Monday, 4 July 2016

SWTOR and losing companions in MMOs: walking a thin line

Warning: this post contains spoilers for SWTOR's Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion up until Chapter XV (The Gemini Deception), as well as Mass Effect 1 and Dragon Age: Origins.

When I game, I love to immerse myself into fictional worlds. The same goes for companions: I get attached to them almost as if they are real people. So when a guildie accidentally implied that the newest KOTFE chapter would involve losing a companion, I considered playing through it on an alt I cared about less first, in case I made any wrong decisions. It made me think about how companions impact us and how they even more seem to do so in SWTOR than other Bioware games, to a point I'm delaying logging in, feeling stressed about playing and terrified at "doing it wrong"! Why do the developers make me suffer through this?

The SWTOR developers got me right where they want me: believing decisions matter

I can think of several reasons why writers want to lose companions. First off, it adds realism to the game. How realistic is a conflict if only people on the enemy's side die? And why would someone continue to follow you if they disagree with every decision you make? Secondly, it raises the stakes, a powerful motivator that makes players feel involved and value their in-game decisions more. If it is possible for a favourite companion to die or otherwise leave you, you will probably consider how they would react to what you choose to do or say. Finally, if done right, a companion leaving will affect the player emotionally and is regarded automatically as a memorable event in the game. It's no coincidence that these events often form key moments in games.

Bioware has a reputation for giving players companions with whom they can form relationships. It's almost a trademark of the game studio by now; all Bioware games I've played involve companions. They also have a penchant for letting players experience key moments in which their actions are decisive in what happens to a companion.

Wrex and Shepard on Virmire

Anyone who has played the Mass Effect series will remember Virmire. The player is forced to make the horrible choice of which out of two companions get to live. And if that isn't enough, decisions made earlier throughout the game will decide if you can save a third or are forced to kill them in self-defence. I had grown extremely fond of this third companion, Wrex, over the course of Mass Effect 1. Luckily, I was playing together with my boyfriend (who had already played it before) and he made sure I made the right decisions to get the right outcome, without spoiling why. If I would have played alone and had not done it right, it is a very real possibility I would've quit the series altogether because of being utterly heartbroken!

Wrex is a good example of what I called "raising the stakes" earlier on. How you behaved earlier in the game ultimately determines if you're able to convince him you're on his side, if you choose the correct conversation options. It is imperative that the player recognizes this as a key moment in the game so they will think over their answers - if you look at the picture above it is clear the developers succeeded in this.

SWTOR's Knights of the Fallen Empire chapters also feature an occasion like this, although it's less extreme. Koth is a generally likeable guy with a good heart. Throughout KOTFE it is clear that he cares a great deal about his people and he will react strongly if your actions cause civilian casualties on Zakuul. If you keep making such decisions, he will eventually get fed up and fly off with his ship to leave the Alliance.

Koth is a key companion in KOTFE: he is part of the rescue team that saves your life, he is a romance option and, of course, you can gain influence with him by bribing giving him presents. If he would just leave out of the blue, this would upset players. Therefore, the developers made sure there were plenty of pointers on the way. If you will sacrifice civilians enough, Koth will ruin a relaxing evening in the cantina and says: "If you pull something like that one more time, I'm out", or something along those lines.

There's one big difference between a single-player game and an MMO, though: in the former you can save your progress, reload or fiddle with game files; the latter is 'live', so you can't. This has implications on how far developers will want to go. Let me elaborate.

Alistair and a female elf player

In my first playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins I played a wood elf that had a relationship with Alistair. Through the decisions I made in one cutscene, I ensured he got on the throne. What I didn't know, was that this would have implications on my relationship with him because of my race. Alistair broke up with me because a marriage with a mere elf wouldn't be accepted by his subjects. I was furious! I also was very fed up with the game, because having a relation with Alistair and Alistair being king were two key events in my playthrough that I had been working for the whole game, but now they turned out to be mutually exclusive. And there was no way I could've known beforehand.

