Guns & Gowns

I want to continue playing Knights of the Old Republic II. I don’t want to continue playing Knights of the Old Republic II.

I want to continue, because I want to find out more about what’s going on with the story. My default heroine Hedda and her companions have travelled to the surface of the planet Telos in search of their ship, the Ebon Hawk. Just as importantly, there’s an ecological restoration program on the planet that is being sabotaged by sinister forces, and I’m curious how the game will handle this scenario.

I’m also curious about how the dynamics between the characters will develop. Since Baldur’s Gate II the interaction between personalities has been one of the main selling points of this kind of narrative RPG. The initial antagonism between the mysterious Kreia and the roguish Atton felt a bit forced, but after moving through the early bits of the game, the back-and-forth has hit its stride, and that is bound to become even better once more people join the cast.


Hedda in KotORII

I don’t want to continue, because in my last session, now over a week ago, my party got killed by a group of mercenaries about twenty minutes after my last save point. In the hours before, I had steered Hedda et al. through dozens of small skirmishes without a hitch; I was basically playing on autopilot. Maybe it’s my previous experience with RPGs and the third edition D&D (D20) core of this generation of games in particular, but mere preparation — the right distribution of weapons and armour — was enough to get me through that early part of the game without being challenged. So much that I had grown careless and uncaring about the game’s combat after a few hours. If I had consciously applied even a modicum of effort in that last battle with those mercenaries on Telos, my party wouldn’t have been defeated. Yet, I couldn’t be bothered to do so. If there had been a “skip combat” button or better yet, an “auto-win” button, I would have pressed it and gotten on with the game already. But right now, I’m not sure I want to.

There are a couple of things to unpack here. First of all, maybe the twenty minutes of game-space-time I lost were not that interesting anyway, and that’s the reason why I haven’t continued. The bland green hillside corridor level design in this part of the game isn’t all that evocative, and it’s sprinkled with a number of unavoidable yet uninteresting battles.

This brings me to the second point: why aren’t these battles interesting to me? Have I simply tired of the genre after more than fifteen years? Hardly, as I had few such quibbles with Wasteland 2 or Dragon Age: Inquisition. Maybe I should have set the game’s difficulty to hard instead of normal. The additional challenge might jar me from my current state of complacency, force me to look more closely at tactical options, thereby deepening my engagement with that aspect of the RPG. But to be honest, I really don’t much feel like doing that either.

Originally I planned on devoting some space here to analysing what it was about KotORII’s combat that is putting me off. I was thinking of camera positions, combat as spectacle rather than participation, and things like that. But a second perspective might be even more crucial right now, and that is that clunky combat — whatever its cause — gets in the way of the other elements that make an RPG interesting to me. I’ve already mentioned story, character interactions, and setting, but there is one crucial element left, and that is dress-up.

With the advent of ever more detailed controllable and relatable characters in RPGs (and games in general) comes the opportunity for dress-up. The most basic level of dress-up is arguably the character creation process itself, where it is present. Although there are still shortcomings when it comes to the representations of diversity in e.g. skin colour and body shape, overall we can say that the level of detail and the range of options in customising a character’s physical traits has gradually been increasing. Going beyond the physical level, many games offer a wide range of costumes and accessories that we can then see our characters walk around with in the game world. Since a lot of games, especially RPGs, tend to have combat and violence, many of these options revolve around weapons and armour, but they need not do so exclusively. In short: it’s all about guns and gowns.

In games like The Sims, the connection to playing with dolls is perhaps obvious, but we do it all the time in fantasy and sci-fi games as well. To return to the example of KotORII, how Hedda looks with a particular robe and set of weapons is currently more important to me than the exact combat capabilities of those items — most of them will get the job done anyway. I had the same experience in Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s been a couple of months since I finished that game, and my fondest memories are of exploring its sprawling landscapes, and crafting weapons and sets of armour and clothing for all the characters. With a bunch of different designs and materials to work with, the system was quite involving.

A game doesn’t necessarily have to let the player do the designing either in order to facilitate proper dress-up. In fact, the game where I enjoyed that aspect the most thus far has been Dark Souls. Again, I had Hedda to play with, and she’s worn a lot of the armour sets available in the game. All of them are immaculate designs, and you can combine different parts of the armour sets to great effect. It’s not mentioned all that often, and it’s probably not as important to the game’s success as the contributions of combat and world design, but the armour and weapon design really did make the game dearer to my heart.

This whole dress-up business is another example of relatively unrestricted play within the boundaries of a host game, as I discussed earlier in “Games within games (within games)”. It’s restricted in the sense that we mostly have to work with elements present in the game; most games do not offer the import of user-made designs, for example. But the interaction of our own characters (and the accompanying thoughts we have about their style and personalities) with the various clothing and equipment options that are available to us is free, in the sense that it takes place in the freedom of our own experience.

In a recent article, Ian Bogost argues that games aren’t particularly good at representing individuals, putting videogame characters on par with “bad books and films and television”. He further says that such a focus on individuals leads them down a sidetrack where representation of complex systems, social and otherwise, is neglected. He also offers that when games focus on the supra-individual and system levels, it might offer an antidote to unexamined individualism in our culture. Others will undoubtedly take Bogost to task for underestimating the potential of the medium for creating compelling characters-as-individuals. But I’d like to add that when games focus on the representation of (small groups of) individuals, we gain one crucial thing that is actually hard to find in any other medium… you guessed it: dress-up.

Unless you happen to be an accomplished visual artist/animator, or someone with the means to hire one for your personal fantasies, games offer an unparalleled possibility to play dress-up with various designs and props. It should be obvious that there is an important difference between playing dress-up with dolls — or your own body, though both are valid forms of play in themselves — and being able to integrate that dress-up character into a mediated fictional world and story. Let me name just a couple: dolls are inanimate in both senses of the word. When you cosplay or LARP, you are a performer, but may never be a spectator of your own performance, unlike when we’re dealing with digital avatars and characters. Finally, digital mediation allows us to outfit our characters with props whose physical analogues are unaffordable, illegal, or even non-existent.

In addition, maybe dress-up, in a roundabout way, is not entirely worthless in delivering the critical check to individualism and personal representation that Bogost is looking for. Don’t forget that dress-up allows us to dress up someone who is not us, yet with whom we may, through play, partly identify. Granted, this might be a far cry from the deeper understanding we may gain of others through text. But the point is that dress-up is not necessarily about me as a person.

To bring this piece full-circle: perhaps the reason I’ve had a setback with KotORII is that the combat obstructions got in the way of dress-up, which in my view is an underexamined but actually very important aspect of roleplaying. Roleplaying may be game, story, choice, performance, and dress-up interacts with all of those elements. But it is tied to games representing individuals. It may be hard for games to get the balance between such elements right. Maybe KotORII didn’t do that, exactly, at least for me. Some games are, as Bogost argues very good at representing complex systems, while not being particularly successful in depicting individuals. But I believe the latter is possible, and it can make for valuable experiences.

hedda_kotor2This evening, I booted up KotORII again, and played through those same twenty minutes of Telos. I ramped the difficulty up to “difficult”. I still died in the same fight as last time, but I remembered to quicksave beforehand. In the mean time, I took a slightly different route, and found a new outfit for Hedda. It looks nice on her, don’t you think?

This article was supported by the generous contributors to my Patreon.