Gaming Memories: Knights of the Old Republic

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MajorMitch

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Edited By MajorMitch

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list, and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

I played Dungeons & Dragons for the first time in 2003, when I was in high school. It was also my first exposure to a traditional “pen and paper” RPG, and it immediately captivated my imagination. The possibilities seemed endless, limited only by the stories our group could tell together, and the options for creating my own unique character were equally exciting. So I rolled my halfling rogue named Milo, mounted my riding dog, and we rode off on all sorts of grand adventures (presumably to save the world). It was a brand new type of game, and I was hooked.

Then that same year, BioWare released a Star Wars video game based on Dungeons & Dragons rules.

KOTOR tapped into the best parts of Star Wars.
KOTOR tapped into the best parts of Star Wars.

Of course, there had already been plenty of video games based on the D&D license, including BioWare hits such as Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. And of course, a video game adaptation can never be as open-ended and imaginative as a true pen and paper RPG. But Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic’s release could not have been more timely for me. As someone who still primarily played console games at the time, who had just been introduced to D&D, and who considered Star Wars among my favorite fictional universes, playing Knights of the Old Republic (affectionately referred to as KOTOR) on the Xbox in 2003 was a revelation. It brought a classic type of PC RPG to a console, with a smooth interface engineered to effectively command multiple party members at once with a controller. It translated the D&D framework well to a video game, which it was able to leverage on both mechanical and storytelling fronts. And all of it worked surprisingly well in the context of the Star Wars universe. In fact, KOTOR remains my favorite Star Wars video game to date, and quite possibly my favorite piece of Star Wars media of any kind; a claim I don’t make lightly.

The ways in which KOTOR leveraged its D&D framework stood out to me in particular, as someone who grew up on the Japanese RPGs of the 1990s, and had virtually no exposure to Western RPGs as of 2003. In a game like KOTOR, you create your own character from scratch, and then constantly guide their growth. While the Japanese RPGs of my youth certainly had character customization in their own ways, KOTOR had it baked in from the start, and gave the player a lot of explicit control over who your character was and who they would become. Your class, stats, skills, and even how you looked were all common decision points, and critically, those decisions clearly impacted how your character played. Were you going to focus more on melee lightsaber combat, or devastating force powers? Were you going to be fast and nimble, or built like a tank? Were you going to be more skilled with computers, stealth, or persuasion? These decisions added up over time to allow for personal, nuanced player characters, and while you couldn’t create your party members from scratch in the same way, you did get to choose how they grew as they leveled up. This led to an intricate web of skills and roles that I found satisfying to balance, especially when the entire party worked together as a single cohesive unit. KOTOR was by no means the first Western RPG to successfully implement these ideas. But it was among the first I played that executed them well, and it made quite an impression.

KOTOR's dialogue choices were often impactful.
KOTOR's dialogue choices were often impactful.

Perhaps even more impactful for me than D&D’s influence on KOTOR’s character customization and combat, was its influence on KOTOR’s narrative structure. It was one of the first games I played that empowered me with dialogue choices, and thus one of the first games I played where I felt like an active participant in its narrative; it was the clear precursor to Mass Effect’s vaunted interactive narrative. And while KOTOR’s choices could regularly boil down to stereotypical “good vs. evil” dichotomies, they still felt meaningful, especially within the context of its Star Wars setting. It explored the philosophies of both the Jedi and the Sith, let you make your own judgments about each, and then made you walk the path that your choices led you down. It’s the rare game I played through multiple times, not only to try out different character builds, but also to experience different story paths. It’s worth stressing that KOTOR’s story was great by traditional metrics too; it had excellent writing, a large cast of well-realized and endearing characters (shout out to that lovable murder robot, HK-47), and the overarching plot was gripping and paced extremely well; KOTOR’s climactic plot twist was particularly memorable, and remains among my all-time favorite video game story moments. Toss in superb visuals, strong art, and a great Star Wars soundtrack, and KOTOR used its license effectively to produce a wonderfully cinematic experience.

My introduction to Dungeons & Dragons in 2003 sparked an affection for traditional pen and paper RPGs, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic expanded that affection to video game RPGs based on D&D. It was one of the first Western RPGs I played -- on a console no less -- and its approaches to both character customization and interactive storytelling were eye-opening. It offered more freeform ways to participate in a video game RPG than I was used to, and that it was all set within a stellar portrayal of the Star Wars universe only sealed the deal. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic remains one of the most compelling RPGs I’ve played, and it came at just the right time to solidify itself as one of my most cherished gaming memories.

