An impressively constructed RPG with some serious storytelling issues.
My favorite moment in any piece of Star Wars media comes early in Return of the Jedi. When Luke Skywalker attempts to rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt, he must face a hideous beast called the Rancor. It’s an ugly, unsympathetic monster, the kind that lives in a dank, bone-filled cave and devours innocents for the amusement of its master. Naturally, Luke handily defeats the creature and is soon whisked away to new adventures and trials. But not everyone can part with the dead quite so quickly, and a fat, half-dressed man begins to weep for the fallen Rancor. Whether this man considered the creature a pet or a friend is unclear, and the moment not only hilariously undermines our expectations for the scene, but also achieves something legitimately sweet and sad as we consider a loss that is literally alien to us.
This is the way I think Star Wars works best, in individual moments that achieve something at once bizarre, awe-striking, and unselfconsciously goofy. I’m thinking of things like the cantina scene, the twin sunset, Luke’s first moments with Yoda. So it’s a shame that for all its flights of fancy, Star Wars interprets creativity in the most literal way possible, as in, “making a bunch of shit up”; there is almost no experimentation with form throughout the saga, no interest in the abstract or thematic beyond its much-ballyhooed Joseph Campbell legwork. It’s a problem that existed in the original movies, but one exacerbated by its universe bloating to perhaps the widest in popular culture (climaxing, of course, in the godawful prequel trilogy, which felt it necessary to make even the Force explicit). Take, for example, our Rancor-mourner: his name is Malakili, and he has a four paragraph biography on Wookiepedia. None of this excess information reflects upon why his brief appearance is so effective; that small moment he’s on-screen is simple, mysterious, and layered, whereas his biography represents an annoying attitude toward world-building where detail and complication are stand-ins for depth. I’m not one of those hyperbolists who claims George Lucas did to Western culture what Darth Vader did to Leia’s homeworld, but I do think he’s largely turned it into a Twilight Zone of things, but no ideas.
Yet as someone who is interested in video games, how they are structured, and their history, I feel a certain debt to Star Wars. It’s no secret that it was and is a hugely influential property in the gaming world, and not just because it included the entire nerd-weapon triumvirate of magic, guns, and cool swords. Despite Lucas’ debt to the Hero’s Journey, the original Star Wars films are much more episodic than most remember; every new area has a distinct feel and look, and is usually home to a mainly self-contained set piece, mission, or idea. Watching these films in this context, it’s not hard to imagine Shigeru Miyamoto in an early 1980s Japanese theater, making notes like “ice world” and “desert world.” While this is a gross simplification of level design, very few films have the “go here, now go here” game-like structure of Star Wars. Plus, Star Wars and video games share the similar base desire to inhabit the skin of someone far cooler and more powerful than we are. In its mad scientist attempt to cross-breed the best of both these worlds into one convenient wish-fulfillment, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is still the best Jedi-simulator on the market. However, if you are secretly hoping that interactivity will help the game resonate beyond its source material, Knights of the Old Republic stumbles.
As created by Bioware and directed by Casey Hudson – ditching the isometric view of their Forgotten Realms titles for the more contemporary look they’d refine over the next decade – Knights of the Old Republic is reverent to the original Star Wars movies to a fault. Hudson seems to want you to forget this tale was constructed by living, breathing artists and instead came from some whirring Star Wars Story Generator deep within the bowels of Skywalker Ranch. This is not a broad, “epic story spanning the galaxy” type of comparison. Here are some very concrete story and character details from Knights of the Old Republic that might ring a bell: the villains destroy an entire planet early in the story; the lead heroine is often impetuous in a manner unfitting her societal role; the older Jedi who joins you seems daft, but has much wisdom to offer; the main villain wears a mask to cover up a horrible deformity; there is a huge end-of-act-two twist that calls your feelings toward a major character into question; if you’re a good guy, you get a medal at the end. These are details great and small in the scheme of the game, but they are just a few of many borrowed parts.
This wouldn’t be an issue if the execution transcended mimicry, or was at least an entertaining recreation. Again, this is a Star Wars simulator, not meant as reinvention or reinterpretation, but shouldn’t it at least be something more than bland repurposing? (I imagine the game partly played so well in 2003 because it was released not long after Attack of the Clones. “It’s Star Wars just like you remember it!” must have sounded more enticing after suffering through romantic conversations about sand.) Take the twist in The Empire Strikes Back and compare it to the analogous twist in Knights of the Old Republic, which I will soon spoil for you. In Empire, Darth Vader revealing he is Luke’s father is perhaps the one point where Star Wars achieves the resonance of the mythology it apes. It’s not just a simple, elegant, and unexpected moment, but one that reflects the universal discovery of parental imperfections (albeit on the grandest scale imaginable). Knights of the Old Republic tries to one-up this by twisting your player character’s identity into the evil Sith Lord Darth Revan, suffering from a heavy case of amnesia. This twist is well-regarded by fans, but I find it utterly moronic, as if the game’s writers did not understand why that moment in Empire is iconic beyond the fact that it was unexpected. “I am your father” aspires to the Classical; “I am Darth Revan” aspires to All My Children.
