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I'm a huge Star Wars fan. I'm just old enough that my mother took me to Return of the Jedi during its original theatrical run. In the movie theatre, my young, semi-sentient self was quiet for once. I was entranced by this world of lightsabers, blaster bolts, weird aliens, and stormtroopers. A universe of Light Sides and Dark Sides, simple good vs. simple evil.
Toys, books, and games; I've dived into everything Star Wars. I've been there for the heights of Star Wars gaming, like Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II or Star Wars Galaxies, and the low points, like Rebel Assault (WHY?!) and Star Wars: Master of Teras Kasi. Ahead of every Star Wars gaming experience I've had, from Super Star Wars to the Force Unleashed II, sits a single game: Knights of the Old Republic.
While I feel that the heights of Knights of the Old Republic II are much better than this first title, it's a bit uneven and completely whiffs the ending due development issues. Even beyond that, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was a series of firsts for property. KOTOR was the first RPG in the Star Wars universe, a fact that's shocking when you realize the first Star Wars game was back in 1982 and KOTOR didn't launch until 2003. That's 21 years where either the idea of a character-driven Star Wars roleplaying game just didn't come up or was shot down by Lucasfilm.
Second, while most Expanded Universe spinoffs dealt with the trilogy characters earlier in their lives, somewhere during the trilogy, or after Return of the Jedi, Bioware jumped way back in history for Knights of the Old Republic. As the game's title suggests, it takes place during the Old Republic era, around 4000 years before the Battle of Yavin depicted in Star Wars: A New Hope. This was an era that had been explored by Dark Horse's Tales of the Jedi comic series, but was ultimately an open playground for Bioware to work with.
"The setting is roughly 4000 years before the time period of the films. In the Star Wars timeline, space travel has existed for over 25,000 years, so that places the technology of the period relatively close to that of the movies," KOTOR producer Casey Hudson told IGN back in 2003. "This gave us the unique opportunity to create a cinematic experience that would capture a similar look and feel to the movies, while also giving us the freedom to create all-new art, characters, and storylines. In fact, we were even encouraged by LucasArts to 'blow up a planet.' Such was the freedom we were afforded by this time period."
Third, for many players, including myself, this was our first real exposure to the Bioware style of RPG. I had long been a PC game player, but I lived on action and adventure games, never really messing around with RPGs like Wizardry or Ultima. (I played Wizardry VI and that turned me off of first-person RPGs in general.) KOTOR brought that deep CRPG experience to home consoles for the first time and through the use of the Star Wars brand, really opened those types of games to a new audience.
Imagine, following the Star Wars universe for years and stepping into the shoes of Luke, Han, Leia, Kyle Katarn, and other offshoot characters. These were fun experiences, but they weren't really you. For the first time, a Star Wars fan could project themselves into a universe of Jedi, Sith, space pirates, and aliens.
For the first time ever, I could be a Jedi. A black Jedi.
That final contention may not matter to you. I understand that, but in the Star Wars up until that point, there had been a handful of black people in the saga at all. Lando Calrissian classed up the joint in the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Mace Windu had just become the first black Jedi in Attack of the Clones a year earlier. (Second, if you count the guy briefly shown in The Phantom Menace.) And... that was pretty much it.
Does this mean I regretted my time with Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa-Solo, Mara Jade, Jacen and Jaina Solo, Kyp Durron, Kyle Katarn, Corran Horn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Tahiri Veila? Of course not. These were all great characters and I enjoyed reading them or playing them. But sometimes, you do want to see a bit of yourself in the things you love.
Knights of the Old Republic was a chance to say "Hey, you can be a soldier or scoundrel in this mythic Star Wars universe. Hell, you can even become a Jedi." Did Bioware offer up a full-fledged character creator like we expect these days? Not really, but 15 male portraits and 15 female portraits gave you a good number of choices. Close enough is better than nothing at all. Star Wars Galaxies offered deeper character creation one month earlier, but the experience in KOTOR was more driven, immediate, and adventurous than the basic MMO quests found in the former.
For once, I was able to take myself on a real Star Wars adventure. In the Ebon Hawk, I traveled to and wandered across existing Star Wars planets like Tatooine, Kashyyyk, and Korriban. I explored the depths of new planets like Rakata Prime and Manaan. I witnessed the fall of Taris as the Empire-like forces of Darth Malak destroyed an entire city just to kill me.
My choices mattered. Was I good or evil? Do you murder the Tusken Raiders and take their robes or use your assassin droid, HK-47, to make a deal? Should you help the Wookies of Kashyyyk free themselves from local slavers, or do you kill everyone? Are you evil enough to Force Persuade one of your party members to kill two others, including his close, personal friend? (KOTOR was rather open to you killing your party members.)
Speaking of party members, Bioware offered up some excellent companions for your Star Wars adventure. Sure, there were characters that felt quite boring and vanilla on the surface, like Carth and Bastila, but eventually, their personal missions filled in their motivations and desires. The cantankerous old hermit Jolee Bindo was one of my favorites, rounding out my all-Jedi kill squad with a dry wit. Angry and abrasive assassin droid HK-47 is probably one of Bioware's best characters ever, which is probably why he appears in some fashion in Knights of the Old Republic II and The Old Republic. Depending on which side you choose to lean, the Wookie Zaalbar becomes one of the most conflicted characters in the game; torn between his friendship and his life debt.
I admit that in KOTOR, the Dark Side options always made me feel like a cartoonish mustache murder machine, while the Light Side options generally espoused the kind and noble traits of the Jedi. There's never really the feeling from the comics and books that you embrace the Dark Side by giving into certain passions and desires; instead, if given the chance to kill something, Dark Side users in KOTOR always say yes. Saber to the gut, saber to the head, force choke all the way.
In the end, KOTOR feeds into Bioware's binary motivational system better than any other game they've made. The Light Side and Dark Side of the Force are established in the Star Wars universe and KOTOR allows you not only to lean in either direction with tangible repercussions, but also to visually see the Dark Side rot you from within. When the game finally reveals your true identity, that of Sith Lord Darth Revan, the player is given a heavy choice: Do you return to the character you once were, the Revan of legend, or do you forge a new path?
Whether you destroy the Star Forge as a hero, or use its power to enslave the galaxy, the person making those choices is you. (If anything, the evil ending is stronger, almost as if it was meant to tempt the player like a Digital Dark Side.) You made the decisions leading you to that end, you forged the friendships that allowed you to overcome certain obstacles, and you ultimately triumphed. Not Luke, or Leia, or Kyle. You.
That's the ultimate strength of Knights of the Old Republic and why it sticks with me to this day. When I see Finn wielding a blue lightsaber in Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailers, I get excited about the possibility of another black Jedi, but regardless of the movie's outcome, I've already seen the best black Jedi. Myself. All thanks to Knights of the Old Republic.