A lifetime of procrastination, miserliness and laziness has given me a slightly different perspective on games than most, or at least, than the mainstream of visible gamer culture. Specifically, I prefer to buy acclaimed games years after release and play them slowly over a relatively long period of time. Though new graphics can be pretty, they have never really been my priority. This means you can attack a classic game much the way you attack a classic novel, and with the same allowances for period or cultural quirks.
Steam is as good an enabler of this approach as it is of the obsessive-compulsive hunt for newness in my serious gamer friends. The $2.50 I recently spent on Knights of the Old Republic (KoToR) is both fantastic value for a game of this size and quality, and some of the easiest money LucasArts and Bioware have ever made. The gameplay is still great, and I was impressed by the writing, which included one of the few genuine twists I’ve ever seen in a game.
In the recent book Expressive Processing, Noah Wardrip-Fruin analyses KoToR in terms of quest flags and dialogue trees, which do see heavy use. Wardrop-Fruin sees a dilemma between the consistency enforced by a linear narrative, and the better exploitation of an interactive medium, but greater chance for narrative bugs, in more open ended approaches. KoToR is far from a complete sandbox, and has a very strong narrative, so is probably more vulnerable to these sorts of narrative bugs. I saw a few, but it seems to have been less disruptive to my play experience than for Noah. I remember one Wookie side-quest where I hit the conclusion without one of the middle steps, and this meant the quest was never officially finished on the quest list, even though the subplot was resolved.
The profusion of subplots and quests linked to new characters and party members, backed by a lot of voice acting, gives the game a real richness, though it can also make you feel a bit like an intergalactic Jedi therapist. Indeed, at one point you do have the chance to explore a fellow Jedi’s relationship with her mother. It’s that sort of game, but that’s arguably not out of character for the Star Wars setting. As it happens, I found the Sandral-Matale subplot described in the article memorable for a different reason – the pretty clear nod to Romeo and Juliet had kicked off a cheesy loop of tunes from West Side Story in my head. When the guards from the two sides faced off at the climax, I was sure a dance fight was imminent. It’s possible I just overlooked the glitch because I was busy giggling.
Moments of critical or joking distance were very much the exception, though; mostly I played the game engaged and with disbelief suspended. It seems to me that technical constraints like quest flags and dialogue trees simply become formal constraints of the medium. In an engaging game, these elements are backgrounded or ignored by the player. It becomes as the stage in theatre or the frame in painting. We aren’t much distracted by the logistics of fitting the castle of Elsinore on stage when we watch Hamlet; at least, not if the production is any good.
For me, the greatest grating against verisimiliute in KoToR happened in the final battles. (It is so much a trope of the RPG genre that this barely counts as a spoiler.) The pattern of gameplay up to that point meant I had selected certain skills, in a certain distribution across characters, that were pretty poorly suited to those late fights. After tedious repetition, the only successful method seemed to be continuously running away while throwing my lightsaber from a distance. As the room was circular, this was slowly repeatable until the fight was won.
I think of this as the The Ancient Art of War effect. One of the first great wargames, the 1984 The Ancient Art of War was a beautifully crafted game based on Sun Tzu’s famous treatise from the Spring and Autumn Period. Indeed, if you don’t mind two colour graphics, it’s still very playable, an RTS fifteen years early, and without all the build queue management. It had one tiny flaw – if you had a unit entirely made of archers, you could in tactical mode let loose a volley of arrows and immediately retreat. Though the feigned retreat is a legitimate tactic greatly favoured by the Mongols, within the game, this would quickly exhaust your troops, but it was perfectly possible to retreat haggardly most of the way across the map. By this point the opposing army had usually been cut to pieces without being able to get a hit in.
Because the tactic is both the most efficient within the mechanics of the game, and very silly in analogous circumstances, it undermines suspension of disbelief rather brutally. Now, the game wasn’t ruined for me – I still think it’s marvellous. But I find distorted game tests of this nature far more distracting than the occassional narrative bug. They turn characters of flesh and bone into puppets on an empty stage.