Twenty-Five Hours into ‘Star Wars: The Old Republic’
The failings of the Jedi, the Bioware Formula, and not quite pay to be gay
I’m approaching 25 hours into my journey as Aria Avik. Her mission to hunt down and destroy the organization responsible for the death of one of the ruling Sith Lords has led to Balmorra and Nar Shaddaa. Despite what the Empire claims, Balmorra is in the midst of an all out war. The resistance persists not in the form of clandestine saboteurs, but dug-in and heavily armed soldiers. Examining a little further, it becomes clear that though there may be an official treaty between the Empire and the Republic, the war has only evolved into a slightly less overt state. In a resistance facility, Aria not only runs into a “retired” Republic general who still clearly has connections, but two Jedi as well.
This is extremely my shit.
Until this point encounters with force users has been limited to the aforementioned Sith Council member, Darth Jadus and his daughter, Darth Zhorrid. Framed as meddling, power hungry, and sadistic, their every appearance is filled with tension. For my first experience with a Jedi in The Old Republic to be a couple of them showing up like “off duty” cops covering their badges as they feign ignorance of their treaty violations is delicious. Give me more about the failings of the chaste, baby snatching priests who demand emotionless drones populate their habitually broken order. Give me more of them proving how wildly unfit they are for the military, government, and cultural roles they take on. These are not keepers of THE peace, they are keepers of a peace as defined by the corrupt Republic.
Such has been a key reason that The Old Republic has succeeded where so many other MMOs have failed for me. I am already bought into the Star Wars universe in a big way, but this is playing in the space that has made for some of my favorite entries into the franchise. It is taking one of the strengths of the series it spun off from, Knights of the Old Republic, and is allowing players to take on roles that make the galaxy feel as expansive as often has been the unfulfilled promise of Star Wars.
Upon the Hutta moon of Nar Shaddaa where Aria grew up, secrets create rifts. The Empire is at odds with the many factions who themselves have all sorts of splinter factions and internal power struggles. One city block in particular has been repurposed into an open-air prison by the Empire for people deemed too valuable to kill, but too dangerous to let roam free. Here lives Watcher X, a former mission control operative of Imperial Intelligence. He is also Aria’s contact and guide through the world of organized crime. During the process of bringing these groups to heel along with destroying the “terrorist” cell responsible for the death of Darth Jadus, Watcher X mentions something that deeply troubles Aria. Mental conditioning. The process by which Watcher X is caused physical pain when disobeying the commands of superiors within the Empire. Aria’s inquiry into how common this practice is met with an answer that is not as reassuring as it is a tacit admission that she may be unwittingly subject to such.
All of this has been prime material for my type of role-playing. In an earlier post I peeled back the veil on how I approach these types of games, especially ones in the Bioware formula. I like to get a taste for what the systems and stories will allow, then craft a detailed backstory that will inform who I play as. From the choices they make to the companions they invest the most time with and the arc they go on together. A fair bit of this plays out in my headcanon, but the tools Bioware provides to give digital manifestation to this are key. In part because they lead to situations like I just mentioned, as well as the following, and the mixture of the two.
To give a quick run down, I’ll just toss my Twitter thread here.
The shift from Kaliyo questioning Aria’s yes sir attitude with the Empire to pushing back on Aria beginning to break away is complex. Kaliyo’s lies are being brought to light by prolonged exposure to her constant manipulation. To boot, Watcher X’s proposes to leak all sorts of information from the Empire to Aria, including documents on Kaliyo, in exchange towards turning blind eye to his escape from the open-air prison. Such is exciting to be in the middle of. To see all this quality storytelling material spill out in front of me and the possibilities of what I can craft from such is why I love the Bioware Formula. It is at its best when you feel like a writer in the room. The reality of game design and the limitations of player agency has often meant that you are less so creating a character completely of your own, but shaping one alongside the developers. Much of this comes through via the in-game storytelling tools, but also inspires a headcanon within players. I would be lying if I didn’t play out conversations in my mind that have Aria and Kaliyo being more flirtatious and/or having more platonic familiarity than what appears within the in-game script.
This does sadly bring me to a major criticism. Kaliyo is not a romance option for female agents. Which also raises the issue of how the character creator has a set binary with regards to gender, but for now we’ll focus on the romance options. Given Kaliyo’s character design and the flirtatious nature her conversations can take on with a female agent, it’s hard to believe that she is straight. This feels like a Jack from Mass Effect 2 situation all over again. And as has been revealed, making Jack a romance option for Male Shepards only was not originally the intention at Bioware. However, unlike Mass Effect, which includes non-straight relationships, there are zero options in the base content of The Old Republic. Thankfully, some of the expansions that are included in the free to play version do allow such, but even so, it could take you quite a while to get there. This also fails to address all other sorts of relationships and sexuality that, in some instances, tie back into the matter of gender, but that’s a much longer discussion than what I have time for here.
When looking into people’s reaction at the time you get a lot of wild speculation. Some pointing at the hit pieces by Fox News towards the original Mass Effect’s sex scenes and saying Bioware and EA got scared off. Which seems like a stretch. The piece I linked about Jack from Mass Effect does cite Fox News as a factor, but again, Mass Effect 2 had non-straight options. Others state the reason Kaliyo seems to be flirtatious is the result of reuse of dialogue from the male Imperial Agent story. And…maybe. But we knew at the time that the writing team had worked on the game longer than any other group. Also, at the time of release it was EA’s most expensive game ever. While neither of those points completely shoot down these explanations, at the end of the day, all media imparts messaging. Those who engage with such take meaning from it as they will. To put a major focus on player agency with regards to the relationships they form, and then turn around and severely limit what a player’s options are is disappointing. To do so specifically where groups that are historically, and continued to be, targeted by bigotry is a major failing, intentional or not.
Aria’s journey is from someone who joined the Empire out of desperation to being fearful of losing the security it has provided her. She is coming to realize that this security is deeply compromised. That it’s easy to fall into the thought trap of existence in a wretched world requires you to be wretched to survive. That whatever kindness individuals can enact isn’t even a blip in the fundamentally broken systems when caught between two superpowers that endlessly taint and destroy all that they touch.
I am looking forward to the person that comes out the other side, and the stories I get to tell along the way.