[Editor’s note: Today we welcome Noah to our growing writing team at CRR. His first piece is a look back at the highs and lows and highs of growing up with Star Wars, with a particular emphasis on the redemptive power of Knights of the Old Republic.]
Star Wars is one of the things in my life that I am completely unable to remain unbiased towards, in my mind it’s beyond reproach. The original trilogy is scripture to me. Few things have dominated my development like Star Wars; it maintains a holy position on my shelf of childhood obsessions.
More “Recovering From Disappointment” and Comments after the jump.
I know the script and lore better than most people know their children; without Star Wars I would’ve had a completely different experience growing up. I might have even gotten into sports. Star Wars is so prevalent in my personal culture that I use it as a measure when discussing time-travel (I’m unwilling to go back further that 1977 without the promise of dinosaurs). My speech is so inundated with Star Wars quotes and references that it must be incomprehensible to others. I lost years of my life and tens of childhood dollars (high inflation rate when you’re eleven) to the Star Wars Customizable Card Game. Essentially, Star Wars was my first juvenile love (Duck Tales being the love of my toddler hood). I also had a thing for Agent Scully in the mid 90’s, but it hasn’t had nearly the staying power as Lucas’ trilogy has.
When I taught The Odyssey to 9th graders a couple years ago, Star Wars was my example of the modern epic archetype. I explained how it encompasses all of the thematic elements of classic story-telling: the hero answering the call to glory, the journey for enlightenment/redemption, travel with companions and mentors, exploring the unknown of both the universe and the soul, the final battle between good and evil. The original saga is a modern tale presented with classic story-telling, it became instantly timeless. It’s packed with so many memorable lines, moments and characters that dorks and non-dorks alike were able to find something they liked, something that made the series resonate with them. Honestly, who didn’t want to be a Jedi when they were nine years old? Whose pulse doesn’t skip a beat when recalling Leia’s golden slave bikini from Return of the Jedi (the first of many confusing blows we received while stumbling into puberty). Star Wars has become the universal childhood for my generation.
I was heartbroken and trapped in the slough of denial with all the other nerds when the 1999-2005 trilogy premiered and introduced us to the dark side of the Force, namely in the form of child actors, incomprehensible storylines and the abominable Jar Jar Binks, the creature that managed to single-handedly offend a quarter of the Earth’s population and annoy the rest. I can forgive the rest — it’s taken me a long time to do so, but I have – but I still, even a decade later, cannot even begin to comprehend why Lucas felt compelled to insert a racist caricature like Jar Jar. I know “that’s racist!” is the whole go-to middle school cop-out/derail (the 2010 equivalent of “that’s gay”), but Jar Jar’s mannerisms and appearance are genuinely reflective of racist stereotypes. Jar Jar Binks is as culturally sensitive as any Popeye cartoon containing a Japanese person. The whole city of undersea aliens that spat too much, spoke incomprehensibly and generally behaved in a shameful manner, still, to this day, begs the question GEORGE, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?! There are some things you just can’t condone.
For nerds worldwide, The Phantom Menace was the bucket of pig blood the cool kids dumped on the unsuspecting and cruelly duped Carrie after gaining her trust by giving her something she thought she’d never have – only, in the case of Star Wars, I don’t think it was intentional. Sure, it was a stain on a series people had literally treasured for their entire lives, a middle-finger stabbed right in the eye for millions of dorks, but it never felt like George was sitting offstage and cackling maniacally while counting his millions and calling us all suckers. Phantom looked like he was genuinely trying, just no one told him when to stop. Make the film a 90-minute dissertation on intergalactic trade policy? Sounds great, George. Dedicate 20 minutes of screen time to a Mario Kart-eqsue racing scene starring no one the audience cares about? Run with it, Lucas. Introduce the concept of Midichlorians as a means of sucking all the mysticism and lore out of the Force and essentially giving the Jedi power levels? Brilliant. If only someone had been there to tell him just how far he would fall. 1999 was a bad year for Star Wars fans, and Lucas never seemed to make efforts to recover from it. Phantom took a cultural relic, something more untouchable than pre-2003 The Matrix (don’t be ashamed, we all loved it) and turned it into instant fodder for late-night comedy shows. Star Wars and “pedophilia” had no reason to be mentioned in the same sentence until 1999 when we all saw Ewan McGregor and Jake Lloyd on screen together.
Don’t even get me started on The Clone Wars. The 2003 Genndy Tartakovsky series that ran in 30-second bursts was pretty watchable, but as soon as that character design made the transition to 3D things just got creepy. And stupid.
