I was twelve when I first finished Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. I won’t spoil the ending, but I still remember the cold, isolated feeling of finishing it. It was (and continues to be) unlike anything I had ever experienced with the Star Wars franchise: a glitched, nefarious, and foreboding view of George Lucas’ universe. Over the last decade I've only come to better appreciate the storytelling and unique existence of both of the Knights of the Old Republic games in the pantheon of licensed Star Wars games. Lucasfilm's recent announcement that all side stories in the Star Wars timeline, aside from a few television programs and the original films, are now considered invalid makes all those experiences a little…less than what they originally were. However, this isn’t an article about the validity of the Expanded Universe of an established franchise. Instead, I want to provide a testament to two of the most ambitious licensed video games of all time, and share some appreciation that goes beyond gameplay systems or Expanded Universe chats.
The original, and universally praised Knights of the Old Republic, created a vibrant world, supposedly set thousands of years before Luke Skywalker was even thought of. Bioware, at that time an established developer of RPGs (Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate, two wildly loved role-playing games of the late '90s and early '00s. Full discretion: This writer has only played a bit of the latter and none of the former) set out under the leadership of Casey Hudson (and the writing of Drew Karpyshyn, who this article will reveal to be a nefarious villain for the series) to investigate an era and create a look in Star Wars that fans--who were thick in the middle of prequel woes at that time--had never dreamed of.
Whereas Tolkien’s exhaustive exploration of The Lord of the Rings mythos makes for impressive literature (and ultimately, a more impressive fictional universe) George Lucas’ improvised narrative approach meant these sorts of licensed products had the potential to not only be profitable, but fit well with the original source material. Even now, KOTOR's stories feel like they were always meant to be the history of the storied franchise, even if Lucas had nothing to do with it. The first game featured the predecessor to the TIE fighter, an avian-named spaceship/hub Ebon Hawk, and even a loyal Wookiee companion to boot--it was a familiar framework far enough removed from the original trilogy to feel fresh and exciting. It also stank of prequel influence (multi-colored/dual lightsabers, so many bright, elaborate color patterns throughout the world) but those aesthetics could easily be ignored. It was a breath of fresh air far enough removed from direct Lucasarts/film influence to be interesting, even compelling for people who weren't diehards. In KOTOR, the galaxy is under constant threat of war and Sith invasion, which certainly sounds familiar to Star Wars fans, but new alien races, planets, and developed characters made the experience mind-boggling for a young Star Wars fan. More importantly, it was a semi-complex role-playing game that you didn't need a working PC for.
I sat down with an original Xbox and played all of KOTOR 1 and 2 with one of those gargantuan controllers. It was my first introduction to the genre outside of the popular titles available on Nintendo platforms (Super Mario RPG, Fire Emblem, Golden Sun, etc.) It taught me the importance and complexity of character sheets, how high I wanted my Persuade skill to be, and what exploring a dialogue tree meant. I imagine this is the case for many young Star Wars fans at the time, given the timing of the first game’s release. KOTOR 1 was released a year after Episode II was released, so the game’s resemblance to the sheen of the prequels was a matter of unfortunate timing. The advantage of the timing was the prequels birthed a new generation of starving nerds seeking their satisfaction outside of a movie theater, and KOTOR 1 was one of the first modern example of the franchise license being used to create a compelling side story.
Most of KOTOR 1’s characters are not as fleshed out or interesting as the its sequel, but the ragtag bunch of humanoids1 the player is left with each have their own individual story or wound for you to peer into and investigate on a deeper level. If you were a young Star Wars fan seeking more from a franchise that was crawling further up its own ass with each movie, KOTOR 1 was godsend.
If KOTOR was the life-bringer of the two, then KOTOR 2 was developer Obsidian setting that world on fire and letting you investigate its charred corpse. It was a change of tone unprecedented for how childlike the franchise had become. The player wakes up in a derelict mining station, abandoned and haunted by its slaughtered workers. If that sounds terrifying and out of place for the Star Wars universe, then you’ll understand my admiration for its originality and cunning. It’s the closest Star Wars fans ever got to an adult take on the franchise, and the only time Star Wars fans have been given a morally grey, three-dimensional character to examine and think about. KOTOR 2 was Obsidian’s first game—a licensed product that put Obsidian on the map for fantastic writing and pushing games out with an egregious amount of bugs.
Yes, KOTOR 2 was so unfinished that it required a team of dedicated fans and modders to release a patch restoring unfinished content and fixing the broken pits that occasionally ruined the game. It was a technical mess, pushed out in little over a year after the first one was released, but it was still extremely endearing². After all, KOTOR 2 being a stitched together experience, one that made even Fallout: New Vegas (another Obsidian bughouse) look polished, meant they developed a Star Wars video game that truly resembled the ramshackle original trilogy. Here was a game with enough flaws in its architecture to resemble its source material: a compelling, ambitious, and technically fucked enterprise.
