This essay has a spoiler for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I shouldn’t need to give anyone a warning about that, but just in case, here it is. In addition, one could probably infer a spoiler or two from my description of Mass Effect 3 if you put your thinking caps on. You have been warned.
With the way that fans reacted to Mass Effect 3’s ending, you’d have thought that its developer, BioWare, implanted a virus that destroyed a console’s hard drive and replaced it with child pornography. The internet exploded into a frenzy of wrath within days of release, once the hardest of hardcore gamers got to the ending and then—armed with tar, pitchforks, and Professor Lawrence’s Home Exorcism Kit—vented their wrath upon all manner of forums, social networking sites, and petitions. Creators engaged them on the front lines before eventually issuing a retraction (of sorts). All was right with the world… or would be, once the creators released the patch.
For what it’s worth, I loved ME 3, but I can also understand the anger in an abstract sense. If a consumer feels betrayed by a cheap ending, it can ruin the immersion that a franchise creates. This goes doubly so for a game series like Mass Effect, the differentiating game mechanic of which was that one’s choices affected the narrative in major storyworld-altering ways. It was a powerful narrative tool that helped sell millions of copies, despite its hybrid RPG/Action gameplay that took a little getting used to. By crafting an ending that (some feel) doesn’t adequately address this mechanic, it could be said that BioWare undersold the entire franchise.
It certainly didn’t help that a number of problems cropped up with ME3’s launch, and the narrative. Many fans were already angered by the implementation of Day-One DLC. Others disliked the DRM hoops that the publisher, EA, required of gamers if they wanted to utilize the multiplayer. I could write an essay about the supposed missteps made during the ramp-up to one of the most anticipated titles of 2012, but hindsight is 20/20 and, anyway, it would be irrelevant to the topic at hand.
The Point? People care about narrative in games. They build relationships with characters in a way that is unattainable in other media. One can’t drive a stake through Edward’s (or Bella’s) heart, but when one chooses whether Wrex lives or dies in the first Mass Effect, and that choice leads to unforeseen consequences of galactic importance in later titles, the feedback is all positive from consumers-to-creator and creator-to-consumer. Your voice(s) matter. Your actions affect the universe at large. You and your story is important.
Betrayal is at the heart of this conflict, even if the ending of ME3 does not undermine a single point of the thematic underpinnings of the story. Depressing? So are many other pieces of art. Dealing with the harsh realities of fate and free will? Ditto. The majority opinion came down on the side that one’s actions didn’t affect the ending enough. In other words, what mattered to fans was that gameplay and narrative didn’t harmonize.
What is all the more interesting is that BioWare had dealt with this issue before. The characters, universe, and console were different. The themes, broad gameplay, and mechanics (or, at least, the beginnings of them) were the same. Both sold millions of copies and became “Game of the Year” contenders. Yet one goes down in history as an off-key note at the end of a symphony and the other is remembered as one of the finest western RPG’s of all time.
BioWare and LucasArts launched Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic to near universal acclaim in 2003. It was a role-playing game based on a D20 system (similar to Dungeons and Dragons) that abstracted dice-rolling into the lightsaber and blaster battles of George Lucas’s global phenomenon. A host of quirky characters, a compelling score, and a mix of gameplay that never felt too tiring all fit into a compelling narrative that had the gamer tipping the scales
To sum up a thirty-hour-plus game in one paragraph…
Set 4,000 years before the events of the films, the gamer takes on the role of a memory-deficient main character that has been thrust into a war between the do-gooding Republic and the evil-loving Sith. The Jedi, those Force-wielding knights of Buddha-like balance, have been trying to stem a rampage of the Sith’s leader, Darth Revan. Thankfully for the Jedi and Republic, Revan fell in battle, leaving a power vacuum filled by his apprentice, Darth Malak, that has destabilized the entire galaxy. It is now up to the player to end the war by defeating Malak and bringing peace… or taking up his mantle as tyrant.
Just like Mass Effect, KOTOR dealt with issues of fate and free will through narrative interaction. Save the Sand People or exterminate them. Reveal the treachery on Kashyyyk or let the slavers pay you off to continue on capturing Wookies. Every choice had a consequence or reward. This wasn’t just choosing how to face down a Rancor (head-on-head or through a cleverly laid trap); this was determining how to save the galaxy, one life at a time. But could you really save the universe? And would you even want to, with all the weakness and corruption around you? Wouldn’t it be better to rule it instead, cutting down any and all that stood in your way?
What’s more, it integrated game mechanics that later games (read: Mass Effect) would later perfect. There were the typical RPG elements, of course: customizable character features, upgradeable weapons, an emphasis on narrative over fighting, different classes of character/party, etc. In addition, choices of morality led a character down either the Light Side or the Dark Side of the Force, allowing (or disallowing) certain options when upgrading characters based on their innate abilities.
