An ode to the greatest 'Star Wars' game ever made
An ode to the greatest 'Star Wars' game ever made
If you're familiar with Star Wars but have yet to play Knights of the Old Republic, you should know that it harbors a surprise twist on par with The Empire Strikes Back. That's probably the biggest reason why we're still discussing it after 14 years, when so many other licensed games have all but faded from memory. It not only left a lasting impression but was also the first role-playing video game to let players create their own Star Wars character, build their own lightsaber, and learn the ways of the Force – beating Star Wars: Galaxies to the punch by several months.
Set four thousand years before Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas's final Star Wars film, Knights of the Old Republic concerns itself with the events of the Jedi Civil War, also known as the Second Sith War. This is the Old Republic Alec Guinness's Obi-Wan Kenobi spoke of in the original 1977 movie, albeit with a little less "peace and justice." Darth Revan, the enigmatic Sith Lord at the center of it all, has become a permanent fixture of Star Wars fandom; convention-goers and cosplayers the world over can be found donning his (or her – you could choose your sex in the game) crimson-colored mask. The character speaks to people. In 2015, following a series of fan's-choice polls, Hasbro announced at San Diego Comic-Con that Revan – alongside runner-up Sabine Wren, from Disney XD's Rebels television show – would join the Black Series, a line of six-inch premium action figures boasting fine detail and realism. The character had received similar treatment almost a decade earlier, in '07, after an online poll published in ToyFare magazine earned him a place in the thirtieth-anniversary toy line. If you know what to look for, Revan's influence is everywhere, and that includes the so-called "new canon" established by Disney's Lucasfilm Story Group.
So here's the bombshell: you are Revan. Turns out, the player character – your Jedi avatar – was once the galaxy's most dreaded warrior, a fallen Jedi twisted by the dark side. Later betrayed by your own apprentice in the midst of battle, you were fatally injured, but the Jedi strike team sent to capture you kept you alive using the power of the Force. (The Force is, after all, a kind of magic.) The Jedi Council then made the bold decision to "wipe away your memories and destroy your very identity," to quote one Republic captain, in hopes that you could be made an ally once more. The revelation made for an unforgettable chapter in the Legends-era expanded universe – one Star Wars fans continue to embrace. KotOR was met with glowing reviews upon its release in 2003, and still regularly tops lists of the all-time best Star Wars games.
On the 40th anniversary of Star Wars – and to celebrate one of the best Star Wars games of all time, here's an excerpt from the first chapter of my forthcoming book, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, due from Boss Fight Books in 2018. It's a deep dive into what made Bioware's role playing game so fascinating upon its release in 2003.
From Chapter 1: "A More Civilized Age"
Dantooine is a quintessentially Star Wars setting – serene grasslands bookended by Mesoamerican architecture; an enclave full of Jedi; bands of Mandalorian raiders preying on the countryside. It's familiar to anyone who's ever seen Genndy Tartokovsky's Clone Wars TV show, which aired on Cartoon Network from 2003 to '05 (not to be confused with George Lucas's own animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which ran from 2008 to 2014).
In three episodes of Tartokovsky's micro-series, Jedi Master Mace Windu is shown taking on a Separatist invasion army singlehandedly, liberating Dantooine's inhabitants in the process. The planet was first namechecked by Princess Leia, of course, as the phony location of the Alliance's hidden base in A New Hope, though it never appeared on-screen. ("They found the remains of a rebel base, but they estimate that it has been deserted for some time.") The ancient Jedi training facility there also made an appearance in the 1994 Dark Horse comic series Tales of the Jedi: Dark Lords of the Sith. But BioWare's 2003 role-playing game Knights of the Old Republic – widely regarded as the greatest Star Wars game ever made – marks the first time most of us ever got a glimpse of its understated beauty.
Here's a place where Jedi live among the commoners of the galaxy: farmers, hunters, nomadic traders. This is in stark contrast to the Jedi we came to know in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, both released in the four years leading up to Knights of the Old Republic. In those movies, Obi-Wan and company always seem to be preoccupied with guarding the nobility on some ostentatious political center like Coruscant or Naboo; KotOR's Dantooine is a welcome departure in this respect, offering an agrarian perspective on Jedi dealings.
Having fled the destruction of Taris, where you rescued a captive Jedi named Bastila Shan from the cartoonish criminal underworld, you're told that Dantooine is a place of refuge – someplace even the Sith won't dare follow. You're not entirely sold on this point, given that you just witnessed the deaths of several billion people, helpless to defend themselves against an orbital bombardment, but you're willing to keep your mouth shut and take the risk for the time being. This is where they train Jedi – some of them, anyway – and you've been having strange dreams of late. Visions of the past brought on by your strong connection to the Force. And, apparently, to Bastila. "This is not unheard of," says Jedi Master Zhar Lestin, a pink-skinned Twi'lek clad in blue robes. "Connections often form between master and student, but rarely does a bond develop so quickly."
