Monday, December 20, 2010

The BioWare style: sliders and meaning (sketch 5)

Spoiler warning: this post contains a plethora of spoilers for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), Mass Effect, and DragonAge: Origins. If you haven’t played any of these games and you plan to do so, and you would like to do so without knowing what’s to come, reading this post will have a deleterious effect on the realization of that plan. Concerning comments: I'd be incredibly grateful for any corrections and/or refinements you'd care to suggest about this chapter-in-the-making--Google Buzz is my preferred discussion-place now, so comments are turned off here. You’re most welcome to follow me on Buzz, here; you’ll find this post there, too, with any luck, and I hope to discuss it with you there!

The essence of the BioWare Style, I’m arguing in these posts, lies in the way the re-compositional choices I discussed in my last post relate to one another through the system of theme in the three games I’m discussing. In these games, a player builds his or her performance not simply by recombining the themes provided by the game’s ludics (the modular pieces of narrative discussed in the last sketch), but also by casting that performance in relation to the central concerns of the game at hand (the sliders). Players of BioWare games, that is, build meaningful performances of a particular kind, through a particular system.

Performances in these three games seem to me to resemble bardic composition by theme in oral epic more closely than performances in other styles of RPG do, but that’s not a point I need to insist on--the contribution of this chapter will, I hope, lie, in pointing out the different way composition by theme occurs in BioWare games because of the combination of sliders and modularity. To put that another way, one that will carry discussion further, many RPG’s have sliders that describe for example a player-character’s “karma,” but it seems to me that only in BioWare RPG’s do those sliders have what I see as two peculiar (in the true sense of “peculiar”) characteristics:
  • a fundamental tie to the overall cultural topic of the game; and
  • a meaning finally determined by a manifestly modular system of narrative.
In this post I’ll outline the first of these characteristics. In the next post I’ll outline the second, and start to explore them in depth in the practomime of KOTOR, Mass Effect, and DragonAge: Origins.

By “a fundamental tie to the overall cultural topic of the game” I mean what we see most clearly in KOTOR: in that game, the Light/Dark slider doesn’t just index what the player, and any observer, are supposed to think about the player-character within the overall sphere of culture (that is, is the PC a “good” or a “bad” “person” when measured by the standards of the community of which the player and observers are members). Much more importantly, the Light/Dark slider indexes how the player-character stands according to the fictively-created governing rules of the fictional universe in which the player and observers imagine the narrative action of the game taking place. In KOTOR, the Force, the “energy field” that “gives a Jedi his power,” “is created by all living things,” and “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together,” itself indexes the player-performance in the world of the narrative. KOTOR, like all Star Wars narratives, takes the Force as what I’m calling its “cultural topic,” and the Light/Dark slider makes the re-composition-by-theme of the player-performance about it, too.

So by “cultural topic” I mean what we can also talk about in terms of “meaning effect” or “aboutness”: the Force, like the Council in Mass Effect and the Ferelden/Blight conflict in DragonAge, is what KOTOR is most generally about. Also like Mass Effect’s council and DragonAge’s Ferelden/Blight conflict, the Force renders an ideological negotiation from the “real world” in fictive terms. The Force is a fictive reification of important ethical questions of modern culture--in particular of the claims of the state on the individual; the Council is a fictive reification of questions about nationalism and American exceptionalism in the modern world; the Ferelden/Blight conflict is a fictive reification of questions about loss of freedom to the state in times of crisis. (I’ll spend more time arguing these points in the final version!)

KOTOR’s slider is the most obvious example, but Mass Effect’s paragon/renegade slider is equally tied to the cultural topic of the game. Mass Effect revolves around the efforts of an interstellar United Nations to save the galaxy: the renegade/paragon slider indexes a player’s choice of how to behave with respect to that organized government.

DragonAge as usual presents more complexity, but the multiple sliders for individual party-members, though they complicate the game’s performance possibilities in myriad ways, nevertheless have the same connection to the cultural topic of the game: DragonAge is about the nature of Ferelden and of the threat to its safety (the Blight), and the question of what the cost of saving that, or any land so constituted, must be. The NPCs of the PC’s party in DragonAge--above all, Alistair and Morrigan--constitute a system for shaping a performance that declares something particular, and unique to that performance, about that question.