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Junkerman

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#1  Edited By Junkerman

Nice read!

I'm a big fan of KOTOR 2 as well - but I've been playing through KOTOR slowly when I have time over the last few months and it certainly is a delight. Really captures that classic Star Wars magic in a way that hasn't been so since the original movies.

A lot of people seem not to enjoy Taris but thats always one of the high lights for me; I enjoy spending time in the world beneath the high fantasy of Sith and Jedi powers. And while the older me can see it as the pretty linear two long bridges + some rooms game map it really is... when I played it as a young teenager I can recall vividly how anxious and wild my imagination ran with the thought of being in hiding and trapped on this planet being oppressed by the sith after such an explosive introduction.

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Ulfhedinn

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Both KOTOR and KOTOR 2 are certainly masterpieces and paved the way to Mass Effect and Dragon Age.

Only problem I have with it is pacing and graphic that didn't age well. I really wish some remaster would come our way.

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#3 mikemcn  Online

I played this through 3 or 4 times as a kid, never understood that it was a DnD game, played it on my Phone of all places a few years ago and realized all those powers and stats had "2D6" and things written next to them and realized what I had played for all those years. Games got so many dicerolls

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inevpatoria

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Replayed this recently, as a matter of fact. I still think the first game holds up well enough. I mean it in a good way when I say it feels like a proof of concept for larger BioWare ideas yet to come. A lot of the morality systems are pretty black and white, but you're still able to get through much of the game's more challenging ethical moments with smart dialogue options.

I was surprised to find I didn't actually find the combat that dated-feeling or unwieldy. It's of a time, sure, and certainly later BioWare games would move away from the semi-turn-based combat featured here. But Knights of the Old Republic finds a way to make you and your team feel powerful (or outmatched) without needing real-time input.

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thesquarepear

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It took a while for me to finish (getting a lightsaber also seemed to take forever) but it's one of the few video games to make me feel deeper ties to characters in a story like I could with books. Mass Effect might also have done that if the 2 sequels hadn't gone in completely different directions.

The combat was alright when you got used to it but it had some weird difficulty spikes in this and KOTOR 2. Thank god for adhesive grenades that let me cheese some of the more difficult fights as far as I remember.

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Ulfhedinn

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Thank god for adhesive grenades that let me cheese some of the more difficult fights as far as I remember.

Oh I remember those. I never left home without them.

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I had to start KOTOR 3 times before it clicked for me. I found the game design, graphics and into to be clunky and off putting in a way that put me off it. However I kept hearing how amazing it was. Finally my brother told me I had to play it, and I trust him implicitly. I created a new character who was the OPPOSITE of my normal RPG build in every way. That, somehow, did the trick. It clicked for me. Once I had free rein of Yaris, I absolutely fell in love.

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inevpatoria

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@fluidk: The pacing is a real issue. It shows its age as an RPG of the early-2000s by putting its absolute worst foot forward for an interminable length of time.

Taris can meander on for more than half of the total hour-count, if you're unfamiliar with the game. The rest of the territories, by comparison, are small slivers of explorable space with only one or two major narrative beats each. Taris is this huge, unwieldy section that buries a lot of what's really interesting about KotOR's systems.

I can find reasons to apologize for Taris being what it is. But it's one-billion-percent the part of the game that needed trimming.

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KOTOR was the game that got me into RPGs.

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MajorMitch

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@junkerman: Thanks! I definitely remember greatly enjoying the Star Wars feel of KOTOR, and fully agree that it captured that intangible Star Wars "magic" in a way that very few pieces of Star Wars media has since the original trilogy. That's definitely a big reason I remember KOTOR so fondly. I also don't remember Taris being that bad... I didn't even know it was such a contentious part of the game! Maybe I would feel differently if I replayed the game, but at the time I found it a perfectly OK introduction to the universe and story they were telling.

@mikemcn: Ha! I probably would have never understood KOTOR was a D&D game either had I not started playing actual D&D around the same time! I think that's a strength though that they involved D&D rules without the player needing to know D&D.

@inevpatoria: That's cool that it held up for you! I haven't played this game in probably 15 years, and have wanted to revisit it for a long time, but, you know, time. I would think some aspects would feel dated like you mention, given they were expanded in later works like Mass Effect, but at the time that stuff was pretty profound to me.

@thesquarepear: I think that's a big part of what made KOTOR stand out to me as well, that feeling of being connected to the characters more than most video games of the time. At the time it was very impactful for me!

