Massive spoilers follow. This game has a surprise twist in it, and you will ruin the game for yourself if you read on.
KOTOR had an excellent plot twist, although I did manage to figure it out shortly before it was revealed. I was not so clever with Jade Empire, and the big twist caught me totally be surprise. Once I beat the Emperor, I did sort of sense the game wasn’t over, but I had no idea what was coming next. When my master turned around and killed me, I was blindsided.
But then, going back to the start of the game I can see hints of this coming all over the place. The conversations with Master Li take on whole new meaning once you know his plans. All of his “mistakes” that led to the destruction of Two Rivers were clearly not just deliberate, but finely calculated. This plot twist wasn’t some nonsense they pulled out of a hat. It was a clear element of the plot, and in fact many early conversations with Li only truly make sense once you understand what he’s up to.
I want to go over Master Li’s plans, as much as I’ve been able to unravel them. Note that in my game my character was named Endo, so anytime I talk about Endo I’m referring to the main player character, who can be either male or female and have any name the player chooses. Okay? Great. Let’s do this:
The Emperor Sun Hai decides to steal the power of the Water Dragon, one of many gods in the large and diverse pantheon of Jade Empire. He has vast resources, a huge army, and his subjects already revere him as a god. However, he doesn’t have a head for this sort of thing, so he turns to his younger brother Sun Li, the Glorious Strategist. Sun Li comes up with a flawless plan. They storm the temple of the Water Dragon, slay the guardians (the Spirit Monks) and defile the temple in a very deliberate way so that her (the Water Dragon’s) power can be stolen by a mortal.
At some point Sun Li decided that the only part of his plan he doesn’t like is the bit where his brother gets the power of a god instead of him.
I can’t be sure why, but Sun Li lets his brother (the Emperor) grab the Water Dragon’s power before he makes his move. Maybe he wanted to see if Sun Hai would survive before trying it himself. Sun Hai grabs the Dragon’s Heart (true to videogame conventions, it’s a big ‘ol glowing crystal) and gains supernatural powers. Li tries to take it, but quickly finds himself outmatched by his brother’s new godlike powers. He is forced to flee.
Being the Glorious Strategist, Li comes up with a new plan. He knows, or learns, that the only person who can defeat Emperor Sun Hai is a Spirit Monk. The Spirit Monks get their power from the Water Dragon, and so (for whatever reason) they are immune to the supernatural powers Sun Hai stole. The problem is that they just got done killing all the spirit monks, down to the last man. On his way away from the battle, Li encounters a man with a baby and an amulet. It must be obvious that this kid is another Spirit Monk (er, future Spirit Monk, or however it works) and this guy is trying to make sure the kid gets away.
The powers of the amulet are never very precise, but it seems to help anyone trying to use the power of the Water Dragon. If Sun Hai got it he would become invincible. In the hands of a Spirit Monk it would give him a good shot at beating the Emperor. The man was probably planning to train the boy, give him the amulet, and send him on his quest to make things right.
The man had a pretty good plan, which Li quickly deduces and adopts as his own, but with a few key revisions. (Er, after he gets done killing him and taking the baby.) He takes the amulet apart and spreads the pieces around to be collected later. He moves to the small village of Two Rivers and opens a martial-arts school. Master Li trains Endo, at the same time filling his head with ideas about having a great destiny.
During this twenty-year process, Emperor Sun Hai is looking for his brother, who assumes that Sun Li would be out somewhere building an army. He and his men never guess that Li would just be living the life of a simple teacher. Master Li hides in plain sight like this for two decades.
At the start of the game Endo hears a lot of complaining from the other students about how Endo is the “favored student”. On the first run through the game, I thought this was just sour grapes on their part. Once I was in on the secret, it becomes obvious that this is the truth. Li focused on training Endo and humored the other students only to pay the bills and maintain appearances. For his plans, he actually needs Endo to believe he is one of the greatest fighters in the world, and he needs to make sure that none of the other students is too strong. His plans require that Two Rivers be wiped off the map, so he has to take care that his students will be weak enough to fall quickly when the time comes.
One of the students in the school is Gao the Lesser. His is arrogant, rich, proud, violent, hard to control, and his father has connections to the Empire. At the start of the game I thought Gao was pretty much just a jerk character. A plot device. An early “boss” fight to ease the player into the game. The students remark how much Li puts up with Gao’s antics, and at first it really doesn’t make sense. Li is much firmer with just about everyone else, yet tolerates all sorts of insolence from Gao. But once you know the plan then Gao’s purpose becomes clear: Li is keeping him around so that when the time is ripe he can “accidentally” reveal his whereabouts to the Emperor. Li (subtly) agitates Gao, pitting him against Endo, and deliberately wounding Gao’s immense ego. When Li is ready, he gives his true name when he knows Gao is listening. Gao, burning for revenge, tells his father, who tells his connections in the Imperial City, and very quickly word reaches the Emperor that his traitorous brother has been found. Gao was another carefully placed pawn on Li’s chessboard.
Li sends Endo down into the caves beneath the school. Endo gets the first part of the amulet. I’m guessing, but I think Li plans to have Endo remain down there (note that he seals Endo in) until after the army has come. Li knows they will wipe out the town, and he needs Endo to survive. As far as I can tell, Li’s plan is for the army to show up, arrest him, torch the town, and leave. Then Endo would emerge from the caves to find his home destroyed, his friends all killed, and his master taken. Endo’s head would be fill of the ideas Li had fed him. He would have one piece of the amulet, and just enough knowledge to track down the other two.
