Thursday, March 22, 2018

Much Ado About Nihilus - Part Two

(Mild Spoilers for The Last Jedi)

So there’s a new Raid. The first raid was the Rancor, the second an AAT (the floating tank used by separatists during the Clone Wars, if you don’t recall off the top of your head), the third the Sith Triumvirate of the Darths Nihilus, Sion, and Traya. These names! Oh, lord. Star Wars names are supposed to be bad, I mean, I put up with General Grievous and this really isn’t that far off from Savage Oppress . . .
Raids are hard. Raids are supposed to be hard. Raids are one of the major activities we do as a guild, the others being Territory Wars and Territory Battles (which you really don’t need to know about). The Raids all follow the same format: four levels against really hard bosses that take everyone in the guild to be able to defeat. 
The Rancor Raid (or, “the Pit”) at this point is probably a year and a half old, maybe a little longer. It took my guild months to be able to advance from the next-to-highest to the highest level of the Pit – and now we polish it off in an hour every couple days. The Rancor is old tech - a decent Zader team (that is, Vader with what used to be his only Zeta ability) can take down all four levels in one go. We had to ban Zader and CLS both from the Pit, and for that reason we have a 24-hour registration period too. People were missing out on loot because what used to take us the better part of an hour has become routine. 
The AAT Raid is much harder. My guild just recently graduated to being able to complete the top level of the AAT. That is the only way to get General Kenobi shards. Even if General Kenobi has been around for well over a year he’s still immensely powerful, and at 114/145 I am as we write only 31 shards short of unlocking him. Of course, it’s 330 total to get him up to the full seven shards, but give me time.
The AAT was a fucking pain in the ass, and you can quote me on that. They had to retool the Raid a little while after launch because it was so hard. We spent well over a week grinding through four levels of General Grievous and Battle Droids, the first time through. They made it slightly easier the next iteration. 
But not easy enough that it didn’t still take us months of dedicated work to beat the final seven star level. The first time we beat it was recent enough that the memory is still fresh, just a couple months back – the main sensation being pure disbelief followed by genuine satisfaction. I feel a connection to a few of these players with whom I’ve been in this Guild for almost two years. They don’t know me. They know nothing about me other than the few things we share in chat – that is, my gender, which you couldn’t otherwise tell from the screen name “GeorgeRBinks.” The backbone of the Guild is a few older players like myself who have been together since Guilds started. A couple of them have had kids since we started. 
Adding a new Raid is a big deal, considering just how much of my life for the foreseeable future is going to be spent memorizing the levels. Because, ugh. I need to explain how this works.
Basically, Galaxy of Heroes is designed around the concept of timers. Every character operates on a timer that dictates the frequency with which they can take an action. If left to its own devices – such as in an Arena match against another player’s team – the computer automatically plays each ability in a certain order. The computer can’t change its strategy because it has no strategy other than playing out the various timing mechanisms that compose character abilities in a predetermined order, just like winding a spring on a watch. 
It’s my job as the player to know the order. Thankfully they do tell you, for bosses, if not for regular opponents. The first boss of the Sith Raid is Darth Nihilus: he has an extraordinarily annoying special ability that can kill a character instantly. There’s one kind of survival buff that can enable a character to both taunt Nihilus (that is, take all the heat for a full turn) and survive his ultimate, but of course it only lasts a single turn itself. So you have to time it just right or lose a character – or, more likely, just scrap the level and try again. 
Which I do, over and over and again, until I can manage to get a feel for how each character works. If I’m paying attention and my brain is working right I should be able to plan a strategy around which characters go with which combos, knowledge that is useless without also knowing whatever offensive strategy I plan has to compliment the defensive strategy of dodging Nihilus’ ultimate every seven (of his) turns. There is a lot of counting involved. I think it’s actually very good for my memory.
This is made more difficult by the fact that since the new Raid literally only just started last month we don’t yet have a solid idea of what works and what doesn’t. The only constant across all three Raids is that there is no consistent strategy. The three Sith in this Raid all have very complicated and finicky offensive capabilities that are going to take me months to memorize. The only way I can figure it out is just playing until muscle memory takes over and I understand which combos and characters do and do not work. 
There’s something in the aesthetic of the Sith temple – the Trayus Academy – that I find worrisome. The second level – defended by Darth Sion (sigh) – seems very much like the kind of evil temple you’d find in one thousand other video games. Sion himself – I can’t find anything at all redemptive about the look. He’s shirtless from the waste up and his entire body is covering in scarification that makes him look a little like Bizarro with Jonah Hex’s eye. From the waist down he’s dressed in leather trousers and boots. 
The problem with these Old Republic characters, to me, is that this aesthetic seems entirely alien to Star Wars. How do we describe it? The words I keep grasping for are “Hot Topic” – but that’s maybe not completely fair? 
