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”.

Well, I confess I’m not really in a position to know for sure, since I only played three of the games released this year: BioWare‘s Mass Effect 2, Obsidian Entertainment’s Alpha Protocol and Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas.

So, it may be that there are other games out there that are better. Given BioWare and Obsidian’s excellent track records however, I doubt it. 

If forced to choose, I would say F:NV is the best, followed by ME 2 and then AP. I pick New Vegas over ME 2 largely because of a few serious problems with ME’s plot towards the end of it. (Detailed by Shamus Young here.) F:NV‘s story is pretty out-there as well, but it was fairly consistent in the level of what it asked the player to believe from beginning to end.

As for Protocol, while I still maintain that it is a fine game that was treated most unjustly by the critics, there’s no denying it had some bugs, some poorly executed concepts, and even a few instances of sloppy or cliched writing. (By Obsidian standards, I mean. It’s still much better written than the vast majority of games.) I suspect that it suffered somewhat from Obsidian focusing heavily on making New Vegas all it could be.

I should probably mention that my evaluations of all these games were perhaps slightly tainted by the fact that this past summer, I finally got round to playing Black Isle‘s legendary RPG Planescape: Torment. It is, as I had heard, one of the greatest games of all time–surpassed only by what must be considered its spiritual sequel, Obsidian’s Knights of the Old Republic II–and I suppose that my judgment of these more recent games was clouded by it.

Exile: “Kreia, what are you–are you a Jedi? A Sith?”

Kreia: “Does it matter? Of course it does. Such titles allow you to break the galaxy into light and dark. Categorize it. Perhaps I am neither, and I hold both as what they are: pieces of a whole.”–dialogue from Obsidian Entertainment‘s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, The Sith Lords. 2004.

“I often think it’s comical
How Nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
                                Or else a little Conservative!” —Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. Act II. 1882.

I think everybody knows that the two-party system has its flaws. It is obvious that a system in which two sides work in opposition to one another virtually all the time is bound to have flaws. And then of course, everybody knows that lots of people end up voting a party-line ticket without bothering to consider the specifics of a candidate or policy. No one wants to be guilty of voting without thinking.
Because of this, many people really want to find some sort of “common ground”, or at least a way outside the two party system. This takes two forms: either a centrist “let’s compromise” attitude or else a “a pox on both your houses” approach.
The current holy war between Republicans and Democrats is an irritating thing, to be sure.* But Centrism, in my opinion, does not actually break free of this divide; it merely mixes and matches elements of both in some sort of hope that somehow this will make the two sides dislike each other less. 
(Meanwhile, the “pox on both houses” idea manifests itself primarily as libertarianism, a somewhat noble idea which amounts essentially to leaving everyone alone to do whatever as long as it harms no one else, but which falls apart quite completely when faced with the complexities of actually governing.)
The end result is that the Centrists say “We want both of you.” Libertarians say “We want neither of you.” In this way, as I sort of touched on here, both of these ideas still define themselves in terms of Republicans and Democrats. By that I mean that they are not actual political philosophies, they are just philosophies for dealing with the existing political philosophies.
I suppose I’m writing this like I have some kind of answer or solution. I don’t. All I can say is that while I can understand and sympathize with the impulse of people like the “No Labels” group to break out of the traditional two-party mold and be really independent of “Partisanship”, it’s actually much harder than it seems.   
*One could also, by the way, make a very good argument that the Republicans bear much more responsibility than the Democrats for the current level of vitriolic polarization. This is the sort of detail that centrists are often willing to overlook in their quest for bipartisanship.

Roger Ebert says no. Hot Air speculates that Ebert hates them because they many of them involve fighting terrorists, like the seemingly never-ending Call of Duty series. (I like Call of Duty, but it is not art–it is, however, more intellectually challenging than some may realize.) They speculate that the lack of nuance and depth in games–which they seem to like–is what repels Ebert.

Ebert is completely and utterly wrong. Hot Air is sort of right, except that they fail to realize that they are succumbing to the same sort of bigotry as Ebert.

“No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets. [sic]” Ebert writes.

Then I shall do so now:

Planescape: Torment 

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Metal Gear Solid

Mass Effect 2

Those games are all at least as powerful as any movie, any poem or any novel.

(Hat Tip to Big Hollywood.)

I have this little tradition: whenever I get a week or so of free time, I play through my favorite video game of all time: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords. It is my favorite game because it is one of the very few video games that not only entertains, but also addresses deep philosophical questions with complex characters and well-written, intelligent dialogue.

For example, in the beginning you are trapped on an asteroid mining station that’s being sabotaged. You can just fight your way out, of course; but if you take your time and pay attention, you can gather up lots of clues that allow you to unravel who is sabotaging it and how and why. It’s a great feeling when you piece it all together, because you feel like you really figured something out, rather than having it all explained to you.

If you’ve played it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, don’t waste time here, go buy it!

UPDATE: I should mention that Obsidian Entertainment, the company who made KotOR II, has also made many other games which people tell me are of similarly high or higher quality, and that many of the people who founded Obsidian worked on Planescape: Torment, which is, I’ve often been told, the ultimate in deep, philosophical gaming. I’ve never played any of these games, so I can’t comment on them. I will say that the reason I gravitated towards KotOR is that I tend to prefer Space settings to Medieval-Fantasy settings.