I think The Secret World has spoiled me in ways I haven’t fully realized yet. Ever since going back to SWTOR, I’ve had a lot of difficulty getting into the stories and quests the way I could last year, but didn’t put a finger on it until recently. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that while it was pretty good for what it was, TSW showed me how it could be a lot, lot better.
Here’s a quick and dirty list of what’s holding me back from reveling in SWTOR’s strongest suit.
Problem #1: Stupid facial hair and morbid obesity
I cannot stand cutscenes where the other person has one of the ridiculous cartoony moustaches or beards or mutton chops. Just about all of them are butt-ugly, looking more like someone glued a slug to their face instead of giving any semblance of “hair.”
And the male morbidly obese model is incredibly distracting, because I simply cannot buy how this character is a soldier or mercenary or anything other than a Walmart shopper who needs an electric cart to scoot down the aisles on. I mean, props to BioWare for acknowledging other body types, but there are stops along the way from “well built” to “Jabba the Hutt.”
Problem #2: There are far too many NPCs
This is why I think TSW does so well: It keeps its cast list to a manageable number, akin to what you’d find in a book or movie. Over the course of several quests and investigations, we get to know these characters, and there’s always the chance we’ll be coming back to them when missions are added in the future. I can probably tell you several aspects of each NPC questgiver in the game off the top of my head… and I really can’t do that for most of SWTOR.
SWTOR had a lot of voice acting and actors involved, but that’s the problem: There are way too many. It’s a problem that many MMOs have, the disposable NPC who means little because they’re one among a legion and you won’t be speaking to them tomorrow. They don’t have a chance to make an impression and you already know they won’t matter. When you tack on expensive voice acting, it turns that disposability into a tragedy. Sure, some of the story characters and companions are more fleshed out, but BioWare had to stick to the traditional MMO model of an enormous supporting cast.
It makes me wonder what if… what if the cast was far more limited, such as what we see in a standard Star Wars movie? What if there was nothing else than the personal storylines and a much stronger emphasis on your interactions with a few NPCs and your companions? I think I would’ve liked that a lot more.
Problem #3: The uncanny valley
This last problem wasn’t something I really acknowledged until recently, and again, only when compared to TSW. I won’t argue that TSW’s characters are sometimes off-putting to behold, but the excellent writing, voice acting, and — this is important — facial and body gestures combine to form a believable personality. I get as much from a shrug or a happy dance as I do from a line of heavy-handed exposition.
So going back to SWTOR feels like stepping way backwards. These characters don’t really emote. Sure, they have good voice acting, but their faces don’t really show emotion or match up to what’s being said. “Angry” and “orgasmic” are basically the same expression. And gestures? Since BioWare apparently used some program to cinematically splice together cutscenes instead of doing them by hand, you’re going to see the same gestures over and over again — gestures that don’t have much to do with anything being said. Just Theater 101 stuff.
Is it the uncanny valley? I’m starting to think so. They look like people, they talk like people, but they do so through Leatherface masks.
I’m wondering if all this combines to a subconscious unease, as if my brain can’t quite make that final step to accepting these characters as believable fiction. The pieces are in place but something’s getting in the way.