The problem with Star Wars spin-offs is that Star Wars is a very cohesive brand. Every spin-off has to be different enough to stand on its own two feet – but too far of a stretch and the audience turns away. Because Star Wars is such a cohesive brand there’s not as much elastic there as you might think. 
The Old Republic era is certainly stylistically distinctive from other eras of the Saga, but not in a way that has ever made sense to me.The Original Trilogy and Prequel Trilogies each have their own looks. One of the lesser-appreciated virtues of the Prequel Trilogy is just how much thought has been given to the evolution of industrial design in the years spanning Episodes I and IV. The nature of The Force Awakens – a deliberately calculated nostalgic recollection of the original film from 1977 – is such that it couldn’t really deviate from the template enough to offer anything resembling the same kind of immersive and novel sensation as the original films. The Prequels feel sufficiently different from the Originals to achieve their own visual identity while still feeding back to the look of the original film. 
The Force Awakens looks the way it does because the viewers in this universe expect that universe to have remained largely visually static in the time between Episodes VI and VIII, which is like expecting your hometown to look precisely the same as it did forty years ago when you go back for a high school reunion. 
On the other hand . . . Star Wars finds itself running repeats from the early eighties because we do, too. Star Wars was smarter than me in at least one very important way: the franchise saw back in 2015 that the reheated leftovers of last generation’s fascists could be every bit as scary as the originals. The concept behind the First Order is very much the same as the Alt-Right: remember the old bad guys? Well, it’s basically the same thing only younger, fashionable, and completely rabid in the way only fanatics force-fed a steady diet of Imperialist propaganda can be. Fascism is already a cult but the second generation is filled with people who don’t have to pretend, in order not to get force choked around the conference table, the Emperor is a god and not just a really creepy Senator who received a series of well-timed promotions. I’m sure the First Order is made up of people who really and truly believe Sheev Palpatine was a visionary leader and that the Galaxy has been on the wrong track since Yavin IV. 
That doesn’t have unsettling implications at all! 
What I like about The Last Jedi is that the design here told a lot of the story that I found missing in The Force Awakens. The reason why things looked mostly the same in the last movie was because everything the good guys had was either falling apart or getting blown out of the sky. The most recent film underlines this point dramatically by forcing the Resistence into a position of using completely obsolete and completely falling apart Rebel surplus equipment to hold off the First Order during their “last stand” on Crait. Of course the bad guys have new toys, and everyone with money can still afford to look nice. The scale of Snoke’s capital ship (the Supremacy!) reveals the organization’s guiding motif: bigger, faster, deadlier. The bureaucratic order that masked the Empire’s cruelty with crisp officiousness has been replaced by the pure animus of generational resentment. Tarkin for Hux. 
The design of The Last Jedi marks a significant departure from its immediate predecessor. Although very little time in-universe has elapsed since the previous film the aesthetics have changed completely. Colors are richer, contrasts heavier. There’s more extraneous detail, more of a sense of life bursting into the story from outside the frame. If the world of The Force Awakens was grayscale The Last Jedi is Technicolor, representing the brilliant flash of the present colliding with the force of possibility. 
It’s a delicate moment. The stakes are deliriously high. Eventually someone has to make a decision and set out in a new direction. Sometimes people make the wrong decision. If they take the time to listen and think essentially decent people can often fix mistakes made in ignorance, or contribute to new solutions. The key is learning to recognize problematic and unproductive patterns. It’s always possible to put the past behind if you put in the hard work to doing and becoming better. 
(Yes I am aware of the currently slated director of Episode IX. A conversation for another day.)
I don’t know anything about the Old Republic, really, other than what I’ve scanned on a few Wookieepedia articles over the years. I know there were a lot more Sith and a lot more wars, but that’s about it. I don’t really have any context for these designs other than their sudden appearances as floating signifiers in my game. And they bug me because I know Star Wars. I understand Star Wars. I spend a lot of time thinking about Star Wars and sometimes people who write about Star Wars for a living even tell me they find my ideas useful. That’s a very good feeling. 
Spin-offs don’t have to follow all of the same rules. The Old Republic is significantly darker both in terms of theme and visuals. Darth Sion isn’t built to hang on a peg at Target. Although I suppose he probably could in 2018, he was clearly designed for a different audience. According to Wookieepedia: 

Darth Sion, the Lord of Pain, was a Sith Lord who lived in the time of the Old Sith Wars. As a Sith Marauder in the Great Sith War, Sion fought for Exar Kun’s Sith Empire until the day he was struck down. Rather than die, though, Sion found that by calling on his pain, anger, and hatred, he could rise from certain death and achieve immortality, at the cost of all consuming agony. With a body fractured and decomposing, but held together by the dark side of the Force, Sion survived the Great Sith War.  

