15/08/2016

KotFE Retrospective: Story Issues

Knights of the Fallen Empire is over. Done. Kaput. Now that all sixteen chapters have been released, it's time to start looking over this season and see what worked and what didn't work.

This post will look at my personal issues with aspects of the story. This will not include the mantra of "Choices Matter!" given that everyone knows by now just how much of an illusion this really was now; the only 'choices' hinged upon whether or not there was a get-out clause for both eventualities.

Notably, if you had banished Koth, Kaliyo, or Aric, the subsequent chapters only featured them in the barest of supporting roles for those who had kept them around and so their presence could easily be missed without consequence.

This will also not mention the lack of 'proper' new PvE group content, even though this definitely has harmed several guilds throughout 4.0. This is purely going to focus on story moments.

Let's get started!


~~~

Valkorion's Motives

A good mystery is one which poses several questions, but still answers a good portion of these whilst still leaving enough suspense to carry over into the future.

The mysteries surrounding Valkorion are, sadly, given very little closure. We don't get any significant answers because we are apparently "not ready" to hear them, which doesn't make us want to keep asking the questions out of intrigue but instead out of frustration

We don't even know for sure how different Valkorion is from Vitiate; we don't know if this 'new' personality is actually genuine or whether it's yet another attempt to string us along and hide his real plan. Speaking of his grand plan, we don't know what has become of it or even why he's seemingly abandoned it. If indeed he has...

Long-story-short, the handling of Valkorion leaves a lot to be desired. 

~~~

Arcann

Arcann started life as a seemingly tragic character. The trailer managed to convey through actions and facial expressions alone that he was constantly belittled by his father and given no attention whatsoever. It was also shown that the only person who ever gave him attention was his brother Thexan, so of course it became a character-defining moment when Arcann, in an attempt to kill Valkorion after the final insult, accidentally killed his brother when he saved his father.

Sadly, the moment Chapter I came out, this tragedy was swiftly rectified. No longer was Arcann's hatred of his father attested to not being given attention, it was instead simply due to ambition and a desire for the throne.

In that moment, what was a decent attempt at characterisation simply vanished and Arcann became just another typical villain.

Throughout Fallen Empire, there has nearly always been a confusion surrounding him. Are we supposed to consider him a tragic character because of the trailer and the fact that he is when all is said and done a broken individual? Are we supposed to hate him because he's trying to kill us? Or are we supposed to just laugh at him and bat him away because we're in-leagues with his father and we're ultimately "more powerful" than him?

The answer to the above questions is "yes". Throughout Fallen Empire we're supposed to come to sympathise with him, hate him, and mock him, resulting in the moment that Senya takes him away in an attempt to reform him, something which several people don't feel at all comfortable with, as his death is another moment that people would have been looking forward to. 

No matter what most people think of the overall story of Fallen Empire, Arcann's demise is one moment which the majority of people were invested in, and now this can't happen at all. From this point of view, the first season of Fallen Empire has virtually no closure whatsoever. This isn't a significant problem, but it doesn't make for a truly compelling story in of itself when all is said and done.

I personally don't have a problem with him being taken for redemption, as when you look at him as an actual character, he is very broken. His sister doesn't totally trust him, he's inherited a fracturing Empire which has its main army swiped from underneath him, and he's having to put up with incompetent security who somehow manage to let a renowned terrorist slip through their fingers even in public areas, let alone high-security ones!

As of Chapter XV any slip-ups ensured that he was doomed, as he wouldn't have as much power to quell naysayers as he did before. The only person he has left who is willing and able to give him a second chance is Senya, so having her rescue him feels like it should be right, given that she also spared a defenceless Vaylin in Chapter VIII.

Thus, Arcann is a mixed bag. I'm okay with his current state of being, but I don't much approve of the rocky road it took to get here.

~~~

SCORPIO and the GEMINI Droids

Chapter XV introduced two little "shock twists" with SCORPIO. The first is that she was overtly killed by the GEMINI Captain that she was trying to help remove, and the second is that she was always planning to betray us and take over the Eternal Fleet.

The significant issue here is that only the death counts as a shock twist. A betrayal such as hers should feel like it has come out-of-nowhere and be something to worry about, and yet ever since Chapter VII we as players been more than aware that SCORPIO is an untrustworthy character, so her betrayal comes nothing short of an inevitability. It doesn't help matters that we know this several Chapters - and thus, initially, months - before this was revealed to our characters.

To all characters other than the Agent, who of course has had a history with her, SCORPIO should have been quite ordinary. Shifty, yes, but otherwise no reason to distrust her. This is the same logic as having Quinn be despised by the Warrior but okay in everyone else's books, as it would feel really out-of-place if everyone else hated him for seemingly no reason. Having everyone think they can trust SCORPIO but the Agent character would have been an interesting dynamic.

The trouble with SCORPIO is that it isn't just the player character who distrusts her - it's literally everybody else. Lana even states that her apparent death is one less issue to deal with. With such distrust aimed universally at one character, it seems incredibly backward that she should be allowed to get away with such nonsense, but this is a separate issue which I'll touch on later.

The amount of time it takes for the GEMINI Droids to appear also doesn't help. At first, this purely a case of intrigue and draws us in, but the amount of time it took for the payoff gave many people enough time to foresee what SCORPIO's long-term plans were, something which is then all-but-confirmed by that dramatic close-up of her face at the end of Chapter XIV.

I'm curious to know what effect it would have had if they hadn't have revealed the design of the GEMINI Droids until Chapter XIV. Knowing about the Droids so early made the revelation of the GEMINI Code in Chapter XI really uninteresting in comparison, and it just made the story drag on until finally it was given closure.

Moral of this story: if a character is shifty and untrustworthy, they are definitely going to betray you, so why give them the opportunity?

