Thursday, 13 August 2020

The Long and Short of It

Let's talk about scale and suspension of disbelief. How, in my opinion, scale is one of the central tenants that makes Star Wars great. And why disregarding it can damage storytelling.

"For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic."

Wow. As a child, hearing Obi-Wan Kenobi state that in A New Hope, my first thought was, 'How long is that?' Because it sure sounded like a long, long time.

(Taken as 25 years per generation, which is a pretty standard measure, that's obviously 25,000 years - the figure I always had in my head growing up with the Expanded Universe.)

As a young Star Wars fan, my mind started to fill with possibilities. This was a huge amount of time, and the potential for stories within it mind-boggling.

Obi-Wan relates to Luke about the Old Republic and the Jedi (Lucasfilm / Starwars.com)

As I learnt more and more about Star Wars I realised that the Old Republic Obi-Wan spoke of didn't cover the entire galaxy - not even close. Nor did the Galactic Empire that took its place, although it appears to have enlarged somewhat from its democratic predecessor. This was fascinating: there were whole areas of the galaxy simply labelled 'Wild Space' or the 'Unknown Regions'. Even the 'Deep Core', relatively close to many of the most important locations from the films, remained largely unexplored.

This was great. I loved that the Star Wars I knew, as rich and diverse an experience for the senses as it was, was just a tiny moment in time across a handful of locations in a sea of stars. Scale, whether it's temporal or geographical, is very important: the breadth, depth and complexity of the galaxy is what makes Star Wars so appealing to me.

I don't want the galaxy to be small. I want it to be big. Very big. The bigger the better! Scale is good for storytelling. The more space, the more stories, the greater variety we're going to get.

Temporal and geographical contraction

Come the 21st Century and some cracks started to appear. Palpatine's comment in Attack of the Clones that the Republic had 'stood for a thousand years' jarred with everything I had grown up knowing. It was subsequently retconned that he was merely referring to the Republic as it had been since the Ruusan Reformations a millennia prior, so as not to contradict Kenobi's earlier (or later, in-universe!) comments. Bullet dodged - it turns out Mr Lucas hadn't contracted the age of the Republic by a factor of 25.

Wherever that particular discontinuity came from, sometimes scale is sacrificed for narrative purposes. A more cruel commentator would call this merely the absence of more creative writing, but I understand why it's sometimes necessary. There is no excuse, however, for handling it badly.

Rogue One (one of my very favourite Star Wars films) began a series of more recent geographical contractions: a squadron of X-Wings can leave Yavin IV and effect an attack on Eadu in the time it takes for Jyn Erso to climb a ladder... Believable perhaps if the two systems were right next to each other, but they're not... Not even close. Rogue One just about gets away with this, I think, without breaking the suspension of disbelief.

However, the sequel trilogy is more guilty of these sort of tropes. The arrival of First Order and Resistance forces to Takodana in The Force Awakens being a good example. Perhaps they were all just in the neighbourhood?

Flitting from one planet to another as quickly as the sequels do could be argued as expanding the geographical scale of the galaxy, but it also reduces the temporal impact. The original and prequel trilogies do a much better job of sticking with a few well-defined and explored locations that the audience really has time to get to know. In the sequels we're off to somewhere new before we can really learn to love somewhere.

Narrative driving in-universe mechanics is absolutely fine (The Last Jedi does this a bit better), but there has to be a balance, otherwise the entire set-up becomes simply unbelievable. And on a couple of occasions I think the sequels take this a little too far.

The future of the past

Fast forward to the last few months and much discussion has focused on the pre-prequel era of Star Wars content. With seemingly such a large history to explore, would we be transported to the Old Republic on screen? Would we see a range of stories spread across those 25 millennia?

With The High Republic announcement, we have learnt that the content will be set a mere 200 years before The Phantom Menace, 'when the Galactic Republic and the Jedi Order are at their zenith'. I'll be honest, I was surprised at that. 200 years? That doesn't feel like too much time in the Star Wars universe.

The High Republic content will cover 'a time of galactic expansion in the Outer Rim.' This also struck me as a little odd. Surely the Outer Rim would be very well settled a mere two centuries before the fall of the Republic?

I'm getting twitchy about scale again... And these fears are probably unfounded. The announcement stresses that, 'This period on the Star Wars timeline will not overlap any of the filmed features or series currently planned for production', which of course leaves the door open for exciting adventures set further back in time. The High Republic is a publishing sphere, so despite my reservations over the timeframe, there's still thousands of years of Republic history for Lucasfilm to delve into.

Star Wars: The High Republic Jedi
Lucasfilm / Starwars.com

Parallels

I think some of my unease comes from wanting Star Wars to be completely different to our own understanding of history. It's difficult to not draw parallels between certain aspects of Star Wars and the real world experiences of the human race, and in particular American history. Indeed, George Lucas has spoken himself on the subject.

