Around this time every year, I get the urge to play Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. Though the original, Bioware-produced game is generally considered to be the superior installment, and though I enjoyed it very much in its own right, I’ve never felt tempted to slog through that beast of an RPG ever again; I always come back to Obsidian’s sequel instead. This is largely because of the difference in writing between the two games. Drew Karpyshyn’s writing in the original is serviceable and adequate for a typical “save-the-world” story, but its much-vaunted “moral choices” are painfully black-and-white and everything else, from the love scenes to the expository background revelations, rely slavishly upon standard tropes. Chris Avellone’s writing in the sequel, however, is much more nuanced and subtle, coating everything from characters’ allegiances to the player’s moral choices in heavy shades of grey. I always find the latter an interesting read, and thanks to Avellone’s wordiness, there’s a hell of a lot of dialogue to sift through in The Sith Lords, so every winter I like to sit back and listen to my party members bitch and argue.
That’s what weird about this game: unlike a lot of party-based RPGs, your team in KotOR II actually feels like a living, breathing unit. Each individual has their own biases, secrets, and grudges, and these come out in numerous short scenes on the Ebon Hawk over the course of the game. Some of them hint at important story points or character backgrounds, some are merely comic relief, but almost none of them involve the presence of the player character. They’re just there to show that, yes, cramming twelve people into a tiny ship is going to force them to talk to each other, whether you and your dialogue wheel are there or not.
After playing KotOR II, the lack of party interaction in other RPGs became a lot more noticeable to me. Perhaps it’s there and it’s merely not as well-implemented as in KotOR II, but in some games your party members honestly do not seem to be aware of each others’ presence. You can see this a lot in the original KotOR, where your party members will often speak of themselves or the player character, but never about anyone else on the team. It’s like they’re operating in a complete vacuum, and they have no idea who the other ten strangers on the ship are. Mass Effect is a little better, since the second game has Shepard break up a few fights between specific party members, while the third game allows Shepard to eavesdrop on many conversations between party members around the Normandy, but even these are usually either a meaningless discussion of the previous mission or a tired reference to a meme spawned from one of the previous games. They do little to build upon the characters’ relationships.
The Tales of series takes its writing cues from Japanese anime culture rather than Western cinema, but its approach to character interaction isn’t much better than the average Bioware game. The games’ optional party “skits” show your party members interacting in an informal manner, but it’s usually for the purpose of showcasing example after example of strange Japanese humour. It’s awkward to watch, and these games are still a product of their translation team (though they’ve gotten much better since the early days of JRPG localization in the ’90s), but hey, at least all these party members seem to be actually aware of each other.
In the case of most of Bioware’s RPGs, the problem seems to stem from an almost fanatical desire to make each party member connect to the player character in some meaningful way. When you spend this much time making sure that each social outcast or disgraced soldier you pick up has a sob story ready to go (let’s get that dialogue wheel going!), you can bet the devs aren’t spending much time drawing up relationships between the outcasts themselves. The focus in most Western RPGs, where character creation seems to be almost mandatory these days, is on the player. Devs figure that if the player isn’t allowed to interact with their party members during a scene, their egotistical personalities will flare up and they’ll get bored.
The Bioware problem is exacerbated by the fact that sometimes your party members can die, and then they won’t be in the next game. This is an asinine design choice dressed up as the mother of all moral decisions. The problem is not that they’re dead, and that’s weighty and heavy; the problem is that sometimes that person will be around to talk to other party members, and sometimes they won’t be. If either party member is dead, the potential conversation cannot occur, and the chances of not having the conversation occur increase with the addition of other party members to the conversation (KotOR II has several convos that involve a specific group of your team), all of whom may potentially be dead. But rather than waste time scripting a conversation that many players will possibly never see, any reasonable designer would opt for not placing a conversation there at all. It’s cheaper and less of a headache than to work out the variables that must come together for that conversation to occur. As a result, if those characters are in fact alive (I like to keep all of my team alive whenever possible), they still don’t get a potentially character-building scripted conversation simply because it would’ve been pointless to insert it if there was the chance it could be missed.
I realize this is such a minor part of RPG storytelling that I’ve still managed to enjoy many games despite the lack of inter-party interaction. I suppose I feel spoiled by how well it’s used in KotOR II, and I’m frustrated by other games’ insistence on bending over backward to make the player feel like the focus of the story. My ego isn’t so fragile that I can’t bear to see how my party members are getting on in my absence. In games where you assemble an ensemble of globetrotting scoundrels, you should feel like they can relate not only to the player character, but also to each other. That’s how I like my characterization.