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Star Wars: The Old Republic Column: SWTOR – Dark Side or Light?

By Isabelle Parsley on November 18, 2011

Good and Evil are fundamental concepts in most societies, in most of the books we read and in most of the games we play, including MMOs. I’ve always had issues with simplistic representations of good and evil, where the good guys are unquestionably good (and usually good-looking) and the bad guys are terribly, terribly evil (and usually ugly) – without any explanation either way. People aren’t generally that simple, and the Jessica Rabbit explanation – “I’m just drawn that way” – has never been enough for me, even in games.

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The human brain, however, requires labels to make sense of the world around it, and as a species we just love dichotomies: day/night, yes/no, hot/cold. It’s all well and good when it’s an empirical concept, but good and evil are a lot fuzzier, to me at least.

The SWTOR press embargo has been slowly lifting. It doesn’t mean we can all start shouting everything about the game from the rooftops, but it does broaden the scope of the discussion a little; and, after all, release is now less than a month away. For me it means I once again have to spend some time deciding which faction I’m going to join. Ironically, it’s a much easier decision when the factions are simplistic. If the “bad” side is just drawn that way I’ll steer clear of it without a second thought, because I’m not the type of player who enjoys being a dick to other people for its own sake.

Game design as a whole is slowly becoming more sophisticated when it comes to good guys and bad guys, factions, and choosing which side to represent. Even early on, some games were extremely good at personalizing the decision and doing away with simplistic notions of simply being good or being bad (Planescape: Torment, to name but one), but the great mass of games put out still tended to offer piss-poor explanations for choosing to stray from the path of goodness and light. If you wanted to be anything other than good, you ended up slaughtering people for no reason or stealing things just because they were there; it never made much sense to me, and it still doesn’t.

I covered something similar on the subject of The Secret World a few weeks back, because while I don’t role-play an awful lot in MMOs, I am a long-time role-player and I simply can’t make a character without giving some thought to how I think they fit in the wider world of the game – and I’m not content with being good or bad just because. I need to know why my character is a given way. And if I’m going to pick the ‘bad’ side, there has to be something I can empathize with or something I can legitimately reject on the ‘good’ side.

From an RP point of view, you can make some pretty strong arguments against the Republic in SWTOR: it’s rigid, it’s feudal, it’s stagnant. It’s an aging order whose ruling powers are too self-interested to see the rot at the core. As for the Jedi – serenity is a bad thing when it leads to complacent navel-gazing and inaction; and impressive though the Galactic Senate may be, there are billions whose days are spent grubbing in the dust just trying to get enough to eat. And you can, of course, make some similarly cogent points against the Empire. The factions are well-drawn and less obviously good/bad than they might appear at first glance. There’s a lot going on under the surface in both camps and a lot of room for personal interpretations, which is a testament to good, multi-layered design.

The problem with MMOs these days, however, is that faction decisions aren’t based purely on lore and a player’s personal choices. SWTOR has raised some interesting debates lately among my friends and acquaintances, and within the guild I’m likely to be playing the game with – but what we’re discussing isn’t so much the lore as what all the other players are likely to choose. Some of my friends and acquaintances are determined to go Empire because they foresee another WoW Alliance/Horde effect, where everyone starts off wanting to play the pretty/good guys. The unspoken implication is that only the smart people, the really good players, will choose the ugly bad guys.

I’m not sure if WoW created it, but these days there’s tacit assumption that playing the ‘bad’ faction, the underdogs, is more difficult, and that there is therefore more skill and pride (and, let’s be blunt, e-peen) in playing them. That’s BS. Or is it? Mind-numbingly puerile as Barrens chat may have been, the Horde side does seem to have smarter, better-prepared and more cooperative players… but then I’ve always played Alliance, so maybe it’s just a grass-is-greener thing. I’ve played a few Horde-side characters in WoW (albeit not for any great length of time) and to be honest, people seemed just as fractious, uncooperative, selfish and idiotic as the mass of players on the Alliance side. There are immature minds and ass-hats on both sides.

It bothers me that my character faction decisions should be based on metagame concerns relating to what side the majority of other players is going to choose. I don’t believe either side is inherently smarter or better than the other, because actual experience suggests we’re all pretty much the same in terms of playing skill, except that those who choose the ‘bad’ side like to spout on about how they’re smarter for picking the underdog, and about how that makes them the superior player.

It bothers me even more that if I do choose the underdog side, I’ll be joining those who think they’re better than everyone else for selecting the “harder” side to play. It bothers me that I have friends and acquaintances who actually think like that, without any apparent concern for how patronizing that might be, when those same friends deride elitism in the gaming community. The thing is, I usually do support the underdog faction in RPGs and MMOs because it tends to be full of interesting characters and RP options – but I certainly don’t pick it because I think it makes me a l33ter player.

But whether I like it or not, that particular metagame concern is a fact of MMO faction choices these days; we all have our biases. To many players, that metagame concern is the only real concern – not everyone is interested in RP, and some players care only about what other players will be doing. I’ll admit I’m biased against that: I don’t understand how someone can play a character in an MMO purely as some kind of graphical representation of themselves – these are role-playing games, not Tetris with avatars! But whether I understand it or not, it’s a valid way to play MMOs.

At the end of the day I’m going to base my faction choices on what’s important to me – which, in my case, doesn’t include any consideration of how many are going to play what side and how mature they may or may not be. And if I don’t like my choice in practice, I’ll try the other side, regardless of what my friends, acquaintances and guild-mates might be doing, because there’s no point to playing a game if you’re not having fun.

So, what’s your choice? Dark Side, or Light?

Isabelle Parsley / http://stylishcorpse.wordpress.com

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Player Perspectives
Isabelle Parsley, better known as Ysharros, is a long time MMORPG player and prolific blogger on the topic. She joins the MMORPG.com columnist team with this Player Perspectives offering every Friday.
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