimes even proffered as rebuttals to critics like Roger Ebert who have contended videogames aren't art (though that may be a bit much). When the announcement came down that BioWare was doing an MMORPG, even people with little or no interest in MMORPGs (e.g. yours truly) took notice.

The other night, a friend who's also been playing the game commented that the game wasn't giving him the feeling he was making his mark on the galaxy the way the publishers had promised. I know what he means. And it gets me to thinking about David Brin's fairly-well-known takedown of Star Wars in Salon back when Phantom Menace came out.

I feel like I need to say at the outset that I've never especially or entirely agreed with Brin's critique, and I think Brin misses some things about Star Wars and Star Trek; but I also think he makes some fair points, including some of the ones I don't quite agree with.

The chief beef Brin has with Star Wars is that it's a kind of elitist fantasy--the main character (or at least the guys who are supposed to be the two main characters of the trilogies) are guys who are born special and with their special destinies they go making special choices to effectively change or control the lives of billions and billions of creatures all over the galaxy. And this is kind of a valid point. (Brin goes on to gloss the idea that Star Trek's Federation is presented as a kind of benign fascism and Trek doesn't really offer an equivalent to by-their-own-bootstraps rabble-rousers like Han Solo and Lando Calrissian--unless you count a few troublemakers-of-the-week like Henry Mudd or Cyrano Jones, and who does; but nevermind, that's getting away from the point.) Star Wars, like the Harry Potter stories and quite a lot of fantasy, really, is an empowerment fantasy: you, the audience, might think you're some mundane, boring, banal, constantly-put-upon schlub, but there's always the off chance your parents aren't your parents and you are, in fact, a wizard. And to be fair to Brin, whatever ideologically troublesome (or simply incoherent) features the Trek universe offers, it is a democratic fantasy setting in the sense Brin would mean; one of the cute oddities of Trek is that Our Special Heroes are somehow presented as average even all those times they're uniquely situated to save the universe again--Kirk is merely a captain (and only briefly--for two movies--an admiral and he doesn't like it much), Picard and Riker routinely get to introduce a Special Guest Star as a "legend" or personal "hero" (leaving you to wonder, perhaps, if Picard and Riker single-handedly defeated the Borg a half dozen times, what the hell did these grizzled old men who usually end up being depressingly fallible do in their good old days).

The biggest thing I disagree with Brin about on that particular point is, I don't see "elitist" fantasies as being a great honking evil that has some terrible corrosive effect on society or the psyche or Western civilization or whatever. That kind of thing as always been around--I'm not meaning to commit a normative fallacy there, it's more that I just don't see any alleged harm in those kinds of work when I look back over the evidence from the time of, say, Homer, to the present. Yeah, so I can imagine how someone might get self-absorbed with a personal fantasy that they're some kind of chosen one, and I can see how that person might do a bit of harm if, say f'r'instance, they convinced a lot of people to move to Guyana and live on hunger-rations in a compound in the jungle preparing to commit mass-suicide. On the other hand, you might as well think you're special yourself because, let's be brutally honest here, you'll be damned lucky in your life if anyone else ever does; for gods' sake, imagine you're a genetically-select space wizard for two hours, you might find school or work a little less depressing.

But the point of all of this is: if Star Wars is, in a lot of ways at least, a kind of elitist fantasy (and that may or may not be a bad thing, depending on whether or not you're David Brin or the Star Wars kid), it occurs to me now (and only after playing a damn game for six months) that maybe Star Wars is especially unsuitable for a massive role-playing experience. Because the thing is, even if you're not the cosmic Chosen One who'll bring balance to The Force or whatever, there's still only one guy who gets to make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs or who gets to win an entire floating city in a card game. And sure, you could make a game where someone--and only one person, one player on an entire server--can win Cloud City or unlock the Kessel Run achievement, but the reality of how gaming works (as opposed to how storytelling works) is that you'd end up with one dude with an expensive machine and too much time on his hands unlocking every achievement and then a thousand people dropping their subscriptions and/or complaining on the game forums about how unfair it was they couldn't be unique little snowflakes, too, just because they had kids or a job.

What happens in The Old Republic is that old thing about "When everyone is special, no one is". I actually noticed this during my first couple of days, but when the server was full and you were still caught up in the wonder of "Hey, I'm in Star Wars!" it was funnier more than it was anything else: I had some guy on the Jedi training planet tell me he'd never seen anyone take out training droids the way I had while about five other people were doing the same thing in the background (some of them more efficiently, too). After going through dozens of missions and quests that are like that, that everybody else is doing too, the whimsy of being one of hundreds of equally-accomplished, power-matched superheroes wears off and becomes a bit of a sad joke.

And here's the funny thing in the Brin context: I haven't played Star Trek Online and I don't know how it rates as a game experience, but it isn't hard to imagine that it works better as an immersive or situational experience for the reason I described earlier: that Kirk and Picard et al. are pretended to be "ordinary" denizens of their television shows even though we all know they're not (because they're the ones we're watching every week, natch). Star Trek being democratic in the way it is, you're just one of the hundreds or thousands or millions of other Starfleet captains who must be out there doing the same thing Captain Kirk is doing every week; it's a big huge universe, and Kirk doesn't even get noticed enough to get a promotion until someone at the main office decides it's time to gussy his ship up and give it to the son of one of Kirk's former superiors. Does it turn out that no one in Star Trek is special which means everyone can be?

It seems to me, anyway, that The Old Republic possibly can't offer the experience anyone has ever had fantasizing about being a character in the movies. I would imagine, though I admit I've never really talked about it with anyone, that anyone who's dreamed of the Star Wars universe dreamed of being the hero in their own story in that universe, and massively multiplayer games can't really offer anyone that opportunity. Don't misunderstand: you might have opportunities to be heroic; but when it comes to being the protagonist or even a well-placed protagonist's sidekick, you and a million other subscribers, right? A single-player game can offer that opportunity--the story is written around your character's point-of-view. A well-run tabletop roleplaying game can give everyone at the table the chance to be part of a team of heroes and give every individual player a chance to see his character shine. But a massively multiplayer game can't possibly have that nuance; the only way I can think of for it to offer even an illusion of that would be to make the game an open sandbox with no story (ironically?), so that individual players could narcissistically write their own stories around their unguided, unstructured experience.

I'm not quite ready to quit the thing yet. BioWare has a patch coming that will allegedly improve the social aspects of the game, and that may salvage something of the experience. But it makes me wish they hadn't focused on something that was, again with the irony, one of their strong suits coming into the game--they shouldn't have tried to tell stories, they shouldn't have promised players they would be heroes in the epic narrative sense. They should have looked at making Star Wars democratic.


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