This year marks the 40th anniversary since the release of the original STAR WARS film on May 25th, 1977. This month, writers at ComicsVerse will be bringing you our insights on all things STAR WARS as we look at where the series has been and where it will take us next in the galaxy far, far away…


The year was 2003. I was 10 years old, sitting in my room playing video games, as usual. My grandmother just got back from the store, and she brought something home for me. Apparently, she asked the cashier for a game “smart kids” would like. He immediately suggested STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC.

I had no idea what was in store for me.

This game blew me away. I could make my own character! I could make my own decisions! Games like this had existed for decades, but at the time I didn’t even know this was possible. KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC (or KOTOR) is why I fell in love with games.

[KOTOR] Creating my own character overwhelmed me as a kid.

Ever since, I’ve been enamored with the company that created this gem: BioWare. Famous for its story-driven RPGs, BioWare is one of the most respected developers of the past 20 years. Unfortunately, its reputation has waned recently, with lukewarm releases and a major staff shakeup that began with an acquisition by America’s most hated company, EA. Now, more than ever, as BioWare changes, we need to understand what made their classic games so great.

So, what made KOTOR such a classic? Why do we look back on it so fondly? How are modern BioWare games different, and what does this mean for the company’s future? Well, let’s take a look!

Story

BioWare is known for its rather formulaic stories. They typically follow a protagonist, deemed special for some reason, who travels the world solving problems as they prepare to face a global threat. There’s often a third act twist that changes the player’s perception of the conflict, the world, or even the protagonist. On the surface, there’s nothing remarkable about the BioWare formula, but it’s the execution that matters.

READ: Ahh, that classic lightsaber “whoosh”…Let’s study the evolution of light saber fights!

When people think of KOTOR, they think of the story. Set thousands of years before the films, KOTOR is about a galactic conflict between Jedi and Sith, and the search for an ancient superweapon that could turn the tide of the war. You play as a Republic soldier with an unusual connection to The Force, and team up with a crew of Jedi, bounty hunters, and misfits, each with their own quirks and story-arcs. For many of my generation, KOTOR was the first time a game’s story made us think. It may begin with simple platitudes and derivative story beats, but it quickly evolves into an epic journey full of interesting characters, thought-provoking dialogue, and a dense atmosphere.

Then there’s that infamous twist.

Among the most famous in gaming history, KOTOR’s third act twist stunned players the world over. On the first playthrough it seems to come out of nowhere, but when you play it again you begin to see the clues hidden everywhere. KOTOR managed to take a typical RPG storyline, and transform it into one of the most memorable narratives in gaming history. Let’s compare this to another BioWare game.

Meanwhile, in INQUISITION…

The DRAGON AGE IP is one of my favorites from BioWare. It’s an interesting take on the classic medieval fantasy world, and I’m enamored by its world-building, environments, and characters.

But for some reason, DRAGON AGE: INQUISITION’s story never resonated with me.  The game was polarizing among fans, who criticized its grinding and MMO-style mechanics, but none of this really bothered me. For me, it was something about the game’s story that left a bad taste in my mouth. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on why. The game posed some interesting questions on the importance of faith and deeply explored the nature of the world, and I genuinely wanted to know what would happen next.

[DA: INQUISITION] This should have been the best game in the series.
For all intents and purposes, INQUISITION’s story was just as good as KOTOR’s. So what gives? It wasn’t until writing this article that it hit me: the pacing was terrible.

READ: Film vs. Comic, which Vader is better? 

Pacing can make or break a story

In KOTOR, the main storyline and the side-quests were separate entities. At any point, you could go off the beaten path and discover new activities, new people, and new problems to solve. That being said, these side-quests were just that: side-quests. They never disrupted the flow of the main story, and you could return to it whenever you felt ready.

That’s not the case in INQUISITION. More often than not, you can’t simply go from one main quest to the next. Instead, you need to build up resources by completing side activities. You literally grind your way to the next story beat. I could understand if side-quests were merely encouraged. In many RPGs, side-quests provide the player with experience, money, and gear that will make the main quest easier to tackle.

But in INQUISITION, the story grinds to a halt after every mission. You may forget important details and revelations along the way. Sometimes there’s so much space between story beats that your emotional connection is lost by the time you reach the next milestone. BioWare took what was otherwise a great story and buried it under poor game design.

