kreia
Kreia, from Chris Avellone’s “Knights of the Old Republic II”

One of the best things you can say about a work of fiction is that it changes how you think about life.  To my mind, what makes something truly great Art is if it gives you a new perspective on everyday life.

This might be why a some people don’t think video games are Art. Nobody does anything different after playing, say, Pac-Man.

This is where Chris Avellone‘s games come in.  Avellone’s design philosophy is heavily focused on “reactivity” in gameplay. Last year I wrote about why this means the plots, characters, and mechanics of his games are so thematically integrated.

To summarize briefly: “reactivity” means that the game world reacts to the player character’s choices.  Rather than just being a set series of tasks the player performs to advance the story, a reactive game environment means the player can influence what happens in the game world.  This means a game has multiple endings at a minimum, and usually different ways to complete tasks or different story arcs to follow as well.

Reactivity makes for a satisfying game experience.  You feel like you are really participating in the game-world, rather than just pressing buttons to turn the pages in someone else’s story.

This is where the “applicable in real life” part comes in: people like reactivity in the real world, too.  We don’t typically think of it in those terms, but it’s true.  People like to feel like their actions mean something.

Usually, people are at their most unhappy when they feel powerless. We want to feel like we have some measure of control in our lives, and some input in what happens in the world. We never have total control, of course, just as the player of a game doesn’t either–there is always the possibility of losing.

For example, people like it when other people listen to them. If somebody presents an idea, they like other people to engage with it, rather than just dismiss it. At a basic level, listening to people’s ideas is a kind of a reactivity–it sends the message that their input matters.

The fact that people like it when you listen to them isn’t a revelation. A guy named Dale Carnegie wrote at length about it in the 1930s. So did Stephen Covey in the 1980s. But reactivity is a handy way of understanding the concept.  If you think of everyone as a player character in their own video game, you know that what they are looking for is the opportunity to influence the world.

I stole this idea from Barb Knowles who got it from Paul who got the idea from Aaron who stole it from Jess. (Whew! It all reminds me of the Tom Lehrer song “I got it from Agnes”–quite possibly the dirtiest song ever written without using a single off-color word. But I digress.)

  1. Blogging
  2. American football
  3. Pizza
  4. Economics
  5. The color red
  6. History
  7. Desert landscapes
  8. The movie Lawrence of Arabia (combines 6 and 7)
  9. Writing
  10. The book A Confederacy of Dunces
  11. A good scary story.
  12. Gilbert and Sullivan operettas
  13. Political theory
  14. Hazelnut coffee
  15. Conspiracy theories
  16. Well-written, metered, rhyming satirical poetry.
  17. The number 17
  18. Thunderstorms
  19. Friendly political debates
  20. The sound of howling wind.
  21. The unutterable melancholy of a winter sunset in a farm field.
  22. Pretentious sentences like the one above.
  23. Knights of the Old Republic II
  24. Halloween
  25. The book 1984
  26. Niagara Falls
  27. The song “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”
  28. Pumpkin-flavored cookies. coffee, cake etc.
  29. The book The King in Yellow
  30. Hats
  31. Chess
  32. Trivia competitions
  33. Numbered lists
  34. Mowing lawns
  35. The smell of fresh-cut grass
  36. Black licorice
  37. Beethoven’s 3rd,5th and 9th symphonies
  38. The color light blue.
  39. Exercise machines
  40. My iPad
  41. Feta cheese
  42. The movie Jane Got a Gun
  43. Etymologies
  44. Gregorian chants
  45. December 23rd
  46. The story “The Masque of the Red Death”
  47. Mozzarella sticks
  48. Leaves in Autumn
  49. Long drives in the country
  50. Fireworks
  51. The song “You Got Me Singin'”
  52. The book To Kill a Mockingbird
  53. Constitutional republics that derive their powers from the consent of the governed.
  54. Strategy games
  55. Puns
  56. Ice skating
  57. My Xbox One
  58. The smell of old books
  59. Hiking
  60. Tall buildings
  61. Bookstores
  62. Gloves
  63. Rational-legal authority, as defined by Max Weber
  64. Bagels with cream cheese
  65. The Olentangy river
  66. The movie The Omen
  67. Far Side comics
  68. Planescape: Torment
  69. The song “Barrytown”
  70. Reasonable estimates of the Keynesian multiplier
  71. Stories that turn cliches on their heads.
  72. Editing movies
  73. Really clever epigraphs
  74. The movie “Chinatown”
  75. Ice water
  76. Deus Ex
  77. Silly putty
  78. Swiss Army Knives
  79. Anagrams
  80. Wikipedia
  81. Radical new models for explaining politics.
  82. Weightlifting
  83. Lego
  84. Madden 17
  85. The song “The Saga Begins”
  86. Trigonometry
  87. Writing “ye” for “the”
  88. Well-made suits
  89. Popcorn
  90. Pasta
  91. The word “sesquipedalian”
  92. The movie Thor
  93. Blackjack
  94. The movie The English Patient
  95. Pretzels
  96. Cello music
  97. Bonfires
  98. The story “The Hound of the Baskervilles”
  99. Soaring rhetoric
  100. Astronomy
  101. Getting comments on my blog posts.

