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Retrospective: Jade Empire

Be as water's agility stat.

I've played roughly a billion games with moral meters that paint in broad black and white stokes with the occasional sloppy shade of grey, but only one has ever made me turn. See, I usually stick to the straight-and-narrow goodie-two-shoes path on my first playthrough of these things, but in Jade Empire, I just couldn't do it.

I spent all of my time at Master Li's school of not-so-hard knocks devoutly following the Way of the Open Palm - defending the innocent, and helping those who didn't feel like helping themselves. And I even made it through most of the drought-ridden Tien's Landing playing Kung-Fu Boyscout for a horde of overly trusting teashop owners, weak-willed ministers and cowardly townsfolk who categorically refused to solve their own damn problems.

Then it dawned on me: I hated these people.

Honestly, though, that's pretty much par for the course with whiny, knuckle-dragging RPG quest-givers. But I can't play evil. The screams and cries and melodramatic declarations of "whhhhyyyyyy?" are too much for me.

Jade Empire, though, gave me an out. Way of the Closed Fist was, in essence, a pull-no-punches answer to the nonsensical nature of RPG questing. The world, its disciples said, was weak and complacent. So let its citizens face adversity. Let them question their values. Let them fight. After nearly topping out my Open Palm meter, I chose to bust the dam at Tien's Landing, leaving the newly impoverished settlement high-and-dry for the foreseeable future. Then I told the wily businessman who'd risen up to fill the power vacuum that - in no uncertain terms - he was to remind his skin-and-bones villagers that hardship brings strength. Served them right for trusting a stranger with their problems.

Kung-fu fighting has been known to produce lightning.

It was a lesson that needed to be learned, and clearly, no one else was qualified to teach it. And so, slowly but surely, I transformed into the cool-headed, cold-blooded lovechild of Yoda, Mr. Miyagi and natural selection. I wasn't just saving this world from some Darth-Vader-wannabe Big Bad and his evil empire; I was preparing it for what would inevitably come in the aftermath.

So I did a terrible, terrible thing, but I felt great about it. It came to define me. Even then, though, Jade Empire's moral code was inconsistent at best. For every moment of true complexity, I came across three or four others that basically boiled down to "Be sappier than one of Jackie Chan's family flicks or completely miss the point of your Way's teachings and take the lazy way out." Fight a bunch of normal enemies like a man or drop a boat on them and - in the process - kill an innocent slave. Good or evil. Black or white.

Sadly, that pretty much sums up Jade Empire. It was, in a nutshell, one of those YouTube videos where a kid thinks he can pull off some crazy triple-spinning kick, only to fall flat on his face. Sky high ambition minus the required know-how. But it makes sense, given that, for BioWare, the game represented a vision-obscuring downpour of firsts: first original IP since Baldur's Gate, first truly console-focused release, and first 'streamlined' combat system - among others.

For better or worse, Jade Empire ended up becoming the mid-point in BioWare's journey from clumsy yet lovable nerd to the popular kid everybody loves to hate. It definitely wasn't another KOTOR or Baldur's Gate, but it was still miles away from the polished cinematic antics of Dragon Age 2 or Mass Effect.

As a result, writing - especially during the game's opening few hours - was incredibly wonky and exposition-laden, stats and skill advancement were so simplistic as to be nearly nonexistent, and storytelling cliches from BioWare's Old Way lurked around every turn. Take its grand arc - you're the conveniently orphaned Chosen One. You set out on an epic journey to Fulfill Your Destiny after your hometown exploded. Your merry band of mouthy sidekicks included the Childhood Friend, the Brooding Bad Boy, the Charming Rogue, the Loud Idiot, and the One That's Not Human. If you've played a BioWare game, you'll have heard this one before.

Jade Empire was not, however, by any means terrible. Instead, it became the embodiment of BioWare's gangly teenage growth spurt, prone to tripping over its own two feet. And all the while, tremendous potential stirred just beneath the surface. The world and its mythology, especially, were a breath of fresh air in a genre distressingly content to perch atop D&D's reliable shoulders. Drawing from all manner of Chinese legends, action films, and martial arts philosophies, it was like a cobbled together book report written by a kid who loved the fantasy of the place, but - perhaps willfully - ignored the reality. Yes, Jade Empire absolutely was an Americanized cultural mishmash, but don't mistake it for ill-informed exploitation. The game was a work of honest reverence in the same vein as, say, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and that "China's Greatest Hits" approach was part of the charm.

Ultimately, though, I'll keep pining for a Jade Empire sequel in hopes that BioWare revisits the game's flawed yet fascinating moral philosophies - perhaps with separated Mass Effect-style meters or none at all, as in Dragon Age. After all, what sort of Way of the Closed Fist practitioner would I be if I took some silly meter's slight undulations as Gospel? I'm defined by the choices I've made - not what some arbitrary pile of points tells me about them. That in mind, I leave you with the moment that truly defined my character.

I'd rescued a young woman from a group of bloodthirsty pirates. (Incidentally, she and her mother were in the process of fleeing from the city - and their problems - when I arrived. Evidently, that hadn't gone so well.) One unsavory character, however, still remained. He was a slaver, and he claimed the girl was his property. Typically, I would've played knight-in-shining-armor and rescued her without a second thought, but Jade Empire offered an option that had even my Brooding Bad Boy party member grasping frantically to keep me from going off the deep end. But I had to do it. So I handed the terrified young woman a knife and told her to kill the plump, unarmed slaver if she wanted her freedom. She protested. I insisted.

Eventually, the slaver dropped to the ground, his ill-gotten girth a woefully inadequate defense against someone who could actually fight back. The mother conveniently arrived at that point - just in time to marvel at her daughter's handiwork. Predictably, she threw a temper tantrum for the ages. But her daughter seemed oddly... pleased. Empowered, even. After a life of running away, she was finally forced to become a fighter.

I did a terrible, terrible thing, and I felt proud.