Monday, 11 July 2011

Jade Empire

Let's talk about computer games again - they're an uncontroversial and fun topic of discussion usually leading to amusing anecdotes about unbeatable bosses rather than wretched soul-searching, blame-displacement and convoluted political recriminations. At least that's what I thought when I wrote out some notes for this post a couple of months ago*.

I really enjoyed Jade Empire when I played it, although I'm not entirely sure I would now. This isn't because it's a bad game, or in any way particularly dated (although I could do without the top-down vertical-scroll shooter bits, which are just a bit too gimmicky), but because I'm just really not sure any more whether or not the execution of its concept is particularly problematic.

It should be a clear-cut case of cultural appropriation - a North American company writing stories about East Asian culture and history - but in gaming the usual assumptions about geo-political power structures don't always hold true, at least where Asia is concerned; although  China does not have the same cultural impact in the gaming market that Japan and Korea have. Also, the game itself doesn't purport to embody the truth of Chinese culture or experience, but rather is presenting a playable version of the tropes in a cinematic genre which China (ok, occupied Hong Kong for a long period, really) has been very successfully and lucratively exporting to the West.

It is a very western game though, with a pretty standard hero-saga basically re-skinned with martial arts and ninja-princesses. In some ways its a mirror to all those games like Fire Emblem which take Japanese style stories and re-skin them with dragons and long-swords. But still, I enjoyed it in some ways because it was a re-skinned Bioware game, and I knew that no-matter how urgent my quest seemed, there would always be time to get myself involved in local politics; help out an innkeeper who'd got himself a little bit of local trouble and run errands for various people in need of someone credulous to help them double-cross someone else.

Yes, there are so many sidequests. I've talked before about how hard I find it to not do sidequests in games, and how it keeps me playing long after they've stopped being fun. Well, its the sidequests that did for me completely in Jade Empire and ended up making me bork the game into a narratively, if not technically, unplayable state.

For the first few acts of the game everything is fairly linear. You have a main quest in each area and then a bunch of optional missions that are specific to that area but that don't really have a huge impact on your ability to continue. But then, in the penultimate (I think) act, everything opens up and there are at least three paths you can take to open up the final act. I took all three, and the system is open enough that once you take one path it doesn't cut off the others.

You see, that's my big problem - with computer games as it is with life. I want to take all of the options, so I take on too much. I couldn't keep playing the game because I had both factions coming to see me at midnight, and I'm sure that if at the last moment I'd just picked one path the game would have ignored all the people I'd pissed off and let down, but I couldn't do that. I didn't want to make the decision and, in doing so, close off all the possibilities I'd opened. In the story I was telling that isn't what would have happened, and I could just see the massacre as everyone realised I'd been double crossing them.

I should have specialised and chosen one path for my life, rather than thought that I could take levels in everything and come out all right. Because, while in a computer game I can leave it unplayed, I can never collapse the possibility into actuality, in life you have to move on, you have to let people down and you have to realise that of all the different people you wanted to be, you can only ever be one of them, and if you don't pay attention that one person may not even be anything like who you wanted or planned it to be.

*These notes consist of the following sentence: 'Jade Empire (the death of possibilities into the life of single actuality, and how it bugged out the system)'

No comments:

Post a Comment