As I spoke to him about his job and the stories that he’s written over his almost 10 years at BioWare, the conversation took a philosophical turn toward the game’s companions, especially in how they reflect on the player and the characters that the players are puppeting.
There will be some minor spoilers about previous Knights of the Fallen Empire chapters, but I’ve tried to keep them to a minimum. But if you like to talk about storytelling in BioWare games or games in general, read on regardless of spoilers.
Humility and criticism
Creative Director James Ohlen happened to be in room at the time I was speaking to Boyd, and he praised Boyd, calling him “instrumental in the development” of KOTFE. “He’s one the of the best writers we have at BioWare,” Ohlen said. “He’s always being super humble, which is important. Humility is one of the key attributes of being here at BioWare.”
Indeed, Boyd is surprisingly humble about his work and very willing to accept criticism of it. For example, I brought up one of my critiques of the latest chapter: that there was a strange transition between the two stories taking place in the chapter. One is an infiltration mission with Trooper companion Aric Jorgan and Agent companion Kaliyo Djannis; the other is a heist involving Warrior companion Vette and Bounty Hunter companion Gault. And Boyd acknowledged that disconnect.
“We are definitely looking really hard at TV,” Boyd explained, “and how they do things to try to model ourselves on what we feel is the most successful storytelling there. It’s been very interesting. You can say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s how it works,’ but when you sit down to actually do it, there’s a lot of learning that goes on. It’s been a really cool creative challenge for us.”
He went on to say that writing episodically means that each story has to be contained, but there also has to be a throughline that holds them all together. Writers have to make sure that certain plot points are remembered from chapter to chapter. Unlike the creators of a self-contained, single-player story, SWTOR’s devs have to be concerned about certain beats that they wouldn’t necessarily have to worry about if the players had just experienced it ten minutes ago. The writers now need to make sure that players can recall things they did last month or even the month before that.
Importance of companions
As we all know, however, companions are actually the most important part of BioWare storytelling. I don’t recall any BioWare game where companions haven’t been a key component to the game. To that, Ohlen immediately countered, “Shattered Steel,” BioWare’s very first game. Boyd even asked about MDK2, but Ohlen said that even that game had a couple of characters. When we have to travel back to 1996 to find a BioWare game that didn’t have important companions, then I think it’s safe to say that companions are where it’s at for BioWare storytelling. Even though it might seem that SWTOR is just throwing companions at you chapter after chapter, there is careful consideration for the companions chosen. Boyd had a great comment on that.
“Our first consideration, of course, is how do they fit into the overall story. How do they reflect or comment upon or contrast with the stuff that’s going on? Like in this case [with Chapter 13], Gault and Vette — they tie-in; they have useful skills but also an interesting contrast. They have this crazy scheme to rob the Eternal Empire, but they’re not tied into that. They don’t have political motivations; they don’t have aspirations to seize the throne or anything like that. They’re coming at it from a completely different direction.”
“To me, that’s one of the best parts of companions. It’s that they can have completely different points of view than the player does. It’s an opportunity to explore how different characters are approaching the same situation. What are the opportunities that they see there that we don’t? What are the different choices they would be making versus what we would be presented with? For me, that’s really the first thing that we consider whenever we’re looking at bringing characters back into the story. Obviously, popularity of characters is a factor. Vette’s one of our most popular [companions] overall, so we were definitely looking for a chance to bring her back in general. We enjoy writing Gault. He’s just a fun character. Those are certainly other factors as well, but at the end of the day we have to look at the story as a whole to see who’s going to fit into this piece. Who’s the best person to represent this theme or this viewpoint or an aspect of the Star Wars galaxy as a whole?”
BioWare companions aren’t just interesting people your character gets to hang out with. There is a deeper understanding and consideration when making the character in the first place. They really represent an ideology or a philosophy. Boyd definitely considered this when dealing with the latest SWTOR chapter.
“There’s a lot of symbolic relevance with Jorgan and Kaliyo,” he agreed. “In some ways, they represent order and chaos. When choosing which one you side with or which one you disapprove of, it’s a reflection on your own character. I’m a Kaliyo guy, and I think we should do whatever the hell we want. We’re just going to run roughshod over the galaxy. Or I’m a Jorgan person. I’m going to say there are rules. There’s discipline. We have to pursue our goals in an orderly way. Letting players pick between them is an interesting way to let players reflect on their own character and define their own character through that choice — between these other characters who are representative of a larger philosophy. Any chance we get to offer a situation like that we’re going to look for the right character who can embody that. It’s always more emotionally engaging — it’s more interesting — when you’re choosing between people than when you’re choosing between things or concepts.”
I’d like to thank Boyd for taking the time to talk to me, but most of all, I would like to thank him for making me think about the SWTOR companions on a different level. On the Massively OP podcast, Justin asked me which were my favorite companions, and now I might just have to reexamine my choices. How about you? Which are your favorite companions and what does that say about you or the character you play?
If you are a SWTOR fan already, here’s a bit of news: This year will mark SWTOR’s fifth year since launch. So every five days of this the fifth month of the year, starting on the 10th, five players will receive several different prizes. Check out the full details on the official SWTOR website. I hope to see you in-game!