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_kotor1

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.