“Reactivity”. “Choice and consequences”. “Influence”. These are the watchwords for the RPGs designed by Chris Avellone.

For example, one of the major features of Alpha Protocol (2010) was the branching path structure of its story, depending on what the player chose to do. The world of Alpha Protocol reacted to the player’s choices, making it feel like they were really changing the story as they played.

More than just being a quirk of game mechanic design, this philosophy permeates the Avellone-led Black Isle/Obsidian RPGs in surprising ways. It goes beyond just being a player ego-stroking mechanism into every aspect of the games.

Planescape: Torment‘s protagonist can influence the story, setting and other characters in countless ways, and while this in itself makes for an interesting game, the mechanic complements the theme of the story: that belief can influence reality itself. Musings on self-fulfilling prophecies and consensus reality are integrated with the structure of the game.

If video games are power fantasies, designed to make players feel like they can impact the world, then these RPGs are both archetypal examples and subtly subversive at the same time. While they allow the player to make all manner of changes to the game world, they also ask the player to reflect on the consequences of their actions.

To see how this approach differs from other RPGs, consider the popular but controversial Mass Effect 3, the original endings of which prompted criticism that none of the player’s choices really mattered. Defenders of the game replied that this was the story BioWare had wanted to tell, and so it should be accepted by the players as such.

It is a delicate balance, but in a medium defined by user input, the experience is most satisfying if the need to tell a story is balanced with giving the player choice in how it unfolds–if the story is the player’s story, and the player is not simply a bystander.

In many games, the player is to the game’s plot as Indiana Jones is to Raiders of the Lost Ark. They are at best just there to perform the requisite tasks to fulfill the writer’s story. Not so with Planescape/KotOR II/Alpha Protocol–in these, the player is the story.

Perhaps the most famous of Avellone’s characters is the enigmatic Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. She embodies the philosophy of player choice more so than any other single character. (Her avowed hatred of the predestination element of the Force could be interpreted as opposition to the “railroading” so common in games.)

Kreia is seemingly amoral, allied with neither the Jedi nor the Sith, but uses both to achieve her goals. To gain influence with her, the Jedi Exile (the player’s character) must show that they can make logical choices consistent with furthering their own long-term goals–in other words, that they understand choice and consequence. Kreia doesn’t care if you are good or evil–just so long as you know what you are doing and can strategize to make it happen.

In this way, the game mechanics, characters and story are all fully integrated. The mechanics reinforce the characters who reinforce the theme.  This level of coherence is what produces a truly satisfying experience. When game mechanics clash with the theme or the story, the player feels subconsciously confused.

Since games, unlike other art forms, rely on user input to tell the story, it only makes sense to center them around the user’s input in every respect. If thematic coherence is what makes Art great, the greatest games should surely be built around the idea of player choice.

10 years after its release, Obsidian Entertainment’s first game still fuels discussion. (Image via Wikipedia-Fair Use)

This time of year is always important for the video game industry, as they move their products into stores for the coming holiday rush.  Games have become one of the most successful forms of popular entertainment, with recent years seeing multi-million dollar launch events that break records once belonging to Hollywood.  Early December is the peak time of year for selling the latest installments in hit franchises to loyal fans.

10 years ago today, the sequel to 2003’s Game Of The Year was released.  And not only was it a sequel to an award-winning instant classic; it was set in the Star Wars universe; George Lucas’s billion-dollar space-faring fantasy whose allure has captivated generations.  Small wonder, with such a pedigree and promise, that LucasArts was eager to ensure it was released in time for the Christmas shoppers–they wanted to be sure to get everything they could out of this highly-anticipated title.

