The Terrible Boredom Of Good vs Evil – Where is the nuance in alignment based stories?
Inspired by a talk on Discord or well, rather me talking at Julie on Discord about SWTOR while she has to work/sleep and do other important real life tasks, I have put a lot of thought into the topic of alignment and character motivation of my characters in video games over the past two days. Not that I am not always doing that, but this time there was a special focus on why and how I play my characters the way I do.
Attention: While this was party inspired by musings about the newest Star Wars The Old Republic patch I will not be talking about it so there will be no spoilers. Everything in the vanilla story lines though I consider fair game.
There is a thing with many stories: They have very clear structures. Especially in fantasy worlds or in sci-fi-fantasy like Star Wars. There are clear heroes and villains, cackling evil and stereotypical good guys. Mostly centered around a plot that enforces why our heroes are absolutely in the right and why the bad guys are so horribly bad that even the shiniest hero has little choice but to kill them in the name of good. On the surface many stories work the exact same way. SWTOR’s alignment system seems to absolutely support exactly that. You get shining beacons of idealistic hope in the Jedi and brutal, frothing at their mouths for more murder Sith. I find both of these stereotypes absolutely boring and find myself unable to play them. Regardless in what setting really.
Evil just for the sake of cruelty? Boring. Being idealistic to the point where you are almost foolish? Boring.
Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE absolutely good characters. The Steve Rogers of this world – I adore them and I am somewhat in awe of them. It is just… not something I want to play. Mainly because I feel I can’t relate to those characters. They are something to aspire to, yeah, but they are not something I feel at home at. I am much more interested in flawed characters. Not necessarily evil ones, but characters who haven’t found their way yet. Or who have great goals but a horribly messed up way of getting there. Characters that want to be good but don’t know how. Characters that want to fit into the villain stereotype but are incapable of truly being evil. Characters that want the wrong thing for all the right reasons and all the nuances between simply good and evil.
To a degree, games let you do that. In SWTOR’s case I always have the feeling that, ironically, the Empire gives me more freedom in that regard than the Republic does. The game has some set expectation on how those classes should be played. It doesn’t really force you into it, but it gets quite clear from context that there is the thing you are expected to do. But if you compare the Republic and the Empire characters directly, there are some noticeable differences in how the game treats deviations from those expectations.
Take the two Jedi classes – they are clearly intended to be played light sided. In the Jedi Consular’s case that works brilliantly and you get the kind of ideal Jedi everyone keeps writing teaching books in the academy about. Take the Jedi Knight and you get a straight up Hero on the Battlefield story (albeit a horribly shallow one given the things that happen to you that you get no chance to ever work through). Now, if you play either of them completely dark you very quickly drift into stereotypical comic book villain (Knight) or an evil for no reason with zero character motivation weirdness with the Consular. With a mixture of alignments you get far more versatile and personal motivation driven characters each time. That should be of no surprise, but it was a bit disheartening at the start of the game – where your alignment was actually an important part of gearing your character and you got basically punished for not sticking to one side constantly. (Much like the early Mass Effect games to my frustration.) They got rid of that eventually – there are still items in game that you need a certain alignment for to equip them but they are utterly useless by now.
If we look at the two mirror classes on the Empire’s side, though, things do look different. If you play the Warrior or the Inquisitor “as intended”, meaning full dark side, you get two very clearly evil villain archetypes – that somehow both have more motivation behind their evilness than their dark side Republic counterparts. In their stories embracing the evil makes sense of course. That is how they are written. And they have motivations. The Warrior has something to prove in a system where failure to do so means death or worse. The Inquisitor is a former slave, desperately trying to rise up from that past and become someone who can never be thrown back down.
And there lies one of the main differences already: For the Jedi they are expected to be who they are by their order – and it is much more difficult to find the person with feelings and emotions behind that ideal they strive to for me. Their motivation to be good, from what the story gives us, boils down to “because Satele Shan said I should”. It is of course not that simple – but for a large part that is all the story gives you to work with. While their Empire counterparts have more clearly established backgrounds. The Jedi Knight and Consular are both completely blank slates in regards to their backstory.
