Star Wars: The Old Republic – Both the Best and Worst thing BioWare’s Ever Done

Fulcia Romero, my level-49 Jedi zombie hunter, has officially cashed in her lightsaber.

Moments ago, I had been egging her on as she hacked away at yet another faceless Sith Boss. Predictably, she died after a hard-fought battle, leaving me to either wait ten minutes to respawn, or warp to the nearest medical facility and fight my way back. This is a familiar despair, because I’ve been in this same spot dozens of times over the last few months. What’s worse: after the despair wears off, I usually feel the familiar pull to go back. But not this time!

After pouring untold hours into BioWare’s huge, sprawling MMORPG, I’ve finally come to a stunning conclusion. It’s incredible. And terrible.

BioWare doesn’t need a cheerleader, but it’s not hyperbole to say that they’re one of the most beloved and talent-stuffed developers on the planet.  Even its current-gen offerings, like Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect, may as well be timeless even now. BioWare distills many (but not all!) of these successes into SW:TOR, perfecting parts of the formula and modifying others. Detailed skill trees, tri-fold dialogue systems, myriad planets, and long, branching storylines are all BioWare standards, and TOR binds them together in one singular, mammoth package. It’s a culmination and refinement of all of BioWare’s RPG mechanics. And it tells a story that’s hundreds of hours long.

The game’s high points include a thrilling series of repeatable space missions that count amongst my favorite RPG diversions ever, and the PVP, while hit-and-miss, can be a blast if you’re on the right team. Co-op “Flashpoint” missions are good fun, too… if you can find a group. After level 35, my server was a ghost town. This may change in the future, obviously.

And yet…

SW:TOR is also their biggest failure. And not just because the familiar MMORPG trappings of grinding and loot gathering transform BioWare’s joyful experiences into repetitive chores. Had the story (the Jedi Knight story, in particular – I wanted to keep some continuity with the KOTOR games, which I really liked) had any of the spark of a Mass Effect, or even a Dragon Age II, god forbid, it would have been an amazing experience. But there’s no spark. The Jedi Knight storyline is an exercise in “And then this happened.” After you complete the prologue, which is – I’m not even shitting you – fifteen+ hours long, you’re sent on a series of quests to a shopping list of planets. You bounce from one generic Sith adversary to the next, with the occasional Imperial moustache-twirler thrown in for variety. This may work fine in a Saturday Morning cartoon, but it doesn’t have any of the narrative propulsion of something like Mass Effect 2. Worse still, you’re following orders most of the time, so you don’t get the sense that your hero has free will.

The game itself will seem familiar to anyone with MMORPG experience, which is both a blessing and a curse. For someone (like me) who doesn’t particularly like MMORPGs, it’s a shame that BioWare didn’t make any meaningful changes to the WoW formula. With the exceptions of Tatooine and Hoth, the planets are mostly bland and interchangeable. The familiar pattern of “get quest, go to cave/field/warehouse, and collect/kill/disable entity” quickly becomes a means to an end, with the “end” being the leveling of your character. It’s good fun to watch your character grow, but BioWare seems to want you to drag it out as long as possible by making planets impossibly large (you’ll need to buy a $28,000 speeder at some point, or else) and by making your character walk through endless corridors, docking bays, and entry pavilions before you can get to any of the game content. It’s a transparent ploy to inflate playtime, and makes traveling between planets and the fleet a hutt-sized pain in the ass.

It also doesn’t help that the design reminds me of the Clone Wars cartoon. Any link to the prequels, either direct or indirect, instantly puts a bad taste in my mouth.

There are two major exceptions to the “lame planet” rule:  Tatooine and Hoth. Each planet has a self-contained (and usually forgettable) side plot , but those two planets featured the best of the lot, and have a tangible connection to the two good Star Wars films, which doesn’t hurt. They’re also the only planets that are any fun to explore.

In the end, it’s quantity over quality that killed SW:TOR for me; it throws so much of this stuff at you that it all becomes meaningless in the end. It’s the least enriching BioWare game I’ve ever played, if you can call a game “enriching;” after finishing ME2, I felt invigorated, but after playing this game, I just feel exhausted. It’s how I imagine casino addicts feel after spending twenty hours in front of a one armed bandit.

It’s a rare thing to leave a BioWare game unfinished; maybe I just needed a break before Mass Effect 3. I doubt it.

SOMETHING’S NOT QUITE RIGHT: HOW ARGENTO’S DEEP RED ATTACKS YOUR BRAIN

People have been drawing connections between dreaming and movies  – Oneiric film theory – since the beginning, reaching a sort of pop apotheosis with Christopher Nolan’s Inception; if you haven’t already, do check out Devin Faraci’s NEVER WAKE UP essay. In a nutshell, Oneiric film theory suggests that, like dreams, movies hide all kinds of unconscious goodies even beneath subtext, and that our brains process dreams and movies in very similar ways. Viewing a film can put us in a dream-like state; our pulse rate slows, our body temperature cools, and we give in to images in the dark.  This means that a good horror film might have a lot in common with an actual nightmare.

