Sunday, August 17, 2014

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (4.5/5)

In the summer of 2003, Star Wars fans were attempting to recover from the one, two groin kicks that were Episode 1 (1999) and Episode II (2003).  While I’m sometimes inclined to defend segments from those movies, I also remember being exhausted by the cycle of anticipation and disappointment that accompanied the first two prequel films.  The Star Wars galaxy was starting to feel stale at that point, and after two disappointing films many fans of George Lucas’s adventures far, far away were becoming a little despondent.  It’s around this time that Knights of the Old Republic, the first Star Wars role playing game, came out and reminded a generation of players why they fell in love with Star Wars to begin with.

Unlike most Star Wars games, which often take place concurrent with the most recent film, Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR) escapes the tricky issue of continuity by taking place 4,000 years prior to the events of the original trilogy.  Originally, the game was supposed to tie into the world of the second trilogy, specifically Episode II which was in production at the same time.  However, Lucasarts gave the developers, Bioware, the option to set their game in the distant past, which they smartly chose to do.  This shift in time allows the creators of KothOR to craft a Star Wars game without worrying about questions of continuity or relevance to George Lucas’s more recent cinematic creations.  In other words, KotOR rebuffed corporate synergy in order to achieve a sense of artistic integrity.  But despite the drastic temporal shift, KotOR wound up capturing the essence of Star Wars better than the prequels, much less most Star Wars videogames. 

The freedom inherent in setting KotOR thousands of years prior to the original trilogy allowed Bioware to superimpose the motifs and archetypes of Star Wars onto a new and exciting world.  Like most RPGs, in KotOR you are able to pick and choose elements of your main character, including gender and general appearance.  The class system also generally conforms to the archetypes used by Lucas in the Star Wars films, an element of the game that extends to the varying characters that join your party throughout the game.  In addition to your self-made main character, you also get to control a soldier (Carth), a Wookie (Zaalbar), a resourceful street urchin (Mission), a Mandalorian warrior (Canderous), a handful of Jedis (Bastila, Juhani, Jolee), and a couple of droids (T3-M4 and HK-47). 

Not every character is great (Carth can be awfully whiny for a soldier), but every player will have his or her favorites (I was always partial to the cantankerous Canderous and the gruff Jedi loner, Jolee).  But more importantly, these characters fit nicely within the world of Star Wars, judging by much of the extended universe, a more difficult task than you might imagine.  You could easily split the characters into those who serve to maintain order in the galaxy and those who live in the shadows of the two warring factions of the Republic and the Sith.  In other words, they’re either rogues or acolytes, the same tension that exists between Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in the Episode IV. 
KotOR also captures the visual essence of Star Wars.  In particular, they replicate the scope and sense of the infinite in the world of Star Wars.  While you can only explore a relatively small fenced in portion of each planet, the use of a horizon, whether it’s the dunes of Tatooine or the unending plains of Dantooine, gives you a sense of the infinite.  This extreme scope has always been an integral aspect of Star Wars, from the initial invocation of a galaxy “far, far away” to the seemingly unending pit Palpating is drop into at the end of Return of the Jedi.  And yet, so few video games have managed to really capture this visual and thematic element of the Star Wars films.

But BioWare wasn’t just content with capturing the essence of Star Wars; they also wanted to revamp the role playing genre.  For many years RPGs had been associated with turn based fighting and somewhat tedious class, weapons and magic management.  And while KotOR has maintained those core elements, they have also made the genre far more cinematic.  KotOR was released shortly before World of Warcraft, and like those similarly detailed MMORPGs it helped usher in the immersive qualities to the genre.  There’s no switching perspective as you move from the world map to the dungeons to the battles.  Instead, everything maintains a fluid third person view.  And unlike the MMORPGs and RPGs of the same era, there’s less emphasis on tedious fights and minigames.  There’s a limit to how far your characters can level up, and you can only get into so many battles on each planet.  In other words, you won’t find yourself wandering around for hours on end trying to find more random monsters to fight.  In order to emphasize story, the game makes it easier to level up by completing tasks for non playable characters rather than randomized battles. Many of the side quests are related to characters in your party, making them more central to narrative elements like plot and characterization.  All of these aspects help reinforce the game’s cinematic qualities, which seems especially fitting for a Star Wars game.