~~~

Introducing New Characters as Story Companions and then whisking them away

This is not including Lana, Theron, or Darth Marr, as all three of these characters are of course old-timers.

Fallen Empire introduces us to three brand-new characters who join us as Companions in the story. These are, of course, HK-55, Koth Vortena, and Senya Tirall. New Companions are a good way of giving us somebody close to the action and story to connect and empathise with, so to get three brand-new characters right from the off felt very nice.

However, things quickly started to go wrong.

Due to his attitude and constantly arguing with Lana regarding the truth behind Valkorion ("He was always good to Zakuul" suddenly makes his apparent barbaric ruling elsewhere perfectly fine), Koth quickly became the most-universally reviled character since Skadge. If ever you see someone talking about the most satisfying moments they've had in Fallen Empire, you can guarantee that forcing Koth to quit in Chapter X is going to be one of them.

He then makes the people who kicked him out want to kill him even more when he succeeds in stealing the Gravestone in Chapter XVI. This is something which only happens if you kicked him out previously, meaning that the people who did everything right still get stuck with his whining face.

Although he was noticeably different to both of his vastly-popular predecessors, HK-55 was undoubtedly the most popular Companion from Fallen Empire. Cue intervention-of-BioWare meaning that the third HK Droid "staple" is one who irretrievably sacrifices himself - which never made any sense; surely we could have just re-used the chassis even without his memory core? - and earns himself a place in infamy. If we'd have been able to somehow save his life, we'd never have seen the shambles which is the HK Subscriber Reward scheme.

Somewhat amusingly, even though he was designed as a Bodyguard and that he protests to his being programmed against wanton slaughter if you tell him to kill the Exiles, his rebuilt form was clearly designed more with an Assassin Droid in mind. His mission even entails you telling him what he can and can't kill, and he reacts with glee when told to kill something. HK-47's legacy has clearly caused this once-benign droid to go crazy for no reason other than appeasing the HK fandom.

By far the most interesting Companion to grace our lists for some time, Senya faded into the background between Chapters VIII and XV, only offering her verdict on goings-on and a genetic code and her disguised presence to help Gault's raid on Vandin succeed. In Chapter XV, she actually becomes the primary Companion again following SCORPIO's "demise", but this is clearly only to allow her to be with you when you potentially send Malita Tal to her death.

During Chapter XVI, Senya separates from you to hunt for Vaylin. She succeeds, but only after rescuing the unconscious Arcann, who then surprises a lot of theorists such as myself by betraying Vaylin - the majority of cutscenes featuring the two of them since Chapter X had actually implied that the opposite would happen! - and the mother-son pair then escape in a shuttle even if you try and shoot them down.

At the end of the day, then, all that you have to be guaranteed by your side are the "Chapter XIII Survivor", Gault, Lana, T7, Theron, Torian, and Vette. There is some leeway for having both Aric and Kaliyo stay with you and of course Koth doesn't leave characters whose decisions he approves of, but still; that the only Companions who both alignments of players are guaranteed to retain are previous characters is severely disappointing and I wish that we'd have been able to keep a little more variety than otherwise.

