Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is an enormous game.
Released in 2003, BioWare’s interpretation of Lucasfilm’s universe sold more than 2 million copies in a time when combining Star Wars and gaming was more often than not likely to result in a horrendously under-cooked experience designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
We’ve had articles written about both the first and second installments of KotOR. It was also one of the first games that I played which really put the morality of the protagonist in the hands of the player. I found myself frequently torn between being good and having less fun, or doing whatever I wanted and being evil. Knights of the Old Republic was a game that made me think about the nature of morality, and whether our strictly-enforced system of good and evil should be taken at face value.
When I started my playthrough of Bioware’s classic reinvention of Star Wars back in 2003, I could barely contain my excitement at the prospect of being a Jedi and dispensing swift and decisive justice across the galaxy as I hunted for Darth Malak. But as I continued to play through the game – and endured Carth’s endless nagging every time I forgot to help an old woman across the street – I discovered that being a Jedi wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
I hate Carth Onasi, by the way. A galaxy in turmoil, and yet he always finds the time to be the perennial boy scout. Fuck Carth Onasi.
Anyway… you can’t just beat someone up to get information. If they’re not talking, tough: good guys don’t play bad cop. You don’t get to mete out justice without due process. Sometimes you have to watch the criminal walk away, because that’s what being good means. Being good is hard.
My decisions were made harder as the people who traveled with me decided to chime in. Carth, whose moral compass has no off switch, invariably found something to complain about. Meanwhile, HK-47 and Canderous were always asking me why I didn’t just cut a bloody swathe to my destination, tempting me with the idea that everything would be so much easier if I would just let it be.
Still, KotOR managed to be fun even while I was indecisive. Tweaking my lightsaber or rebuilding a blaster for different bonuses; going through a plethora of implants and armor; deciding which grenade was perfect to carry into the next battle; picking new powers and feats… Bioware’s take on the Star Wars universe was faithful to the spirit of the material, told a compelling story, and provided deep gameplay that you could sink dozens of hours into. And it launched at a time when Star Wars Galaxy had managed to alienate almost every Star Wars fan through its godawful New User Experience update.
More important than any of that though, it was fun. There was no “Hmm if I don’t get this piece or this ability, I’m not going to be able to get through the next area”: it was all just an exercise in min/maxing to see how completely I could annihilate the next batch of Sith that were sent to kill me.
The story was incredible. Bioware somehow managed to take the black/white dichotomy that Star Wars is often criticized for adhering to, and twisted it to the point where settling arguments presented genuine moral quandries. There’s an entire quest line which sends you off to collect evidence and piece together clues so that you can determine whether there’s a killer robot on the loose, or if something more sinister is at work, but the reality is a bit more complex. How the problem is resolved is in your hands, with the fate of a family at stake. That’s awesome.
And then, after you spend countless hours trudging through this huge game filled with characters to talk to, places to visit, and enemies to murder, Bioware drops the big twist. You are Darth Revan. You have been all along.
From a Jedi perspective, this revelation is evidence that no evil is beyond redemption; for the Sith, it’s proof that the Jedi are corrupt, meddling so much in the affairs of man that they are willing to corrupt someone’s will. Suddenly, everything that you’ve done up to this point is placed in an entirely new context: was it really you – Darth Revan – making all those decisions, or was it the new person that the Jedi planted in your mind?
As a young gamer, experiencing this in an age when most other games were merely content to hand you a gun and set you on your merry way, this was groundbreaking stuff. I was left unsure as to whether I should continue my glorious campaign of justice, or if it was expected of me to return to my old ways and to take the universe by force.
I was conflicted. Can a person be born evil, have it ingrained into their very nature? Or could I take this second chance that I had been given and become someone new? It was a pretty heavy question.
In the end, I decided that I had been given a second chance, and that it wasn’t those Jedi who had meddled with my mind that had made all my decisions – it was me. I was a new man, and I was going to make the most of it. And maybe a tiny bit of it was because no one actually believed that I was Darth Revan. Maybe, just maybe, I could build a new legend for myself, one unburdened from the atrocities of the past. There’s not much point in going back to a past life when the only thing you have left is an unbelievable name and a legacy of slaughter.
So I continued my adventure and I saved the galaxy, but I had seen the Sith’s vision in a new light: I looked at their plans and, for just a moment, because I was expected to, I seriously considered it. I realized that the Sith weren’t just trying to take over the galaxy so that they could destroy it; they were trying to usher in an era of order. They would rule with an iron fist, but only because they thought that was the only way to preserve a modicum of sanity.
I got the same lesson a few other times throughout the game. At the Sith academy, I met a young, annoying initiate that got on my bad side. We got into a fight and I murdered him. I didn’t think anything of it – after all, he was a Sith, that makes him evil. But while I was rifling through his belongings, looting anything of any value, I discovered that he was Carth’s son. Oh my god, I just killed Carth’s son.
I felt horrible. The entire event suddenly took on a whole new meaning. I realized that underneath every Sith, there’s a person. There’s a lifetime of motivations and decisions that led up to that point. There are no cartoon villains with cackling dogs and plans for galactic domination. There’s just a life, filled with decisions.
After I finished Knights of the Old Republic, I walked away with a new worldview. Things that had always been wrong before suddenly held a shred of credence – just because I disagreed with it didn’t mean that everyone did. I learned that things like religion or politics were like the Sith: No one woke up one day and decided “I’m an atheist now.” There was a series of circumstances that made that person believe that it was right.
There’s no such thing as an ultimate good or evil, right or wrong. Everything is a subtle shade of gray, and things can shift depending on which angle you’re viewing it from. KotOR taught me to look at things from every angle, firmly place myself within that gray area, and really consider it.
It’s an experience that I haven’t really got from any other game, but it’s something that I carry with me into every new game that I play. I hate when a game sends wave of heavy-handed, maudlin “bad guys” at me, expecting me to mow them down without a second thought. Those bad guys are people. If I have to murder twenty guards to get through a room and gather intelligence, how many of them were just doing their jobs? How many of them signed on because they needed to support their family? Maybe they were nice guys who got put in a bad spot. Or, maybe they were really evil people who only signed on so they could shoot a bunch of people. I don’t know.
The point is, Knights of the Old Republic doesn’t just pit very-clearly-right you against very-clearly-wrong Darth Malak. It pits you against yourself. It’s easy to be the hero when that’s all you’ve ever known, but what if that wasn’t always your choice?
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic doesn’t ask “how will you save the universe?”
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic asks “Are you a bad guy because you did some bad things?” and offers you a chance of redemption – but also the temptation of regression.
I don’t know that I’ll ever learn as much from a game as I did from Knights of the Old Republic – but damn it, I’ll give it my best shot.