The character Kreia and the other dark beings of KOTOR 2 explore a philosophical thought that hasn’t really been explored in Star Wars since: complete and utter nihilism (so much so that one of the key villains in the game was called Nihilus). Kreia detests the force, the very deus ex machina device that guides every Star Wars film. Most of the party members gained throughout the game share bleak storylines that give a haunting look into what a war-torn galaxy looks like. The Ebon Hawk, the ship you command in both games, is a haunting place in 2, where troubled souls and depressed individuals roam the halls until you prompt them and ask what ails them. Freed from Karpyshyn’s writing, KOTOR 2 felt like the first and only glance at what an unhinged version of the familiar galaxy might look like.
At their best, KOTOR 1 and 2join Jedi Outcast (release in 2002 by Raven Software) as being the only three modern games licensed Star Wars products to do anything positive with their own mythology. Don't get the wrong impression--even when KOTOR 2 fires players into the darkest depths of the galaxy, they're still dealing with a quality comparable with the original trilogy, a movie franchise not known for its compelling storylines and nuanced character development. Furthermore, the loss of the story in these games is nothing in comparison to what fans gain by shedding the years of horrible side stories built up over the years. For example, games such as The Force Unleashed and the slew of Episode 1-branded games that made the N64, Xbox, and PlayStation a terrible place to be a Star Wars video game fan are also no longer considered valid. The loss of this “canon” means a chance to forget the mistakes and wrongs committed by the many, many developers who have added to the bantha dung that is Star Wars games. More to the point, the people in charge were already on their way to ruining the few titles with any promise.
The action-adventure game Jedi Outcast and other games in its series were lucky in being untouched and undervalued on modern systems. The KOTOR franchise was not so lucky. Before bulldozing the goodwill of KOTOR fans with the release of a KOTOR MMO, Lucasarts permitted the release of Drew Karpyshyn’s Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan, a book that ruined characters from the original game so that Electronic Arts could compel players to pay them 75 dollars to play a new Star Wars MMO for a month or two. With the release of Star War The Old Republic went the hopes for another well-developed storyline in the franchise, and instead ushered in another failed game following WoW's shadow. I had some fun running around and clicking on things with friends in the initial month of SWTOR, but that did not disguise the tragedy that was millions of dollars being poured on top of a creatively successful franchise, only to have it succeed in ruining the characters and soul of the titles that came before it.
KOTOR 1 and 2 are two of the most creatively successful licensed video games to date. The first is one of the most critically acclaimed video games in history, and its development directly lead to the creation of Mass Effect, one of the most popular Sci-Fi franchises in modern games. 2 is undervalued and under-appreciated, a challenging--albeit in a technical sense as well as in its narrative--step forward into a darker corner of a beloved franchise thought to only be appropriate for children at that point.
Casey Hudson, in an interview with IGN back in 2003 that reveals the frigid nature of game interviews in that era, summed up his team's game in what is probably an honest, if inherently flawed statement: "The biggest challenge for us is to truly do justice to the Star Wars universe, by recapturing the magic of the classic moments in the movies." It's a marketable quote, but it also misses the point to as why KOTOR 1 and 2 were so great and unique. For all the obvious analogues and hints they threw at the player, the games succeeded spectacularly in creating an entirely new corner for an established world that felt fresh and removed enough from the classics to be interesting in their own right. It was an important question that eluded nigh every game - hell, every Expanded Universe product - ever released under the Star Wars banner. How do you recreate the magic without directly using the moments? KOTOR 1 and 2 provided the answer, and now they're considered alternate takes in a universe spiraling out in a different direction.
That's OK, because the glut of books, games, and fan-oriented content that has come out in the decade since the last Star Wars film have mostly been terrible, so it's like losing a very unhelpful limb in an effort to save the viable body. No one can predict whether or not J.J. Abrams will build better or more interesting stories for the upcoming new trilogy, but we can look back on Revan, Kreia, and all of the other elements of the KOTOR series and remember their efforts fondly. They don't need to be canon to have a lasting legacy in this universe.
1 Both of the KOTOR games are surprisingly xenophobic when it came to giving you party members, which is strange given many of the storylines allow players to examine xenophobia, classism, and racism in many of the slums in various parts of the galaxy. There are alien humanoids, but you never get close to working alongside something as alien as a Hutt. This is probably for playability reasons, but it still seems odd.
² Endearing is the word you want to use if you enjoyed the horror-like atmosphere and villains that exuded dread, instead mirroring Darth Vader. The mech-jaw villain Darth Malak was never menacing, but Darth Sion's gritty voice and scarred body made for a truly terrifying figure. Take a look.