Here’s a variation on a dream we’ve all had:

Inexplicably, you’re a teenager again. You’re living back at home with your parents. As you explore the house, you feel both a sense of familiarity and a sense of foreignness. Something isn’t quite right. The colors in the halls match what you remember, but the rooms aren’t in the right order, and the carpeting has an odd texture… and what on Earth is your old roommate’s Dawn of the Dead poster doing on the bathroom wall?

This sense of anti-deja-vu actually has a name: Jamais vu. It’s a by-product of how our brains process information in dreams, and sits at the root of why certain horror movies can hotwire our fear response, even at the expense of reason and logic. There’s a reason we remember nightmares far more often than we can recall other dreams, and some of the cleverest storytellers know how to exploit it. Especially Dario Argento.

Engage in a discussion about the movies of Dario Argento, David Lynch, or Lucio Fulci, and you’ll eventually hear the term “dream logic.” But what does this term actually mean? Is it shorthand for “illogical and crazy, with maybe some Freud up in there,” or is it there a more meaningful definition? Great horror movies like Suspiria, Deep Red (Profondo Rosso), Pulse (Kairo), Eraserhead, and The Beyond  have “dream-like” qualities, like inappropriate music, cartoonish gore, or Kairo‘s impossible (and utterly horrifying) stumble, but is there a common element that binds them? More importantly, what makes it scary?

–SPOILERS FOR DEEP RED FOLLOW–

Deep Red, Dario Argento’s outrageously psychoanalytic Blow Up riff, can help us find the answer. Preamble: I’m not tackling the subtext of Deep Red here. Phallus-wielding feminists and weird sexual politics are better suited for a different discussion, not to mention the Freudian subtext so blatant that it may as well be text-text.

Deep Red follows Marcus Daly (David Hemmings), an English pianist who, while wandering the streets of Rome at night, witnesses the murder of a psychic. This kicks off a cat and mouse game between Daly and the killer. The killer’s calling card? He plays a children’s song on a tape cassette prior to every murder. It is – on the surface, at least – a silly, gory romp loaded with leather-fisted Giallo tropes,  and features face-boiling, teeth-bashing, a graphic elevator decapitation, and a galloping animatronic doll.  Although Daly gets help from his buddy Carlo and manic pixie journalist Gianna, as a gumshoe, he makes Jeff Lebowski look like Philip Marlowe. Here’s my favorite bit of exposition:

[In an office, Marcus Daly consults two associates about the case]

Parapsychology Expert: Uh… I’d like to add something much less scientific about this case… this business about the children’s song. If you recall, Helga [The murdered psychic] also said something about a house, as well as a child singing. And, well, I remember having read a little book quite some time ago on folklore. I think the title was “The Modern Ghost, and the Black Legends of Today.” The author spoke about a haunted house from which the neighbors could sometimes hear singing, like that of a child. The conjecture is that an act of bloodshed was once committed in that house.

Daly: “Do you have that book??!?”

Daly follows an unsolicited, unscientific hunch of this guy (who is never again seen in the film!), which leads him to the folklore book.  In the book, Daly thumbs to a picture of a foreboding house, which happens to be the home of the killer.

This is how Daly breaks the case.

Deep Red‘s plot is just as silly as Daly’s investigative techniques. Much like dreams, Deep Red may be internally consistent, but its logic doesn’t jibe with how things work the real world. Still, we play along anyway.

My point is this: Deep Red is still an affecting movie, not despite, but because of its weak ties to everyday logic. Its Horror doesn’t live in the plot; it lives deeper in the fiber of the film. Deep Red takes multiple, meaningfully conflicting ideas, and merges them together to create a more intense viewer response. A death scene scored to Goblin’s driving funk rhythms? Something’s not quite right here. Christmas trees and screaming children? That’s just unclean. Then there’s the film’s portrayal of Carlo’s lover, who’s played by a female actor, but is dubbed with a male voice. It’s this constant sense of incongruity that drives the film. It’s also important that Argento takes household objects, like cooking knives, a freshly drawn bath, or even a boring coffee table, and turns them into death implements. Our homes are now an arsenal of murder weapons. We’ve all stubbed our toe on a coffee table or been burned by hot water, making these death scenes all the more personal, and merging two very different ideas – the home, and the grave.

But the best example of these “incongruity bombs” is the infamous children’s song played by the killer before each attack. It’s (naturally) a Goblin song called School at Night (LISTEN HERE) and is easily just as memorable and effective as the Jaws theme at creating tension. Unlike the Jaws theme, though, School at Night is different in a few important ways. The shark victims couldn’t hear John Williams’ cello notes before each attack, but each of Deep Red‘s victims recognize School at Night as their own MURDER CAROL. The soundtrack bleeds down into the film, pulling us down with it. And where the Jaws theme is menacing on its own, School at Night is a whimsical music-box lullaby fit best for Geppetto’s toy shop, not a murderer’s den. It’s a harmless, pleasant song.