Much like with the new trilogy, the Star Wars franchise suffered by trusting its license to whatever game developers came its way. We all know, as a rule, licensed games suck. The entire purpose of licensed titles is to swoop in and as fast as possible to bombard unsuspecting kids and moms that don’t know any better with slapdash effort wrapped in a popular brand name. Star Wars has been a repeat offender with licensed games for decades (Remember Episode 1 Podracer?), the franchise has a reputation for disappointing with its video games. Once in a while, much like in sewage treatment, something would slip through that wasn’t complete crap, but, for the most part there was a lot more work behind getting us something with the Star Wars logo on it instead of making a game that’s fun to play. It doesn’t matter how timely a title is released, catastrophic glitches like falling to your death through improperly rendered floor panels or inopportune screen lock ups will ruin the experience every time. Luckily, Lucasarts eventually learned their lesson around 2000 and loaned the license to BioWare, a developer known for making actual, good games. Lucasarts presented them with two options: make an Episode II game, or make an original title set 4000 years before Phantom.
BioWare took the 4000 year-old path, and history was made with Knights of The Old Republic.
Oh yeah, and they made it a DnD style RPG. No, really, a d20 role playing dice system taken straight from Third Edition Dungeons and Dragons, and they didn’t try to hide a bit of it (apparently things worked out pretty well when they used the formula for Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights). Having never been a tabletop RPG guy, the game’s manual was akin to reading Spanish for the first time – there were words and numbers that looked kinda familiar, but there wasn’t much sense I could make of them. Eventually I learned all there was to know about saving throws and critical ranges, but only by popping in the disk and charging in brazenly.
What is now a common feature in modern RPGs, your first task is “rolling” your character by picking a background and skill sets (always go soldier, just trust me on this one), distributing attribute points and choosing your name and appearance. Your name means absolutely nothing since all NPCs communicate with you through a library of recorded dialogue that must have gone through heavy editing to make sure no one ever has to refer to you by name. The appearance options are pretty limited, but reflective of the software limitations of the time, you simply pick your character’s face from a cache of about eight male and eight female portraits. Twelve are horrendously ugly, the other four are tolerably ugly. No matter your choices, you’ll still be nameless, unattractive and perpetually confused looking during your romp through the outer rim.
Much like in BioShock, throughout the game you are presented with multiple choices that affect the outcome of the game and the general narrative. It’s up to you whether to follow the Jedi code or go tromping and Force-choking down the path of the dark side. Each side has its own advantages and drawbacks: light side Force powers are limited to healing and buffing the party; the dark side gets all the cool flashy powers. Wanna lift up an enemy with your TK powers, crush his throat and smash him through a wall while BBQing his buddies with lightening? Go dark side. Wanna glow for fifteen to thirty seconds? Go light side. On a less snarky note, Jedi are way better healers than Sith. Your attunement to the light and dark side of the Force is measured on a sliding scale in the corner of your character screen. Acts of kindness and compassion push the marker towards the light side, while moments of cruelty and aggression drag it towards the dark side – leading to an exceptionally bipolar experience in some scenarios when you can do a nice thing for someone, threaten them for a bigger quest reward and then immediately turn in the hey-I-found-this-while-I-was-out-figured-you-might-want-it bonus quest item for extra good points. The further you are towards sainthood or Hitler-hood, the more effective your powers and influences become. Also, if you choose to fall to the dark side, the further you go, the paler and spookier your already unseemly avatar becomes.
The morality system also influences how you interact with your party members. Some of your compatriots like it when you are honorable and compassionate, and others wish you would quit running off to save every kitten that gets stuck in a tree. The more noble/evil you are, the more your companions will respect/loathe you. They become a sounding board for future decisions, piping up when they feel decisions are morally mandated or frowning upon your continuing desires to rob people. After enough good deeds or cruel acts are performed and you improve your relationship with your companions, some of them will offer additional character-specific quests or tasks that will lead to further rewards and bonuses both for you and your companion. In the second KoTOR you could even take several of your non-Jedi companions under your wing and train them in the ways of the Force if they liked you enough. However, if you continue to upset and disagree with certain companions, they’ll eventually get fed up and leave the party entirely. By the end of the game you’re faced with a major plot-deciding mission like “should I side with the Sith or the Republic in this final battle?” and, depending on your choice, some of your party members become so incensed that they will attack in an effort to stop you. I can tell you right now, it’s uncomfortably cathartic to kill off the friends you’ve traveled with who were simply too nice to let you go through with your heinous deeds. The companion characters serve to take the over-arching narrative effects of your actions and reflect them on an individual level.
