Before I played Star Wars: The Old Republic, my only real experience with MMORPGs – except for running, terrified, in and out of IRC chats back when that was a thing – was a brief foray into Funcom’s Secret World. I’m almost 30, so I understand that this is kind of shameful as far as being a gamer goes. I don’t know how many hours I spent on Secret World, which for some reason also included a lot of time buying clothing for my character so that she looked like an amped-up Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I do know I never got very far. I kept wandering into areas of the world that clearly never intended for me to be there, mocking my character level while dispensing with me quickly. Defeat of high-powered enemies often came down to an issue of timing and living on a prayer. One particular boss battle, which had something to do with a ship and Mirelurks or whatever they were, I played probably close to 30 times before narrowly defeating him and then dying anyway because of some spell he’d put on me. I’m not a terrible gamer. Secret World made me feel awful. (As a side note, I never did much see groups of people running around in the Secret World the way I do SWTOR. This may come down to an issue of longevity and the fact that I played it well after it came out, or maybe people just like to be Illuminati alone but join the Republic in groups.)
So you can imagine how I felt about starting Star Wars: The Old Republic. On the one hand, I love just about everything BioWare does. BioWare’s brilliant Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003) looms large in my personal legend, a feat of narrative design within an excruciatingly familiar intellectual property that’s imminently replayable, even now. After KOTOR, it seemed pretty clear that a game could both be a BioWare game and a KOTOR game. But the truth was that I missed some kind of cultural step somewhere along the way when it comes to gaming. I’m not sure how I did it. Except for a brief period in the early 90s when I actually played outside some, I was, more or less, With It. But I missed something significant. I missed the call to the dark side that is MMORPGs. They seem, generally, right up my alley. There is literally no reason why I never played World of Warcraft or EVE or Everquest. If I tell you that playing SWTOR single player was an intellectual or artistic choice, I’m probably lying to you– but I will say that I did it to some degree to see if you could.
The beauty of Star Wars: The Old Republic is that the answer to that question is that you can. BioWare has always been known for their quality of writing, and both of their Star Wars games are superior in that respect. I have a strange relationship with morality choices in video games, and I think the world is probably pretty firmly divided in this respect: it’s impossible for me to make the bad, immoral, or in this case Dark Side choice. An early Sith plot point involved torturing people for information (or for fun). BioWare made me feel dirty for feeling like that was the right decision for my evil character, but it was, and I did it, and we all moved on. Except for the guy I tortured. I’m pretty sure he’s dead. Most of these major plot points are done in single instances. It’s just you and your companion and your light saber. Your choices are yours alone.
The first time playing by myself actually became a problem was when I was at the low end of the level spectrum that I needed to be for a particular boss fight. I’d bravely charged into my Jedi Knight cave* with my faithful droid by my side. SWTOR does a good job at making sure you aren’t somewhere before you’re an appropriate level, but for whatever reason, again and again, I watched my companion die and then me. The built-in delay time to have a medical probe revive me then and there became distractingly and prohibitively longer. I went downstairs to make myself coffee. Eventually I just turned off the game. (This is my long-tested strategy for dealing with impossible games: walk away, forget about it, come back to it months later, forget how to use the controls, spend a week getting back up to speed. See also: Alan Wake.) I called my brother, and he sighed heavily at me. “I should have warned you about this,” he said, being far more the MMORPG expert than I am, and he introduced me to the term grinding. I came crawling back to it one Sunday morning, determined to level up enough to beat this son of a gun. Several hours and several cups of coffee and several thousand** Imperial soldiers later, I beat that guy. And then the next and the next.
It would have been easier to hit up the group queue, get some group missions out of the way, level up, and move on. I could enter into some PvP territory and take advantage of the great gear that would become available to me. I didn’t do that– because I didn’t have to. I could play it like it wasn’t an MMORPG at all. And this is where SWTOR succeeds. It can be and often is the game you want it to be– whether you’re venturing into PvP territory, you launch into group missions, or you wander around the Republic Fleet searching for that Jedi Knight trainer all by yourself.
So I get that I’m missing out on things. This becomes painfully obvious whenever I go into my mission tracker and disable tracking on HEROIC missions. It’s like a subtle judgment that I’m clearly projecting on myself: because you haven’t joined a group, you cannot be HEROIC. I look at the green sheen over entrances and hover over it with my mouse; GROUP PHASE, it says, and I turn away. There’s a whole other world to SWTOR I’m not playing.
Sometimes that little box pops up, inviting me to join a group. It’s usually someone who’s just helped me kill a herd of rakghoul or whom I’ve helped to kill an Imperial marksman, and we stand around giving each other what I assume is an invisible head nod or fist bump. We look at each other briefly, and that box comes onto my screen. Maybe this time, I think to myself. And then I shake my head and hit the decline button. I imagine the other person looking at their screen, flabbergasted, thinking, I thought this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. One day I’ll hit accept. I won’t know what to do after that. If you run into me in the wilds of Tatooine, be kind.
* It was probably a cave.
** It at least felt like several thousand.