Warning: This essay contains a few spoilers.
What is the nature of power? Is it the ability to destroy? The ability to create? The ability to choose? The ability to protect? The ability to lead? Is it ultimate freedom, or is it by its very nature a contract with society?
Jade Empire, Bioware’s 2003 Action-RPG for the Xbox, asks these questions as the player fights his/her way through a 50-hour odyssey of magic, martial arts, and mystery. Utilizing an East Asian aesthetic (principally derived from Chinese mythology and Wuxia) in an action-packed, modern tale of fantasy (from a Western perspective), it forges a modern synthesis that meditates on the nature of achievement in life.
Beyond that, it is a meta-analysis: the player’s actions define the story and themes, much like many of Bioware’s other, similar titles. Beyond the ability to choose one’s class and supernatural/physical skills, there is a further delineation of non-morality morality. Not simply the Light Side or Dark Side of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the dichotomy is expressed better as the pull between duties to humanity and the desires of the self. Either benefits the Universe and character, but in radically different ways based entirely upon how one expresses the use of change, both from within and without.
POWER AS AN OBLIGATION TO SOCIETY
The Way of the Open Palm is one of selfless virtue. Through this path, players can rescue the souls of the damned, stop a mob war, and destroy corruption on Earth emanating from the Spirit world. It is not just the facility to do these things, though, but the choice: at any point, the main character can choose to take the lower, evil, or selfish road. Even if one has played an egocentric adventure so far, a mammoth choice rears its head, forcing the player to take a stand that allows for destruction… or redemption. Forgiveness is not just something that the player gives to the world. It is something that can be accepted.
POWER AS AN OBLIGATION TO THE INDIVIDUAL
The Way of the Closed Fist is one of self-achievement. The player acts not out of selfish desire but because the world is made better when the strong lead the way. Coddling the weak, in the form of lustful lotharios or shadowy assassins, only produces a weaker society. Indeed, the Empire is ruled by a cowardly tyrant whose fear of death produced a war of paranormal proportions. The player’s character is under no such delusions: only the strong must rule, and when their time has passed, they must step aside. Success builds upon success until justice and peace prevail.
A shortsighted individual would see either as limiting. The Open Palm becomes a shackling existence, destroying the liberation of individuality for the sake of cultural mediocrity. The Closed Fist is vain, confusing hedonism for betterment of any kind. Yet as Master Smiling Mountain says, the “difference is in the details.” And the details are important.
Due to limitations to the platform, both journeys lead along the same basic path. Both paths lead to the Forest Spirit, to a confrontation in the afterlife, to secrets of the past. It is how the player interacts with others (particularly the party’s characters) that makes a difference. Force, persuasion, fighting, intellect, and many more options all lead to the same basic outcome, but with one big thing changed: the player him/herself.
To be fair, one is not strictly limited to a single path. A character could be mostly Open Palm, or mostly Closed Fist, or completely neutral. Or the entire message of duality could be an oversimplification.
Power is not just force. Rather, power is the discriminating use of one’s skills and mind to bring about change in the world. It is neutral of morals. Like a fire, it can create or destroy. The truly powerful are those who understand the ramifications for their actions, like Mistress Vo and Jian the Iron Fist imply. To impress either (and gain the benefits), the player must show that he/she has gained the power of a chosen path by knowing it (that is, acting in accordance with it completely).
Similarly, the gamer must learn the intricacies of the martial arts if he/she is to survive and save the Empire. Blind strikes and tanking don’t get the job done in later stages of the game. Strategy and careful consideration bring satisfying conclusions. To learn, to understand, to take authorship and responsibility and craft; that is the essence of power.
In this, it is reminiscent of Akira, the landmark 80’s animated film. In both, power taken by those without responsibility (Tetsuo, Emperor Sun Hai) leads to destruction that must be averted by “weaker” heroes. Tetsuo takes authority in a world that has stepped on him; he becomes a monster. Sun Hai ends the Long Drought; due to his actions (which will not be revealed here), ghosts and spirits begin to emerge that cause more damage than any climate disaster could.
Then Kaneda or the Player show up and bring the down the hammer. They may not be as potent as their opponent, but the journey upon which they have gone has increased their character to the point that they are willing to do anything, including sacrifice their lives, to do what they feel is just.
The influence espoused by Jade Empire is always good, if handled in the right way. We are individually accountable for our actions and their consequences. Only by accepting this—forging our own Way—do we harness true power. Responsibility to the self or responsibility to society; it doesn’t matter. It is a Nietzchean parable that moves beyond base morality. Good and evil do not exist because subjectivity enables the individual experience-exist within true virtue.
How’s that for an oftentimes Chop Sockey roleplaying game?