It is strange to think that I am going to write about a Star Wars game as a form of art. I was actually putting this post off and doubting myself if it could be classified as art (as if such a classification exsists). Then I thought about what art means to me. Art is something that pulls the observer into its world causing them to think, and also influences the world around it (the world being other video games in the case of games as art). For me that is just part of the overall feeling I have about "art" but it is also part of what makes Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) so great, and a piece of video game art.
I talked about how franchises rarely work out when I covered movie based games. When a game designer is working on a game franchise they have a limited world to work with as well as a fanbase that already expects a certain things. In a way creating a game based off an exsisting franchise is a very daunting process. Many times developers spend too much time worrying about the franchise and not enough time on making a good game. This has especailly been the case with Star Wars games since many publishers think that slapping on the Star Wars logo on a game of any quality will sell (and they are partly right). Bioware, the developers of the game, got around many of these obstacles by setting the game 6000 years before the film, thus breaking any ties to the films continuity, giving the designers more room to develop. By doing this they could take things they liked from the Star Wars universe in order to please fans while at the same time setting the game in a different setting with different character, which welcomed newcomers. Personally I am not what anyone would label as a Star Wars fan, I have seen the movies but would never care to own any of them or check up on its expanded universe. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was a great game first and foremost and a Star Wars game second, which is why I (and so many other people) had such a great time with it.
Storyline (spoilers if you have not played the game)
The storyline starts off as a fairly cliched RPG. You are a hero with an unknown past, and you are setting out to discover the mysteries of your history. This is standard fare for many games and if it was left as such it probably would not have left a mark. What really makes the story shine are the twists and turns throughout the game that really turn the cliche on its head.
As you play through the game you learn that there is a split among the Jedi. Some have left their peaceful ways and become Sith after a war tore them apart. You know that there are two main Sith in the game Darth Malak and Darth Revan. Darth Malak is constantly hunting you and your team down, and Darth Revan is a former ally of Darth Malak who is presumed dead but his influence still echos throughout the game. No matter which way you play the game (more on that aspect later) you constantly feel the presence of these two antagonists. The part of the story line that really grabs the player comes at the last third of the game, as you find out that Darth Revan is not dead and in fact your character is a brainwashed version of him/her. The Jedi basically reprogrammed Revan as a blank slate. The whole plot twist of "you are the villian the whole time" is an old trick, but what really makes it shine is the moral standing of your character. Throughout the game you have a great deal of control over your character and you can decide whether you want to be peaceful or spread fear. If you are the type of player who plays on the dark side this "Darth Revan" revelation is like an awakening learning that your dark past still influences you, and you might feel betrayed by those around you for playing with your mind. If you are playing as a heroic and peaceful figure you might feel a sense of forgiveness and retribution as you try to fix things your character has done wrong. Because, you have so much control over the character and his/her interactions the designers really played with your feelings on how you view the game world and allow for an oppertunity to play with typical plot twists.
Here is the moment in the game where you find out your character's back story.
Light Side / Dark Side
The revolutionary aspect of this game was the ability to play as a hero or as a villian. There have been games that have done this before (notably the Elder Scroll games on the PC) but KOTOR set a new standard. RPGs usually have a main quest along with a large numer of side quests, both of which can be completely altered by the player's decisions. There are times where you might meet a character who has information you need and you can either act kindly to them or pay them for it, or you can torture them having them give up the information violently. This effects how that character will see you from now on (if you are nice they might welcome you every time you visit, if you are violent towards them they might be scared of you or possibly dead by your hands). There is also an instance where your actions can get you kicked off a planet and you can never return again. It would be impossible to outline all of the ways of the game because there are so many actions you can partake in.
The game's 2 endings are drastically different and it depends on if you chose to be good or evil.
This level of gameplay allows for a greater interaction between the game and the player. No longer is the player completely passive bringing their hero from point A to point B. Now the player is forced to think about their actions and how they want to play the game. Allowing the player this much control can give him/her the freedom to experience things that so few games offer. Most games on the shelves feature a hero fighting for justice, but KOTOR allows the player to play as the villian and get behind what motivates evil. KOTOR does a great job at giving the player reasons to play as good and evil and having a storyline that can adapt to both.
