In the midst of the bad prequels, after a slew of bad video games, and before the contested sequels, there was Knights of the Old Republic. Sam Brooks looks back at the critically acclaimed Star Wars game on its fifteenth anniversary.
In 2003, the idea of a good Star Wars game was like the idea of a Star Wars sequel at all. We’d gone too far to come back now. This was right in the middle of the ‘I-hate-sand’ nadir of the series, when the only people who were still hanging along with the series were the die-hard fans and even they had been burned hard. We’d had years of decent-but-not-even-good games like the platformer-shooter movie tie-ins, the third-person lightsaber simulators like Jedi Knight and various pod-racer or space shooters.
These games were fine, but none of them captured the Star Wars magic that people raved about when the films first came out. That moment where the two suns come up over Tatooine, the problematic image of Leia in a metallic bikini, the Ewoks that everybody loved and absolutely everybody thought were necessary to The Return of the Jedi. Even if these games sold well, and got good reviews, they weren’t true blue Star Wars games. (Man, imagine if Twitter was around when these films came out! The developers and publishers really dodged a bullet there.)
Then came along BioWare, critically acclaimed maker of western RPGs, with a lot of goodwill from fans, critics and audiences behind it. They were going to make a Star Wars RPG.
Looking back, adapting Star Wars into an RPG is the perfect idea. It was 2003, we didn’t have the technology to put proper lightsaber fights, with their speed and grace, into video games! So put them in a genre where you don’t need that particular magic – but you instead instill the Star Wars magic through immersing the player in the deep and deeply bizarre mythos of the universe, in the experience of being a Jedi (or a Sith!) and in being able to choke people with lightning bolts. You know, the pillars of the universe.
You get the scale and the majesty of the series with the 30-40 hour length of an RPG. Bravo, circa-2000 BioWare. Good move.
Another genius move? Removing their new game, which was titled Knights of the Old Republic, from the messy canon of the movies, both prequel and… quel, I suppose, is the only correct and useable term. BioWare booted the setting of their game back four thousand years before the first film, and immediately relieved themselves of the need to deal with the bad dad drama that plagues Luke Skywalker, the sad wife drama that plagues Darth Vader and the whole Trade Federation debacle.
In retrospect, it’s amazing they were brazen enough to do it at all. BioWare got all the good of Star Wars: the setting, the Jedi stuff, the lightsabers, and freed themselves from the worst of it: the canon and fans.
Knights of the Old Republic is just far away enough from the films be something that BioWare could experiment with, but close enough to work as wish fulfilment for both fans and newcomers to the series. No, you’re not playing as Luke Skywalker, but you still get to play a Jedi at some point. No, you don’t get to fight Darth Vader, but you get to fight Darth Revan, who is still an evil Sith in armour who casts a long shadow over the world of the game. And no, there’s no Princess Leia in a metallic bikini, but they manage to put someone in one anyway and it’s kind of gross.
Spoilers ahead – if you haven’t been spoiled about one of the most famous gaming twists in history, or haven’t experienced it yourself, you weirdo.
But the actual best way that BioWare captured that Star Wars magic was by adapting the thing that made it truly, eternally famous. No, not lightsabers. No, not Luke Skywalker drinking milk from a space manatee. That wouldn’t happen until fourteen years later, reader.
It’s ‘I am your father’. The kind of earth-shaking twist that made audiences expect that kind of reveal in every subsequent Star Wars film. BioWare nailed it, and it did so by using the one thing that games definitively have over movies: full immersion.
For a good two-thirds of KOTOR, you’re playing as an Imperial soldier who ends up being unusually sensitive and gifted in the use of the Force. You’re finding Star Maps (a meaningless MacGuffin) to find your way to the Star Forge (ditto) – a big ol’ ship which is creating smaller ships for the Sith Empire to use in their fight against the Empire (dark side versus light side, essentially).
Then, suddenly, you come face-to-face with Darth Malak and he reveals that Revan never died at all. Because you are Revan.
(The graphics, acting, and writing are… very 2003. Lots of bobbing heads in a long-close-up kind of a deal. You can tell this poor actor was given line readings for every. single. delivery.)
Think about how much of a mindscrew Darth Vader’s daddy reveal was in 1979.
Now, amp it up a hundred times, because you’re playing as the big bad guy. You’re playing as the guy who started this galactic-wide war. The biggest and baddest Sith who has ever lived. But you got mindwiped by the Imperial army and trained to be their new weapon against the Sith.
Mix that with BioWare’s at the time fairly binary morality system – which actually fits pretty well with the binary morality of the Star Wars universe – and you’ve got yourself a gut punch. Either you’ve been playing Revan as a kill-kittens kind of a dick, so him being the Dark Lord makes complete sense, or even better/worse (depending on your emotional investment), you’ve been playing Revan as a save-orphanages dude, so him being the Dark Lord is proof that people can be redeemed.
It makes you complicit in the game’s twist and its morality in a way that has probably been done more effectively since, but never with the from-out-of-nowhere-yet-perfectly-foreshadowed way that Knights of the Old Republic does.
As with any triple-A game that’s fifteen years old now, it doesn’t quite hold up to modern standards. The gameplay is a bit janky, the graphics are waxen in a way that repulses a player rather than invites nostalgia. Even more crucially, BioWare’s reliance on the plot-coupon structure and moral binary choices has become more tired and overused ever since, and there’s only so many times a game can make you choose between burning down an orphanage or spending all your money to send them to university before it gets tired.
(There’s another post entirely about how the sequel The Sith Lords, by a different but BioWare-aligned studio, managed to deconstruct the Philosophy 101 morality of the Star Wars universe, in the process making it by far the darkest and most introspective product the universe has ever turned out. But that’s another post, for another time.)
All this doesn’t dim the power of that twist – or how incredible BioWare’s achievement was in being able to pull Star Wars out of unadaptable hell into one of the most successful games of its generation and genre. And not only did it spawn its own mini-franchise – the Old Republic MMO is still going strong – but it established BioWare as a triple-A studio in its own right. It’s quite possible that without the success of KOTOR we wouldn’t have Dragon Age or Mass Effect, and gaming would be worse for it.
Also, you get to play as a Jedi, and there are far too few chances for us to do that, you guys. Far. Too. Few.
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