The Sith Inquisitor meanwhile bears the scars of their enslavements at least on the inside – if you as a player want to also on the outside. They constantly get confronted with their past, thereby giving them a clear motivation to do what they do early on. Their entire storyline then goes on to be involved into their families history, their special powers and what to make of them. Who they are as a person and their past is part of their story while the Consular’s story meanwhile purely focusses on who they should be and what they can do for the Republic. Not that that is not a story worth telling (I love the Consular story) but it is much harder to get to the personality of the actual character. You have to headcanon almost everything, kind of reminiscent of the Inquisitor in DAI for me. With SWTOR’s Inquisitor you can become someone not unlike the Emperor in the classic movies if you play your character very dark. If you stick to the light side or a mix out of both instead you experience the story of someone thrown into something so much larger than they are and their continued struggle to not fall back down while desperately clinging onto their sanity. Someone who is capable to convince even the leader of the dark council that, even with the light side, you can serve the Empire in your own way.
The Jedi Knight gets no background either, just a mission. And mostly dark side reactions or anything that isn’t really purely heroic feel very out of character the first two chapters. After the End of Act 2 they make somewhat sense on occasion – but the trauma the character endured never gets any conclusion and if you fall to the dark side all you get is a slap on the wrist and a different promotion. Even in the last call back to the class story, the small story instance on Rishi later on the “good” choice is to refuse to ever deal with your trauma and just have it erased. It feels a bit like the story almost deliberately tries to deny you character development opportunities. The Republic (Jedi) stories also leave, narratively, little room for a mix of light and dark. Light is always good, dark is always evil.
Meanwhile the Sith Warrior pretty early on has to question themselves in that regard. Light side doesn’t mean you become a shining hero in the Empire, it rather means that you don’t become the dreaded super villain caricature in many instances. The Warrior comes from an important family and has certain expectations set for them. Their Master is highly regarded and there seems to be nothing standing in their way to become the next big Sith on the playing field. But you as a player can choose how to go about that and both variations feel like they are rewarding and anticipated by the writing of the story. A dark side Warrior works relentlessly to be exactly the Sith everyone expects them to be, always aware that they have to pick their battles wisely but not above terrifying their opponents to get to their goal. The light side Warrior on the other hand comes to the realisation that the systems in place in the Empire can not sustain themselves. They want to change things for the better, not by becoming a Jedi but rather by embracing the full potential of the Force and not just its darker aspects. They don’t want to desert or leave the Empire. It’s their home after all. Instead they rather want to make their home better, piece by piece and person by person. They can make their path through the story in a way that gets them someone who shares their ideals with. Your padawan/apprentice changes with your choices and can be an absolutely evil person or someone who shares your wish for reformation and helps you change things from the inside.
This is just comparing the Force sensitive classes with each other. The other, less influenced by a doctrine, classes have of course a bit more differences. But even there only the Smuggler stands out on the Republic side for being more nuanced than the rest. For the Smuggler, any alignment makes sense and the story doesn’t feel weird whatever you choose. The Trooper’s story feels barely impacted by your alignment at all. They are an absolute loyalist no matter what you do. The dark side choices don’t feel like a valid alternative unless you want to play an absolutely self serving asshole while somehow still holding up Republic ideals.
On the Empire side the Agent has probably the most varied array of choices there is – but as with some other classes you have to do a lot of character building legwork yourself because the story is mostly about being emotionally distant from the things you do and, again, you have little background information to go on. With Imperial Intelligence having less lore than Jedi and Sith Academies on top of it you have your work cut out for you. It’s very rewarding work though, leading to quite different endings according to what fits best.
The Bounty Hunter is, storytellingwise, the equivalent of the Smuggler. Not part of either faction and free to be whoever they want to be. Both alignments make sense for the Bounty Hunter. Additionally, they get to have the most chatty, interactive and feels-like-family crew in the entire game. What that story sometimes lacks in plot twists and turns it makes up with the sheer amount of wonderful that is your team that actually feels reminiscent of the disaster team that was my Dragon Age 2 crew for me.
All of this, in the end leaves me wondering: Is it so much easier to write a nuanced story in a dark setting than in a very idealised one? Are writers just in general more interested in exploring what could make a bad person not so bad instead of delving into what could plague or even turn a good person? Do we secretly want to redeem everyone and therefore heroes have to remain heroes all the way while the villains get to come in shades? Or do we as consumers maybe feel that our heroes would feel less like the heroes they are if they were allowed to struggle more? Wouldn’t having the opportunity to falter and maybe even fall, just to drag yourself back up and become a hero anyway be much more interesting to explore than being infallible?
I mean, we can keep calling everyone who says they actually prefer the Empire in this game an edgelord with issues. (And yeah, I am sure those exist too, naturally.) Or we could take a good look at what the writing gives us and ask ourselves why we actually wonder about why people like the supposed bad guys so much more when we have ideas and ideals on one side and actual, living breathing character development on the other…