@fluidk: @inevpatoria: Interesting, in my memory Taris is a fairly standard tutorial area, I don't remember is standing out for much more than that. I admittedly have not played this game in a long time, and I'm sure there are things that don't hold up as well as they could, but that's not one I would have expected.

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inevpatoria

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@majormitch: Taris is fine in a vacuum. It functions like rising action for the events yet to transpire. But it's also the sequence that suffers most during subsequent playthroughs—especially if you are at all eager to rush through to the Jedi stuff. There's just so much you have to do in Taris first, and lots of it requires backtracking time and time again through multiple loading screens.

Again, it's really apparent when you do any comparison between the length, depth, and complexity of any of the other planets. Those locations have occasional sidequests but are otherwise pretty linear affairs. Taris just sprawls.

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@majormitch: "In fact, KOTOR remains my favorite Star Wars video game to date, and quite possibly my favorite piece of Star Wars media of any kind; a claim I don’t make lightly."

Thank you! Its not just me then. It still feels to me like the only piece of star wars media that shines a somewhat clear light on the "history" of the universe.

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@inevpatoria: For me it wasn’t necessarily Taris itself, it was the way the game plays in general and the graphics and design of the game up until that point.

I was a heavy RPG veteran and was playing the game on Xbox. Going from highly refined Square RPGs and brilliant games like Ultima and Baldur’s Gate on PC, KOTOR looked terrible and played Janky as all get out. It was one of the first role playing games to try to make it work in 3D and the tech just wasn’t there yet.

The spaceship that the game starts on looks awful and the player doesn’t really know how the systems work yet and why the game controls as it does. Once you get to Taris, there is a bunch of load-bearing story setup that isn’t very fun to play.

Contrast this with something like Chrono Trigger which, in my opinion, is still the gold standard on RPG beginnings. It starts on “just a normal day” as all stories do, but they picked the MOST EXCITING day of the year to stage their inciting incident. And the game IMMEDIATELY puts you in a walled garden that allows you to learn the game mechanics (money, combat, conversation, exploration, mini games) in a consequence free environment. By the time the story starts in earnest, the player already is engaged in the game mechanics and the characters.

I wasn’t getting anything like that in KOTOR. But of course, once the game gets going it is phenomenal.

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@fluidk: Sounds like you were a JRPG veteran, but not necessarily as familiar with CRPGs, the legacy of which KotOR hails from. I would argue that KotOR’s intro works for folks who cut their teeth in Baldur’s Gate and Fallout.

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@navster15: I mentioned being very familiar with crpgs like Ultima and Baldurs Gate.

Eye Of The Beholder 2 was my first.

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@fluidk: Ah dang, must have missed that. My bad!

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inevpatoria

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@fluidk said:

@inevpatoria:

The spaceship that the game starts on looks awful and the player doesn’t really know how the systems work yet and why the game controls as it does. Once you get to Taris, there is a bunch of load-bearing story setup that isn’t very fun to play.

Contrast this with something like Chrono Trigger which, in my opinion, is still the gold standard on RPG beginnings. It starts on “just a normal day” as all stories do, but they picked the MOST EXCITING day of the year to stage their inciting incident. And the game IMMEDIATELY puts you in a walled garden that allows you to learn the game mechanics (money, combat, conversation, exploration, mini games) in a consequence free environment. By the time the story starts in earnest, the player already is engaged in the game mechanics and the characters.

I wasn’t getting anything like that in KOTOR. But of course, once the game gets going it is phenomenal.

Now that you mention it, I still don't think to this day that the game really ever explains its systems very well, particularly if the player is someone who hasn't had a lot of experience with Dungeons and Dragons-style role-playing games. The dice rolls can be hard to wrap your mind around in practice. And, worse still, I think you can kind of fudge your way past a lot of it without ever engaging it on a deep level.

I guess that's my overriding criticism of the game, now more than a decade removed. At the time, I more or less just brute forced the game. During my playthrough this year, with a better understanding of how dice rolls work and how they're affected by different stat modifiers, I had a better time—but it's still a gap the game doesn't do a lot to fill.

I had a similar experience to you in 2003. This game lives in a post-Morrowind world, and as someone who had played a lot of that game already, who really understood how that game worked and—more importantly—what to do to get better at it, it was frustrating to feel like KotOR was missing some of that. Even some light tutorialization would've gone a long way.

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#18  Edited By Regal

@inevpatoria: You're probably right, and the last time I played the game (when it was new) I was a kid and I don't actually remember most of it. But Taris just has some nostalgic, magical juice to it. More so than other parts of the game.