Each NPC has an individual relation to Ferelden. Alistair is the reluctant heir who has been mistreated by the power-structure; Morrigan is a witch from the wilds whose motives are unclear for most of the game, but in the end have everything to do with the Blight, and in particular nothing to do with saving Ferelden. (I’m not trying to avoid spoilers--it would just take a wall of text to explain.) Leliana, Wynne, Oghren, Zevran, and Sten each have a very particular relationship to Ferelden; none has as decisive an effect on the player-performance as Alistair and Morrigan do, but each adds thematic possibilities that change what the performance means in relation to the cultural topic Ferelden/Blight.

The NPC sliders of approval/disapproval differentiate player-performances with respect not only to any idea the player might have about liking, disliking, loving, or hating this or that NPC, but also with respect to the much more embracing question of what the PC should do as a Greywarden to save Ferelden, and how he or she, and with him, the player and any observer, should feel about it. What affects the DragonAge sliders are decisions made about how to deal with the Ferelden/Blight conflict. A player-performance that employs choices that please Alistair is a composition whose re-combinations of themes are very different from one using choices that please Morrigan; the differences in thematic re-combination, moreover, represent fundamental reshapings of the meaning-effect of that performance as a version of the Ferelden/Blight conflict.

That relationship to the cultural topic makes the BioWare slider different from the Bethesda one. The Bethesda karma or reputation slider indexes player-performance not to the cultural topic of the game but to an apparently transparent game-representation of a “real-world” ideological evaluation. Karma in Fallout 3 and reputation in for example The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion both differentiate player-peformance in a way analogous to that of the Light/Dark slider, but Fallout 3 isn’t about karma, nor is Oblivion about reputation, in the way that KOTOR is about the two sides of the Force, Mass Effect is about how you deal with the Council, and DragonAge is about the people of Ferelden.

This point, I think, is likely to be the most contentious, and most critiqued, in this chapter, so I’d love to hear any counter-arguments that spring to the mind of any reader who’s gotten this far!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Bioware style: meaning-effects in performative systems (sketch 4)

Spoiler warning: this post contains a plethora of spoilers for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), Mass Effect, and DragonAge: Origins. If you haven’t played any of these games and you plan to do so, and you would like to do so without knowing what’s to come, reading this post will have a deleterious effect on the realization of that plan. Concerning comments: I'd be incredibly grateful for any corrections and/or refinements you'd care to suggest about this chapter-in-the-making--Google Buzz is my preferred discussion-place now, so comments are turned off here. You’re most welcome to follow me on Buzz, here; you’ll find this post there, too, with any luck, and I hope to discuss it with you there!

As promised, in this post I’m going to try to pull together the modularity of theme I talked about in my last post with the role of the sliders I discussed in the post previous to that one. In putting those things together, I’m also hoping to deliver on a commitment I made in the first post in this series, to describe the performative nature of the crucial moment of KOTOR in terms of this complex system of recomposition. I committed at the same time also to describe the way the essential peformativity both of that moment and of the ludic system that creates it renders its effect on its audience (both player and observer) in an inescapable relation to the ludic choices of the performance.

That performative moment, I want to suggest both makes a vital part of the game’s system of recomposition and emblematizes that system more strikingly than any other moment. From there, I hope to continue in the next post in the series to the task of isolating key moments in the three games under discussion and describing them in the same terms. While I do that, I want at the same time to point out the uniqueness of these terms to the Bioware style, and hopefully even point the way towards analogous descriptions of the Bethesda, Square Enix, Atlus, and Lionhead styles.

The final meaning effect of a player performance in the three Bioware RPGs I’m discussing--that is, what the player, or an observer of the player’s performance, takes away as a description of what that performance “was about”--is comparable to the final meaning effect of a tale as recomposed by a bard. From performance to performance, though the materials remain the same, the meaning will differ, within a range that is simultaneously bounded--because of the determinate nature of the game’s ludics on the one hand and the poetic system’s constraints on the other--and infinite, because of the unending potential for variation within those constraints.

