SWTOR’s Filler Problem

Earlier last month, I had a strange, implacable itch for Star Wars stories. To get my fix, I turned to Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR), an MMORPG revered for its story content. While I had played SWTOR back in 2011, I recognized that I hadn’t given the game a fair shot. So, I created a new character — a lightning-wielding Sith Inquisitor — and jumped in, eager to see how her thrilling conquest for power would unfold.

But after twenty hours or so, my enthusiasm waned. My character’s motivations were hazy. The story devolved into doing chores for my Sith Master. The plot twists were blatantly telegraphed. New villains were shoehorned into the story as older ones were cast aside.

An animated gif depicting a man's excitement with a video game gradually waning

A recreation of my reaction to SWTOR’s Sith Inquisitor storyline (Source)

At first, I couldn’t quite place my finger on the source of these issues. But eventually, like a disturbance in the force, the voices in my head began to cry out in unison: SWTOR has a filler problem.

WARNING: Spoilers for SWTOR’s Sith Inquisitor storyline follow.

An Artifact and Ghost Collect-A-Thon

The setup for SWTOR’s Sith Inquisitor story is promising. Like the best Star Wars villain sagas, it begins with your character rising from obscurity to become a capable Sith Warrior. As your power and body count increase, you eventually become the apprentice of a powerful Sith Master, fulfilling the classic Master-Apprentice dynamic.

But from there, things quickly fall apart, and the story devolves into completing your Master’s laundry list of intergalactic errands. You’re tasked with hopping from planet-to-planet to collect obscure Sith artifacts — not for you, but for her. There’s a story behind each artifact, but as MacGuffins, they’re overwhelmingly inconsequential and irrelevant to your character’s story. Your rewards for collecting them aren’t much better: In brief cutscenes, your Master (Darth Vash) thanks you and says “Marvelous!”  before instructing you to collect yet another artifact. That’s not hyperbole, either — I’m pretty sure she says “marvelous” every single time.

On my third artifact hunt, I started to realize what was happening. SWTOR sidelines the player’s story to “pad out” its length with filler gameplay and exploration. But it’s not even good filler, so it’s especially destructive to the story’s narrative drive.

I’m trying to be more patient with media these days, so I collected all the goddamn artifacts. But from there, SWTOR doubles down on its narrative sin. At this point, you’re tasked with more irrelevant item collecting — only this time, you’re after ghosts, not artifacts. The game tells you you’ll need the ghosts’ power to defeat a new villain who’s suddenly shoehorned into the plot in the absence of your deceased Master.

Imagine if Luke Skywalker needed to collect several objects before confronting Darth Vader in Cloud City. It puts all dramatic tension on hold for a mindless goose-chase devoid of any causality — the backbone of any good story. In other words, it’s a shit way to write a movie, and it’s a shit way to write a game.

Skip the Side Missions

Aside from each class story, SWTOR also has an abundance of side missions. But despite being fully voiced, they’re rarely memorable or consequential. Most of them amount to “enable/disable these machines,” “collect these things,” or some such combination. They’re basically experience-point-pinatas: Do this mundane task, and you’ll get XP and maybe some incremental gear upgrades.

The exception is the “planetary arc” missions, which are far more fleshed out and feature meaningful choices. I particularly enjoyed the Tatooine Imperial Planetary Arc, which culminates in your character encountering the digitally-immortalized leader of an extinct alien empire.

But in general, if you value your time, I can comfortably recommend skipping all of SWTOR’s side missions. However, if you’re after in-game experience points, that recommendation probably doesn’t hold. Which brings me to my next section…

Is SWTOR’s Filler a Consequence of its MMO Design?

MMORPGs are infamous for having boatloads of filler content. It’s a consequence of their progression-based design, lack of story emphasis, and subscription-based business models. To maximize profits, MMORPG developers need to keep players engaged and subscribed month after month. Creating legitimately engaging content is one way to do that. Elongating and padding out content is another.

During SWTOR’s development, BioWare Austin probably felt pressured to do the latter. The game’s commitment to story and high production value made it especially vulnerable to content deficiencies: Each mission had to be fully voice-acted and animated, which greatly increases production time compared to a traditional, text-based presentation. In other words, SWTOR put quality before quantity. But it also needed to satisfy the voracious appetites of its MMO audience — a player demographic that often expects hundreds of hours of gameplay. That’s not an easy line to walk.

That said, MMORPGs don’t need filler content. SWTOR’s developers could’ve increased the game’s length by writing and designing longer, better stories. But sadly, games are a business, and it’s a lot easier to superficially inflate game length with frequent pit-stops and collect-a-thons. BioWare Austin and EA weren’t trying to write the best Star Wars stories ever — they were trying to ship a full-fledged MMORPG. I completely sympathize.

But it’s a shame. With more polish and less filler, SWTOR’s stories could’ve rivalled classic BioWare RPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. And as it stands, players probably won’t regard SWTOR as the rightful successor to KOTOR 1 & 2, but rather, a clumsy MMO-offshoot.

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