Characters (Meat Bags)
The final layer that makes KOTOR more than just another Star Wars game is its cast of characters. Each character is so well rounded and fleshed out that they become just as important to the story as the lead character. However, if you don't wish to interact with a certain character you don't have to take them out with you thus giving the game replayability with different characters each time. Every character has their own stance on most decisions you make which may or may not help you along in your quest.
Bastila Shan: For most the game she is a light-side Jedi. If you make a wrong decision she may be disappointed in your actions. She is the Jedi council's voice throughout the game trying to lead you to a peaceful path. However, this all changes when she is kidnapped and turned to the dark side through brainwashing (much like how you were turned to the light side). When you meet her again you can either try and reform her, kill her, or take her on as your dark side apprentice. She is the character who has the most opportunity for change and can really evolve by the time the game ends.
Bastila can also be the center of a romantic story line in the game. If you chose to be a male character you can flirt with her many times throughout the game. This is completely optional which allows players to play the game how they want.
Carth Onasi: He is the pilot of the Ebon Hawk, your ship, and is a loyal friend. He has a smart attitude and has a lot of snappy one liners in the game. He is more of a heroic and noble figure so if you choose to fall too far into the dark side near the end of the game he will leave you. In many ways he is a stand in for Han-Solo but is not a direct copy of the character.
Carth's attitude comes to the surface many times in the game.
Canderous Ordo: A war vet who has become much more emotionally detached from humanity. He is one of the most wooden characters in the game but it works to the advantage of the game. Having one character that is a bit more straight forward helps the other characters stand out. Also if everyone was colourful the game would start to become a little less grounded. Ordo is more of a dark side character since he has been twisted by the horrors of war.
A quest that features Canderous. You can get a better idea of his personality.
Mission Vao: The first character you meet who is more light hearted. She is young and innocent making her a perfect light side character. She is a much welcome break from the cast of characters who have heavy emotional baggage (she has some too since she grew up in poverty but it doesn't get to her as much). However, her story can make a very drastic dark turn if you decide to stay on the dark side as she dies by Zaalbar's hands.
Zaalbar: Mission's Wookie companion has a much deeper story than most animal characters would have. He was banished from his home world for attacking his brother using his claws. Later it is found out that his brother was part of a slave trading ring on his home planet selling fellow wookies as workers. He is kind and well intentioned and loyal to the end. If you do decided to go on the dark side he dies after killing Mission.
Zaalbar and Mission's end if you chose the dark side
Jolee Bindo: He is another Jedi that can join your party but offers something different than all the other Jedi you have met. Jolee is neither light or dark side. He does not belong to the Jedi Council or wants to destroy it. He is simply a lone man carving his own path in life. He is one of the few characters that constantly sees both sides of every issue and makes a great center for the range of characters.
Juhani: She is one character you may never have in your party. When you meet her she is a dark side jedi who is harming the planet she is on. You can either kill her or try and reform her. Even after being rescued she still leans towards the dark side. But, she does grow out of her violent tendancies towards the end of the game and will even try to stop you (along with Jolee) if you follow the dark side.
Here you can see how Juhani and Jolee's story ends if you chose the dark side.
HK-47: KOTOR is a fairly heavy game with a long plot and many characters, and both of these bring in a lot of dark aspects to the game. HK-47 is also a dark character but rather than adding to the somber tone, he is comedic. In a game like KOTOR a comedic character may seem out of place, but Bioware pulls this off by keeping HK-47 in the realm of dark comedy. He wants nothing more than to kill all living things (and calls them meat bags because that is all they are worth to him). His psychodic tendancies never become disturbing because through his robot voice, and the way his dialogue is written it changes from something that could be frightening into something to laugh at.
Some examples of why HK-47 is such a great character
Star Wars: Kinghts of the Old Republic is a game that should have never entered the realm of art. It is a game that is based off a large movie franchise and could have played it safe. However, Bioware took great care into creating a great game that would make any player take notice whether they like Star Wars or not. Judged on its own and taking in everything that went into creating this memorable experience, there is no doubt that this game has artistic merit.