When a player of KOTOR finds his or her player-character (PC) in the climactic scene in which the PC’s past as the leader of the Sith is revealed, what the choice he or she will make at that point will mean is determined by the entire range of other choices he or she has made within the ludic system to that point; that meaning will be modified also by choices made subsequently. The player creates the meaning of a particular performance of KOTOR, that is, in the relationship among all the choices made in the course of that performance: the big choice between Light side and Dark side has no determinate meaning in and of itself; rather, it exists only as a choice that the player, and whatever audience receives the player’s performance, must integrate into the rest of that performance.

So much is true, mutatis mutandis, of every practomime, whether a game or a story: the way the player rotates and strafes a single, crucial block in Tetris has a meaning only in relation to all the other rotations he or she has made, and will make; the disappearance of Captain Ahab into the whirlpool with Moby Dick has a meaning only in relation to “Call me Ishmael.”

Composition by theme, though--the element that binds together the digital RPG and oral epic--determines that this integration of choices presents peculiar performance affordances in practomimes that allow that kind of composition. That is, the digital RPG and the oral epic have a special analogy, among the whole range of games and stories, because they allow composition by theme, and because they allow composition by theme, saying that a crucial choice in an RPG or an epic performance has meaning in relation to another choice has a special interpretative value.

A player’s choice in KOTOR of whether to side finally with the Jedi or the Sith is in this way like a bard’s choice to have Achilles refuse an embassy from Agamemnon. Because the themes exist in the ludic system, in relation to other themes in the system, performance-possibilities arise that could only arise in such a system. A bard’s performance of a book of the Iliad or the Odyssey, or even of the entirety of one of those epics (like, for example, the versions we have in the text that has come down to us), takes its meaning from the way the bard recomposed the materials available to him in the thematic system of poetics in which he was skilled. A player’s performance in KOTOR takes its meaning from the way the player recomposes the materials available to him--the modular content and the Light/Dark slider--in the thematic system of ludics in which he or she has become skilled.

The prominence of that system is the element that makes composition by theme possible both in homeric epic and in the digital RPG:

Achilles’ refusal of the embassy in the ninth book of the Iliad famously gains its meaning as a refusal to return to battle, and to the themes of traditional Iliadic oral epic. The choice of the bard, that is, is the choice of Achilles, and vice versa. Refinements to the theme of the embassy--the addition of Odysseus, for example--reshape the meaning in the same way, by establishing a new relationship between choices.

The player’s choice of Jedi or Sith in KOTOR creates a meaning-effect in relation to a huge number of other choices in the game, most of them registered on the Light/Dark slider, but perhaps above all in relation to choices made with respect to the player’s party-members. What kind of being is the player’s PC? What kind of story is the player telling about that PC, or about the player him or herself? These questions cannot, after a long series of choices and their effect on the performance--indeed, an effect rendered visually on the slider--be answered in a performative vacuum. “Cannot,” indeed, in a sense of strict impossibility: even if the player should decide to make the choice in relation to nothing but, say, the flip of a coin, that choice--beyond any effect on the virtuosity or interest of the performance--would still affect what happens next in the performance. The choice can be made only within the entire system of the game, which, as I’ll discuss in the next post, is in the end a microcosm of the performative system of the Star Wars saga itself.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Bioware style: theme and modularity (sketch 3)

Spoiler warning: this post contains a plethora of spoilers for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), Mass Effect, and DragonAge: Origins. If you haven’t played any of these games and you plan to do so, and you would like to do so without knowing what’s to come, reading this post will have a deleterious effect on the realization of that plan. Concerning comments: I'd be incredibly grateful for any corrections and/or refinements you'd care to suggest about this chapter-in-the-making--Google Buzz is my preferred discussion-place now, so comments are turned off here. You’re most welcome to follow me on Buzz, here; you’ll find this post there, too, with any luck, and I hope to discuss it with you there!