It's hard not to draw a parallel between The High Republic and the American West: the dominant power pushing out into a (for them) unexplored frontier. As the announcement states, 'expect there to be rich tales of exploration; charting out the galaxy, meeting new cultures, and discovering what pioneer life in the Outer Rim was like.'

None of this is necessarily bad. Parallels are fine, and of course you want the audience to relate on some level to the story. But when they cross a certain line the whole suspension of disbelief can come crumbling down.

When we run parallels too close, or make the galaxy smaller because it suits our story, we start to lose the essence of what makes the story great in the first place. Star Wars has always been about, 'Wow, I've never seen anything like that before.' Not, 'Ah, that feels a little like...'

And you certainly don't want people sitting in the cinema thinking, 'That doesn't feel like it could happen...'

When it comes to Star Wars, bigger, longer and unfamiliar are generally better.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

A Little Can Go a Wrong Way

A recent, relatively insignificant, change to the user interface in SWTOR sparked a cacophony of outrage on some of the more popular forums and outlets.

A new UI element, the 'Galactic Guide', was introduced to replace the old Social Bar and it was, well, weird. Not only does it not match the look and feel of the rest of the UI, it also can't be customised in the same way the rest of the screen items can. The fact that it introduced some bugs into the way the UI is used and contains a prominent link to the game's real-world money marketplace (the Cartel Market) only added insult to perceived injury. This was seemingly especially the case among some subscribers, who objected to being overtly pushed towards the cash shop when they already pay their dues. Such players are always likely to be the most vocal, and rightly so, but also I suspect in the minority of numbers compared to the casual, free-to-play and preferred status players, who EA need to drive towards the Cartel Market.

I'm not particularly concerned with the content of the Galactic Guide - it doesn't serve any useful purpose for me. Rather I'm more disappointed at the minimised appearance:

The old Social Bar, which could be minimised into the form above

The new one, which, er- cannot

The episode got me thinking. Not so much about the element itself (and yes I think it's odd and incredibly annoying), but about what seemingly tiny details can upset the balance of a game and drive players into incandescence.

The answer, I hope, is that the vast majority of players really do care a great deal about the game. They are invested in it (emotionally and financially) and want the best possible experience BioWare can give them. When there is a perceived breach of that developer-player trust (or where something is obviously just poorly done) these players take a hit: their world, their Star Wars experience, is now a little diminished. And that can hurt. SWTOR, like all of Star Wars, is pure escapism for many people. When something comes along to jog us out of that reality we feel it personally.

This is why when something a developer introduces is in the spirit of the game, open and honestly communicated there will likely not be a problem. It's the feeling of forced-direction and poor execution that riles most, I suspect, not that there's now an extra link to the Cartel Market.

As implemented, the Galactic Guide is a jarring item in an otherwise immersive experience. And anything that jolts players out of their game-reality is going to have a disproportionate effect, no matter how small that item is.

Developers beware: even the smallest details can go wrong. Think about how the truly invested players might react - in the end, they're the ones that will still be here years down the line. While the most vocal, they're probably the ones that love your game the most, too.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

SWTOR: How Will I Remember This?

One day SWTOR will end. This will be a dark, dark day. In the meantime, I'm racking up hundreds of hours of gameplay. Trouble is, will I be able to look back with fondness in several years time?

A few years ago, in an effort to make sure I take the memories with me, I made a concerted effort to start capturing my adventures with screenshots. Beautiful vistas, epic cut-scenes or just my character looking particularly cool, I snap it all.

Below are 17 of my favourite shots taken since then. I edit all of my shots in Adobe Lightroom, generally bringing out colours and other small adjustments to exaggerate the mood. I find the native game is a little unsaturated, not that you notice while playing, so it's nice to have a screenshot collection that really 'pops'.

Looking at the below you'd be forgiven for thinking I mainly play dark side characters. Fear not, I have plenty of Jedi and Republic shots too! They just didn't really make the cut this time round.










(1) First we have the Jedi Academy on Tython. The first world many of us experience in the game and one of, if not the, most beautiful and peaceful. There's a serenity from just existing on Tython that is hard to match anywhere else. This view, as you first mount the hill and the Academy is revealed, is one of my earliest in-game 'wow' moments.










(2) Belsavis is a remarkable world: ice, snow, jungles, waterfalls, lava. Not to mention ancient Rakata monuments, tombs and abandoned machines... A great and dangerous world to explore. Here my Agent and his companion scout out a hilltop facility.










(3) My Sith Warrior assessing the scene on Tatooine. I love the distance visible on the desert world. I imagine he's probably a bit hot though.










