Everyone looks for the perfect balance in their entertainment. Sometimes you want something that challenges your previous perceptions of a film genre (David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises), at other times you want something that alters the way you listen to music (Thrice's 'Alchemy Index Volumes I - IV'), or you need a book that reminds that you that despite all you're taught in school, you really don't know anything (read Kenneth C. Davis).
I admit, my doubts about video games finding that sweet spot have diminished of late. I've become quite taken with Catherine, and I find it a compelling narrative, offering challenging, brain-twisting and sometimes stomach-churning, puzzles, and some fairly complex meditations of maturity, adulthood, and relationships. It's a bizarre yet nice change from the games that have consumed my attention in the past several months.
In the past week, having abandoned some completed games with the intention of exploring and completing those I have yet to finish, I found myself, instead, playing an original XBox game that might well be my favorite RPG, and possibly my favorite game, overall: Jade Empire.
The story is simple enough: you are a monk, living in a secluded village in a China-like country, existing in peace with your fellow students and villagers, under the guidance of your master. One day, soldiers storm the village, kidnapping your master, and slaughtering the citizens and students, leaving only you and your best friend, accompanied by a mysterious outsider, to find out why this happened. Along the way, you meet other characters on similar missions, including a rogueish thief, a bitchy princess, a Great Wall unto himself mercenary, a possessed little girl, a former fighting champion turned cook, and a completely bonkers craftsman who likes explosives.
It's your standard hero-on-a-quest story, with familiar character archetypes that most gamers will know by sight. When it's seen now, it seems so unlike the company that made it. This was Bioware's project right after the success of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and the epic tale of a heroic monk on a quest was a welcome offering. Jade Empire hits the sweet spot for what I look for in a game: it offered a good story, with a morality system that actually had an effect on the world; Jack Wall's amazing musical score; a lush presentation with different areas such as a massive city, the green splendor of a forest, the haunted ruins of a drowned city, and an abandoned frozen monastery; and a combat system that uses martial arts in its basic button mixing combination of X and A.
Looking at this game now, it's not without its flaws, but, overall, those are minimal. As I've been slowly making my way through it, I see that the company that made Jade Empire isn't quite the same company that has made Mass Effect and Dragon Age. There is something refreshing about Jade Empire, something so simple and lacking in pretentiousness that I think it might very well be Bioware's best game, and something that I'm not sure they could ever duplicate.
Jade Empire told a complete story, and it was epic in feel, with great characters, humor, drama, action, adventure, and exploration. It's not a long game; six to eight hours and you're done. However, it's six to eight hours that really feel good to play, to explore, to enjoy in a way that gamers really aren't encouraged to play games anymore.
I think everyone has those moments where they consider walking away from a hobby, but each time I consider walking away from video games, I find myself drifting back to Jade Empire. It's a pleasant reminder of what games used to be, and, honestly, what I think they still can be. I think there's still a market for this type of game: RPGs, or even adventure games, that offer a good story, great characters, and an exciting world to explore.
Looking at the current console offerings, I see a lot of military shooters, intense RPGs that offer heavy combat and presentation, and sometimes, great narratives that offer lazy, or bad game play. I think it might be time for a shift in game developer perception. Maybe it's time to look at older games, what they offered, why they worked and why they didn't, and perhaps see if there is still room in the gaming world for those games.
With the recent interest in HD remakes or touch ups of olds games - Prince of Persia, Devil May Cry, Metal Gear Solid - maybe it's time to look at why those games are being chosen for touch ups, see what made them so good, and try to figure out why they still have appeal. It can't simply be nostalgia; there is something about the games chosen for HD remake that make developers feel they deserve the extra polish. Money is a factor, yes, but I think it might also be because there is still an audience for the games that gave rise to the contemporary game market.
I'm surprised that we've yet to hear of an HD offering for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, as its ten year anniversary is coming up next year. I'd almost rather have an HD remake of Jade Empire, or, better yet, hand the franchise to a developer like, say, Obsidian, and let them try their hand at offering a sequel. It doesn't have to be direct, just set in the same world, using the technology available now. Imagine the possibilities. Obsidian already proved with their KOTOR sequel that they knew what made a good story, great characters and locations, and despite the fact that KOTOR II is an incomplete game (you want to talk bad endings, I'll give you a bad ending), I feel that it is almost superior to its predecessor.
So there you have it. There is still life in this type of game, the epic tale RPG and even the adventure game. It just needs the right guide, the right creative minds, and the right time to come out of its shell. I think the time might be now. If an HD remake of KOTOR happens to filter into the world next year, I guarantee I'll be there to grab one. And, if I'm lucky, maybe a Jade Empire remake, combining the console and PC versions into one epic edition. Ah, a gamer can hope.
Serious Infotainment runs on Mondays.