The last post was about the light/dark slider in KOTOR, and before I proceed to talk (kind of) about cutscenes, as promised, I want to note that in the final version of this chapter I’ll pay much more attention to the Mass Effect and DragonAge sliders, which present very welcome complications to KOTOR’s slider. I’ll be sketching that part of the chapter in a few weeks, once I’ve had a chance to refresh my memory of those games.

My plan for this post had been to talk about the cutscenes in KOTOR, and to relate them to the cutscenes in Mass Effect and DragonAge, since unlike the sliders the composition of the cutscenes is quite similar among the three titles, and also quite distinct from other RPG-styles’ compositional dynamics.

As I moved along in my two research-playthroughs of KOTOR though, in which I’m playing both a light-side PC and a dark-side one, trying to keep them in parallel while still exploring as many of the different performance possibilities as I can, I realized that while it’s certainly possible to slice off the cutscenes and talk about them as an example of the way the Bioware style represents an occasion for a particular kind of composition by theme, the thematic nature of the cutscenes in these games is actually tied into the more embracing modularity of the games as wholes. When a set of dialogue choices in KOTOR leads to a cutscene in which an NPC does something that’s partly immutable and partly a result of the choices made by the player, the cutscene is functioning as an integral part of the much broader modular design of the game. For example when the PC chooses a dark-side option like telling an alien that he’s inferior to a group of mean human boys who are taunting him, and the party-member Carth Onasi, a decidedly light-side figure, demurs in a vignette of cutscene dialogue, the player has invoked that cutscene as an aspect of a system of modularity that along with the integral nature of the sliders discussed in my last post could be said to be the most fundamental thematic tools of the Bioware style.

On the other hand, modular cutscenes that run at specific times--the simplest example may be the dreams the PC of KOTOR has after pre-set events like saving Bastila after the swoop race--are simply formulaic, and take their place in the overall composition without need of comment except to point out their formulaic nature.

We’re now getting into topics that can prove out, at a technical level, the theoretical value of the comparison between player-performance in the digital RPG and bard-performance in traditional oral poetry. It’s worth quoting Albert Lord in his famous and foundational article “Composition by Theme in Homer and Southslavic Epos to demonstrate just how precise this comparison can be:
The theme can be defined as a recurrent element of narration or description in traditional oral poetry. It is not restricted, as is the formula, by metrical considerations; hence, it should not be limited to exact word-for-word repetition. . . . Regular use, or repetition, is as much a part of the definition of the theme as it is of the definition of the formula, but the repetition need not be exact. Strictly speaking, we cannot call an action or situation or description in the poetry a theme unless we can find it used at least twice.
Substitute “the digital RPG” for “traditional oral poetry,” and the comparison begins to come into focus; think of the formula as the ludics of the game--unchangeable things like the act of choosing party members and the dialogue choices that are identical between performances--and “metrical considerations” as the coding of the game, and the precision and power of the comparison start to show themselves.

When you realize that the nature of the digital RPG means that its themes are repeated a potentially infinite number of times, the power of the contrast that corresponds to the comparison and actually gives the comparison its bite also starts to reveal itself: while Parry and Lord and those who have come after them have worked on fossilized texts, the digital RPG (along with other, related kinds of games) presents an opportunity for living study of this kind of creative practice--an opportunity that Parry and Lord had only through talking to the Southslavic bards, an opportunity we can have only in faint echo in those precious passages of Homer in which the bards sing about what it means to be a bard. The digital RPG reifies what in traditional oral poetry can’t be reified--the training of the bards in the formulas out of which themes, and epics, were built.

I plan to argue that the Bioware version of the system of formulaic recomposition affords the player of KOTOR, Mass Effect, or DragonAge a particular kind of range of possibilities for thematic composition. A key element of that particularity lies in the role of the sliders discussed in my last sketch; an equally important element lies in the modularity of recurrent elements like dialogue cutscenes, battles, forced entrances into installations and caverns, and even visits to planets or towns--both generally (the party comes to a new town and has to go to the tavern/cantina to hear the rumors) and particularly (the party goes to the planet Manaan in KOTOR).

