I'll never turn to the dark side...
The thing you have to understand about Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) is that it is the best Star Wars movie ever made. Even now, as I’m trying to distance myself to write an accurate reflection, all I really want is more. Unfortunately, there is no more. KOTOR is closer to a great book than a great game—you may want more, but, short of a sequel, all you can really have is more of the same. What I’m trying to say here is that KOTOR is absolutely marvelous to watch, but that’s all it is.
The limiting factor here is that KOTOR really is an interactive narrative, more than a game. So much so that my ludological leanings are screaming at me for holding such a positive view of this game. This is not Pac-Man; you will not log 200 hours and still feel like the joystick is an extension of your arm. Your heart may jog a bit at key scenes, but it will never race as it does when you’re one hit from dead and start to make a come back in Soul Calibur 2. These are really the limitations of the genre, more so than KOTOR in particular. And BioWare, while masters of the genre, have yet to transcend its limitations.
Which is not to say that every game should be an action-packed, button mashing fest. I can think of a number of RPGs (the Final Fantasy games for Super Nintendo, for instance) that have had me damn near in tears. It is rather to point out that so heavy is the focus within certain RPG design teams on the rules systems, that gameplay often takes a back seat. Of course, this is what keeps so many of us coming back. I’ll be the first to admit that the part of me that secretly wished to get a degree in mathematics is mesmerized every time I configure someone’s equipment in KOTOR, trying to figure out which combination will prove most useful in any given circumstance.
The light side/dark side system is worth discussing here, as it provides the biggest incentive in terms of replayability. Various actions in the game (primarily dialogue choices) will yield points, which, reflected on your character screen, indicate the overall morality of your character. The system of ethics involved is relatively simple; there were only a handful of times where I found myself stumped as to what kind of points some choice would yield (if any). Self-sacrifice is the biggest component of the light side, whereas anything malicious or domineering falls to the dark side. One interesting note is the high value that the designers (or perhaps the Star Wars universe) place on free will. There are occasions where using the Force to persuade people (“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”), even in pursuit of an otherwise good end, will result in dark side points for your character. Also, there are many of these cases where using a persuade skill without any Force involvement might even give light side points—it’s okay to charm the pants off someone, as long as they enter into it as a free agent.
This sort of instant good/bad feedback presents a postmodernist’s nightmare. While you, as an observer of the game, might find yourself being swayed by an ex-Jedi’s argument that some emotions (like love) really won’t lead to the dark side, that flashing red icon is always there to remind you that it will. And, in case you start believing that the dark side really is nothing more than harnessing your power without limitations, you can watch your character’s face whither and gray as a result. That’s right, your inner nature will ultimately be reflected outward for all to see.
KOTOR falls into that recent trend of roleplaying games which allow your actions to determine the outcome. While this sort of storytelling is a pleasant shift from the days of yore when you were locked into being a goody two-shoes hero in every situation, these games still tend to produce a single narrative with miniscule branches. You may choose between two paths to pass an obstacle, but both will lead you to the same place on the other side. BioWare has produced, in KOTOR, a game at the top of this form, but which falls victims to the form’s limitations.
If you’re anything like me, you will play the game at one end of the moral barometer, and then start over at the other. Then, halfway though the second playing, you’ll realize that this doesn’t change the game much at all. And if you’re especially like me, at that moment your soul will split as you simultaneously realize two things. First, you’ll realize your extreme disappointment; that you have probably experienced everything this game has to offer and it will never be enough. Second, this game is so good it doesn’t matter.
It is the rare brand of magic that only the folks at BioWare seem to wield—the narrative would be mediocre on film or in print, the game elements are engaging but lacking, and somehow the product as a whole manages to be completely enthralling.
Those not fond of roleplaying games might be asking themselves how this is possible; how can this game be so immersive if every time combat starts all you do is push a few buttons, sit back, and watch. Well, KOTOR is like watching a 40-hour Star Wars movie that you get to play a part in. Plus, George Lucas didn’t mess this one up.