Faction war and story agency

I was just writing a comment over at Superior Realities and I felt the need to expand on it somewhat here. The post on returning to Star Wars the Old Republic has evoked some discussion around the merits of the “Knights” era of SWTOR vs what we have now with Ossus and presumably will have going forward. With the Ossus patch, Bioware have returned us to pretty standard ground for content going forwards – the endless war between the Republic and the Sith Empire.

Since the launch of Battle for Azeroth, I’ve felt consistently that faction war isn’t that interesting as a driver of plot. Individual character stories in World of Warcraft are excellently told (e.g. Jaina’s) and the cinematics are stellar, but I’m not at all feeling invested in the faction war in that game.

I do not feel the same ennui with the similar Republic vs Empire conflict that has mostly dominated the various main story arcs of SWTOR. So why is this? Am I just more invested in Star Wars’ omnipresent faction-war? Possibly, I do strongly identify with the Jedi and Republic military as my favourite characters all come from one or the other. I’m not that comfortable playing Empire-side characters though I think that is mainly because of the annoying self-serving or duplicitous nature of most Sith NPCs.

My agent grew tired of the self-defeating politicking of most Sith

In World of Warcraft I feel more affinity with the Alliance and always have. However, I have Horde characters almost as old as my oldest character – our guild and friends have happened to play Alliance more but we have cherished Horde characters too. It’s hard to generalise but I suspect my play time in WoW is more balanced across both factions than my playtime in SWTOR which is rather more biased towards Republic. So perhaps I’m more invested personally, in terms of play hours, in one side over the other in SWTOR?

Dream team

I think the way in which stories are (or have been) told in both games and how faction conflict fits into that may offer more explanation than levels of faction-loyalty or identity. In SWTOR the faction war has been an ever-present backstory during the base game and most expansions, bar the last two. Even during the Knights expansions the two factions were often referenced in dialogues and choices – the factions hadn’t ceased to be, but were diminished in their roles.

In World of Warcraft the faction was has mostly been there in the background, well unless you PVP regularly as a chosen activity. The various expansion stories inevitably involved the two factions facing off against, or even uniting against, a common threat. Indeed, when Cataclysm reworked much of the original game zones a common threat was added to the base levelling arc as well in the form of Deathwing. So I feel like the faction war has often been alluded to, but then put on the backburner many, many times in WoW. As someone who hates PVP, and isn’t that invested in either faction as a tribal identity, the faction war has never felt like a motivator for anything. With BfA this is now our primary motivator, and the storyline is having us doing increasingly desperate or despicable actions. There’s a lot of times in the expansion, especially on a Horde character, that I wish I could skip a quest or two without blocking further progress.

In SWTOR, there certainly is the odd mission that the character I’m playing at the time might object too. Generally there is the chance to react to that in some form (however superficially), and I really appreciate that. Even if it’s just to snark at the mission giver, or to try to reject it (even if the mission then railroads you to do it anyway), that feeling of agency matters to me as a player.

If anything I would feel more invested in Battle for Azeroth if I could play a Horde character who, from the very start of the expansion, gets to resist Sylvanus’ take on events. Sylvanus is clearly manipulating the Horde, the pretense for the build-up to war was so very flimsy (mumble mumble.. Azerite.. Alliance threat.. mumble mumble) . If my troll Priest could have stood her ground and argued with Sylvanus and Saurfang, even if she lost the argument, I might feel more invested in the storyline that follows. There are signs of some improvement, with the ‘Saurfang choice’ snuck into the recent patch. But it’s very baby steps compared to what SWTOR is able to offer with the conversation/cut-scene delivery vehicle.

I just hope that going forward SWTOR keeps a strong sense or illusion of agency in the storyline, it’s something that SWTOR has done well in the past and really makes the game stand out in the MMORPG genr

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