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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.