Then I found out there was an option to keep the relationship intact, had I made another decision super far back in the story (not giving Alistair's sister money and afterwards picking the conversation option "everyone is out there for themselves", which gave Alistair the trait hardened), but it was too far back to reload and I'd have to play half the game over again. I ended up changing the game files so Alistair would be hardened; something I don't do lightly, but it was that or I'd just have stopped playing. My point is, if it would've been an online game and I wouldn't have been able to alter the save files, I'd probably have ragequit the game, not to return for years. Obviously that's something the SWTOR devs want to avoid players to do.

Therefore I don't think it's a coincidence the other companions you are granted to lose in your KOTFE playthrough are droids. The first to leave was HK-55, who was killed by Arcann, defending you. HK-55 was unanimously loved by SWTOR players (I personally liked him even more than HK-51 in the MMO) and his death was unexpected. Still, it was heroic and fitting for the character, and the fact that he is a droid and does not feel pain makes it more bearable, so I can live with it (although I still miss him!). It shows that the developers know how much the community loved HK-55, because they added a rebuilt model as a subscriber reward. But even though I do have this "new HK", it doesn't feel the same - perhaps also because he didn't want to be rebuilt, so having him around feels wrong.

Ugh. I can't believe I actually mourned her.

The final KOTFE companion to leave you thus far is Scorpio. This is a risky move of the developers, as it is possible that players have spent a lot of resources to max out her influence - and now that is all in vain. However, I don't think a lot of people are upset about this, because she isn't particularly lovable, and the way she betrays you is fitting for her character (although I would like to hear more of her motives). It also causes an unexpected plot twist that makes you want to play the next chapter. I like Scorpio as a character, but I do not feel the same fondness towards her as I do for, say, Lana or Senya. If one of those two dies, I will be devastated. I believe the developers are aware of which key characters players identify most with, and take this into consideration when writing the KOTFE chapters.

Which SWTOR companion would you absolutely not want to lose?


  1. Senya, and I feel we're going to.

    Whilst Senya and Vaylin have had a rematch set up, I feel that their big duel has already happened. Whilst a non-player-involved duel makes sense in a string of chapters released at once, it won't fit well in an independent chapter.

    This then leaves Arcann. At the end of the day, as shown by Senya's unwillingness to kill Vaylin despite her insistence that they both deserve justice, she is a mother, and a mother's instinct is to, of course, preserve the lives of her children.

    So if she isn't being faced down by Vaylin - who I doubt will even accompany Arcann to Odessen for long with the spats they've been having - she's free to interfere with our duel with Arcann, and possibly throw us aside (again) and take him with her to attempt to heal him. He is a VERY broken individual by this point, and if Vaylin abandons him he will only have Senya left, after all.

    I do hope that Senya doesn't leave, but I think it sadly makes sense.

    1. Senya is my personal favourite KOTFE companion, followed closely by Lana. And I'm really fond of Vaylin as a villain. I was absolutely terrified in that chapter in which they duel each other, because I didn't want either of them to die!

      This is a disastrous combination, of course; as you pointed out, a confrontation of Senya and her children is something the story strongly works towards. And she is typically a characters that the writers could give a heroic and tragic death. Of course I'm ignoring all the signs and giving her her favourite gifts anyway. She totally deserves it. :)

  2. Annoying nitpick time: The one that Alistair wants to give money to is his half-sister, not his mother. Also, if you decided to harden and romance him but the player character is not a female noble he will suggest to keep her as a mistress since his people wouldn't accept anything else. He would still have to marry some random noble human just to keep the lineage going. How well you accept that depends on each individual. My elf decided to break-up with him upon hearing the news. A friend of mine decided because of that Alistair would become good dragon food. :)

    I also find it interesting that the option to harden Alistair made him become someone more mature and pragmatic. I always avoided that option before because, given how Bioware often handle these things, it would turn him into some kind of jerk or some other terrible fate. In this case though it was nice to see it wasn't a question of good or evil decision but something more subtle and sensible.