I just really liked just how long you're this orphaned and forgotten thing in this hidden underground world in a vast city. And you have to come up somehow inch by inch. I know psychologist Paul Bloom is fond of saying something like "every good story is a social status story", and I love being a nobody character that just have to crawl through the manure like Shawshank Redemption in order to survive.

The Elder Scrolls always frustrated me a bit because you're only in prison for a short while, and there is little story around it. They haven't found a way to really draw it out and savour the building up, where being this big Jedi guy is long in the future still.

I don't remember KOTOR that well, and I had a vivid imagination as a kid (with little english) so it's very possible I dreamt most of this up, but that is what Taris was to me. By the time your character actually escaped Taris, became a Jedi and all that, I was happy for the story to start going towards a conclusion.

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Messy Star Wars is my favourite Star Wars, so the ways in which you could play with the decisions of the main character and affect a number of changes on your game was a big thing for me. Not saying I ever went full Dark Side but thematically being given that power of choice and the reflection that comes with consequences was maybe one of the most involving experiences I've had in gaming. (This works fine in other games but meant more to me than paragon points in ME because the text was older and more in-game consequences in KOTOR)

Also Taris. Taris is by most modern lenses, bad. My experience in RPGs and adventure games is prob more limited than many, but Taris being so huge and demanding to me was very special. That the opening main area of the game just said "u ain't shit" and then said "maybe better tomorrow", and basically had you complete a long-form infiltration and escape(With optional bad gambling and even worse vampire creatures(Those things were my introduction to min-maxing and multiple saves) became the most immersive thing KOTOR brought to me. Swoop Racing tho.

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@petesix0: I always play videogames with choice as though I were the character and I am the one making the choices as I rea;ly would in the real world. As such, I was never fully light. I was so mad at the game at one point when it forces you to make a decision about a merchant trying to cheat you at the till. The options they give you are basically to be cheated, which was somehow “light side”, or to stand up for yourself, which is “dark side”. I stood up for myself having no idea that it was “evil” to do so. I encountered the event late in my game, so the game was almost over. That little bit of dark side credit made it so I could no longer wear my light side armor and I was suddenly armor less at the very end of the game. I had to fly around the galaxy trying to find SOME problem to solve so I could be good enough to wear clothes again. It was hilariously frustrating.

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I play through Knights of the Old Republic almost annually, sometimes switching it out for 2. I have actually just dipped back into The Old Republic MMO because I was trying to scratch that itch.

I'm still bummed out that they actually made an MMO instead of some sort of follow up. But I will say that The Old Republic still is kind of competent when it comes to the class story missions and the expansions they have introduced into it over the years. It's just too bad its filled with all the boring MMO busy work.

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@fluidk: Wow, that's kind of amusing reading about that experience now, but I would be incredibly frustrated if that happened to me, haha. KOTOR certainly has some issues around its binary light/dark systems, you are punished for not min/maxing one way or the other with things like skills or, in your case, armor. And that kind of sucks.

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I really liked the game when I played it first as a kid near release. Star Wars had it hooks in me so any way I could interact with the universe was great (Growing up in the Eastern Block games were surprisingly easier to come by than the movies).

Since then though, I've almost done a turn around on it along with many other Star Wars and Bioware games. KOTORs main issue to me is kinda that its just Episode 4 in a classic Bioware wrapper, and I'm aware calling that an issue is high herecy. But unlike Kotor2, which in itself has a gigantic number of issues, it doesn't do anything particularly interesting with the universe. To add onto herecy, I think the "You're Revan" reveal is overblown and isn't as impactful as people make it out to be.

Being able to interact with Star Wars is the main appeal of KOTOR to me at this stage. There is something magical about being able to go to all of these planets, even if they do look kinda ass.

On the topic of Taris being bad - the oddest crime it commits is doing everything you can do on Taris actually hurts you long run. You can only get to level 20, and its entirely possible to leave Taris around 10 and a half, meaning your Jedi progression is hampered. Granted, game is not difficult enough to ever punish you for it and gives you full spec Jedi companions you can control instead if you want.

Shoutouts to Old Republic having neat class stories on release. As someone who poured waaay too much time into that thing, they've never hit that high again. Imperial Agent story is the closest we got to KOTOR3.

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@junkerman: Taris is ok. Think it just gets a lot of (somewhat) deserved crap because the narrative runs so slow compared to the rest of the game. It's a totally fine place for your first few times but it's a real slog playing it for your 10+ time.

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KOTOR was the game that made me fall in love with RPG’s and games. It will always hold a special place for me.

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