The Force is strong with this one.
From 1999 through 2005, the Star Wars franchise enjoyed a resurgence in, if not popularity, pop culture saturation. George Lucas finally delivered on the long gestating prequels. The quality of those films has been endlessly debated. But in the midst of all of this Star Wars media blitz, a surprise was waiting:
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
There had been Star Wars video games since the dawn of the Atari era. The quality of these games varied greatly under the broad Lucasfilm license. But in 2003, Bioware developed a game unlike any that had come before.
Knights of the Old Republic (or KOTOR for short) takes place in the same galaxy far, far away. But the events depicted occur about four-thousand years before the rise of The Phantom Menace. Most Star Wars games either walked through a stylized version of the films (e.g. Super Star Wars) or explored the edges of that era (e.g. Shadows of the Empire). By setting the story so far in the past, Bioware was able to use all of the elements of that universe that made it unique and memorable (e.g. lightsabers, droids, the Force), while not being tied down to any specific story content.
If you are playing a game about getting the plans to the Death Star to the Rebel Alliance, the conclusion is forgone. But because of the time gap between KOTOR and the movies, the ending was completely open. Would the good guys win or lose? And which side would you be on?
The most striking and memorable element in this game is its storytelling. After you design your main character, you wake up on a ship being attacked above the city-planet Telos. Your character is suffering from a bit of memory loss, but you immediately meet Carth Onasi, a pilot and fighter with a troubled past. Together you make your way to Telos and begin your quest to make it to the Jedi Temple on Dantooine.
It is clear that Bioware spent a good deal of time and effort fleshing out the characters and the plot. The backstories of many of the characters, particularly those who join you in your quest, are rich and complex. Bioware also made the wise decision to employ very talented voice actors to portray these characters. The protagonist you play as does not get an audible voice (this will be corrected later in Bioware’s Mass Effect series), but the interaction of the other characters creates a strong emotional connection to their stories.
For those who are used to button mashers, or keyboard mashers if you choose the PC port over the original Xbox version, KOTOR is an adjustment. The perspective is that of a typical third-person action game, but it mixes real-time action with turn-based RPG fighting. If you are used to one or the other, this can lead to a good deal of frustration in the early stages. Those hoping to jump right into Jedi action will also be disappointed. Many of the beginning hours take place on Telos. But when the action leaves that location, the real fun and adventure begin.
For Catholics, one of the most intriguing features is the morality system. Your character is faced with moral choices throughout the game. These choices bring you either closer to the light side or the dark side. This is not a revolutionary feature in gaming. But what KOTOR does so well is that it let the consequences for those actions play out in the game in a significant way.
First, the choices will change who you are as a person. As you advance in your force training, different powers and abilities will open up to you based on your lights side or dark side affinity. And as you advance one path or the other, certain story choices will be open or cut off to you.
This is a wonderful representation of what Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas would call virtue ethics. The simplest explanation of this philosophy is that the goal of moral actions is not to perform morally. Instead, the goal of morality is to be a certain kind of person. The choices you make in KOTOR change you, even down to your appearance. The way your character looks will radically change by the way you go to the dark or the light.
Second, the choices are real story choices. In most games, the choices you make are ultimately inconsequential to the plot. But in KOTOR, you help shape the narrative by your choices. For example, you gain other characters who join your main character on his/her quest. Along the way you encounter one enemy where you are given a choice to spare, redeem, or kill them. If you kill them, then their story ends. But if you redeem them, they can also join you on your quest as a playable character. Most games up until this point would not have considered giving you the choice to kill a playable character like this.
Third, their representation of the effects of good and choices is fascinating. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda tells Luke that the dark side is “quicker, easier, more seductive.” This is very true in KOTOR. If you choose the dark side, you can steal, extort, and bully your way through the game to your heart’s content. Not only will you have an incredible amount of money to buy supplies, but the dark side powers are incredibly aggressive and intimidating. Defeating enemies in battle is much, much easier on this path.
But the light side creates a rich experience of friendship and fellowship with the other characters in the game. Living in the light makes things more challenging, but much more rewarding. And the choices you make also affect the moral sensibilities of your character companions. This is a wonderful reflection of real life where our personal moral choices have consequences in our circle of friends. C.S. Lewis said that friendships are places where both virtues and vices are cultivated. And this is clearly seen in KOTOR.
And beyond that, the graphics and gameplay were top notch at their time. Even going back, it is worth putting up with the slightly awkward rendering in order to experience the gameplay and the story. But even today some of the vistas are stunning. Whether running through the Tatooine desert or exploring the underbelly of Kashyyyk, the experience is truly immersive.
The further on you advance, the melding of RPG and button mashing becomes an asset rather than a deficit. You get the thrill of real-time action while having the time to cycle through all of your powers and weapons to use them to the greatest effect. And because of the open story structure, this game is one that you can play again and do so with a very different outcome.
For that reason, KOTOR is a fantastic game that is still worth playing more than a decade later. It is for that reason that many say that it is not only one of the best Star Wars games, but one of the best video games of all time.
Read more: STAR WARS: [KOTOR] FRANCHISE.