INQUISITION forces you to play on BioWare’s terms instead of your own, and the story suffers as a result.

Focus

When you’re making a game, it’s important to know what your goal is. What sort of experience do you want the player to have? What’s your game about at its core? Despite the grandeur of its story, KOTOR is a very focused experience. It’s a game about making choices and solving problems, and everything you do feeds into this framework. Whether you’re trying to get vermin off your starship, engage in a game of wits with an ancient alien, or save the galaxy from a cosmic super-weapon, you never stray far from the clearly stated purpose of the game.

Sure, there’s a few side activities like pazaak or turret fights, but the player spends the vast majority of their time making choices and solving problems. Even the combat involves picking the right team, choosing which gear to wear, and deciding what upgrades to use. Player agency is the driving force behind the game.

Meanwhile, in ANDROMEDA…

As BioWare evolved as a company, it became more difficult to define what their games were about. Modern BioWare titles feel like Frankenstein monsters: games patched together from the scraps of whatever is popular and lucrative. Little thought goes into how the pieces fit together or where the focus lies.

Seen here: the making of ANDROMEDA

Ostensibly, MASS EFFECT: ANDROMEDA is pretty similar to KOTOR. At the end of the day, they’re both about player choice and solving people’s problems. But while KOTOR sticks to that mantra throughout, ANDROMEDA strays, throwing mindless grinding and resource gathering into the mix.

READ: Who are the Force-Witches of Dathomir?

ANDROMEDA’s story is about colonizing another galaxy. If you want to keep the focus on choice, the player should feel like they’re building up a society through their choices, gathering resources and nurturing a growing civilization. At times the game accomplishes this, and you really feel like you’re making decisions that will have a lasting impact on the colony. But too often, you’re just collecting bear asses for the local farmer. The game is just as much about vapid, repetitive activities as it is about player agency and choice.

There’s nothing wrong with packing your game full of content, but you need to have a cohesive focus. KOTOR knows what it is from start to finish. Because of this, it achieves its goals and provides a solid experience for the player. This simplicity in focus is something modern BioWare games could learn from.

Diversity

Variety and focus aren’t mutually exclusive. A game can be packed with activities, side-quests, and subplots without feeling shallow and aimless. It’s a delicate balance, and KOTOR walks the line perfectly.

There are countless stories woven within the world of KOTOR. It’s impossible to complete them all in a single playthrough, and it really cements the “choose-your-own-adventure” theme the game is going for. In the starting level, you’re faced with curing a zombie-like plague, becoming the champion of a deadly arena, and helping an impoverished underclass find a hidden utopia. In total, there are 20 side-quests on this planet alone.

[KOTOR] The world feels big, without sacrificing detail.
Quantity is one thing, but quality is what really matters. In KOTOR, each scenario feels unique and handcrafted. You never know what to expect, keeping the player engaged in the world. On top of this, each location feels wildly different, from a desert wasteland, to a planet-sized city, to a lush water-world. KOTOR provides diversity in all things, from writing, to environments, to set-pieces.

Meanwhile, in DRAGON AGE 2…

In contrast, take a look at DRAGON AGE 2, a game many found repetitive and boring. Rather than using its smaller scale to make every location unique and intriguing, DRAGON AGE 2 forces the player through the exact same locations where they complete similar activities. This is a shame because the story and characters are just as varied as KOTOR, but that can only get you so far. There’s a major piece of the puzzle missing, and the entire game suffers as a result. The repetitive environments and drab atmosphere drag everything else down, resulting in one of BioWare’s most polarizing releases.

The Point

Let’s face it: BioWare has changed. Most of the original developers have either moved on to greener pastures or are busy making their own beer. We could spend all day blaming the EA buyout, but what’s important is the legacy this company left behind. Games like KOTOR need to be studied. They represent important milestones in gaming history, essential innovations that revolutionized the way we play games today.

Hopefully, BioWare recaptures the passion and dedication that made their classic games so great. Until then, we’ll always have KOTOR.

Advertisements

Show ComicsVerse some Love! Leave a Reply!

Check Also

ComicsVerse’s Thankful Series: 3 Fighting Games That Changed Me

A look into some of the fighting games the author is thankful for being a part of his life…