(4) Cut-scenes and planetary intros are great for screen-grabbing. I can't recall exactly where this is, but the composition appealed to me.











(5) This 2001-style composition caught my eye, from somewhere in KOTFE or KOTET I believe.










(6) Nathema, as it appears in its namesake Flashpoint, is a stunning world. The view from this cliff-top gave me a Lord of the Rings vibe.










(7) Exploring the heart of Nathema. The ancient statues found here are a brilliant bit of design.










(8) Ilum follows the SWTOR guidelines of 'if it's a new area and we need it to look distinct: make it night-time.' (Looking at you Section X and Rishi.) It does it with style - adding falling meteorites and a view of the galactic plane.










(9) I've tried to limit the number of cut-scene shots here, as I'm obviously not composing them myself. But occasionally everything just looks so good I can't help but take a snap. Here my Agent, in full trooper armour, pilots a craft.










(10) I love this shot of the Dune Sea on Tatooine. It gives an inviting sense of exploration and vastness - the light from the twin suns leading you out of the shadows and off to who-knows-where.










(11) A pastiche of the ion cannon on Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back, this night-time shot of Belsavis shows the scale of Republic machinery on the prison world. At least, I assume this is a Republic installation and not a Rakatan relic?










(12) Sometimes everything just comes together: the look and feel of your character, their stance, lighting. This was one of those times. This is Elidian Telkadis, the head-canon captain of my Inquisitor's personal guard.










(13) Perhaps the quintessential Star Wars image, ever since the Millennium Falcon barrelled towards Alderaan in A New Hope. I love a hyperspace shot and this one translates that feeling of speed and boundless energy.










(14) At the risk of starting a giant-guns-pointing-at-the-sky series, here's another giant gun pointing at the sky. Onderon is a complex and beautiful addition to the game. The similarity in form between this shot and number 11 is striking.










(15) I adore this shot of Hoth. The structures emerging from the icy haze lends it an eerie feel. The planet feels vast in SWTOR and this shot highlights the isolated nature of each settlement.










(16) This shot is an oddity as it was captured mid-combat, something that's tricky to do and normally results in unusable images! The power of a Dark Lord of the Sith is apparent here - the Jedi being electrocuted obviously not the first victim of the Dark Lord's rage.










(17) There's nothing particularly special about this shot and, again, it's from a cut-scene so I can't take much credit. I just love the lighting and how the hologram illuminates my Inquisitor as he listens to Shae Vizla. The later-game cut-scenes are a great source of screenshots and a great way to really get a look at an armour combination you've spent effort on.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

SWTOR: An Eight Year Learning Love Affair

I have a hazy memory of seeing an advert for Star Wars: The Old Republic - presumably online. I remember seeing the giant structure that sits over the Alderaan Warzone. The exact time that this occurred escapes me, but I assume it must have been early 2012. I remember thinking, 'Cool. This looks like an interesting Star Wars experience.' But it was an online game with other (real) people and that wasn't for me.

Eventually curiosity got the better of me and I took the plunge. I believe I must have delved in around the time of the free-to-play launch, so late 2012. From then on I've never looked back and have been a subscriber for most of the time since.

What I'd initially feared as a forced social experience turned out to be quite the opposite. Yes, there were lots of other players running around, but the depth, quantity and quality of the story and the single-player aspects had me hooked immediately. It took me years to try PVP content via a Warzone and I've still never undertaken group content beyond that. My SWTOR experience is none the worse for it, either.

When I play a game, especially an RPG, immersion is everything. I want to live and breathe the world of the character. The story, the look, the intangible 'feel' of SWTOR made that very easy very quickly. That each player class had its own unique story helped massively. I wasn't Player 1 running through the same missions with a Jedi, Sith or smuggler avatar - I was a young Jedi Padawan finding his feet on Tython, I was a freed slave broken by the Sith on Korriban, and I was a smart-ass pilot running weapons behind the lines on Ord Mantell. I was immediately invested in each character I made, thinking long and hard about the names I gave them and developing back story and incidental elements to fill in the gaps as they progressed on their adventures. Not quite fan fiction, but enough of a narrative that I felt like I was playing through them rather than as them.

I guess in this vein, amongst the tropes of RP, PVE and PVP, I've always been an RPvE type of player, if you will.


The amount of content in SWTOR has meant I've only completed the class stories at most once (I'm still not quite there with my bounty hunter and trooper!). I take my time. Like everyone, I'm guilty of running off in a completionist frenzy from time-to-time, but I generally try to slow myself down and appreciate the little details. SWTOR is a beautiful and complex game that rewards you for taking the time to simply admire it. To drink it all in.