This eagerness caused them to encourage Obsidian Entertainment to push the release of the game forward, even if it meant not having time to finish the ending as originally planned.  The result was that the game, though eagerly bought up by thousands of fans, did not receive quite the same delighted reviews as its predecessor; that it was criticized as incomplete, or incoherent.  Its last few hours in particular were perceived as a rushed muddle of action sequences that arrived at a confusing and unsatisfying conclusion.

And so with this moderate, but not spectacular, success behind it, the “Old Republic” franchise moved on; to be resurrected again, briefly, first as a book and then as an MMORPG to go to war against World of Warcraft–a war which, like the Mandalorian Wars that form the background of KotOR II, is a futile and depressing effort from which no combatant ever returns victorious.

Obsidian Entertainment has moved on as well, most notably to the retro-futuristic Mojave wasteland of Fallout: New Vegas.  Both developer and franchise have gone their separate ways; and though talk of another Obsidian-made Star Wars game surfaces now and again, it seems likely that, given Disney’s purchase of the galaxy far, far away, the darker and more mature tones Obsidian always brings to their stories may not be as welcome.

So what to make of Knights of the Old Republic II, ten years later? Now that the Star Wars film series has been ended and revived yet again, now that Mass Effect, BioWare’s spiritual successor to KotOR I, has run its course, and left its original fans as bitter as Star Wars fans dismayed at the prequel trilogy; where does that leave Obsidian’s strangely rough, brooding tale of the exiled Jedi who travels the galaxy not to defeat an Empire or rescue a princess, but to come to terms with the effects of war on the human psyche?

In spite of the name, canonical Star Wars has rarely been about war. The original film series depicts an insurrection against a tyrannical empire; but this occurs largely in a couple of battles–primarily, the story is about the Skywalker family.  The prequels deal with the run-up to a war in the first two films, and the end of that war in the third, but Lucas shunted the details of the war into comic books.  (A few of which were written by KotOR II creative lead, Chris Avellone.)

The Sith Lords, though, is very much about war, though not in the shallow sense of being a Call of Duty clone with a Star Wars coat of paint. KotOR II is about war in the way that The Deer Hunter is about war–it is exploring the mental and spiritual toll that war takes on everyone it touches.  Or, as Kreia tells the Exile early in the game: “You are the battlefield. And if you fall, the death of the Republic will be such a quiet thing, a whisper, that shall herald the darkness to come.”

Kreia is always the focal point for any discussion of Knights of the Old Republic II, and even the game’s detractors will usually admit that she is one of the greatest characters in the history of video games.  A mysterious old woman, allied neither with the Jedi nor the Sith, yet overwhelmingly knowledgeable about both, she at once fits the Star Wars tradition of the Wise Mentor and violates it utterly. She is a gadfly in the Star Wars universe, questioning everyone and everything; and by the end, the player comes to understand that her rebellion is against the Force itself; the mysterious metaphysical “energy field” which most characters accept with a (sometimes literal) hand-wave, but which she attempts to understand and destroy. Many players find it immensely satisfying to see this brown-cloaked Nietzsche slicing through the pop-philosophy of Lucas’s universe.

Kreia’s occasionally harsh criticism of the player’s actions are emblematic of one of KotOR II‘s distinctive features: namely, that it is not necessarily meant to make the player feel good.  In literature, film and television, it is common for a story to leave the audience sad, or contemplative, or shocked.  But games are meant to entertain; and to write one that does not simply laud the player for their victories over ever more powerful foes, but instead compels them to think about what they are doing–to think of, as Zez Kai-Ell says in the game’s pivotal scene, “all the death you caused to get here”–was a bold move, indeed.

In this way, KotOR II is the forerunner of another one of the most fascinating games released in recent years–2012’s Spec Ops: The Line. Though different in style and in tone, (not to mention that SO:TL is far more polished and graphically advanced) Yager’s dark satire of military shoot-’em-ups is at its core the same tale as KotOR II: that of a soldier who commits an atrocity and is forced to face the consequences.

