In Replaying the Classics, StarWars.com revisits Star Wars games of yesteryear, examining why we loved them then and why they stand the test of time.
Spoiler warning: This article discusses details and plot points from Knights of the Old Republic.
It’s not hyperbole to say that video games don’t get much better than Knights of the Old Republic. Released in 2003 in collaboration with LucasArts for the Xbox and PC, BioWare’s landmark role-playing game set a new bar for interactive storytelling in not just the Star Wars universe, but gaming at large.
KotOR, as it’s often called, took the rich Dungeons & Dragons experience BioWare had honed in its best-selling Baldur’s Gate series and married it to the groundbreaking tech the studio developed for its 2002 RPG, Neverwinter Nights. The game’s massive voice-over cast, as well as the sheer volume of spoken dialogue, was unprecedented. Jeremy Soule, today best known for composing the score to Bethesda’s Skyrim, supplied the John Williams-esque soundtrack. The result was a vast, cinematic journey through the galaxy far, far away, allowing players to take part in the ancient conflict between the Old Republic and the Sith four thousand years prior to the films.
One reason why the game endures is its robust character-creation system. No matter how you play or what side of the Force you follow, the game will always begin with your character awakening on a Republic cruiser dubbed the Endar Spire — the inspiration for the Hammerhead Corvette in Star Wars Rebels and Rogue One. You’ll always wake to find the ship under attack by the Sith, and meet a doomed ensign named Trask Ulgo. But who you are in the game is essentially up to you.
As a soldier of the Republic fleet, you fight your way to the starship’s bridge and rendezvous with Carth Onasi; together, you and Carth escape to the nearby planet of Taris and set about finding the Endar Spire’s third surviving crew member, Bastila Shan. Bastila’s a young Jedi whose affinity with the Force presents a serious threat to the Darth Malak and his Sith fleet, and so players’ first main quest in the game is to find her and deliver her to the Jedi. (“Dantooine. They’re on Dantooine.”) For reasons that aren’t clear right away, the player character and Bastila share a strong bond with one another through the Force. In dreams, they share visions of Bastila’s fateful duel with a masked Sith Lord called Darth Revan, believed to have been killed aboard his flagship by Malak, their former apprentice.
“We were there to capture Revan alive,” Bastila recalls in an early conversation. “The Jedi do not believe in killing their prisoners. No one deserves execution, no matter what their crimes. Remember that Revan and Malak were once great Jedi. Heroes in every sense of the word. They demonstrate the danger of the dark side to us all.” During another interaction, she asks, “What greater weapon is there than to turn an enemy to your cause? To use their own knowledge against them?”
Spoiler warning: The game’s central plot twist, it turns out, is that you were once Revan, Dark Lord of the Sith. When Malak betrayed the player character, Bastila used the Force to preserve them, and the Jedi Council on Dantooine ultimately chose to erase Revan’s memories, hoping to gain a powerful ally. After you and Bastila arrive at the Jedi enclave on Dantooine, it becomes apparent that you’re a “special case,” chosen to train in the ways of the Force long past the typical age for Jedi initiates. BioWare’s writers make deft use of foreshadowing, drawing on an ingenious blend of 21st-century cinema and Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” to build to a climax as shocking as Vader’s famous revelation on Bespin.
“Knights of the Old Republic was my love letter to The Empire Strikes Back,” the game’s lead designer, James Ohlen, told Game Informer in a recent interview. “As a kid, it was my favorite movie of all time, so when we had a chance to work on Star Wars I wanted to do something that had a twist that was comparable or had that same kind of surprise factor.”
KotOR certainly accomplished what Ohlen and his team set out to do, but its contributions to Star Wars fandom and Legends lore go even further than telling one of the most memorable stories in Star Wars history. The game introduced new worlds, and new alien species, some of which still exist within the official canon: Rakata Prime, the amphibious Selkath of Manaan, the planet Taris. Its turn-based combat system — built upon the d20 ruleset from Wizards of the Coast’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game (2000) — is still utterly remarkable; its influence can be seen today in Capital Games’ mobile RPG Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes. And cosplayers can regularly be found at conventions around the world sporting the mask of Revan or the Jedi garb of Bastila Shan.
Fans love this game, and for good reason. It’s a grand, sprawling adventure in the tradition of the BioWare classics that preceded it. It forever holds a place in video-game history as a loving tribute to the original Star Wars trilogy that also managed to be something more: one of the all-time great RPGs.
Alex Kane is a journalist based in west-central Illinois. He has written for Polygon, the website of Rolling Stone, Syfy Wire, Variety, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @alexjkane.