The themes of homeric epic are elements like assemblies of lords, sacrifices, and single-combats. As Lord details exhaustively in The Singer of Tales, young singers learned the formulas first, and then the themes, just as new players of Bioware RPG’s learn, say, the user-interface and then the basic elements of a quest like DragonAge’s Orzammar section, before learning to shape their performances according to their creative inclinations.

In both cases, the virtuosity and pleasure of the performance, for player and audience alike, come from the application of personal creativity to the thematic materials provided by the performance-system. So much is true of a wide variety of digital RPG’s, and of games of certain other genres as well. But the Bioware games under consideration are distinctive in deploying a high degree of modularity in at least three easily-definable areas: imaginary-spatially-differentiated plot incident, party-character choice, and dialogue-choice. All three of these games, that is, feature well-defined choices between places to visit, party members to take on such visits, and what to say to the NPCs met there. Any player of these games knows what I mean by “well-defined”: above all, each of these games features a decision-defining map screen of one kind or another, in which the player chooses the next destination; each features a party-selection screen, and each features a kind of dialogue in which each utterance-selection screen functions as a separate cutscene.

To put it comprehensively if simply, the player of these Bioware RPGs enacts his or her performance by fitting together, in the ludics of the game, places, characters, and dialogue according to the heroic identification figured by the game’s sliders. The player does this composition with reference to their often unconscious knowledge of and growing virtuosity in the systems of ludics that define the games. In choosing with whom to adventure, where to adventure, and what to say, the player of a Bioware RPG re-composes not just the narrative but also the part of him or herself embodied in the player-character, until in the end, at such moments as the choice between the legacy of Revan and the freedom of a new self (KOTOR), whether to protect the council (Mass Effect), and whether to put Alistair on the throne (DragonAge), the player is able to demonstrate his or her mastery not just of the ludic system of the game, but of an entire imaginary galaxy--or magic realm.

Despite the superficial similarity to games like Bethesda’s Oblivion (just to choose a single example among a great many), in which saving the world and rising to the top of the world order figure just as prominently as they do in these three Bioware games, the Bioware games, because of their sliders and their modularity, put the emphasis on the player’s knowledge of the system, and the player’s clearly-defined ludic choices. The successful player of Oblivion has done (albeit vicariously) the deeds that lead to saving Cyrodiil, has found the items his or her character needed to find, has fought the necessary battles, but he or she has not had a hand in manifestly manipulating the themes and putting them together, as has the successful player of the three Bioware games under discussion. Bethesda games, to choose the most obvious examples, don’t feature decision-defining maps or party-selection screens.

There’s more to be said, obviously, about the relationship between heroic sliders, modular performance, and the overarching narratives of the games (which are in fact describable themselves as themes, since the “reach the final battle and save the galaxy/kingdom from the mindless forces of evil” theme structures all three games). In the next sketch, I plan to try to put them all together; after that, I imagine that I’ll be able to use subsequent sketches to gather evidence to support and to tweak my argument.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Bioware style: KOTOR, light and dark (sketch 2)

Spoiler warning: this post is one long spoiler from start to finish. If you haven’t played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and you plan to do so, and you would like to do so without knowing about the legendary plot-twist, reading this post will have a deleterious effect on the realization of that plan. Concerning comments: I'd be incredibly grateful for any corrections and/or refinements you'd care to suggest about this chapter-in-the-making--Google Buzz is my preferred discussion-place now, so comments are turned off here. You’re most welcome to follow me on Buzz, here; you’ll find this post there, too, with any luck, and I hope to discuss it with you there!

KOTOR organizes every player performance around the player’s apparently climactic decision as to how to integrate the knowledge that the player-character (PC) was, before the game began, Darth Revan, the leader of the Sith (advocates and users of the dark side of the Force), into his or her subsequent performance. At that point, when (I estimate) 90% of the game has been completed, with only hints that the PC has a secret in his or her past, the PC learns that he or she was saved, before the game began, by the non-player-character (NPC) Bastila and, when it was found that the PC had no memory of his or her past, was allowed by the Jedi Council to go free in hope that he or she might return to the light side.