But while Spec Ops is a sharp, tightly-plotted tale with every element integrated into its gripping narrative, KotOR II is less minutely-engineered, and more filled with oddities and curious plot threads which lead in unexpected directions–or sometimes nowhere at all, thanks to the content having been cut at the eleventh hour.  While this makes the game seem less focused and at times even hard to follow, it also lends it a certain feeling of scope; an epic, vast implied scale that even next-generation open-world RPGs have not matched.  There is a hauntingly depressing quality to the sprawling modules of Citadel station, of gloomy isolation to the corridors of Peragus, and of melancholic splendor to the partially restored surface of Telos, that creates a peculiarly memorable and powerful mood.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about KotOR II‘s plot threads without also discussing The Sith Lords Restoration Project–the fan-made effort to restore the cut content.  While interesting in its own right, and a must-play for any fan of the game, the restored content ultimately raises more questions than it answers. Some of it really is integral to the story, but other parts are relevant only as curiosities, and serve only to add unnecessary complications to the game’s already complex plot.

But even with the missing pieces restored, insofar as possible, KotOR II remains a very odd, misfit game–an exile, like its enigmatic, war-worn protagonist. If the original KotOR was an effort at making a playable version of the summer swashbuckling blockbuster epic that Star Wars helped revive, then KotOR II was an attempt at making a playable version of a more mature, David Lean-ish kind of epic. It is not designed for commercial success and records, but for critical success and acclaim. It is Oscar Bait in a medium that does not receive Oscars.

It is possible that being part of such a widely recognized franchise hurt its chances among the very people most likely to appreciate its many virtues.  Critics searching for video games that prove the medium is a mature art form, not merely an entertaining diversion, can be too quick to dismiss a “mainstream” game in search of something more unusual.  And few entertainment franchises show a more striking disparity between their commercial success and their reputation among critics than Star Wars.

In spite of its less-than-universal acclaim, though, KotOR II has not been completely forgotten by gamers.  In 2010, it was included in the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Kreia still frequently appears on lists like “best video game characters” and “best female antagonists in video games”.  But it has not been considered particularly “influential”, either; certainly, it has not become a household name like, for example, Valve’s Half-Life 2, released three weeks earlier.

Much of the plot of Knights of the Old Republic II is concerned with finding that which has been lost–be it knowledge, people, or places.  As Kreia explains at the end, the real “lost Jedi” the Exile has been searching for have been there all along–“they simply needed a leader and a teacher”.  Similarly, the nightmarish planet of Malachor V–the site of the pivotal battle that is at the heart of the game’s entire plot–had been forgotten by the Sith Lords of times past, before being rediscovered in the Mandalorian Wars and spawning the innumerable stories of victory, heroism, defeat, death and horror that the Jedi Exile encounters on the journey across the galaxy.

And so it is fitting, as the medium matures and gamers and game critics cast about for evidence to prove its legitimacy as an art form, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords sits quietly on the fringes of the game universe like Malachor V; not at the center of attention, perhaps, but still well remembered by all who have seen it firsthand.

 

 

The great thing about Knights of the Old Republic II, my favorite video game–heck, my favorite work of fiction–is that the fact that each character is crucial to the major thematic points of the game:

  •  Atton alludes to the last Jedi he kills telling him of a place where Force sensitives are sent by Revan to be broken. This is almost certainly Malachor V.
  • Mira lost her family as a result of the battle, and that is why she became a Bounty Hunter. The Exile’s actions at Malachor shaped her in this way. As Mira says “There’s a lot of lost people out there. Scattered ever since the Mandalorian Wars… if I can find them, maybe, just maybe I can put the Galaxy back together.”
  • HK-47 says that, as result of the destruction at Malachor, Revan was inspired to build him. So, as he puts it, perhaps the Exile is responsible for his creation.
  • Visas’s homeworld was destroyed by Nihilus, who was created by Malachor, and whose fleet was hauled from it. This act has clearly left deep physical and psychological scars on Visas.
  • Yusanis fathered the handmaiden with the Jedi Arren Kae, and he went with her into the Mandalorian Wars, breaking his vow to his wife. This act shames the Handmaiden. Kae (apparently) died at Malachor; making Yusanis enter politics and eventually get assassinated by Revan. He may have been at Malachor, and was obviously deeply affected by the war, hence Brianna’s interest in the Exile, who is the first person she has known since her father who suffered the effects of the war, and her loyalty to Atris, which is to make up for the shame her father’s infidelity brought upon her.
  • Bao-Dur has feelings of guilt about Malachor that made him come to Telos to aid the recovery. He also lost his arm at Malachor. He still harbors feelings of guilt for creating and using the Mass Shadow Generator.
  • Mical the Disciple was turned to his path of “historian and scientist” by the decision of the Exile to go to war, when he was not chosen as a Padawan.
  • The Mandalorians were badly beaten in the battle, necessitating Canderous Ordo (who was also at Malachor) to take up the mantle of Mandalore and reunite the clans on Dxun.
  • G0-T0 exists for the purpose of rebuilding the galaxy from the war.
  • Even the psychotic Hanharr has heard of Malachor. As he asks the Exile: “Did you hear [the Jedi] scream as you butchered the Mandalorian tribes? Did you… kill your heart to shut them out?”