And so it goes. The game begins four thousand years before the Skywalker saga in that technologically staid galaxy far, far away. The Sith are doing what the Sith do best: kicking the Republic’s ass and blowing up planet-sized cities. You are an unremarkable Republic soldier who gets caught up in the drama when you rescue Bastila, a young Jedi whose “battle meditation” (a vague and silly concept that should become shorthand for underdeveloped, meaningless superpowers; and I thought Psychonauts felt like a Saturday morning cartoon!) might be the only hope for the Republic against the evil Darth Malak. Soon, you are a Jedi yourself, and on a planet-hopping quest in your ship, the Ebon Hawk (get it?), to find Star Maps and locate the Star Forge, an ancient piece of alien technology that might be the key to Malak’s rise. Along the way, you meet a gang of misfits who mistake having backstories for having interesting personalities. Almost everyone in your crew has a family member who screwed them over or something of the like, and no one can wait to talk your ear off about it. (This almost pays off with Bastila, whose relationship with her mother informs us of a brashness that later steers the character’s arc. It’s still annoyingly executed and on-the-nose, though.) The developers were obviously enamored with seeing just how much dialogue they could record, often at the expense of storytelling that could easily be told through gameplay or dynamic observation. The only character who rises above this bland muck of exposition is the beloved assassin droid HK-47. A gleefully misanthropic character in a game where your kill count reaches the hundreds is a nice, self-aware touch. He’s essentially just Bender from Futurama (they both refer to humans as “meatbags”) acting upon his dark fantasies, but in a crowd that makes Chris Nolan’s characters look like a Robert Altman ensemble, any hint of life is welcome.
Knights of the Old Republic is perhaps most famous for its moral choices. They’re so integral to the title’s appeal that it’s almost like it’s asking if player agency empirically makes for a better, deeper gaming experience. While I have not played the later Bioware titles in full, I remain unconvinced that player choice is inherently better, at least in terms of pure story mechanics. I greatly enjoyed the puzzles in Knights of the Old Republic where you could use many of your skills in different combinations to complete an area; for example, if you were an expert hacker, you could use computers and droids to clear enemies instead of facing them head-on. This is the sort of player choice I enjoy – the kind that affects the actual game I am playing – and I feel these actions defined my character more than any dialogue options I chose for him. It’s also closer to the spirit of what the game wants to achieve: do we want to be Luke Skywalker because he grew up on a moisture farm and says a lot of very earnest things, or because he’s quick on his feet, resourceful, and always finds a way to survive against impossible odds? Letting a player decide the direction of a game’s plot only works if that choice is reflecting and enhancing what the game is trying to say. The 2011 game Bastion has only a few major player choices, but they are so attuned to the game’s major theme – what exactly does “society” entail, and what of that is worth holding onto – that they are a true pay-off for all that precedes them in the story. I’m not sure what Knights of the Old Republic‘s player choices indicate beyond an arbitrary, reductive, “You can be a good person or you can be a bad person.” (Also, the game almost forces you to skew toward the Light or Dark Side to be rewarded with better powers, so creating a more morally nuanced character is actually frowned upon.)
A strange feeling struck me in the game’s closing moments. I played as a good guy and romanced Bastila, two choices I later found to be the game’s “canon” story. Was I not enjoying the game because I was making boring choices? Wouldn’t it be a better story if I started out wicked, then upon finding out I was Darth Revan, was shocked into nobility? This thought process reflects a few issues with the sort of player choice Hudson and company champion; mainly, that it is an illusion. This is still a game, created by people who must still tell a story, entertain, and hopefully reflect upon something best said in this medium. No matter how many splitting paths from which I get to choose, I did not decide that any of those paths should exist; the game-makers did. There are many moments in Knights of the Old Republic where the artist’s inherent responsibilities are shirked and passed to the player, as if being presented with a choice is the same as that choice being interesting. I found this outlook almost insulting, like Bioware was hoping I’d be impressed with the quantity of game they made – so many choices! – and ignore the quality.
It’s a shame, because there’s a very solid game beneath these issues. The fighting is fluid and fast-paced, with just the right amount of micromanaging required and perhaps the most successful attempt I’ve seen to cloak Dungeons & Dragons dice rolls in dynamic action scenes. The worlds you visit are all unique and memorable, and many of their individual challenges are more compelling than the game’s overriding quest. For a decently long game, it’s remarkably well-paced; while most of the puzzles are lazily inserted and themed – too often just a matter of completing lame memory games in the right order – they always appear right when a break from the ceaseless combat is necessary. (Perhaps it’s just me, but I greatly enjoyed seeing my character get the death sentence on the highly litigious fish-person world of Manaan, before I cracked its legal system.) It even has a few of those strangely resonant Star Wars moments I mentioned: a planet covered in wrecked, abandoned ships; the tombs of an ancient Sith academy. I wasn’t crazy about any of the obligatory minigames like swoop racing and space shootouts, although I’m sure the blackjack-esque pazaak has its devotees. All in all, it’s an accomplished, impressively detailed game that’s a little tonally dull and has a lousy, stiltedly told story; in other words, it’s a well-liked Western RPG.
You don’t need a newbie like me to tell you more about Bioware. They started making the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games, which made people very happy, then continued making them, which made people less so. I played the first bit of Mass Effect, and while it appeared to maintain Knights of the Old Republic’s lack of character and feeling, I’m not going to judge a hundred-hour experience by just the first few. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll even find a Rancor to cry for.