Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic‘s biggest success isn’t the gameplay or the aesthetics. The biggest success is the scope. BioWare did not set out to pander, but to elaborate. They chose to alter the mythos at its very core. I replayed KotOR recently and, despite all its great features, it was the motivation of the game that stuns me.
KotOR was released in 2003. That’s four years after George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels began. Four years after Jar-Jar and midichlorians. One year after rough sand and CGI everything. As a whole, the series was in a rough spot. Fans wanted to believe that this was going to pan out, that it would be great, but hope just kept fading. I like those new movies, still, but only once I looked past all the obvious shortcomings. All the obvious misunderstandings of what made the original films great. The first Star Wars, the one with that appropriate name, is my favorite movie of all time. The past decade has treated the series much more oddly than in the past. The 2000s put up with it, but lost so much of its fervor. We don’t laugh when Kevin Smith writes “DO YOU REMEMBER THE SARLACC PIT” anymore, we just groan and tell him to act his age. Even uttering the first two words (“Hey, what’d you think of St-“) causes a hyperbolic internet nerd to leap in front of your conversation and talk about how horribly the series was “raped”. KotOR came out at a weird time.
The Expanded Universe is the extraneous Star Wars material. The canonical spinoffs of books, comics, television shows, role-playing game handbooks, the like. During and immediately after the original film, there was an enthusiastic creativity coming out of authors wishing to add to the fiction. It faded, reappeared, faded again. By the time of the prequels, much of the EU was a bit too uninterested in truly expanding. Even when a book was good (or fun for those invested in the world, which is often the case), it seemed odd that the same characters kept being run into. There’s Boba Fett again. We get it. So it’s with a sense of pride in my own “fandom” that I look at Knights of the Old Republic. It aspired for more. Sure, they go to Tatooine again, but this time with greater purpose. The pandering becomes original as long as you keep looking at it.
First off, and before I forgot, I can’t help but applaud them for mostly avoiding John Williams’ classic Star Wars score. It’s there in the opening and ending credits, but for the vast majority of the game they write new material for a new orchestra. So many games rehash the same songs that eventually you can’t be swept up in the wonder of the universe anymore. You just hear “This again.” KotOR‘s score sounds appropriate to the source material without ripping off or ripping from.
Most of the stories within KotOR touch on issues mostly untouched in other Star Wars material, which is the most amazing aspect of all. The beginning planet, Taris, deals openly with galactic racism. The neutral planet of Manaan houses both Republic and Sith with no violence between the two, showing a real uselessness of the ongoing war. One character reminds me of the perfect, sin-free, church-going person, so wrapped up in their own (correct) righteousness that they forgot to tackle the other dark issues in their heart. Another has to deal with exile from rejecting the enslavement of its own people, while another questions the motivations of their former lover. Each character is realistically flawed. Other questions are posed. Can non-living things be evil? What is the origin of humanity? What came before, and before that? I hear KotOR II (from different developer Obsidian) asks questions about Jedi existentialism.
These questions or theories or answers all give insight into the greater workings of the Star Wars fiction. These are all things that George Lucas and the creators of the films never meant to be included. When “Jawas ride by on their sandcrawler” was being written, I highly doubt anyone asked where the sandcrawlers came from or what the Jawa life was like. Part of what makes those films work is that the world simply is, and the story starts in medias res. But the hardcore fan takes as much as they can get. I read a book that explained Hutt sexuality. You don’t want to hear it. It’s super gross.
I absolutely commend BioWare for this nearly-ten-year-old game, for its story and characters and fascinating in-canon theories. This “in-canon” thing. It means that the ideas raised are so deep in the fiction that I’m sure they won’t appeal to a casual fan who saw one Star Wars film twenty years ago and thought it was just okay. Hearing about the origin of humanity in this one particular fictional universe makes me mumble half-formulated suspicions to myself, and I know not everyone will do that. But Knights of the Old Republic was kind enough to include that extra layer for the committed enthusiast. That should step everyone’s game up a notch, and let us all continue to groan when Kevin Smith writes “hahaha oh man do you remember the death star”
I do remember the Death Star. Now give me something more.