From this alone, we can see that most of the Exile’s party members would not be here were it not for the Exile’s fateful decision at Malachor. But that’s not all…

  • Atris was clearly very close to the Exile in the past, and was affected deeply by her decision to go to war, as well as the resulting horror of the battle of Malachor. This clearly has deep psychological effects on her, possibly contributing to her fall to the Dark side.
  • Darth Nihilus, the closest thing the story has to an out-and-out villain, is at least partially a creation of Malachor. He is often described the most powerful entity in the game, with his presence being felt everywhere, by everyone from Kreia to the Jedi to GO-TO to General Vaklu. (Some players complain that Nihilus is too easy to defeat in combat, after his buildup. This might have been the point, however–too everyone else, he is an unstoppable force of nature; to the Jedi Exile, he’s a pushover)
  • In the game’s pivotal scene, when the Exile returns to the Jedi Enclave to meet/fight the remaining Jedi, it is revealed the s/he was also deeply affected by that last battle, and forced to cut his/herself off from the Force to survive.

All this is certainly enough to prove that indeed the ramifications of the Exile’s choice at Malachor are the central point of the game. It requires many playthroughs to find them all, but the case is overwhelming. But then, in a final masterstroke we are shown other, similar decisions and their consequences play out before us, that allow us to piece together the ultimate theme of the story:

  • The destruction of Peragus serves as an effective opening, because it reminds the Exile, subconsciously, of the annihilation of Malachor. Furthermore, Atris, Lieutenant Grenn, the Ithorians, Colonel Tobin, GO-TO and others all comment on how the lack of fuel will harm Citadel Station. Thus, Exile must come to grips with the “echo” of the destruction of Peragus. This, the game hints, is the first time the Exile has ever truly had to confront the consequences of his/her actions. Thus, by the time she leaves Telos, the Exile has seen or been told of the consequences of two of the more remarkable acts in her life, and Atris even compares the destruction of Peragus to that of Malachor.
  • The scene in which the Exile chooses either to help or furiously dismiss the beggar on Nar Shaddaa is key. Kreia allows the Exile a glimpse at the consequences of his/her choice, and reveals that it is not always as clear-cut as it may appear.
  • Nar Shaddaa is home to refugees from both wars.
  • Dantooine was badly damaged as a result of the Jedi Civil War, which was itself a result of the Mandalorian Wars.
  • Onderon is relatively unaffected by the actions of the Exile prior to the game (though s/he fought on Dxun) but the Onderonian debate between secession and isolation and remaining in the Republic bears a close resemblance to the Exile’s choice of whether to close his/herself off from the Force or to embrace it.
  • Telos presents the Exile with an opportunity for redemption, in the form of whether to help the war-ravaged planet recover, or not. (Though, as we will see, the way to do that isn’t as black and white as it seems.) More immediately, in the game’s final act, the Exile is called upon to save Telos from Darth Nihilus. This episode is particularly ingenious, as forces from Onderon and Dantooine arrive to help the Exile, who wouldn’t have done so otherwise.
  • Of course the recovery efforts on Telos and the Political Situation on Onderon are also interdependent, as the Ithorians are repopulating Telos with the Onderonian’s and Dxun’s beasts.
  • Korriban presents the Exile with the cave, where s/he must confront the pivotal moments in her past, and reflect on whether s/he would do things differently.
  • The Ubese warriors in Visquis’s lair are bitter about the bombing the Republic wrought against them in the war, and have thus been made into “weapons”, as Visquis says. This foreshadows the creation of the Sith Lord Nihilus and his hordes by the activation of the Mass Shadow Generator, as well as Revan’s ultimate plan.
  • Visas, like the Exile, has, as Sion puts it “kept living while the Universe dies” around her. She has seen a planet destroyed, and it has affected her tremendously. (Of course, her planet wouldn’t have been destroyed if… see above.)
  • The impact of the destruction and subsequent restoration of Telos is seen in many facets of the game, from the separation of Aiada and Lootra on Nar Shaddaa, to the beast rider whose Boma escapes outside of Iziz, to the oft-repeated need for fuel for Citadel Station by everyone from Lt. Grenn to Atris to Col. Tobin, show the echoes of Saul Karath’s attack.
  • Telos is again threatened towards the end of the game in the battle against Lord Nihilus, and here again, the Exile sees the consequences of his/her decisions (Peragus, Dantooine, Onderon and Malachor) play out.