Vandar Tokare, a diminutive goblin whom most anyone would recognize as Yoda's video-game doppelganger, also stumbles his way toward an explanation of your ties with Bastila. "We cannot ignore the destiny that has brought you and Bastila here to us," he tells you. "You and she are linked, as is your fate to hers. Together, you two may be able to stop Darth Malak and the Sith." In fact, the connection you share originated on the bridge of the last Sith flagship, where her Jedi strike team came to take you prisoner prior to the events of the game.
What you don't know yet, at this stage, and Bastila does, is that you used to be the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Revan – the biggest bad in all the galaxy – but then the Jedi erased your memory. When your former apprentice, Malak, opened fire on you, Bastila made the choice to save your life using the Force.
"Our mission was to capture Revan, if possible," she explains early on in the game, before you've reached the Shyamalan-sized plot twist. "The Jedi do not believe in killing their prisoners. No one deserves execution, no matter what their crimes." This assertion ultimately raises one of the defining questions of Knights of the Old Republic, a game whose thematic ambitions go much further than mere good versus evil.
The mythology of Star Wars – and especially 1983's Return of the Jedi – is fixated on the idea that characters such as Darth Vader can be redeemed from a life of wickedness. Much like the original Star Wars trilogy, this notion doesn't become central to the story until the end of KotOR's second act, when Malak reveals to the player character that they were once Darth Revan. In The Empire Strikes Back, when Vader confesses himself to be Luke Skywalker's father, it raises the possibility that the Sith Lord behind the mask, behind all the machinery, is still human.
But how do we decide who is worthy of redemption? It's been interesting to see how audiences have reacted to the character of Kylo Ren, Vader's grandson, in this new third era of Star Wars storytelling; many of us are no longer so eager to forgive a murderer or fascist for their crimes. Killing Han Solo is somehow one step too far. Moreover, what once was the stuff of humanity's dark history – the sins of the mid-twentieth century in particular – has now begun to feel uncomfortably close to our present. For good or ill, we can't talk meaningfully about Star Wars any longer without confronting what it means to us in the age of the Trump administration. It's a messy business. If Vader deserved redemption, as the whole of Lucas's tragic prequel trilogy reaffirms, then what are we to make of Revan?
Again and again, the game implies that your character's past is far less important than the struggles that lie ahead
The answer's not so simple. Since the player character in Knights of the Old Republic is basically a blank slate whose past is both fixed and shrouded in mystery, we can only judge Revan's actions based on our own. We might take into account the added context of Drew Karpyshyn's sequel novel, Revan, or Revan's appearances in the Old Republic MMO – but I find the answers those stories give to be less than satisfying for a number of reasons. The experience of playing the game upon its release, in 2003, was all about becoming your own Jedi and then making decisions that would, through the course of that journey, determine your fate. Again and again, the game implies that your character's past is far less important than the struggles that lie ahead. "Revan's tale shows us how even the greatest of the Jedi can fall to the dark side," says Master Dorak, another member of the Jedi Council on Dantooine. "You must always be on guard against the evil that dwells within you. Think hard upon this lesson."
This is the same lesson Luke learns (and also exemplifies) in Return of the Jedi. Some of those who do evil have good within them, just as those who do good (e.g., the Jedi) can be easily seduced by the dark side. Human beings, like the Force, contain multitudes; we're hopelessly complex and self-contradictory. So how, in a universe like Star Wars, can you bring someone as powerful as a Jedi Knight or a Sith Lord to justice? The New Yorker's Anthony Lane put it well in his review of The Force Awakens: "If you really think that a hero, under Star Wars rules, is permitted to sit down and confront his nemesis over a cup of coffee, as Al Pacino did with Robert De Niro in Heat, you're in the wrong game." It's little wonder that your third and final test before becoming a Jedi in KotOR finds you literally acting out this conundrum.
After assembling your lightsaber and getting congratulated on your new promotion to Jedi Padawan, you're sent to a nearby ancient grove where Jedi from the enclave used to go to meditate. Master Zhar tells you it's been tainted somehow; the dark side has taken hold there. "For every Jedi, the threat of the dark side is always present," he says. "You must truly understand this before you are accepted into the Order." This is the game's equivalent of the cave scene in Empire, when Yoda has Luke confront his inner turmoil. The test in KotOR doesn't involve a retreat into Revan's psyche, however, but rather a straightforward confrontation with a fallen Jedi.