Or is it? Listen again. Instead of starting on beat one, like most simple, child-friendly melodies, it starts on beat three. It’s always two beats behind, but we don’t consciously notice it. Also, most children’s melodies, from Frère Jacques to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, don’t include notes outside of their original key. The second note in the fourth measure, beginning at 0:10 in the linked audio, is in a different key.

As a result, School at Night evokes an automatic skin-crawl response.

Dreams themselves play similar games with the brain.* When we encounter a concept in a dream, our brains use two different methods of understanding it: feature binding, and context binding. When we’re feature binding, we’re constructing simple, low level representations, like “this apple is red,” or “that car has four wheels.” When we perform context binding, we’re trying to fit these low-level things into a much bigger picture. Why is Janet Jackson eating my apple, and how did she get into my car? And what’s the car doing up on a roof? As it turns out, context binding requires a lot more brainpower to get right. We’re not only focusing on the tiny details, but we’re also pulling the pieces together and fitting them into complicated scenarios, so our brains muck it up sometimes. When context binding breaks down, the brain creates incongruities, which leads to that peculiar something doesn’t feel quite right effect. And it’s typically very memorable. There’s also evidence that “erroneous binding” plays an important role in the Capgras delusion, in which sufferers become convinced that a friend or loved one has been replaced by an impostor. When our waking brains can’t make these important connections, real life can become a De Palma-esque nightmare.

I think that “Dream Logic” isn’t so much about illogic or fantasy as it is about a careful pairing of conflicting ideas. It’s possible that Deep Red, by sending us viral, unbound packets of  incongruous information, hijacks our brains in an attempt to unnerve and disturb from the inside out. If watching a film puts us in a dream-like state, all Argento needs to do is take advantage of our brains’ existing vulnerabilities. And I think that Argento’s fully aware of this, even beyond the fact that the killer’s theme song is a lullaby. The film’s opening sequence has Helga, the doomed psychic, giving a talk at the European Conference on Parapsychology in an auditorium that looks suspiciously like a movie theater:

“I can see things the very moment they occur, but nothing of what is to come. I can feel thoughts the very instant they are formed. And even much later, if the thoughts are very long, for they linger about the room… like cobwebs.”

[Helga convulses in agony. Someone is violating her mind with obscene imagery.]

“…I feel… a presence… a twisted mind… sending me thoughts…. perverted, murderous thoughts!”

Oh God! Argento’s piping this stuff directly into our brains!

*FYI, I didn’t pull all of this out of my butt. Gerrans, P. Dream experience and a revisionist account of delusions of misidentification. Consciousness
and Cognition (2011), doi:10.1016/j.concog.2011.11.003

Introduction

First things first: Why should anyone read this blog? After all, if it’s going to be weekly dissertations on some schmoe’s favorite movies, shows, games, or books, there are hundreds of better known and well-vetted sources to choose from. Why read this one?

I’ve been writing for the web in one format or another for five years. (Here’s some proof.) This hardly makes me a veteran, but I’ve done enough reading and writing to know when a horse has been beaten to death. The traditional web writer formula – put out a trickle of news commentary alongside big weekly reviews, and wrap things up with an obligatory top ten list at the end of the year – is finished. Opinions are cheap, especially when they’re couched in boring reviewerspeak tropes and hyperbole. Find me a rave review on the internet that doesn’t use the words “compelling” or “works,” and I’ll owe you a doughnut. It gets even worse when you realize that most writers have no idea why a plot point is “compelling” or why something “works.”

And then there’s the scary trend of writers bucketing art into “it’s awesome” or “it sucks” bins. This binarization of commentary lies at the root of fanboyism, and is a discussion killer. To quote my Polish mother in law, “there’s nothing so bad that no good can come of it;” in fact, bad, poorly-thought-out movies can generate just as much healthy discussion as a classic. FilmCritHulk (who is, seriously, 2011’s great new voice) explains this perfectly in his NEVER HATE A MOVIE essay. I’m more interested in why a story connects with us or sends us running rather than treating directors, games, movies, or franchises as our favorite surrogate sports teams. If you’re like me, then please consider giving this experiment of mine a shot.

Of course, it’s not all bad. There are plenty of amazing, insightful, and hilarious voices out there.

If you’re still on the fence, here’s a sample of some of my favorite things I’ve written recently:

http://www.chud.com/21429/blu-ray-review-snow-white/

http://www.chud.com/71332/internet-explhorror-the-scariest-stuff-on-the-web/

http://www.chud.com/36527/why-games-are-lousy/

http://www.chud.com/29644/mcp-2011/