The entire game builds, subtly yet relentlessly, into an awesome thematic experience that shows all the consequences of Malachor, of Peragus, of Telos, of the Mandalorian Wars and ultimately, as Kreia says: “of all wars, of all tragedies that scream across the galaxy.” Again and again, consequences of actions are shown, leading up to the last planet, where the Exile must walk upon the dead planet of Malachor, and culminating in the ending scene, in which Kreia tells the Exile how his/her choices will impact the planets and people s/he has met throughout the journey. This works well, because the player has already seen the consequences of past choices throughout the game.

But the true genius is not only that the theme is so brilliantly and so pervasively intertwined with the story, but also that it does not carry any judgment. Things may be called “light” and “dark” by characters, but the player can make their own decision. Is the “independence” of Gen. Vaklu or the “cooperation” of Queen Talia better for Onderon? The pragmatic Czerka  Corp. or the more spiritual Ithorians better for Telos? And the central question of the game: was the destruction of Malachor justified? It killed many, and ruined the lives of many more. On the other hand, would not countless more have died if the war had not ended, as the Exile can argue? And anyway, if not for Malachor, Mira, Atton, Bao-Dur, Mandalore, Brianna and Visas would not be around to help the Exile on the journey. And perhaps the most widely asked question: Is Kreia a Jedi or a Sith, good or evil?  It must be played through many times, and the player must make many different choices, but the game’s theme remains awesomely consistent no matter how the game is played.

People complain about the game’s ending, but frankly, I found it perfectly coherent and satisfying, once I understood all these concepts. It’s actually one of the best endings I’ve ever seen in a video game.

Thingy pointed out something I haven’t really addressed in my posts about John Steinbeck: that his preponderance of flat, unlikable and (in the case of Cathy from East of Eden) downright evil  female characters may not have been simply a reflection of animosity towards women on his part, but symptomatic of the era in which he wrote.

Maybe so.  As I said in my comment on Thingy’s blog, I can think of some female characters from other periods who were better than Steinbeck’s, but still, her point is a good one: maybe that was just how things were back then,

I’m glad this came up, because I’d been planning to do a post about this article in The New Statesman by Sophia McDougall. The point of the article is basically that “Strong Female Characters” can be almost as bad as “Weak Female Characters”, in the sense that both imply a dearth of character development.  They are equally simplistic and flat as characters.

I don’t like to list “favorite” fictional characters, because you can get to comparing apples to oranges very quickly.  Nevertheless, if you forced me to choose, I would say my favorite female character in all fiction is (you guessed it) Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II.  In fact, she’s probably my favorite fictional character, regardless of genderAnd the reason is because she’s complicated.

None of Steinbeck’s female characters are that. They are all very one-dimensional.  Now, as Thingy said, some of his male characters are pretty much cut-outs as well, but I can’t think of any female of Steinbeck’s who is as interesting as Mac from In Dubious Battle.

But back to Thingy’s point: was that just Steinbeck’s attitude, or was it the spirit of the time? I think probably both, but I also think it’s significant that I couldn’t think of any ’30s-era female characters in books written by males that I’d consider good examples.  Perhaps you, dear reader, can think of some?

I was searching on Knights of the Old Republic II the other day when I stumbled across these awesome custom KotOR II Lego figures made by Justin R. Stebbins, aka Saber-Scorpion.  (My personal favorite of his figures is Mandalore) He also has KotOR I creations, as well as custom Lego  for a bunch of other great games, including Planescape: Torment, Fallout and Metal Gear SolidCheck it out.