But before the army arrives – while Endo is down in the caves – the Water Dragon (or what is left of her spirit) makes a slight change to Li’s plans. I’m not sure why. She’s not trying to stop Li’s plans (for reasons I won’t get into) but she does knock them off track here a bit. For whatever reason, once Endo has the first part of the amulet, she appears to him in a vision and then transports him back out of the caves to the school. This puts Master Li off his guard for a second.
At first I thought he was just upset at having Endo appear without finishing his “day or so” of meditation. No, he was upset because his twenty-year long plan was about to be undone! The army was on the way and Endo was at the school. If the army showed up he would be killed! Then Dawn Star goes missing. Li almost tips his hand when he seems happy about it. The first time through the game I didn’t know what to make of that, but the second time I understood that this was because Li was looking for another excuse to get Endo out of town. He sends Endo into the swamp after Dawn Star, and his plans are back on track.
As Li anticipated, the army comes looking for him. Li knows his brother and he knows the army will not have orders to kill him outright. He surrenders and they take him back to the Imperial City. They don’t know who in town knew Li’s true identity, if they were in on it, or if they might come looking for revenge later, so the army just wipes out the town on general principles. This also was anticipated (and counted on) by Li. With the townsfolk gone, Endo would have a burning need for revenge and no reason to stay.
You hardly need to be the Glorious Strategist to know what a skilled kung-fu warrior would do in that situation. He’s going to round up the parts of the amulet and then go rescue his master. The idea that his master engineered his own capture is beyond comprehension. The player assumes that destiny has placed them here, but really it is just the plans of Li, disguised as destiny.
Endo then spends most of the rest of the game doing exactly what Li anticipated. He gathers up the wayward parts of the amulet, and in the meantime he’s kicking butts and gaining strength. This explains why Li spread the bits of the amulet around. If he’d given the complete amulet to Endo right from the start, then Endo might have made a beeline for the palace without getting enough experience first. He needed Endo to be well-seasoned before he took a crack at the Emperor.
|Endo has just vanquished the Emperor via some supernatural kung-fu. He’s feeling smug now, but Master Li is about to sucker-punch him into the afterlife.|
Throughout the game various characters make comments on Endo’s fighting style. They explain that his technique is unusual, and that it looks like he has an opening that they can’t explain. Enamored of my in-game alter ego, I just assumed this was done to illustrate how awesome Endo is at Kung-Fu, but this is just another part of Li’s grand plan. He’s taught Endo very carefully. He’s taught him to fight wrong. He’s given Endo a weakness in his style. If some other Master faced Endo repeatedly, he might come to understand and exploit this flaw, but since almost everyone that fights him dies, nobody ever has the chance to exploit his weakness.
Endo gets the amulet, fights his way into the palace, and faces the Emperor. He’s immune to Sun Hai’s magic, so the Emperor is obliged to resort to fisticuffs. Sun Hai is defeated. Now, I could tell this probably wasn’t the end of the game, but I never saw it coming when Li walked over, smiled, and killed Endo easily. He took advantage of the flaw in Endo’s style (which he designed) and dealt a few key blows.
It took twenty years, but at the end of it he had the Dragon’s Heart, the complete amulet, and the last Spirit Monk was truly dead. He had accomplished all of this with minimal risk, without ever having to face his brother himself, and without needing to get his hands dirty. Glorious Strategist indeed.
|Master Li at last has the |
The only reason he is defeated is because he couldn’t foresee what the Water Dragon would do. The very short time between Sun Hai’s death and Li’s grasp of the Water Dragon’s power gives her a window of opportunity in which she can act. She returns Endo to life. She saw this outcome from the start, which is why she never told Endo. If Endo had found out about Li, there was a good chance Li might have just killed his student sooner, when the Water Dragon wasn’t in a position to save him. Li had no way to know about this or account for it in his plans, which is the only reason his plans failed.
What impresses me the most is the acting on the part of Master Li. (Voiced by Barry Dennen.) This was a tricky part and I think he nailed it. He needed to play a man who was capable of pretending to care about his students for twenty years. A man capable of raising a baby into adulthood to be his “prized” student, manipulating that adult into doing his work, and then killing him at his moment of triumph. He sacrificed his family, his students, and his brothers. He was a man who never loved anyone, yet who needed to be able to convincingly play a wise and nominally kind teacher for two decades.
I can think of a lot of movies where they do this to you: Where a seemingly harmless character is revealed to be a profound threat. It’s happened often, and it has never been very believable to me. But Master Li didn’t turn into a different man when his true nature was revealed. He didn’t suddenly become some wild-eyed madman shouting, “You SHALL DIE!” He was the same guy, and the player suddenly understands that they have simply misunderstood him all this time. He doesn’t change, only your perception of him changes. This is subtly and masterfully done. This required talented acting and carefully crafted dialog to pull off.
Hats off to Bioware. Nicely done.
The Biggest Game Ever
How did this niche racing game make a gameworld so massive, and why is that a big deal?
The Brilliance of Mass Effect
What is "Domino Worldbuilding" and how did it help to make Mass Effect one of the most interesting settings in modern RPGs?
Quakecon Keynote 2013 Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
The Best of 2017
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2017.
DM of the Rings
Both a celebration and an evisceration of tabletop roleplaying games, by twisting the Lord of the Rings films into a D&D game.