Sure, there's the terminal, but it's not the same as retaining these Companions through our in-story actions.

~~~

The "Commander"

The Outlander is of course made the "Commander" of the Alliance at the end of Chapter IX. Does this title make a bit of difference outside of making them the figurehead?

Not one bit.

The Commander doesn't make a single significant decision regarding what they're doing or where they're going.

  • Chapter X: Theron advises them to recruit Firebrand; the Commander can express reservations but still agrees.
  • Chapter XI: Theron leaks schematics to Havoc Squad and suggests they meet them; the Commander agrees.
  • Chapter XII: Lana advises the Commander to talk to Valkorion for advice on how to infiltrate the Spire (like that will work anyway, Lana...); the Commander can express reservations but still agrees.
  • Chapter XIII: Gault approaches the Alliance and tells them of his get-rich-quick plan; the Commander agrees.
  • Chapter XIV: The Droid Factory on Darvannis is revealed, and Theron advises you to secure the help of his mysterious allies; the Commander can express reservations but still agrees.
  • Chapter XV: The Commander has no input in this matter, as the mission is already underway due to the Commander previously agreeing with SCORPIO's plan in Chapter XIV.
  • Chapter XVI: The Commander has no input in this matter, as Arcann is already beginning his attack.
In all of these cases, the Commander is presented with a situation at some point by one of their allies which they then agree to check out. Only one of these Chapters features another character actually coming to the Alliance with a mutually-beneficial proposition, and it results in by far the most unnecessary mission the Alliance has yet done. 

The most significant choices we have as acting-Commander (not including choices made on excursions to recruit Companions) are deciding which Companion goes where to do stuff, and choices such as this end pretty much the same way; in Chapter XII, both Aric and Kaliyo are discovered and the other has to go retrieve them, and in Chapter XVI, regardless of who you tell to go do what, everybody succeeds. 

More than this, though, for if the Commander distrusts a certain Companion then there is no way to prevent them from enacting their own long-term plans. The Companion just laughs at your futile attempts to stop them and continues on with what they were doing anyway. In the case of SCORPIO, her attempts to decipher the GEMINI Prime's brain is actually supported by Lana and Theron as a means of getting access to the Fleet, and the similarity between the two Droids does not seem to occur to be a problem to them at all. 

In light of this, the title of "Commander" really is just cosmetic fluff. There is no chance to turn down a proposition or a plan, even if they express reservations, and even somebody they completely disagree with joins the Alliance anyway. The real power here clearly belongs to Lana and Theron yet again, which is just getting beyond infuriating at this point, particularly given that Lana's perception of her scheme's infallibility does not noticeably change even when things don't go her way.

Being strung around with no significant input makes sense for a class story; the kind where you start off as a subordinate and eventually flourish into something greater, thus escaping our bonds. In Fallen Empire, a story where you start as the slayer of the Emperor, this has no place whatsoever. Our position is such that we should have a lot more pull than we actually do

The Outlander's faction is unspecified. It's believed that they're supposed to be the Jedi Knight, but there is enough ground to believe that they could, in fact, be an entirely new character altogether. This is most noticeable when the only faction they seem to care about is Zakuul; it doesn't cross their mind beyond Chapters IV and IX that they have a crew and a home elsewhere, and just maybe they'd like to prioritise sorting that out first.

There is no 'simple' alternative for this that I can see. They couldn't have given us an out-clause as else people would have taken it for a quick completion and then complained that it was a waste of time and space to even add the relevant Chapter in the first place. 

~~~

Fallen Empire is definitely not a perfect beast. There are several mistakes which have plagued the story and likely will continue to plague the upcoming story elements. 

As several people have pointed out numerous times, it seems that BioWare are utterly convinced that we are so invested in where their storyline is going that they can't fathom the notion that maybe people don't want to deal primarily with Zakuul. There isn't even an option to try to reach out to the Empire and Republic before something on Zakuul interrupts it and takes the player's attention; instead, it's just focusing on dealing with Zakuul then and there. 

In any single-player RPG, there needs to be a fine-line between player investment and actual gameplay. 

Comparing the state of KotFE to another well-known BioWare RPG, Mass Effect wouldn't have been nearly as well-received if there hadn't have been such an enticing mystery about the Reapers driving Shepard's quest and making the player feel truly invested; if it had been just Anderson or Hackett telling them to go here or there and acting on hearsay without any driving mystery then it would have felt purely like they were being strung along and the player would feel disconnected. 

This disconnect actually does happen in Mass Effect 2, with the Illusive Man stringing Shepard along with no true player-investment in stopping the Collectors as there is no mystery surrounding them. 

It is unfortunate that in KotFE we've nearly always had this disconnect. There just hasn't been any real attempt to explain why we're focusing more on Zakuul than on more personal matters outside of just because Lana's apparently infallible judgement says that it's the right thing to do. 

A "personal" story having no real personal input is never going to feel right, particularly when certain characters (Darth Nox and the Emperor's Wrath) will be used to having far more pull than others (the Voidhound and the Grand Champion of the Great Hunt) before this time. Now, all of these characters are suddenly all on the same level. 

I feel like I've harped on this last point too much in what was supposed to be a general conclusion, but at this point I just want to wrap this all up here and now. 

3 comments:

  1. Many interesting thoughts, most of which I agree with.

    I don't understand why Koth is so hated though, as he only turns on you if you repeatedly push him, and turnabout is fair play. Also, I think many are reading the "he was always good to Zakuul" line in completely the wrong way, but I could almost make a whole blog post of my own about that...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As much as I do think he whines too much (particularly during Chapter XI), I do have to say that I can't particularly understand the dislike for him either. I think it probably doesn't help that, much like Senya, he fades into the background too much following Chapter IX and leaves us with a whiner instead of the more amusing "doer" that we knew Koth to be beforehand.

      Certainly, I actually really liked his romance snippet before riding off to Arcann's flagship, particularly the conversation opener which made the first reference to one of the only running gags in KotFE since its last mention in Chapter VIII, I think?

      "Commander - a minute?"
      "As long as it's not three!"

      Delete
  2. KotFE feels like Act 1 of a 3 act story, not book 1 of a trilogy. That may be a mistake

    ReplyDelete