I want to take this moment as a kind of locus classicus of the Bioware style, not because other styles of RPG don’t feature similar moments, but because the way KOTOR handles this moment seems to me to share certain key characteristics with the way other Bioware games enable differentiated player-performances. This moment in KOTOR also doesn’t, I’ll try to argue, share those key charactistics with other styles.

Moreover, in the chapter I’m sketching here I want to argue that some at least of those key characteristics are describable in terms of oral formulaic theory. I want to suggest, too, that that description might integrate the Bioware RPG into--here I’ll just be simplistically, though not in my opinion inaccurately, broad--intellectual history more satisfactorily than it has yet been integrated.

To close the loop in a way I won’t be able to in the actual chapter, integrating a theoretically-informed thick description of the Bioware RPG into intellectual history has value in my eyes because it helps me understand my culture better, which in turn helps me shape my practices and performances more effectively to serve the good of all. For example, once I’ve described KOTOR to my satisfaction, I’ll be able to help my students integrate their reading in homeric epic with their performances in KOTOR in a way that advances their ability to analyze culture.

(I don’t know if that’s the kind of thing you wonder about--what the hell an academic thinks he’s doing when he’s writing this stuff that apparently has no value other than filling out his CV--but I always wonder about it. That’s why I think blogging has it all over what’s more usually called “scholarly discourse.”)

Anyway, the key characteristics of the way KOTOR handles this moment that seem to me 1) particular to the Bioware style and 2) describable in terms of oral formulaic theory are the relations of the moment to:
  • the light/dark slider;
  • the game’s cutscenes;
  • the PC’s exploration of relationships with party-member NPC’s, especially Carth and Bastila;
  • the final apparent meaning of the player’s performance.
To finish out this sketch, I’ll begin to unpack the first of these in terms of oral formulaic theory; my plan for the next few weeks is to take on each of them in a separate sketch.

The light/dark slider may be described in several ways. The most usual way to describe it is as a morality scale, by which the player’s choices are given what observers describe, broadly, as moral consequences in relation to the ongoing events of his or her performance. Briefly, a certain (large) number of dialogue choices in the game--for example whether, at this key moment of revelation, to have the PC declare s/he accepts the mantle of dark-side leadership or to have the PC declare that s/he rejects that mantle and will side with the light--, confer light-side points or dark-side points, the totals of which are tracked, in relation to one another, on a sliding scale that is visible to the player at any time.

The light/dark slider may also be described, though, as a ludic system by which KOTOR differentiates player-performances. As the player accumulates a balance on the slider, choices of character configuration--that is, the cost to the PC of certain powerful skills--are shaped by where the PC stands on the slider. For a player on the light side of the slider, skills like “Cure” are less costly, and skills like “Drain Life” are more costly. The player’s dialogue choices are thereby registered at the level of the gameplay so as to differentiate his or her performance from other possible performances at that level, in a way parallel to the differentiation at the level of dialogue, where the player must choose to say certain things and not to say others--choices that trigger the game’s awards of light-side or dark-side points.

At the same time, in a broader context, the light/dark slider differentiates the player’s performance in relation to the range of possible performances as a Jedi in the Star Wars universe, whose dualistic light/dark ethical system is essential to the game, as it is to every part of the discourse of Star Wars. This climactic decision in KOTOR, for example, adds either an enormous number of light-side points or an enormous number of dark-side points to the PC’s total, and thus places him or her decisively in relation to the ongoing performances of the Star Wars universe, whether in games, on film, or in text.

I’ll discuss the way this particular system of differentiation distinguishes the Bioware style from other styles later in this post-series, but my argument will be that in non-Bioware RPG’s that have an analogous scale differentiating player-performances--for example the reputation scale in Bethesda games like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion--that scale is tied into the events of the player’s performance (or, if you like, the performance’s narrative) quite differently. As we proceed, I’ll be trying to argue that the very different scales to be found in Mass Effect and DragonAge share important elements with the light/dark slider in KOTOR that none of them shares with the reputation scale in Oblivion. To oversimplify just for the moment, Oblivion’s reputation scale isn’t an essential part of the unfolding events of the main quest (partly because the very notion of a main quest is different in the Bethesda style), while the light/dark slider in KOTOR, the renegade/paragon slider in Mass Effect, and the individual approval sliders of party members in DragonAge have a determinative relation to the player’s performance of the central ludic materials of the game.

