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Straight up front, I’m not strictly a Star Wars guy. While I admire the 1977 original as a visual marvel, a pantomime kaleidoscope of cinematic influences and probably the textbook realisation of “The Hero’s Journey” (whereby a plucky young novice is picked out of obscurity and guided into greatness by A Wise Old Influence), it’s a bit bog-standard as far as sci-fi, fantasy or adventure goes in general. When people say they’re nerds or geeks and then qualify by stating their love of Star Wars, I groan. “Well of COURSE you love Star Wars…” It’s a bit like saying you like football and then following that up by saying how much you like Manchester United.
So I’m not a Star Wars guy. Or I wasn’t. Until Knights of the Old Republic. Until KOTOR changed it all forever.
Licensed video games were once so often a cruel mistress. They reeled you in with the promise of the familiarity of warm, comforting adventures spent with the heroes of the silver screen – to such an extent that you would quietly forgive agonising mediocrity. Batman’s leathery black cape would protect you from dodgy level design or repetitive gameplay. Commander Bond’s impeccably sharp suit would make up for the jagged, pixelated crappinness of Pierce Brosnan’s crooked, triangular face. Maybe even the swing of Qui Gone Jinn’s emerald lightsaber as it smacked onto the head of a battle droid (“Roger roger!!”) like a waterlogged hurley stick hitting a mannequin, would somehow hypnotise you into thinking that Jedi Power Battles was anything more than a barely-playable bowl of 64-bit bantha fodder.
They’ve gotten better over the years (some of them anyway), but there’s something quite depressing about the linearity of so many licensed games – even the good ones. Yes it is lovely being able to drive the Batmobile and stalk criminals from the shadows. But WHY am I doing any of this? Why do I have any investment in what Batman is doing when I’m not really calling any of the shots? As beautiful and thrilling and downright erotic as the Arkham games are, they don’t really let you truly BECOME Batman – they let you take orders from him.
Unlike the Arkham games (or modern Star Wars games like the mind-numbing shell-shock of ‘Battlefront’), KOTOR’s profound beauty is not to be found in fast-paced lightsaber combat or pulse-pounding tie-fighter dogfights (although there is a bit of that in certain sections of the game). Like any true RPG, KOTOR’s gameplay is slower and more contemplative than the CoD generation may care for – and while its point-and-click interface may seem antiquated to real-time enthusiasts of modern sound and fury, this strange style of gameplay actually succeeds in making the game timeless – because you can’t be concerned with the superficial idiosyncrasies of graphics or physics, you allow yourself to really be immersed in the world. It takes a bit of getting used to, but an hour or two into the game, you’ll know what I mean.
4000 years prior to the adventures of Luke, Han and Leia, Star Wars: Knights of the Republic sees you take on the role of an unnamed lost soul, forgotten in a random battle in a previously unseen area of the Star Wars universe, rescued by a world-weary soldier, embittered by the harshness of war. From there, you meet a beautiful, battle-hardened Jedi Knight who senses that you are attuned to the ways of the Force and that a greater destiny may await you. Together with a rag tag group of mercenaries, smugglers, warriors and a plucky pair of Droids, you trek across the galaxy in the hopes of defeating a great evil that threatens to envelop the galaxy in darkness forever.
If it sounds familiar, it is – but KOTOR borrows the basic beats of A New Hope in a way that never feels quite as derivative as The Phantom Menace or The Force Awakens did. The essential ingredient of KOTOR is the ability to choose what kind of hero (or villain!) you want to be. Dialogue options allow you to adopt a strict tone of righteousness, a fence-sitting compromise, a callous right-wing dismissal and even the ability to dismiss conversations altogether (which often results in more harm than good). Crucially, this all means something – your choices inform the kind of Jedi Knight (or Sith Lord) you are by the end of the game. By giving you the choice to follow a path of darkness or light, it gives greater weight to your actions – so often in the game, the easier option (such as using a Force mind trick to manipulate someone into giving information) leads to the dark side, while the moral (albeit menial) route (various acts of heroic heavy-lifting, or carrying out different skill-intensive tasks such as winning swoop races, card games, etc) leads to the ways of the Jedi. The way the light and dark sides of the Force feature in the game causes the player to reexamine the actions of the movie characters, sometimes in profound ways (Obi-Wan flirted with the dark side a lot).
Suitably, this sense of uncertain morality works its way into the world of the game – instead of the straightforward black and white division between good and evil that exists in the Star Wars films, the world of KOTOR is decidedly greyer. The Jedi aren’t the universally revered champions of justice the (universally terrible) prequel trilogy makes them out to be – their methods are often questioned, even feared by the populations of Taris, Tatooine, Kashyyk, Dantooine and the cripplingly evil Sith world of Korriban (one of the most beautifully designed areas of any game I’ve ever played). In the ongoing war with the Sith Empire (who are more empowered than we’ve ever seen them in the films), the Jedi have taken to using increasingly dirty tricks to win the day.
And yet, despite this gritty cynicism, it all builds up to something so utterly, blisteringly heroic that your heart will flutter with warmth and enthusiasm for the future of humanity. Without really spoiling anything, if you choose to play it a certain way (and admittedly, I did) KOTOR is a game about how there is always hope, how even seemingly pure evil can be redeemed by the indomitable goodness of the human spirit and how a hero’s path is forged not merely by might, but by patience, skill, courage and honour. I’ve played every superhero game ever made (seriously – I can tell you a thing or two about the Superman games for the Atari 2600), and I can safely say that Knights of the Old Republic is the only game where I truly felt like one at the end of it. While playing it, all of Yoda’s condescending posturing in The Empire Strikes Back began to suddenly fucking mean something.
KOTOR may be old, but it’s wise beyond its years. Its innovative style paved the way for the Mass Effect games and many other story-branching games like them, culminating in the modern landscape of Telltale interactive movies – proving that for all the senseless first person shooters out there, some gamers will always want story over sniping.
It’s the greatest game I’ve ever played, it’s so old you can practically play it on a toaster and it’s available on many different platforms for a song. In an age where so much of the media we consume is disposable, KOTOR left a lasting, lovely effect on me. I continue to look back on the time I spent playing it with fondness and I hope that as the Star Wars movies continue to be churned out at a machine gun rate, that new fans will come to the game. Adventure? Excitement? A Jedi craves none of these things, but KOTOR provides them anyway. Play it.