I recently finished Jade Empire, one of the Bioware’s many big scale RPGs. It’s set in a fictionalised version of China, with rampaging spirits, demons and assassins. After going through it on a complete Let’s Play, I found my opinions of the game changing. As I took the nostalgia goggles off and saw the game for what it really was, I kept finding more flaws in it, more issues that annoyed me. Some were mechanical, such as the ridiculous amount of unnecessary and functionally identical marital arts style—with the odd nonsensical monster transformation style—and the combat system that never lets you create a single combo as your strikes push enemies beyond your reach.
But the one thing I have the most issues with is the storytelling, the writing in Jade Empire. I know it’s one of Bioware’s early RPGs, but it came after Knights of the Old Republic, a game that while still having its clumsy moments has tight writing overall. So I can’t just wave these issues away because of Jade Empire’s age.
First of all, let’s get the ugly one out of the way: characterisation. Characters in Jade Empire lack any personality beyond the stereotypical: The big barbarian with no interest beyond drinking and fighting, the thief with the heart of gold, the proud princess and the girl next door. And of course, there’s the mad inventor and the mysterious warrior with the dark past, aka Sagacious Zu. While they do try to give these people strong backgrounds, their lack of personality and complexity makes that effort a wasted one. They are simply too bland. They rarely confront you on your choices and take your word as the most important thing. They’re your followers and that’s all that matters to them.
In a related note are the women in this game. You can have a field day on these ladies on how pathetic their portrayal is. If it was weakness in appearance as a commentary on women’s rights and expected behaviour in ancient China, I could understand it, but that’s not the case. These are ‘strong’ women with very little self-value, living and dying by your word. Even the princess, who’s proud and unapproachable at first will be just another consort if you talk to her a few times. A nice word and a pretty commentary is enough in Jade Empire. Worst of all is the character of Dawn Star, who actually states that your words and opinion are what matters the most to her.
Though considering the thief, Sky also falls into this trap, I’m beginning to think that it’s not that they’re women, but the fact they’re love interests. Apparently for Jade Empire’s writers that means that for love to exist, interesting personalities can’t be a factor.
The next issue is on telling. The world of Jade Empire has a lot of potential and when they let their quests and the environment tell a story, it does so wonderfully. Even if most characters are stereotypes and two-dimensional, their requests and conversations give you a better idea on how the world works. Yet, despite this, the writers insist on giving you hours of exposition, even repeating things already mentioned in the past. They repeat the tale of the assault on Dirge and Master Li’s part in the story several times and even by the second time you think it unnecessary. The Water Dragon character insists on repeating things you heard five minutes earlier, only with an air of mystery about her.
That’s another thing. There is a fine line between cryptic and obtuse. Jade Empire’s writers don’t know it. A cryptic message is one that if you really think about it, and under the right circumstances, you can decipher what the meaning is. An obtuse, pseudo-cryptic message is one that never makes sense. Jade Empire does that a lot, though most of the time the ramblings are so clear that the pseudo-cryptic approach is pointless. It even does it with plot-related matters, making it so easy to predict where it’s all going.
That reminds me of another issue: pacing-aware characters. This is clear when you have allied characters that know the plot but avoid giving you important or critical information until the time is right—for example, after you’ve already found out the truth. The Water Dragon is the prime culprit of this. She knows everything but avoids dropping names until after you discover the truth about the plot.
Finally, there’s the plot itself. The concept of the Water Dragon and its connection to the world is interesting, and how the Jade Empire fought the drought by ravaging this god is great. Sadly, everything else, the political angle and the conspiracies are weak and predictable. The Lotus Assassins are—once again—stereotypical corrupted villains, with no clear purpose in society except being intimidating.
I will say though, that I love the cosmology, the different spirit planes and the fine line between gods and demons.
I remembered Jade Empire as an amazing game with a deep storyline, but I fear it was just a case of nostalgia goggles. Now that I’ve taken a second look and seen what it has to offer, I see just how flawed the storytelling really is.