Additionally, a number of player choices in the game affected the narrative, and not just whether the Republic or the Sith would win at the end of the day. One could heal NPCs with newly found technology and gain experience or leave them to die and sell the same tech for credits. One could compel certain characters to distract proto-storm troopers (possibly leading to the innocent’s death) or force on the horde oneself in a much tougher scenario. These kinds of decisions had been in other games before, but the newfound power of the Xbox and the licensing heft of Star Wars combined to create a game that was unique enough for both non-fans and longtime Chewbacca-lovers to love.
That’s not to say that it was a perfect. Like I wrote, the gameplay features have all been outdone by later titles. The graphics were sub-par even for the day so as to give more space for the environments and narrative. And speaking of the story, while it was interesting enough, it was as commonplace as a space opera could get: the main character (the player) takes on the role of a lone fighter that (with a colorful cast of misfits) must right the wrongs (or wrong the rights) long ago in a galaxy far, far away. But that’s just the point: because of the customization of the main character that utilized choices of morality, the game’s main plot twist hammers home in a way not possible in other media.
Two-thirds of the way through the game, in the midst of a duel between your character and Darth Malak, BioWare drops the hammer. The reason that your character cannot remember much of his/her early life is because it was an implant. The Jedi had lied to you. Revan wasn’t killed but captured and wiped of his/her memory. Your character wasn’t fighting the remnants of Darth Revan; he/she WAS Darth Revan.
This was a Keyser Söze-esque reveal, but even more powerful because of a video game’s inherent strengths. In a game, players must make decisions rather than simply see them unfold. They are responsible for everything that happens in the narrative because they manipulate the game world through their avatar. In the case of Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare made them complicit in genocide.
At that point in the game, the narrative shifts toward an inevitable choice at the conclusion. Are you more than what you have done in your past, or are you fated to fulfill your role? This is the game’s greatest achievement: it forces the gamer to be an unwitting accomplice in a statement on the nature of the humankind and the universe.
A gamer choosing the Light Side for his Jedi is playing into an optimistic view of the universe. Like a wise philosopher once said, “You are what you do. A man is defined by his actions, not his memory.” A person may not be able to undo what has happened in the past, but he or she has the ability to change the future. A person, a character, the player has free will and cannot stand idly by while the universe is thrown into upheaval.
If the gamer chooses to lead his character down the Dark Side, he or she unwraps a much more convoluted theme. The game now posits that it is impossible to overcome one’s nature. If you’re evil, you’re evil to the core. What’s more, we all have our parts to play. Weakness needs to be extinguished, and if you have the tools, you are required to stand up and do something. Only the strong/smart/willful survive. Thus, those who are strongest/smartest/most strong willed are the pinnacles of humanity.
In a truly clever move that also helped to prevent gamers from alienating themselves via this reveal, BioWare gave gamers a final choice to abdicate from the decisions they had made prior to KOTOR’s surprise. Even if playing an evil (or good) character, a gamer could save the day (or end it). One does not have to abide by the past so long as they have knowledge, but though this seems to swing in favor of the “free will” argument above, it raises its such questions that would make Socrates proud. Is knowledge (sentience) required for a decision of such magnitude? Is the past completely meaningless if we can change it at will? Are such questions pointless and arbitrary?
This hits on an even deeper, meta-gaming level. Now that gamers (and you, the reader) know the truth, does that mean that any play-through of the title now is compromised? If we were to see the future, or know the past, does that destroy the conflict between fate and free will? Does a gamer really have control, or are they just puppets that must act out the play of the creator? Does anybody ever have control, anyway?
This is what strikes me most about this title nearly a decade later. Regardless of its subjective strengths and weaknesses, KOTOR utilizes its platform to engage the player in a discussion on absolute liberty. It’s one thing for Oedipus to rail against the injustices of fate; it’s another for a gamer to similarly decry determinism while, simultaneously, destroying this very argument through his/her own gameplay choices. Just like life, we are the stars of our own narrative. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic showcases this in a way that video games do best: through abstraction of reality and revelation.
As a final note, I would defend Mass Effect’s ending in the same way that I applaud Bioware’s handling of the conclusion of KOTOR. It does not have the same kind of element of surprise but it makes a similar statement about fate, free will, and the ability of choice. Perhaps it is even MORE powerful, because of the franchise’s main mechanic of player choice affecting long-term narrative rather than the amount of ammo one can buy from a store. Are gamers so truly focused on the here and now that they’ve forgotten that there was a time before narrative manipulation, multiple endings, and companies that actually listened to consumer concerns?
But I’ve run out of time and that’s another essay all together.