Saturday, December 10, 2011

To Read or Not To Read: Revan

Last month, the Star Wars novel Revan by Drew Karpyshyn, set in the era of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, was released. I am torn about whether or not I want to read it. I love KotOR, and I really want to know Revan's story. But at the same time, I'm not sure I could stand to read this book.

The rest of this post will contain MAJOR SPOILERS to the video game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. If you haven't played it already, you're probably never planning on playing it, since it's old. Even so, you should stop reading this post and play it now. It's awesome, and holds a special place in my heart. So go. OK, if you're really sure you don't mind being spoiled, read on, but really, I'm talking about what is one of my all-time favorite plot twists, so I am loathe to spoil it for anyone. Last warning. All right, here we go.

In KotOR, I became very attached to my player character. I imagined an entire origin story for her, building on the meager class-based background provided, which was that she had been a smuggler but was now a soldier for the Republic. My imagined back story basically amounted to the worst kind of trope-filled fan fiction, but I liked it. So, when that fateful moment came on board the Leviathan, and I realized that my imagined back story was just that--imagined--that my character was actually the one-time Darth Revan, her true memories wiped and rewritten by the Jedi, I felt her devastation. My slave-to-smuggler-to-soldier-to-Jedi memories were a sham. I wasn't the noble Jedi I thought I was. The trusting relationships I'd developed with my party members were built on lies. I wasn't sure which was worse--the fact that I had once fallen to the Dark Side and was responsible for a terrible war, or that my present self was a half-fake person, programmed by the Jedi to be their puppet.

At this point in the game, I was so taken aback that I literally stepped back from my computer. My heart was racing and my face was flushed. The metaphysical questions that buzzed through my head right then, and over the course of the next few days, were what made the gaming experience so amazing. Who am I? Am I Revan? Is Revan still a part of my psychology? If I'm not Revan, then who am I? Just a person the Jedi made up? My experiences are programmed--is my behavior programmed, too? Am I any better than a droid? Struggling to answer these questions bonded me with my character. Regardless of whether she was Revan or the the name that I had chosen at character creation or both, I felt a connection with her that is hard to come across in games.

Knights of the Old Republic 2, which featured a different protagonist (known as "the Exile"), left Revan's fate a mystery. Revan went off into the Unknown Regions of the galaxy in search of something that would be a great danger to the galaxy. Did she ever find it? Did she ever return? For a while, I hoped for a KotOR3 to round out the story. Eventually it became apparent that KotOR3 would never happen, as BioWare was planning an MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic, which would take place a few hundred years later. The MMO is awesome, but it's not the conclusion to Revan's story that I was hoping for. So along comes the novel Revan, written by none other than the lead writer on KotOR, promising me the insight into Revan's fate that I so crave. There's only one problem: In the novel, Revan is a man.

Yes, I've known this for a while, but "canonically", Revan is a man. Typical. It's no secret that most video games (the ones that don't have pink covers) are targeted towards young men. Games have male protagonists far more often than female protagonists, so in the cases where the protagonist's gender is chosen by the player, it should only be expected that the "canon" or "default" gender would be male. In the Baldur's Gate novels, Gorion's Ward is a man. Default Shepard and Hawke for the Mass Effect series and Dragon Age 2, respectively, are male; they're the ones featured in the trailers and posters and other promotional materials. It should be no surprise, then, that the person standing front and center on the SWTOR cover is a male Jedi (Note: It may turn out that he's actually an NPC in the game--I haven't played it all yet--but I interpret him to be the hero into whose shoes you the potential buyer are supposed to imagine stepping). I love your female protagonists, BioWare! You should let them out more.

To be fair, the Exile of KotOR2 is actually canonically female. This doesn't make me feel much better for two reasons. First, KotOR2 wasn't BioWare, it was Obsidian, so BioWare--you're still not off the hook. Second, the Exile in the game was constructed in a strange way so that she the character knew things--important things about her past that had major effects on the game's main plot--that I the player did not know. I had to wait for a big reveal towards the end of the game to have someone else tell me what my player character had known all along. Though she was a fascinating character (it turned out, once those NPCs told me), I never was able to connect with her because I felt like I didn't know her. Strangely enough (or not so strangely), KotOR2 is the only game I've ever chosen to play through with a male character (on my second play through). I think it was because of the disconnect that I felt with the protagonist that I was finally able to let go and not have to see myself in the player character.

