Choice Isn’t an Option: The Future of Star Wars Video Games (Part 1)

Choice Isn't An Option Future of Star Wars Gaming 2Ever since the announcement of the new dawn of Star Wars storytelling, it’s been weird to go back and play some of the classic Star Wars video games. They’re still fun to play, and while I can easily imagine them fitting in with the Legends/EU version of events, I’m getting excited for all the new possibilities of the connected storytelling future instead. We’re going to be moving on from the disjointed gaming past of Star Wars, where story wasn’t always a large focus, to one where the story does matter.

Having a strong story defined some of the most memorable SW games, like both of the excellent Knights of the Old Republic‘s, but games like Battlefront (without much story) are just as memorable. A growing trend of heavy-hitting story games have recently come out of the choice-based adventure genre like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. Could SW ever have a game like those? After playing both of those games recently, I posed the question to myself and I realized a sad, but not unlikely truth: the answer is no, SW can’t have choice-based gameplay as it doesn’t have a place in the new tightly wound and unified story-world. Choice isn’t, well, really an option anymore.

Knights of the Old RepublicThe magic of choice-filled games comes from the player’s ability to craft (for the most part) their own story in a larger world. It gives the player a sense of empowerment, helping them connect more easily to the world crafted within the game. For choice-filled Star Wars games, we got KotOR 1 and 2, which are full of great stories and interesting, thought-provoking choices. They’re both not only considered classics by fans, but also by the gaming community at large, especially thanks to their ability to let players make their own stamp on Star Wars history. The still ongoing MMO The Old Republic, an indirect sequel, continues the choice enabled era, offering more options for choice than ever before.

The Old RepublicHowever, to connect the 300 years difference between KotOR 2 and TOR, a canon-version for the choices in the KotOR games was established. While you still can (and was always able to) play the KotORs being free to make your own choices, the novel The Old Republic: Revan lessened the thrill when it disconnected some of your playthroughs from Legends canon. Suddenly the customizable player characters from both games were given specific genders, specific story choices, and Light or Dark side orientation. If choice-based games were already overwritten and always under editorial scrutiny in the pre-Sequel Trilogy era, how can they possibly make the cut of a unified storytelling effort?

The Lucasfilm Story Group is in charge of making everything fit, but how do you cure the headache of millions of different fans crying foul when you canonize certain aspects of an experience they’re allowed to make choices in? The easiest cure is simply not allow fans to have experiences where there are choices. And while I’m certain choice-based games won’t be happening going forward, here’s a few examples of games which currently thread the line of telling a choice-based game in a tightly woven story’s universe (and might just make the case for keeping the option of choice-filled games in SW).

Telltale Games has been on a war path with their adventure games, from the two award-winning seasons of The Walking Dead (based off the comic of the same name), the great The Wolf Among Us (prequel and canon with the Fables comics), their upcoming Tales from the Borderlands (based off the hilariously fun Borderlands games and is also canon), and lastly a Game of Thrones one which will run concurrent with the show’s story (though different from the books).

The Walking Dead Season 2 ClemLots of people play TWD or TWAU and never experience the comics they are based on (though people may watch TWD television series), making any worries about canon non-existent. For those who do appreciate the source material, so far both games stray from touching closely to canonical events from the comics, either taking place long before or in concurrent though removed situations. Since they distance themselves, there’s no real benchmark on how to handle ‘canon’ choice-based games in a canon setting, making it a hard path to follow for Lucasfilm if they’d ever want to requisition a company like Telltale Games to handle the Star Wars franchise. They could just follow their old way of forcing canonicity on events, but reconciling that isn’t as easy as not having any choice filled material made.

In The Wolf Among Us, events within are the law, and this includes the fact that several people die throughout the course of the first season, and some can be saved or spared. This being a prequel to the Fables comics, it’s been spaced back far enough from the first issue of the comic that most choices don’t affect or change anything that will pass. But if they decided to place an issue of the comic, or a novel, or film adaptation around TWAU’s timeframe, suddenly the sticky problem of what’s ‘canon’ pokes up its ugly head like an Ugnaught.

Mass Effect TrilogyOutside of choice-based adventure games set within a franchise’s universe, there’s also games which carryover choices into each successive entry, like the space-opera RPG gaming franchise Mass Effect (developed by BioWare, who were behind KotOR). The ME trilogy was built off of the player’s choice, with some choices not only affecting the individual game, but also events in the entire series. However, the ME series ended on a vague note no matter your past decisions (an updated ending didn’t appease much, either) in what seemed like an attempt not to deal with the choices rooted deeply in your version of the story, going instead for the mythology-laden ending versus the story-laden ending. One likely reason they chose a vaguer ending is if they wanted to come back to Mass Effect as a brand and franchise, they’d have to force canonicity on events anyways, pissing off fans at that juncture. Now it’s wholly possible BioWare could re-do KotOR or make a new SW franchise, keeping it full of choices and end it focused on the story first, mythology second, but that’s a tough risk to take. That’s not from any lack of faith in the developer, but the simple fact once more stories would pop up around that era, we’re back to having something like the Revan novel forcing canonicity.

For a while the KotOR games existed in a vacuum, much like where TWAU currently sits. It’s hard to imagine the new Expanded Universe in SW would leave something like KotOR alone by itself for very long, but if they were ever brave enough to do so, then we might have a chance at having choice-based games that could deliver powerful character and story driven tales. Eventually, yes, they would begin to beef up the era and then the choices would need to have a specific outcome, but at least for a little while they could be left up to gamers’ proclivities.

Unfortunately I don’t see that coming to pass, just simply for the fact it’s a lot easier if choice-based games aren’t made, sadly leaving Star Wars out of that budding market indefinitely. Inversely, we’re still looking at possibly stronger narratives in the upcoming games since story is now a more focused aspect in the new canon era. And if more of the same caliber talent like Amy Hennig can be involved in the new games, we’re in for quite a treat. Sure, it’d be nice to have a Telltale take on the saga, but it’ll also be nice for all future games to actually try to have a richer story experience. Choice may not be an option, but we can at least be prepared for the choice of stronger narrative games which fit within the rest of the franchise better than ever before.

UPDATE (8/21/14)

You don’t have to take my word for choice not being an option anymore. At an event where the new mobile game Star Wars: Commander was shown off to and discussed with fans by the creators, Johnamarie Macias (owner of TheWookieGunner) asked whether it would be considered canon. The answer was a somewhat unsurprising no, but the specific reason why backs up my article’s thoughts in a big way:

The words, “…player choice means morphing of story beyond LFL’s control,” just about seals the deal on a lack of choice-based games going forward for Star Wars. However, mobile games like Commander and its ilk will continue to exist, with possible choice gameplay, but it looks like anything that goes down that path won’t be part of canon.

Ryan is Mynock Manor’s Head Butler. You can follow him on Twitter @BrushYourTeeth. And the website @MynockManor.

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