    It was also interesting that with the whole romance/marriage/becoming king thing they were consistent with their setting. They made pretty much made it clear through the entire game that the normal humans are pretty much racists against elves, dwarves and mages. So none of them would accept their king marrying a member of one of those, even more given the circumstances that Alistair ascended to the throne. This was another point I just thought Bioware would just go for some silly approach instead of what felt more natural for the setting they built.

    Sorry for being so off-topic but I couldn't pass this opportunity to discuss Alistair case as I find it pretty interesting and an unfortunate rare case in more recent Bioware games. :)

    1. Heh. I let Conrad read my post right after I published it and I corrected it immediately (I was extremely tired, so I knew there were bound to be a lot of errors in it, but really wanted to finish it in time), but of course I forgot to take Ravalation's very own keyboard ninja into account!

      I guess what I disliked about the harden Alistair thing is that it is very specific. You don't just need to refuse his sister money, you also need to pick the right line in the conversation afterwards. So it's very easy to miss. And then I thought the breakup conversation with the unhardened Alistair was disappointing. Not as emotional as you'd expect under the circumstances. Finally, I guess I had hoped Alistair would want to eventually change things for Elves (even if not immediately, since there are more urgent matters at hand), but he doesn't say anything of the likes. For a partner that is supposed to love you, that's just not OK. And then the player isn't just any Elf, it's the Elf that pretty much saves civilisation as is. If any Elf deserves equal treatment, it's her.

      I guess what it really boils down to is that I get really agitated when confronted with discrimination or other unjust events, in analogue life, but even in games.

    2. Ah, my bad then! :x

      Yeah, the way the dialogue was written makes it look like "Welp, people are jerks so you should totally be a jerk too!" but instead makes him think more about his actions and their consequences.

      And well, I don't know if it is dependent if you harden Alistair or not, I don't quite remember that now, but in one ending at least he does make try to make things better for the elves at the Alienage by his own volition. I am pretty sure about that because my first elf (yes, I did play more than one elf. All I can say is I was trying to play something different, out of my confort zone. :p) who sacrificed herself to save the world he decided to honor her memory by trying to improve life for them. Although that eventually ended in tragedy. I think he also gave some land to the non-city elves (forgot their proper name now!). This one might have fared better.

      If both of you live, if I recall correctly, he says you can request one thing from him and one of the options is to improve things for the elves at the alienage.

      Now, him breaking up because he needs to consider a future political marriage I can see that as being pragmatic enough. Marrying a non-noble human would be too much change in some really tense times. Specially since the country just barely avoided a civil war and the destruction from the Blight. Even if they accepted such a marriage at first due to just being happy for surviving that, I think in the long run people would resent being ruled by a non-human/mage. Even more so if it that would be accompanied by other social advancements in such a short period of time. And this is all assuming the Chantry would even allow such a marriage!

      I don't like discrimination either, even in fiction. But in fiction it can lead to some interesting conflicts/stories.

    3. My ratio agrees with you from a writer's perspective. My emotio wants to rage quit the game! I can't always turn off my emotions when playing games, though. It's the main appeal of gaming for me.

  3. I skipped most of the post (because spoilers), but I think you hit on part of why I've been reluctant to push forward with the story in KotFE: I kind of like where things are right now at the end of Chapter Nine, where the risk and disaster has brought us to the point of bringing companions back together and an alliance is starting to build. Plus, having played Bioware games before (Baldur's Gate 1 and 2, and Neverwinter Nights), I know their reputation.

    In one respect, it's like how I've had to juggle different groups of friends in real life (and how I divide things out in Facebook, for instance). I've got a group of friends that are gamers, and a group that aren't. I've got a group that are conservative, and those that are liberal, and those that are into SF&F, and those that aren't. And apart from all of them are the people I know from work, whom I keep in an entirely separate group, since it's been pretty brutal at work seeing people lose their jobs with regularity.