But it's not just me feeling neglect on behalf of my female Revan (and all those other female protagonists) that makes me wish that Revan had been made canonically female. I actually think it makes the better story. In canon, the male Revan develops a romantic relationship with the Jedi party member Bastila. No offense to anyone who played that romance and liked it--it's your game, after all--but I find that love story totally sketchy. Three reasons why Bastila would not have fallen for the player character:
1) She knew you were Revan. Sure, that means she knows that you were once a great Jedi and a brilliant general, but you also were weak enough to fall to the Dark Side, and once there did terrible things (e.g. started a war against the Republic that has claimed countless lives), before being defeated by the Jedi.
2) Even if she believed that you were different from Revan, that you were changed and a better person now, she'd know that it was all because of how she and the other Jedi had designed you. She'd see you as a sort of fascinating construct. It takes a twisted mind to fall in love with her own creation.
3) She's a Jedi. She was raised to be a Jedi from a very young age. She's lived by the Jedi Code for as long as she can remember. She's always known that love is not in the cards for her. If there was any reason to resist falling in love with someone (see points 1 and 2), she would have every reason to resist.
OK, so maybe Bastila was weak (I don't think that's fair to her character, though), or maybe your player character is just that damn charming. I admit that I never played this romance, so maybe they wrote it in a way that it worked--BioWare does understand good character development, after all. But I think it's a stretch: a good way to feed the fantasies of the players, but not the best story.

Now let's consider the romance that a female Revan has with pilot Carth Onasi. He doesn't know that you're Revan, or a "made-up" person, until you do (actually, a few minutes before you do, but who's counting?). He's not a Jedi, he's single, and he has a tortured past. Prime romance material, with none of the deterrents Bastila had. You have two thirds of the game to develop your relationship with him--mostly just a strong, trusting friendship, with a little flirting sprinkled in--before the bomb is dropped on it. How my character's relationship with Carth progressed after her true identity was revealed (both with in game dialogue and my own dialogue-in-my-head) was another important part of what made the gaming experience so amazing. Of all your party members, Carth takes learning your identity the hardest; after all, he lost his family--and entire home planet--to the war you started as Revan. But ultimately he learns to forgive you, to see you for who you are now, not who you were--even if you can't. The romance is never "consummated" in the game, not even with a kiss, but when he says "I think I could love you," it's enough.

Even if the Bastila romance isn't as sketchy as I tried to make it seem, it can't have the same depth that the Carth romance has. Once you realize your true identity, Bastila disappears from your party until the end of the game. If you manage to win her back, you only get that one conversation of reconciliation before you have to move on alone towards the final battle. The Carth romance just makes the stronger, truer, more dynamic story. That is why I so passionately wish that Revan had been made female in canon.

My love for the character of Revan makes me want to read the Revan novel. But my love is in no small part specifically for my Revan, a female Light Side Revan, which makes me not want to read the Revan novel. It's not just fans of female Revan, though, who will feel alienated by the Revan of the novel; anyone who played the protagonist with Dark Side choices will find the Light Side hero at odds with the Revan they know and love. The great defining characteristic of games--the beauty of interactivity and player choice--is inevitably lost when the story is translated to another medium (Revan as a choose-your-own-adventure book...that would have been awkward). A male Light Side Revan likely satisfies a plurality of players, possibly even a majority, so it's probably the smart choice for canon and for the novel. But it's not the best choice.

Will I read the book? Maybe eventually. Maybe I'll just read a summary of it, so I can know what happened. Maybe playing SWTOR will give me enough answers. To BioWare's credit, as far as I got in the SWTOR beta, they made it clear that while Revan is generally believed to have been male, Revan's gender is in fact not entirely certain. A bit hard to believe that in a technologically advanced society, 300 years would be enough time to forget a historical figure's gender, but it's explained that the Sith (and maybe Jedi as well) tried to downplay Revan's story and importance. Well, that's BioWare throwing us female-Revan KotOR players a bone. A small bone with little meat, but I'll take what I can get.


Zanathan said...

Wow, I am truly impressed at your level of immersion with the KOTOR games, which makes me happy.

While I love all SW games (good and bad) and have a particular pet love for the KOTOR games I can't match your enthusiasm and how the revelation of Revan's past affected you. It makes me happy to know there are others who enjoy it even more then myself.

As for the novel, give it a shot, it's very well written and entertaining. I'm sure you won't be disappointed - although given that you're on TOR now you probably don't have time ;)

I was also selected for BETA and was over the moon but I will be holding off on subscribing just yet due to time commitments.

Eleni said...

Yeah, I guess I may have been a bit too emotionally invested in KotOR. Maybe I was at a vulnerable point in my life, haha.

I may try to give the novel a shot, when I find the time (you're right--SWTOR is keeping me busy)--and when it comes out in paperback :)

You're lucky you got into beta, but I understand how that would make it less exciting when it's finally released. It wouldn't seem new anymore, which is a shame. This is the first game I've played where I have to pay a subscription. I wonder how long I can keep it up.

Zanathan said...

Ah we all go through those phases in life one time or another =) I seemed to have felt more attached to my char in Mass Effect then KotoR for some strange reason even though I am an avid Star Wars fan ...

Anyway, if the novel is too time consuming I have been recommending the comics to my friends who are short for time. You can go through them so quickly yet get the same story, albeit with less details of course but still, the stories are grand. I've been mainly reading the old republic comics from Dark Horse.

And yup, I knew I was lucky when I got selected for BETA, including the stress testing for the 2nd week! Was over the moon. I think I will order it, it's just the last time I played an MMO was WoW and that consumed a lot of my time ... =)

Oh and if you are near end game of TOR (no spoilers here), how insane is the Emperor!