The combat system never really shines, but it’s not so dull you’ll give up on it right away. Real time combat focuses heavily on character placement and planning out your party’s actions; you will likely spend more than fifty percent of each fight with the game paused. The developers did their best to take the monotony out of the DnD combat system by jazzing up the animations and streamlining the turn system, but the actual combat of the game never feels all that engaging. One press of the button sets your character on auto-run to its target where it will automatically engage it with a series of standard attacks until you pick a new command or something dies. You spend a lot more time watching fights instead of actually fighting.
The party set up is pretty standard — you’ll need a tank for keeping the enemy busy and absorbing the brunt of the damage, a healer to keep the tank alive and a DPS either shooting or stabbing to get the serious killing done. These options become a bit limited later in the game when non-Jedi characters become irrelevant. Another thing that bothers me is that, even from the very beginning of the game, blasters are useless. There’s just no point to a ranged DPS character when their damage output can’t keep up with most other classes (not to mention they’re completely defenseless in close combat). It’s just kind of strange that even though the depicted society is centuries ahead of our own technology, most everyone you run into is more excited to have a swordfight with you. Lightsabers I can forgive, but I don’t think a galaxy-conquering empire would be issuing long swords to every recruit. That just strikes me as a bit counter-intuitive.
The narrative holds up much better than the combat. Instead of shamelessly attempting to tie the storyline in to the original saga (playing as the great great great great great grandfather/mother of Anakin Skywalker), the story works to create its own lore and mythology within the Star Wars universe. It borrows a few quotes, set pieces and thematic elements from the original trilogy, but KoTOR makes its own story without sounding like a bad fanfic. In the KoTOR timeline, the galaxy is piecing itself back together after a colossal war with a race of Boba Fett aliens. The Sith empire is busy growing to meet the demands of ruling the galaxy, but the Jedi order still has enough presence and influence to not be entirely forced into hiding. You play as a scoundrel/scout/solider nobody with an unfortunate face that wakes up in a Republic warship that’s busy being bombarded by the Sith fleet. Things, of course, get worse and you end up stranded on a planet-sized city full of drunks, swoop gangs, thugs and affiliated scum while you’re trying to dodge the Sith and track down a Jedi babe voiced by Jennifer Hale with your irritable and moody (flirty, if you’re a lady) pilot companion. From there your adventure spreads to all the rest of the standard Star Wars mythos: low-life bars, bounty hunters, unfortunate beggars, grumpy aliens, lovable rogues, lightsaber duels and spaceships all across multiple planets both brand new and familiar with fans of the films.
The primary focus of the plot is the protagonist Darth Revan. During the previous big war the Republic forces were led by a powerful Jedi hero and his (or her) apprentice. But, seeing what typically happens to Jedi that get famous, the Jedi heroes, swollen with hubris, fell to the dark side and took on the mantles of Darth Revan, the master, and Darth Malak, the jealous sidekick. Then they stomped through the galaxy that once revered them. Continuing with typical Jedi habits, Darth Malak eventually betrayed and murdered Revan to usurp his position over the Sith. At least everyone thought he was dead.
Here’s where we get to the plot twist.
I remember playing to about the mid-point of the game, training to be a Jedi Knight and being a galactic badass, when some other game came along and pulled my interest away from it (I think it was Ninja Gaiden, but I don’t really remember). I was maybe an hour away from the big reveal. I loaned the game to my buddy Dean for the summer. Things were quiet after that for a couple weeks, until Dean started really getting into the game. Every once in awhile we’d chat about how far we had gotten in our playthroughs, but nothing really stood out until the day Dean asked, [*****SPOILER ALERT*****(C’mon, the game’s been out since 2003, it’s the same as telling you the ending of The Sixth Sense)] “DID YOU GET TO THE PART WHERE YOU FIND OUT YOU WERE DARTH REVAN THE WHOLE TIME?!” Then he started laughing, the look on my face had made it quite clear I had not made it to the part where you find out you were Darth Revan the whole time. Most people hate spoilers, Dean loves them, both ruining them and hearing them – only a couple years ago I remember getting tackled and held down with Dean’s elbow at my throat while he shouted “YOU TELL ME WHAT I’M GETTING FOR CHRISTMAS!” I was able to get back at Dean by refusing to tell him the ending to Watchmen. Even to this day, Dean will every so often turn and ask me, “Hey, remember that time I ruined to ending to Knights of The Old Republic?”
Knights of The Old Republic (and its sequel, to some extent) earns its relevance by rising above the rest of the crap its spiritual remnants and successors have been saddled with, and it earned its place in my heart by integrating itself into my micro-culture of in-jokes and memes. It never really becomes an exciting action title, but that’s not what it needed to be. Instead, KoTOR delivered an immersive and welcoming experience to a concept that had been nearly untouchable in video games. It almost, almost made up for Phantom Menace.
Bottom Line – Knights of The Old Republic is: Enough to forgive George Lucas.