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.
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.
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.