BioWare isn’t BioWare anymore. There was a time when BioWare was the premier RPG studio on the planet. The studio’s PC games forever changed our expectations of what the genre could deliver, and its console titles sought to combine the depth of PC RPGs with the high-end production value of console role-playing experiences. If you saw the name BioWare on the box, that was a game you had to play.
Now, BioWare is little more than a name. Like the badge on a modern Mercedes, the BioWare name is too often slapped on products that don’t represent the values that made the studio so beloved in the first place. What changed? What is the difference between the BioWare of old and the studio that bears that name now? Why isn’t BioWare really BioWare anymore?
To answer those questions, we need to look at BioWare’s last great experiment, Jade Empire. The 2005 game, BioWare’s follow-up to the universally acclaimed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, tells the story of a young student in an order of protectors known as the Spirit Monks. Following an attack by a group known as the Lotus Assassins that leaves the order of the Spirit Monks decimated, this student must venture across the Jade Empire to save their master and defeat the emperor believed to be responsible for the Lotus attack. It’s a journey that sees the student join forces with various allies, decide what kind of savior they are going to be, and discover the complicated truths behind what this world is really like and the very ideas they were raised to believe in.
Jade Empire was the first RPG BioWare made that wasn’t based on an existing property. This meant the company could no longer rely on the familiarity and the principles of the Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons’ universes. It also meant BioWare had to prove it could create a world every bit as intriguing as the ones it had borrowed from in the past. As if that task wasn’t daunting enough, BioWare, a Canadian game studio, decided to make a game heavily rooted in Eastern mythology. If the developers made a game that was insensitive to the cultures it was trying to pay tribute to, they risked not only confirming to people that they needed to work within someone else’s universe to be successful, but genuinely offending people along the way.
To top it all off, BioWare decided that this already bold title was the perfect time for the company to experiment with its first fully real-time combat system in order to pay tribute to the kung fu films of old (as well as more modern classics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). For a company that helped pioneer a pause-heavy style of combat that let players explore the strategic possibilities of their characters, such a system would force BioWare to abandon the gameplay core of its past role-playing games.
Jade Empire may have been an RPG, but it was different enough to ensure that BioWare couldn’t return to a familiar formula and pick up where it left off. With Jade Empire, the developers had to reconsider everything they’d already accomplished in order to test whether their innovations were strong enough to carry the genre into a new age.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Jade Empire’s morality system. Like most BioWare morality systems, it was never as morally complex and impactful as the studio claimed it would be, but Jade Empire’s Way of the Open Palm (good) and Way of the Closed Fist (bad) represented BioWare’s best attempt at telling a story through a moral alignment system. Essentially, Open Palm is about fishing for someone because you have the ability to feed them while Closed Fist is about teaching them the value of learning to fish for themselves. For instance, you might meet someone being accosted by bandits. The Open Palm follower will help them in an effort to use their skills to make the world a better place. The Closed Fist disciple may instead elect to hand the victim a weapon to defend themselves with.
Ironically, the strength of this system is best exemplified by the game’s “neutral path.” While neutral paths in such games are typically devoid of personality, the neutral path in Jade Empire often sees you play a greedy mercenary who is willing to trade principles in for cash. Electing to avoid making a tough moral choice in this game will often see you simply request money for your actions instead. Whether this is truly evil is a matter of interpretation. It’s not necessarily evil to request money for a service, but it does feel like a hollow pursuit in a world where so many people are looking for something (and someone) to believe in.
There are too many times in Jade Empire’s story when the closed fist method leads to you doing something outright evil (such as using a less effective healing method on a wounded fellow student in order to save some time and best their school records), and the game’s “neutral” ending in which the player character sacrifices themselves doesn’t feel in-line with the rest of the neutral decisions, but at its best, Jade Empire argued that the future of video game morality would force players to recalibrate their own moral compasses rather than simply pick a direction.
While the studio’s ambitious attempt to subvert the complacency of video game morality systems was a bit hit and miss, BioWare suffered few misses in its attempt to subvert its own worldbuilding cliches. Jade Empire’s blend of various mythologies and kung fu movies could have been a cultural disaster (it is, admittedly, occasionally awkward) but managed to be something quite special due to BioWare’s sheer passion for the concept.