I understand the ideas here. I understand the words and the concepts. It makes sense, historically, that there would be things like Great Sith Wars and Lords of Pain in the long history of the galaxy. But something about it, about Sith temples that look like Tool videos and walking corpses swinging red lightsabers, makes it seem really distant from the franchise’s core thema. It seems like something made specifically for people who always wondered why he wasn’t called Death Vader.    
The aesthetic for the Old Republic characters isn’t cinematic. These aren’t bold designs built to pop off the movie screen. These are video game designs. Maybe there’s something about the idiom that eludes me . . .
I do, however, like Darth Traya’s design. Very simple – redolent of the Emperor – Traya is an older woman wielding three purple lightsabers suspended in the air. It works because it’s simple, relatively unfussy, and it has a pretty decent “high concept” as far as Sith go. The character (at least in-game) appears to be incredibly powerful. Because her shards are only available at the highest tier of the Trayus Raid – to give you an idea, it’s currently taking us about three days to clear the four-star Trayus, and they go all the way up to seven stars – I don’t anticipate we’ll make the seven star anytime soon. So I don’t anticipate seeing Darth Traya anytime this . . . decade. Eventually. 
If I wanted to learn all about the Old Republic tomorrow, I don’t even know how I’d go about it. I don’t know how to play the kind of video games those are – I don’t even know what kind of video games those are. Right now the stories are inaccessible to me as anything but words on a Wiki. 
I don’t understand the Old Republic. It doesn’t make sense to me because it doesn’t seem like Star Wars to me. I think it misses the point – I think it misses a lot of points. It looks weird and the characters have funny names and and and 
I stop a moment, step back. A wide smile creases my face. 
Just when I thought Star Wars had ceased to hold any surprises for me, I am humbled. Listen to me: I don’t understand . . . it doesn’t make sense . . . it doesn’t seem like Star Wars . . .
The Old Republic makes about as much sense to me as the Prequels do to many others. It’s every bit just as much Star Wars, coming to us from a period when Lucas was still involved in everything, even the video games. Darth Nihilus is just as much Star Wars – just as much real Star Wars – as Savage Oppress. Just because it’s not my Star Wars doesn’t mean it’s not real. It just means I don’t really understand it yet – which just means I have to sit down and figure it out, like the order of Nihilus’ specials. 
If they take the time to listen and think essentially decent people can often fix mistakes made in ignorance
It’s a good feeling to realize you are still capable of sifting out nuggets of hypocrisy from your brainpan. There are people out there who hated the Prequels who also loved the Old Republic material, so given the timeframe of the games releases I can’t help but think that it may have been designed specifically for people who felt alienated by the Prequels. It makes sense: if you didn’t like Galactic politics and Lucas’ occasionally labored analogies to Rome and the Templars, maybe the Old Republic was more in line with what you wanted from the Prequels? Tonally and thematically far more different from the Original Trilogy than the Prequels, but nevertheless dealing primarily with the meat of Star Wars lore in a very fan-friendly way. The darker setting allows for a number of different kinds of gaming experiences, I imagine.
And that’s something I have yet to really reckon with: everyone I’ve talked to about the Old Republic really likes it, both the setting and the games. The fact that it was a video game and not an official series of movies meant that it was easier for people who didn’t particularly care for Star Wars: The Misfits T-Shirt Phase to simply ignore it. Whereas if you didn’t care for Jar Jar and Hayden Christenson in the movies you were pretty much S.O.L.
Honestly – it can be exciting to me to try to get my hands around something I don’t understand like this. It’s something I really enjoy in most instances: sitting down and trying to understand something you don’t “get” is a wonderful feeling. That’s how I made myself love Spoon after I initially found Gimme Fiction insular and dry. I learned to see the beating heart of compassion at the heart of Britt Daniel’s songwriting, even if it was a bit hard at the outset to break through the intimidating façade of hermetic mystery he wraps around his lexicon. 
One of these days I am going to have to sit down and figure out what makes the Old Republic tick. It’s thousands of years separate from the Star Wars we know and love, so of course it feels a different – imagine if they did a Prequel to The Fast and the Furious about chariot racers in ancient Rome. (I mean, besides Ben Hur.) That’s the kind of time frame we’re dealing with: perhaps the outline of the conflicts is similar but the culture and setting is completely unrecognizable in most other ways. Properly speaking there should be very little continuity in terms of the evolution of industrial design over such a large period of time, and since the Star Wars universe during the time period around the Original Trilogy is very visually distinctive the loss of familiar signifiers is disorienting.
As I said above, The Last Jedi felt to me very much like a Star Wars movie in the sense that it seemed to be a movie that was trying very hard to both pay homage to Lucas while at the same time updating elements of his filmmaking style to fit the contemporary moment. J. J. Abrams did the first part but, of course, had no interest in the latter. It wasn’t the job, in all fairness: his job was to remind people of what they loved. So of course many of us who had always loved found much of the movie redundant or rudimentary.  
But most people aren’t as invested in the franchise as I am, or even as much as most of the people reading this essay right now. (Certainly very few even among Star Wars fans are particularly motivated to defend Lucas as a filmmaker in 2018.) I liked Rey and her cohort a lot even given my mixed feelings about the film, but I was worried if the pattern held that Episode VIII was on track to be another carbon copy, this time of Empire Strikes Back, and these very good characters would again be stuck cosplaying a thirty-seven year old film. Most audiences probably would not have minded or even noticed. There were certainly many nods at the general shape of that film but The Last Jedi was a completely different beast. The parallels that exist between the two films are informative and warrant more scrutiny because it’s the differences that stand out on reappraisal. 
So the question stands: if I can give the Sequels the benefit of the doubt, and give them time to unfold and reveal themselves as distinctive and unique entities separate from the rest of the franchise, why not the Old Republic? Aren’t I being a hypocrite if I don’t acknowledge the possibility that a very different kind of spin-off could produce a very different kind of experience that, while connected in many important ways to the original, stands out in many other ways for being completely different? Shouldn’t I move to accept it on its own terms instead of measuring it according to its obeisance to some Platonic notion of what Star Wars “is?”
Galaxy of Heroes embraces the whole of Star Wars with a catholic open-mindedness. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader coexist peacefully with the Phoenix Squad from the slightly more all-ages Rebels cartoon, BB-8 and Kylo Ren, platoons of clone troopers and a coven of Nightsisters from The Clones Wars – and now, Darth Nihilus and his unholy trinity. 
When they reintroduced Grand Admiral Thrawn into post-Disney continuity on Rebels it seemed to represent a moment of clarity for the franchise: essentially the Disney purchase acted as a kind of behind the scenes Crisis on Infinite Earths. If you had asked me, lo those many years ago, what I anticipated from Disney buying Star Wars, I would not have guessed tighter continuity and more attention to streamlining and incorporating disparate elements from the series’ long and checkered past. And yet that is exactly what has happened, and honestly I’m cool with that. 
What that means for me is that I have to get used to the fact that the Sith Lords and their Trayus Academy Raid are here to stay. 
Even if I still think Darth Nihilus is a tryhard punk.  