As I was looking around at his work, I did start thinking how awesome a full-length movie adaptation of these games with the Lego figures would be, even though I’m not normally a fan of adapting games into movies.  Since their lips don’t move, you could use the original voice readings from the game.  One of my favorite things about Lego is how easily it lends itself to stop-motion animation.

Actually, though, I know there are video game adaptations of various franchises using Lego characters…  maybe KotOR III should be done in that style, appealing to two fan-bases at once?  And of course, Fallout: Lego Island practically writes itself… no, maybe that wouldn’t be a good idea.

I was reading about this upcoming sci-fi movie starring Tom Cruise called Oblivion.  The IMDb synopsis says:

A court martial sends a veteran soldier to a distant planet, where he is to destroy the remains of an alien race. The arrival of an unexpected traveler causes him to question what he knows about the planet, his mission, and himself.

Hmm.  That sounds a bit like the plot of what I consider the most overrated movie of all time, Avatar.  Also like Avatar, this thing seems to share a name with another, totally unrelated franchise.

Of course, people say the idea for Avatar was itself stolen from Edgar Rice Burroughs, or some British comic book, or Dances with Wolves.  I wouldn’t say “stolen”, exactly; but it’s an age-old plot.

The plot of Avatar is:

  • Guy is sent by military to deal with exotic natives to help pursue military’s interests.
  • Guy becomes sympathetic to natives.
  • Guy rebels against military, helping natives.

This is, in broad strokes, also the plot of one of my favorite movies, Lawrence of Arabia.  The difference is in how it’s done–compare the character of General Allenby in Lawrence with Colonel Hambone from Avatar.  (Okay, so that’s not his name.  But it should have been.)

This is so often the case with fiction.  Another example:

“A video game about someone who causes tremendous damage to a planet, and must then face the consequences of that action.”

This could be describing either Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords or Tonic Trouble.  The former I consider to be the greatest game ever made; a masterpiece of storytelling and characterization, complete with a philosophical depth more powerful than any other work of fiction I have seen.  The latter is about a purple cartoon alien who fights mutant tomatoes.  “The Devil is in the details”, as they say.

Zaphodb2002 pointed out in a comment on this post that if you just give a synopsis of the most basic points, so many great works don’t sound all that impressive.  It is, as he said, how the story is told.

Eric at Critical Missive has another excellent article,  this one about the importance of mystery in video games. He makes some great observations, even if he does have a rather different opinion of Half-Life 2 than I do.

I guess the difference is that I care less about mystery in gameplay than I do about mystery in story and character development. And this is one of the many reasons I consider Obsidian’s Knights of the Old Republic II to be the best game I’ve ever played. (Yes, I know loyal readers have heard this one before, so you can skip the following paragraph if you want to.)

If you read about KotOR II at all, you’ll see a lot of complaining that it’s “incomplete”. And it is–there was a lot of cut-content. And a lot of it was good content. But, as Zez-Kai Ell would say, “perhaps that is for the best”. The truth is, from the minute I woke up on Peragus to the very end, there’s always a lot of mystery in the game about who is doing what and why. It’s all deeply rooted in characters’ motivations, and I believe you can figure most of it out if you think it through, but it’s very mysterious. The answers are there, but the player has to piece them together; they aren’t spelled out. A lot of the cut content, once restored, just makes things too obvious, and introduces unnecessary elements. Good, but unnecessary.

Now, it’s true that the gameplay–fighting, walking around, swoop racing etc.–is not very mysterious in KotOR II. But that’s not what I personally played the game for.  What I look for is adequate, enjoyable gameplay that doesn’t actively get in the way of hearing the story.

There are other games that do give a great sense of narrative mystery–Planescape: Torment and Deus Ex are classic examples–but for the most part, games are focused on the playing and not the storytelling. Which makes sense, since they are still games and not just movies. But ultimately, the best games need to give you a sense of interest in finding out about the world you’re in, and making you want to do stuff in it. And mystery is a big part of that–if you know everything about a game, you don’t need to play it.