What you wouldn't have realized at this point, playing it for the first time in 2003, is that it's the story's way of holding a mirror to the player character. Had you been in Bastila's place on the bridge of Revan's warship, would you have spared the Dark Lord? Your actions in the corrupted grove have consequences that'll last for the remainder of the playthrough. Once you've fought your way through a pack of bloodthirsty Kath hounds, you arrive at the grove to find an arrangement of stones and a young woman of the Cathar species – think Skyrim's Khajiit, except in the Star Wars universe – meditating on her knees. "I will be your doom!" she cries, igniting her scarlet blade with a hiss. If all goes well, a variety of saber flurries and Force abilities leaves her with about 20 percent of her original life total. "You are strong," she says. "Stronger than me, even in my darkness." Her hesitation presents you with a choice: you can either slay her or convince her to atone for her actions and return to the Order.
The young Cathar's name is Juhani, and, much like yourself, she was once a Padawan who showed great promise. But she made a grave mistake. "When I slew my Master, Quatra, I knew I could never go back," she explains. "I struck her down in the middle of training, consumed by anger, embracing the power of hate." Curiously enough, if you decide to kill Juhani, you're not awarded any dark-side points, though the Council will be far from pleased. Upon returning to the enclave, you'll learn that Belaya, a young Jedi whom you met when you first arrived on Dantooine, was Juhani's lover. Belaya will tell you that you chose poorly, that the sight of you makes her ill, and that she should kill you for what you've done. "And yet I can't, can I?" she says. "I am a Jedi, and we are sworn to protect all – even the likes of you."
If, on the other hand, you manage to get through to her, Juhani becomes your ally – a potential "party member," in RPG terms. What's more, you also learn that she never actually killed her Master in combat, as she'd been led to believe; she merely injured Quatra. Like your trial in the grove, Juhani's failure illustrates the principle that Jedi do not kill – at least not if there's any feasible alternative. In sparing her, and showing compassion, you help her back to the light just as Bastila did for you (even if your character doesn't realize it yet).
There are criticisms to be made here, of course: The Jedi put a bit too much emphasis on the importance of the lightsaber for a religious group who profess to be strictly against violence of any kind. And there are plenty of examples of moments in the game, or in Star Wars as a whole, where the Jedi could've handled things in a way that more closely adhered to their policy of nonviolence. Not to mention that having Quatra survive, and being told it was all an elaborate trick to test Juhani, is cruel and unusual; she provoked her apprentice to attack her on purpose and then faked her death. That's a little fucked up.
What Star Wars grapples with – and not always successfully – is the matter of proportionality. If, in our society, a punishment should fit the crime, then why must we forgive Darth Vader for killing all those innocent younglings in Revenge of the Sith? I admit I'm guilty of this myself. When Luke tells his dying father, "I'll not leave you here – I've got to save you," and the elder Skywalker tells him, "You already have, Luke"? That scene leaves me devastated every time. It's a beautiful moment, but is it really earned? When Kylo Ren impales his father, Han Solo, with his crimson saber in The Force Awakens, Han uses his dying breath to raise a gentle hand to his son's face, his final act one of tenderness and love – of forgiveness.
I'm not sure we give Lucas, or other creators who have dabbled in his world, enough credit for the complicated moral picture Star Wars sometimes shows us. Our own society's sense of right and wrong is far from black and white, and the dilemmas portrayed in Star Wars often reflect this. Had Vader survived on the Second Death Star, would Luke have executed him for his crimes? Of course not; Anakin Skywalker himself once said that's "not the Jedi way." I imagine he would have stood trial, been convicted, and then gone to prison. And yet, just recently, in April 2017, four death-row inmates were put to death in Arkansas for wrongdoings arguably less severe than Vader's.
Consider, by contrast, the public outcry against the mystery protester who slugged Richard Spencer in the face. Spencer, a self-styled white nationalist who coined the term "alt-right," was giving a public interview on the day of Donald Trump's inauguration when someone clad in black ran up to him, landed a blow to Spencer's head, and darted off, vanishing into the crowd. By the next day, footage of the attack had gone viral, and the entire Internet suddenly had one question: was punching Spencer – a neo-Nazi – morally permissible?
By casting players as a former war criminal who seeks to right the mistakes of his past, who uses his lightsaber and Jedi powers not to spread terror but to put an end to it, Revan's story shows how violence can be used for good. The Jedi believe that brandishing a weapon in a galaxy at war is a means of restoring the peace, though they also draw the line at execution. I've never been comfortable with the idea of capital punishment, but I roll my eyes every time somebody insists it's somehow wrong to punch a Nazi. Knights of the Old Republic asks us to understand the difference.