Galaxy of Zeroes

Much Ado About Nihilus - Part Two
Which One is Starck Again?

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1 comment :

yrzhe said...

The Old Republic grew out of the same era of EU fandom as the Bantam books, and like them, basically has no cohesive theme at all. It's a wild west of different creators applying their own sensiblities and aesthetics on top of each other's work.

But even knowing that won't tell you much about Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, the game Nihlus/Scion/Traya come from. It's a singularly weird, idiosyncratic work, made doubly so by the fact that it was rushed out largely unfinished, and a sizable amount of the plot/subtext has been pieced together over the years since from fan patches trawling through uncompleted code. Figuring out what the hell they were going for takes less knowledge of Star Wars than it does of lead designer Chris Avellone and his previous projects, particularly Planescape: Torment. Both are lower-budgeted sequels/followups to successful licensed games from different studios, and bascially refuse to play within the conventions of their established franchises and go off on their own tangents. Whether this comes from an intentional desire to deconstruct the source material or just contempt/disinterest for having to write within somebody else's playground is up for debate. Probably a little of both.

And Darth Nihlus IS a tryhard punk. He spends the entire game being built up as this ultimate Sith threat that everyone is terrified of, then gets taken out in a single, fake-climax fight where he turns out to have been being manipulated by his ex-master Traya all along. He doesn't get a single line of dialogue, ever, in a game filled with dialogue. He's absolutely intended as a shallow, hollow caricature of an archvillain.