The bottom line is that Eric’s article is an excellent analysis of what’s wrong with games these days. The only thing I don’t get is why he see Half-Life 2 as an exception, not a proof. I mean to say, what Eric writes about Crysis 2 to show it as inferior to HL 2:

[M]uch of the game revolves around meticulously-animated set pieces and taking in beautiful vistas.  The shooting itself is fun enough, but the enemies you fight don’t really develop beyond the few basic types and the odd boss battle, and the weapons never stray beyond the ordinary.

…could pretty much be said of HL 2, in my opinion. (Although HL 2’s gravity gun was pretty cool.) But I don’t want this to turn into an argument over which is better. His larger point is totally correct, and his article is worth reading for any gamer.

“What games conspicuously lack is moral consequence. Once you’ve killed someone, stolen something, or blown up a building, that’s usually the end of it – you’ll rarely get to see the emotional impact of your actions on the characters around you.”— Matthew Devereux. “The moral cost of video games”, The Christian Science Monitor January 7, 2008.

“Awaken.” –Kreia, to the Jedi Exile. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. 2004.

I know I have blogged about this game before, but I find I just cannot say enough about it. And whenever I start to despair of video games prospects as an art form, it cheers me up to think about it.

The greatest video game I have ever played is Obsidian Entertainment’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. Indeed, I consider it to be one of the finest artworks I have ever seen. It was playing this game which convinced me the medium was truly mature. (There were games made before it that rank as art, but playing it really brought it home to me.)

There are many things to recommend it: Firstly, the gameplay is quite varied and enjoyable in and of itself, and the graphics, while by no means stellar, especially today, convey subtle feelings quite powerfully, and are absolutely perfect for the story they tell. Finally, the music and sound is superb and the voice-acting is uniformly excellent—even “bit” characters perform wonderfully.

But, of course, what really matters to me is the writing; both the story and the dialogue. And KotOR II, you see, has the greatest writing of any video game I have ever played.

The story is brilliant—subtle, moving, suspenseful, funny and intriguing all at once. It effortlessly combines elements of adventure, mystery, comedy, romance, political thriller, horror and psychological drama into one perfectly paced narrative. The dialogue, too, is superbly done, containing layers of meaning and deep, philosophical underpinnings beneath its sharp, witty style.

But what is truly wonderful about KotOR II is its thematic coherence. Every character, every quest, everything in the game relates, in some way, to its overall thematic point. And it is always done cleverly and subtly—so much so that you will not realize it until you are familiar with the game’s theme. Every one of the game’s complex and rich characters serves to explore the key motif.

The obvious question is “what’s it about, then?”. It is hard to say, exactly. It touches on so many ideas about human nature, about politics, about psychology, about economics, about metaphysics that it is hard to answer concisely. The best I can say is that its theme is war, and its physical, political, psychological and spiritual consequences. But even that does not do it justice.

People may complain that its ending feels rushed and incoherent—and indeed it was rushed, but somehow, for me, it has never seemed incoherent. The coherence is what we see in the game; true, there is no total, demystifying explanation at the end, but if you really think about the message of the game, you will see that it has an awesome thematic coherence, the likes of which I have not seen in any other game, even Planescape: Torment. (Made, it must be pointed out, by many of the same people who made KotOR II)

In a recent interview with Iron Tower Studios, KotOR II’s lead designer, Chris Avellone, said the following regarding game design:

“You can pull a character through a story by having events unfold around them, or you can make it clear that events are happening because of what the player did – and *specifically* what the player did. Part of the fun of a world and a story is how your presence is causing changes in it, seeing those changes play out, and being made aware exactly how you caused those changes. Being an agent of change, the spark lighting the fuse, or the butterfly wings that spark the hurricane on the other side of the world is pretty gratifying.”

This seems to me to articulate perfectly what  KotOR II accomplished, and it is a mystery to me why it is not held up as a model of choice and consequences gameplay. Certainly, the story would be robbed considerably of its power were it told in a book or a film. That is perhaps its greatest achievement; that it is not merely a great story, but a great story specific to its medium.As I re-read what I have written here, I feel tempted to explain some part of the game, some character, some scene, shed some further light on its themes—but I cannot bring myself to spoil it any more than I may have already. It must be understood by the player, and to explain more would not convey the same feeling. It defies description.

The game is a masterwork, and in my opinion nothing has come close to it since. Knights of the Old Republic II is truly a superb game, and even if the video game industry never turns out anything close to as good as it again, it alone will have justified the medium’s rank as “Art”.