There are numerous aspects of the game that add to its replayability (that is, if you have the patients to replay a game that can take upwards of fifty hours to complete).  In order to mirror the choices made by Anakin and Luke Skywaler, the main character must choose to serve either the dark or light side of the force, a decision made through a number of choices throughout the game.  BioWare made the dark side of the force suitably enticing, since it often leads to more fights and easier solutions.  There’s a really fun assassination subplot that you must take on a few dark side points if you want to complete it.  You’re also given some freedom as to which planets you want to visit in what order, but of course there’s still a correct way of completing the game if you want to gather every character and finish as many side quests as possible (Tatooine, Kashyyyk, Manaan, and Korriban). 

The enticing possibility that you could play as a hero in the Star Wars universe has lead plenty of fans to buy subpar Star Wars games, so there’s something especially powerful when a Star Wars video game chooses not only to capture the sense of fun and adventure of the best films but also in general expands on what the medium can accomplish.  In some ways, KotOR reinforces the power of myth and archetype inherent in Lucas’s Star Wars by transporting the actions to a different time while maintaining the core aspects of that galaxy far, far away. 


Quick spoiler warning: From here on out, I’m going to discuss a major plot twist in the game and its general importance to the genre and the themes of Star Wars.

As I mentioned earlier, at the start of the game you go through the process of creating your main character, choosing the gender, class and abilities of your blank slate.  Well, the main character has more of a history than you might imagine.  As the story goes in KotOR, the Republic is in a life or death struggle against the forces of the Sith, currently lead by a former Jedi Darth Malak.  Malak’s mentor used to be Darth Revan, also a fallen Jedi.  But Revan was defeated prior to the game by the Jedi Bastila.  We’re lead to believe that Bastila has killed Revan, but in a twist reminiscent of the “I am your father” scene from The Empire Strikes Back, it turns out that Revan wasn’t killed; rather, he was captured by Bastila and turned over to the Jedi council who decided to wipe his memory in order to bring him back to the light side.  In fact, the character you created at the beginning of the game is Revan, so you have been playing as the dark lord this entire time without realizing it.

There are a few implications to this reveal.  The tabula rasa origins of your character has long been a staple of the RPG genre.  But the Revan twist adds a meta aspect to the creation of the main character.  Just as you have conjured the elements of the main character out of thin air, so too has the Jedi council.  In other words, at the beginning, rather than just going through the normal motions of character creation, you are, unwittingly, in the role of the Jedi council remaking Revan from the ground up. 

The Revan reveal also adds a layer of truth to your dialogue choices.  While playing your character it is possible to veer from being kind hearted to callous in the blink of an eye.  Character inconsistency was always nagged me in games where you are given branching dialogue options.  Where most critics focus on ways in which dialogue options do or do not appropriately transform a game’s narrative, few focus on how these dialogue options allow you to craft your own unique character.  Of course, this makes little sense if you can be altruistic one minute and vicious the next.  But knowledge that you used to be Darth Revan actually explains your character’s extreme bi-polar disorder: any acts of evil can be chalked up to your history as Revan bubbling to the surface, even if you are trying to follow the light side.

Finally, the story of Revan and Malak ties nicely into one of the stronger aspects of the prequel trilogy.  Prior to the battle between the Republic and the Sith, the Jedi were involved in a war against the Mandalorians.  As Jedis, Revan and Malak managed to defeat the Mandalorians, but in doing so they adopted a tough uncaring attitude towards casualties.  It is suggested, then, that the necessity of victory may have forced Revan and Malak to turn towards the dark side.  Although KotOR was released prior to the completion of the prequel trilogy, Malak and Revan’s turn to the dark side seems to echo some of the themes from Episodes II and III.  Throughout the prequels, it is suggested that the Jedi have lost their way, in part because they have abandoned their role as peacekeepers in favor of becoming warriors, a choice that makes sense in their given situation, but is ultimately their downfall.  And, of course, the real threat behind the Clone Wars, Palpatine, has engineered it so that no matter which side becomes the victor, he will be the ultimate winner.  Both the prequel trilogy and KotOR illustrate the corrupting nature of warfare.  

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