This approach, and the sheer amount to do, has meant I'm constantly discovering new things. As mentioned, I've still never experienced group content - perhaps over the next few years I will? Just with solo content, the last eight years has been nothing if not a learning experience. SWTOR is a game that is easy to pick up and difficult to master (at least nowadays - it used to be a lot harder right from the beginning). As such, it's quite conceivable to spend your SWTOR experience running the main stories, bashing your favourite abilities and just having a blast - not really worrying about gear too much or quite what your abilities are doing in detail. Delve a bit deeper, however, and the process can be very rewarding. I've really enjoyed getting more involved in my character's stats, abilities and gear. Not because I necessarily need them to be 'better' (although it does help when trying to do later game content not originally designed for one person) but because I enjoy sculpting the character into the best version of themselves. And who doesn't get a kick from taking down a group of previously tough enemies with ease?

Once the floodgates open you may find yourself quickly immersed in stats, spreadsheets, forums, gearing guides and a lot of deep in-game crafting. It's a rewarding process but can at times feel without end. Especially when the latest patch raises the level ceiling, changes the gearing process or otherwise undermines everything you've been working towards!

However, learning about your abilities, how they interact, when to use them and how enemies might counter them is incredibly satisfying. It gives you a renewed sense of the complexity of the game and, certainly for me, makes me feel even more invested in the characters I've made.

Voltic (right), my Inquistor - the look and feel of a character, as well as their companions, is key to immersion for me

Like many players I was uneasy with some of the direction after the conclusion of the main story arcs and the release of expansions, particularly Knights of the Fallen Empire and Knights of  the Eternal Throne. The coalescence of all the class stories into a single reality, while perhaps being practically necessary (although likely not the developer's original intent for post-1.0 content), has dulled the individuality of all our different characters. To the point, in fact, where I started to create alternate reasonings for those characters I did take through the expansions. Now, I tend to skip KOTFE and KOTET entirely. I do miss the days during the original class stories where the actions of one protagonist would be referenced in another's story - the sense that there were eight stories being told simultaneously in a galaxy of infinite voices. I welcomed the change starting with Jedi Under Siege that diverged the Republic and Empire experiences again.

I hope I'm conveying a sense of my SWTOR experience. I enjoy reading how others play the game and it's always interesting to see how different people approach it. As an example, I wouldn't say I have a 'main' in the conventional sense (that is, a class I know inside-out and tend to play primarily), as many players do. I have a character that I usually run through new content first with (the first character I ever rolled), but I have only relatively recently taken the time to really get to grips with the intricacies of even this class.

As with most newbies I started with several DPS characters. In the last few months I've really enjoyed starting to heal. First with a Combat Medic Commando and more recently by transferring my Ruffian Scoundrel to Sawbones.

I've experienced 6 of the 8 class stories through to completion and have started a couple second time round. That it's taken me almost eight years to get back to the Jedi Knight story is a testament to the amount of content in the game. I'm genuinely excited to go through the class stories again - as so long has passed I've forgotten much of them completely.

Among my many alts is Narquis, Sith Warrior head-canon servant to Voltic (complete with Kylo Ren-style costuming, of course)

(Credit to those posters on TOR Fashion who've put the hard work into creating a lot of these looks that I've borrowed for my characters!)

The future of my SWTOR experience is exciting. I'm probably at the point in my personal progression that most players are much earlier in their MMO lives. It's therefore a good thing that the game will be around for several years to come yet, giving me time to fully experience the depth and complexity that I'd previously glossed over. Exciting times and I love it.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Where Next?

Welcome! I am the Star Wars Explorer. This blog is a new outlet, of sorts. A place for me to get my thoughts out of my head. A place for reflective discussion and appreciation of the galaxy far, far away....

I love all things Star Wars. The Star Wars galaxy is one of pure escapism. One not of this time or place. One full of infinite possibilities; of intrigue, conflict, hope. One glorious expanse. Almost endless stories to be told and places to visit. It is perhaps the scope of Star Wars that keeps me hooked. At the end of each story, it is quite easy to simply ask, 'Where Next?'


My great loves at the moment are The Old Republic MMORPG (SWTOR), and diving deep into the ever-expanding lore. Exploring The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian are a new treat for me - Star Wars on television!

Why the 'Explorer'? Because that's what I love to do: seek out every corner of the Star Wars universe. SWTOR is of course great for that, but other outlets such as the thoroughly brilliant Star Wars Explained YouTube channel and the wonderfully detailed OotiniCast, allow us to dive deeper and wider than has ever been possible before. We are in a golden age of Star Wars content and, coupled with modern media, it's never been easier to lose yourself in that place.

There'll be a healthy amount of SWTOR content here, as well as interesting tidbits on the Star Wars galaxy, thoughts on Star Wars media and anything else that piques my fancy. This will be a relaxed place with occasional deep-dives into the really smallest details - basically a mirror of how I like to explore.