In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Tom tries to reconcile two opposing realities in TOR, and then explodes.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is a very expensive attempt to give players glossy, scripted, individual stories in a massively multiplayer environment. Bioware's cutscenes and conversation wheels work hard to convince you that you're playing a proper RPG, with companion characters, moral decisions and plot twists. But it's only a temporary distraction. Once each scene finishes you pass back into the MMO to face the quirks we've come to accept from the genre.
MMO zones are strange places. On Coruscant almost every room is a cavernous hall, designed to give players the space to move between objectives without clipping through one another. On planets, the cordons that bind players to levelling zones are disguised with odd cliffs and unnatural mountain ranges. Rock formations and scattered low-poly trees take on the consistency of papier mâché. Monsters linger in stationary clusters, carefully spaced to prevent players from aggroing too many at once. I get this feeling from all MMOs, as though I'm exploring a static diorama derived from a piece of concept art that represents a place that might feasibly exist.
I've come to enjoy this about The Old Republic, an MMORPG that pits the MMO half against the RPG half. The dark side—the mob grinding, gear fiddling, taskbar-tapping massively multiplayer part—presses uncomfortably against the Bioware Star Wars RPG that I crave. They coexist like mortal enemies squashed onto the same rush hour tube train. In-game, they're separated by a ostentatious glowing green barrier that denotes precisely where important story events are allowed to happen, and where they are not.
If you're keen to wrangle TOR into a coherent Star Wars adventure, the trip across this barrier requires some mental gymnastics as you switch one set of genre expectations for another on the fly. RPG conversation trees ask you ignore numerous inconsistencies to successfully buy into the fantasy. Your conversation partner repeats gestures, blinks weirdly and sways in silence for as long as it takes for you to select the next conversation option. Accept these quirks and you can suspend your disbelief and the game works. The moment you cross the green barrier back into MMO world, you have to embrace an entirely different set of cognitive workarounds to cope with the fact that you're suddenly in a room packed full of Jedi. Half of them have the same companion as you. Some of them are wearing your face. Everything looks similar, but the world makes slightly less sense.
The transition is bewildering, but completely necessary. MMOs are hard to get in to because there's a gulf between the actions you're performing and the fantasy the game is selling. In combat, the button sequence '1, 2, Shift-1, 4 and 5 if necessary' causes my Sith Warrior cut through enemies in a blaze of savage lightsaber strikes. It's dazzling, and because I love the fantasy I happily let myself be tricked into feeling responsible for the spectacle. However, for story to work in an MMO, I must maintain a delusion of extraordinary proportions, one that can rationalise the fact that clones of me are visibly progressing through my heroic journey all around me. It's an exercise in doublethink. I must hold two opposing realities to be true at the same time, or even more. I am the only one who can save the world. Everyone can save the world. The level 50 characters loitering in the hub zones have already saved the world.
I found the big green story doors ridiculous when I started The Old Republic. Now I'm thankful for them, because the alternative is insanity. By literally compartmentalising story into in little spaces away from the MMO, TOR makes an uncomfortable but necessary compromise. The Old Republic's opposing personalities can coexist without ever quite acknowledging each other. If that means I get my slice of Bioware Star Wars soap opera, I'm more than happy to play along.