BioWare’s artists spent months studying the art of the Han, Ming, Song, and Tang dynasties just to ensure the game’s color palettes felt authentically mythical. They studied the intricacies of various martial arts disciplines for the game’s combat. They weren’t trying to replicate any one mythology or culture but rather pay tribute to generations worth of Eastern art, stories, ideas, and designs by crafting something that felt true to the spirit of these cultures. BioWare hoped to use these Eastern influences to prove it was a gifted world builder.
This is why the game’s best storytelling moments happen outside of the main plot. Elements like the banter between companions, the way the masters describe the various mythologies, and the subtle class battles that plague certain regions are all brilliant pieces of the overall plot that can be easily missed by those who don’t explore them. BioWare had previously shown its ability to tell stories on the periphery, but this was different.
There are no borders in Jade Empire defined by the “canon” of an existing universe. While that freedom can be a wonderful thing, it also means that BioWare had to sell this world in a single game without relying on endless exposition. Side quests, like one involving the spirits of two orphans who disagree on whether their caregiver should be blamed for their deaths during a flood, tell us about the history of this world, the people in it, and the ideas that bind and separate them. These aren’t just side-stories, they’re the tools that help craft this universe.
Even the game’s combat system (which, to be frank, is too simple) benefits from BioWare’s fresh approach. Today, there are few games of this size and quality that allow you to live out your martial arts film dreams quite as Jade Empire does. That was always part of the game’s appeal, though. It offered something different from a company that people trusted to at least attempt to do right by them.
Despite its pedigree and desire to be different, Jade Empire was a failure in many ways. It took two years for the RPG to sell 500,000 copies, the game’s camera was the real final boss, its combat often felt like a glorified button masher, and it was riddled with bugs. Those flaws certainly prevented Jade Empire from being as successful as it could have been.
Yet, it’s easy to view Jade Empire in a more favorable light than more recent controversial BioWare titles like Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem. Andromeda was a cash-in on an established brand that was so hastily slapped together that it couldn’t even offer quality on par with the original game. Meanwhile, Anthem is a case study in how little effort has to be put into modern AAA hits designed to consume time and player’s money. These are the games a studio makes when it’s decided to stop pushing itself.
They’re also the kind of games you’d expect from a studio that is no longer entirely in control of which projects it makes. While it’s likely too simple to blame all of BioWare’s problems on EA, the fact remains that BioWare’s most disappointing and formulaic titles were released on EA’s watch. It certainly doesn’t help that EA has admitted that it doesn’t believe in “linear” games but does believe in titles that push microtransactions. You can argue about the merits of that approach from a business standpoint, but EA knew that BioWare excelled at crafting complete, narrative-based, microtransaction-free games when they acquired them. It’s hard to believe that EA’s mandates aren’t largely responsible for BioWare losing its design philosophy and settling for games designed to appease the bottom line.
Whatever Jade Empire’s faults were, it was not that kind of game. It was a game made by a talented group of creators exploring the world outside their comfort zone. It was a true passion project for those who worked on it, not a title that required months of PR spin in order to convince fans that its developers really wanted to work on the game in the first place. You could feel that just from playing it.
Most importantly, it was a BioWare game designed to help destroy some of the conventions and cliches that the studio helped create. Whereas the great Mass Effect and Dragon Age titles that came after Jade Empire expanded on the BioWare console game formula popularized by Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire was the studio’s last noteworthy attempt at finding a better way or at least a different path. It fell short of its most ambitious goals, but at least it was made by a version of BioWare that was still setting goals for itself.
That’s the difference between the BioWare of old and the BioWare we have now. One was a studio that challenged itself to break its own award-winning formula and willing to put itself in a position to fail. With the release of Anthem, BioWare has become the kind of studio that is too big to ever risk failing. In order to avoid doing so, it’s embraced live services, microtransactions, simplified gameplay, easy-to-follow stories, familiar worlds, and all the other things that will offend the preferences of few and truly excite fewer still.
We can’t blame BioWare for playing it safe on behalf of its employees or shareholders, but we also can’t help but remember Jade Empire and an era when BioWare dared to challenge trends rather than chase them.