Ever since I became the Bastard Of The Old Republic, I’ve found it an awful lot easier to delve into the crueller side of gaming choices. So it is that I’ve chosen to spend my time with Star Wars: The Old Republic as a Sith. And not some stupid do-gooding Sith who just happened to be born on the wrong side of the galaxy. I mean a Sith, cruel for the sake of being cruel, delighting in mindlessly murdering innocents and needlessly upsetting everyone I meet. And in the game. And in doing so, I’m discovering that making an entire race of baddies is a pretty tricky challenge.
Traditionally, games have the advantage of assuming you in the heroic role, and then giving you the options to step outside of this. In the vast majority of RPGs your job is the save the baby/world/universe, and if you’re going to be a dick along the way, you’re still on the way to making everything better. Perhaps the game will let this be for your own selfish gain, give it that angle, but you’re deviating from the norm.
SWTOR, in creating two entirely separate games, set within the same universe on the same servers, has – as much as they protest otherwise – divided things down the line of the Force. You’re either on the side of the Sith or the Jedis, and there are expected behaviours for each. Because, well, that’s the way Star Wars works. The giant space pantomime has claw-handed, red-eyed Empire baddies plotting the demise of the Republic, or the doe-eyed lovelies trying to save that same Republic from the attacks of the Sith Empire.
However, in the game both sides can make Dark or Light decisions, so you absolutely can be a Dark Jedi or a Light Sith, or indeed any of the other playable classes. But, of course, depending on the side you are always going against expectations. And in order for that to be the case (with exceptions), it’s necessary that the Republic stories mostly feature nice people being nice and the Empire side to be horrid people being horrid. That feels perfectly normal when you’re playing Republic, with an emphasis on being friendly, but with naughty types scattered about to meddle. It starts to get a little more strange when you’re on the Darker Side.
I have no idea what I would have done differently, of course. Starting out as a Sith Inquisitor, I began as a put-upon slave, but my propensity for the Force saw me in training to become a Sith, and thus sent on various tasks for the Sith Academy. My immediate superior, a very evil man intent on my death, was constantly thwarted by my brilliant ability to run around clicking on my various powers in a series of fights, while his superior carried out her Machiavellian plans from above. Evil evil evil.
We’re in Eviltown, Evilville and everyone here trains to be evil. Right? Wrong. Because being evil is actually rather unpleasant in large doses – it’s why so few of us choose it in real life. So in the end you find that a lot of the quests you’re given tend to come down to doing other people a favour. Which doesn’t really seem like the Sith way to me.
“Hi, er, I know you’re an evil Sith lord and all, but I was wondering if you could possibly take this box to someone the other side of this map, so they can give you a thing to carry all the way back to me?”
What sort of thing? This doesn’t seem right.
“Oh, it’s an evil thing. Carrying it will ensure an evil thing happens, promise!”
That’s pretty much how it has to go. You repair the broken tower because someone else needs you to, even though you’re a terrifying wielder of badness, and they’re some chap working on the ground. Sure, the tower needs to be working to help with the overall evil plans, but you’re still doing favours for strangers in a way that doesn’t feel quite right. And when you’re accusing others of murdering innocents, well, it’s a bit odd. Surely that’s what we should all be doing?
And then there’s those who just aren’t evil at all. Those who would prefer things aren’t quite so nasty in these parts. And you just feel sorry for them. This isn’t the right planet for you! There’s a whole colony of Republicans all holding hands and weaving flowers in their hair! On the next shuttle out of here with you! And if that’s how you choose to play the game, then you’re going to find yourself in something of a pickle, really. Rebelling against evil may seem the noble thing to do, but you’re really going to be up against it. Those rebel slaves are going to shoot at you no matter how much you may stand for their freedom.
Actually, the slaves offer a good example of where the game gets the confusing balance of badness just right. One particularly nasty individual, Lord Drowl (good evil name) asks you to poison the rebel slaves’ water supply with a new poison he’s been working on, one that will cause the afflicted to die slowly in terrible agony over a couple of weeks. It will lower morale in the others, he says, and thus weaken their rebellion. Okay! Bwah ha ha. He sends me over to his colleague, who has the serum thingie.
Oh, but this chap doesn’t want me to use it. Sergeant Slarin explains that the poison’s terrible effects have nothing to do with bringing about the end of the rebellion. In fact, he tells me in his best Ben Goldacre voice, it’s been proven that increased suffering of others has no effect on morale at all, and will only make their resolve all the steelier. He explains,
“Lord Drawl simply takes perverse thrill in gratuitous suffering.”
Well, me too! Aiming to be as Dark Side as I can, that sounds perfect. Slarin continues,
“I’ve prepared a dose that will kill the slaves efficiently – which is better for the Empire and for me. Will you deliver my dosage instead?”
It’s a good choice. Slarin’s motivations are not for the lives of the slaves, nor their wellbeing, but rather because the sooner the rebellion’s over, the less time he has to spend with Drawl, whom he cannot stand. You’ve two options here:
Dark: No, the slaves must suffer.
Light: A quick death is better.
This is, I’d say, good work. In this preposterous scenario you’re killing slaves either way, but you’re getting to choose just how evil you want to be. Of course, playing “Light” and you’ve got a pretty farcical choice in front of you.
But that’s the other end of the issue of being Sith. An entire society of people looking out only for themselves, focusing on hate, and wanting evil to be carried out – well, it’s just not practical, is it? And the other thing – baddies don’t tend to consider themselves baddies, do they? This has never been better captured than by Mitchel & Webb:
But such is the extraordinarily pantomime and un-thought-through nature of Lucas’s creation, the Empire’s cartoonish naughtiness has never been justified in any sophisticated way, and BioWare aren’t perhaps in a position to start adding depth to the LucasFilm puddle.
However, I do still hope that as I progress, I’ll encounter a more nuanced form of Sith evil, perhaps some who believe the Sith way is philosophically and ontologically pragmatic.
It’s interesting, I think, to discover just how willing we are to allow baddy enemies to be so vacuous in their motivations. The green, scaly creatures are running toward us and shooting because they’re the enemy. They’re bad. It’s what they do. And if we ever get anywhere close to playing them, it’s in multiplayer as we equally mindlessly attempt to kill our chums. But were we to actually have to encounter a single-player or narrative-based version of their existence, we’d be stuck. Sure, there’ll be some nonsense about needing to harvest our water or whatever, but the bit where they do that by vindictively wiping out the entire population of the planet usually gets left out. Because no one’s ever given it any thought.
And that’s the predicament of SWTOR. You’ve got this malevolent bunch, plotting their malevolence, but without ever making it exactly clear why. Sure, they hate those stupid Republic people, and they want them out of the universe, possibly they want revenge? From hundreds of years ago. Is that enough? For everyone. Everyone involved?
Fortunately, by embracing such ridiculous evil for no good reason, I’m fitting right in. No hesitation on those slaves. They deserve to suffer! Why? Because I’m EVIL! Why? Shush.