    Me, I play games for an escape yet for a great story, and Bioware games do fit that bill. But I'm also aware of the loss of companions that is looming in the background, like a bad dream brought on by "an undigested bit of beef" as Scrooge would put it.

    1. Sorry you had to go through all that trouble! You have my respect for trying in the first place; that's pretty courageous. I considered making it spoiler-free, but then I couldn't really illustrate the things I wanted to say. I did try to make the subjects obvious my pictures, so hopefully that helped you navigate. :)

      The whole companion thing also affects how I play. I dislike not having access to my pre-KOTFE companions (maybe someone will now point out you are able to summon them anyway in a special way; I am aware of this, but it's not the same: in my head canon they're awol somewhere in space), especially the ones I'm very fond of. This is why I've only played through KOTFE on two characters: one light side (my sage, Ravanel), one dark side (my marauder, Waseme). I have a character of each advanced class, so I still have access to all pre-KOTFE companions. It doesn't matter at all gameplay-wise, but it matters to me lore-wise! Perhaps I will take my remaining characters through KOTFE once their respective remaining companions become available (IF they return at all), perhaps I'll not take them through KOTFE at all. It all depends what will happen in the last chapters, I suppose.

  4. From the new ones i like Koth a lot. Even tho I am evil on almost all of my toons. And Koth left and by the looks of it, he will never return. So I guess choices really do matter. It was a shocker to see him leave. But to ragequit the

    1. Yes, I was kind of surprised as well... which was probably exactly the intention of the developers. But yeah, no ragequit - there are clear signs, as I explicated in the post.

  5. I am slightly irked with SCORPIO stuff myself. As I had her maxed out (50) affection and I had a cartel skin on her. While I only paid credits for said skin, others likely gambled and procured said skin with cartel coins (real money). That is a bit of a problem and a sticking point for this micro transaction MMO world our characters are living in.

    1. I can imagine! Scorpio is one of my dark side operative's favourite characters. I'm not sure if I even ever want to go through KOTFE (& subsequentially, KOTET) with her now. Your situation is the perfect example of how the MMO and the single-player RPG component can cause friction.

  6. "...say, Lana or Senya. If one of those two dies, I will be devastated. I believe the developers are aware of which key characters players identify most with, and take this into consideration when writing the KOTFE chapters."

    I think you need to play Chapter 16 in SWtoR and update your article.

    1. I did play chapter 16, but I will leave the article as it is. It says clearly on top which chapters are taken into consideration.

      If you want to discuss Senya's departing in chapter 16, though, I will say that the way this is done is again a very considerate one. Throughout the story, there have been hints that she still cares for her children, despite their terrible flaws. Think of the battle with Vaylin, in which she hesitated to kill her when she had the chance. Flying off with Arcann, who has by now lost perspective on reality, makes sense from this perspective. Giving the player a choice in whether to let her go or to kill her, shows the developers are aware of the player base's feelings towards Senya.

  7. I'll be honest, I'm one of those who is really upset over the loss and lack of return of the old companions. Their absence really diminished my ability to enjoy the expansions, or get attached to the new companions. My jedi was married to Doc (I know he is very liked by most) and not getting him back felt like a giant plot hole. Admittedly, the separation from one's spouse thing probably hits me a little harder than most because I'm a young widow. So, yeah, that touched on some pretty tender nerves for me. However, I'm also a fantasy novelist, and from a writing standpoint there are a lot of moments in the expansions that could have been so much more powerful if my characters LI was involved.

    All that being said, I thought the expansions were fun and the story was interesting enough to play through. I did have to know what happened next. I stayed up until 3 am routinely because I needed to know. I liked Theron, Koth, and Senya, but sorry, I can't stand Lana. In fact, I disliked her so much that I created an entire story's worth of head canon about it being her fault my toon didn't have her husband there, lol.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading this post, I'm also a DOA player, though I always romanced Zevran and had him modded to look like Ben Barnes, lol.What can I say? I like my rogues. Here's hoping my jedi, Aona Zan gets her husband back someday.


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