After strolling through umpteen post-apocalyptic wastelands and Tolkien rip-offs, I had some fun over the past couple of months playing BioWare’s 2005 epic, Jade Empire. Earlier this week, I finished my playthrough. Despite it being a 7-year-old game, I got more enjoyment out of it than I got out of most of the recent titles I’ve played. Certainly that has something to do with its solid gameplay and relatively interesting plot, but I want to focus on the kind of world that the game builds and how it goes about building that world.
Jade Empire takes place in a fantasy version of Medieval China. Unfettered by the strictures of Western fantasy, the game’s designers took a “kitchen sink” approach to crafting the game’s universe. If it looked interesting, it went in. Martial arts? Yep. Swords and staves? Definitely. Magic? For sure. Steampunk? Why not? Ghosts? Spirits? Transmogrification? Throw it all in there! In the wrong hands, this could make the game seem cluttered and unfocused, and at times, Jade Empire threatens to go that route. (The point in the game where zombies appear is very close to being on the wrong side of the creative/ridiculous line. But hey, every video game has to contain zombies.) However, instead of feeling excessive, this opens up the game’s world to feel like a universe of infinite possibility where anything can happen.
That’s a tricky thing to do. Development resources are limited, and even if they weren’t, a game that requires the player to visit thirty different places in the world might end up being too long. In fact, Jade Empire restricts the player to just a couple of hubs, namely Tien’s Landing and the Imperial City. But the game spends a lot of time describing the world – the peasant farmers of the South, the riches of the East, the pirates of the High Seas, and so on. Thus, without actually seeing the world in its entirety, the player gets an idea of what it’s like.
Jade Empire also comes from somewhat of a bygone era, when games weren’t afraid not to take themselves seriously. The game is bursting with humour, including weird meta-jokes about its ridiculous plot twists. Many characters, including party members Henpecked Hou and Black Whirlwind, serve primarily as comic relief. Sometimes, games adopt a serious tone for a good reason, i.e. because they have a serious story to tell. And that’s fine. But some games are oppressively dour to the point of making their worlds feel fake. When establishing a game world full of possibility, it is often helpful to ensure that it reflects the full range of human emotion. After all, emotions are just a kind of possibility. Sure, Jade Empire has its fair share of sadness – the burning of Two Rivers near the start of the game is a particularly shocking tragedy – but it also makes room for laughter and mirth.
The major problem with the feeling of infinite possibility is that it leaves players wanting more. While the world a game describes may be boundless, a video game is an inherently finite construct. One can never experience the parts of the world that were never programmed into the game first-hand. No wonder so many people have been clamouring for a Jade Empire sequel. It doesn’t seem to be on BioWare’s list of priorities at the moment, but hopefully they will one day see fit to return to their magical Steampunk version of Medieval China. Empress Sun Lian, Dawn Star, Henpecked Hou, and all their friends are waiting.