It’s here, I believe, that the concept of composition-by-theme begins to show its worth. To talk about why, I’ll pick two examples from the countless available thematic moments in homeric epic to compare with the climactic “I’m Revan” moment in KOTOR.

When a bard first chose to have Odysseus lie to his father in what we know as Book 24 of the Odyssey, and when a bard first chose to have Patroclus call Hector his third slayer in Book 16 of the Iliad, those choices differentiated those performances from every performance that had gone before, but they did so in relation to the existing epic materials. Those new themes, that is, were already based on old ones (“lying” and “battle-taunting”). In the recompositional process, bards made their choices in developing their themes (remember that in oral formulaic theory a “theme” is a part of a story, like an arming scene or even a whole battle) based on their knowledge of and skill in using the themes that had gone before.

Indeed, when subsequent bards followed them and used those themes (“lying to father,” “victor as third slayer”) in their own performances, they enacted similarly unique performances, in relation to the existing themes, despite the fact that they were using a pre-existing theme. To describe the difference between the Iliad and the Odyssey in a way that goes beyond the obvious and takes into account their geneses in bardic tradition requires that we describe the differing relationships between performance and theme in the two epics. This is the kind of analysis Laura Slatkin does in the essay I mentioned in my last post. That analysis tells us that the bards of the Odyssey re-composed their performances so as to take advantage of their hero’s own relationship to performances like theirs, and demonstrate their virtuosity at such composition.

That sort of argument is well-known to scholars of homeric epic; it has to my knowledge not been attempted on the digital RPG. I want to argue, though, that it should be attempted, because at the moment of decision between Jedi and Sith, the player of KOTOR re-composes his or her performance, even the first time, out of the elements given by the game, and above all in relation to his or her PC’s position on the light/dark slider. This is, I believe, the basic nature of re-composition in the Bioware style: the player at every moment shapes his or her performance with reference to a ludic system that renders the performance meaningful in relation to the entire system of the game, which is at the same time an overdetermined version of the player’s world that productively mystifies him or her about the meaning of his or her choices both in the game and in “real” culture.

From this perpective the homeric equivalent of the Bioware style would perhaps be a sub-genre in which bards sung their heroes’ words and actions according to a very stylized set of requirements (there are certainly examples of poetic genres with not dissimilar stylzations) that rather than the Iliadic focus on glory or the Odyssean focus on wits enforced a focus on a “scale” of diction that related words to themes. Odysseus would for example lie to his father if the bard had earlier called him “Odysseus the crafty,” or not lie to his father if the bard had called him “Odysseus the wise”; Patroclus would be third-killed by Hector if Hector had previously boasted that he was “great in glory.”

I’m beginning to suggest that what makes the Bioware style special is the way it ties the player’s performance explicitly to a fundamental ludic system that itself both represents and determines the register of the game’s range of performances. In KOTOR, that range has to do with the light/dark duality of the Star Wars universe; because of the light/dark slider, performances of KOTOR are always characterized in terms of where they fall on its spectrum--light, dark, or neutral. And because that light/dark duality was from its beginning in the original film Star Wars (now known as Star Wars: A New Hope) a mystifying allegory of real-world ethics, the KOTOR-player’s performance functions to express and perhaps even to shape his or her practices outside the game.

(To be sure, I’ve previously described pessimistic views, on the part of Plato and the designers of Bioshock, about the possibilities for games like KOTOR--that is, games with closed ethical systems--to shape player’s ethical practices. As a believer in the ethical power of homeric epic and the modern RPG, however, I hasten to say that I’m Aristotelian in this regard, though in few others, and I think that such mimesis does effect ethical education.)

In the next sketch I hope to talk about the cutscenes of KOTOR, and in particular the ones that result from the “I’m Revan” moment. The modularity of these cutscenes, and their integrated relation to the player’s re-composition of his or her performance, seem to me highly analogous to a bard’s use of stylized themes like feasts and battles.