RPG Club Plays KOTOR: Week 2
Week two and most of our players are off Taris, and are quite glad of it. We look at how we define our PC’s characters, how the class system doesn’t really matter, how Carth acts like a teenage girl, the challenges of making a game in a prexisting universe, and how Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic looks and acts as a simple game.
So apparently I last played Knights of the Old Republic last June. I booted it up last week, the beginning of January. I was in the body of a Jedi—named Gale Jasra—who I didn’t remember whatsoever.
Coming back to a game after half a year off is a strange experience. It makes younger me, the person who’d play five hours of an RPG and then restart apropos of nothing, cringe. And this wasn’t reloading from the start of a planet, either: this was a quicksave, in the middle of a short quest in a cantina on Manaan, gathering evidence for a trial for a companion who I barely remembered.
Gale Jasra, it turned out, was a snarky intellectual, a good fighter with a lot of secondary skills, someone who didn’t have a problem hacking a computer or busting up a half-dozen Sith soldiers. His voice sounded robotic. He tended to the light side, but mostly picked neutral options. He asked questions.
Did I assign him these traits midway through his life’s great adventure, or did I remember them from a time a half year ago? I don’t know. Bioware’s opuses are interesting in that they invariably cast you as someone who doesn’t have a character: it’s something you invent yourself, through a series of interactions. You can’t be anyone, of course, but you will become someone.
Much of what defines you is who you travel with. And while I spent the early game exclusively traveling with Mission, the snarky Twi’lek who covered the skills Gale Jasra didn’t, now I’m relying more on Jedi, on the Force and on lightsabers. That’s shifted me, as a character, from an outsider to an insider, from someone ignored to someone who truly feels like a Jedi, if less in mechanic than feeling. It’s a subtle differentiation, but one I’ve definitely noticed.
When I first played Knights of the Old Republic in 2003, I fell perfectly into the game’s target audience – a Star Wars fan hopelessly addicted to video games who spends every Sunday afternoon playing pretend hero with 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons rules. I was 14. I had the entire summer to myself, so the only reasonable thing to do was devote countless hours to fighting the Sith and training my perfect Jedi.
Having never played a game before which allowed customization to such a fine degree, which was not-so-coincidentally my favorite aspect of pen and paper RPGs, I agonized over each choice. Skill points, attribute points, feat allocation, etc all demanded meticulous planning. After all, what if I screwed up my character!? Unacceptable.
But now, ten years and dozens of adventures behind me, character building in KOTOR sticks out for the exact opposite reason. The veil of “choice” has been lifted, and it’s kind of stunning how NOT different the character options are. None of the classes really limit your options or affect how you play the game that much.
Put a point into stealth, and now your soldier can sneak. Want to fry grunts with Force Lightning *and* slash them to death with ease? Jedi Consular can manage just fine despite lower health. And you’re always forced to become a Jedi anyway after reaching Dantooine, no matter how awesome it would be to topple the Sith as a mere soldier or bust out 10d6 sneak attacks as a level 20 scoundrel.
It’s the baggage of being so closely tied to the DnD play aesthetic of having to make choices combined with the largely-immutable concept of the Jedi. There’s not much wiggle room, and Bioware did a fine job with the tools at hand. But compared to even the first Mass Effect, which at least had forced variety by nature of gun proficiencies and severely-limited psionics, the choice of class that seems so important at the beginning is really inconsequential in the grand scheme of KOTOR.
People have secrets they want to hide or stories they don’t want to tell people, and the characters in KOTOR are no different. They have dark secrets or painful memories or just things they don’t want to tell you. Sure. But who in their right mind opens with that? It’s the sort of thing that people dance around until they’re comfortable enough with you to actually talk about it. You meet someone, it’ll take a fair amount of sharing harmless stories and background until you trust the person enough to get into the really personal, sensitive stuff. I think Bioware did a great job of that in the Mass Effect series – you chat with characters about the mission, or other people, or just random crap until they trust you enough to tell you about the deep-seated trust issues or genetic-modification-related daddy issues. With that as a comparison point, though, it clearly shows KOTOR to be the predecessor where they were working out the kinks.
Carth opens with his deep trust issues, but doesn’t want to tell you why or what’s going on. It’s a tease the way he gives you bits and pieces, and then stops abruptly and calls you a bully for even asking him. Don’t get me wrong – it sounds like his trust issues are totally legit – but he’s not acting like an adult. This tantalizing coy act is more appropriate of a teenager. You know the kind, right? The kind who likes to play “Truth or Dare,” but only picks “Truth” because they want to force people to ask about them. The kind of teenager who would “accidentally” let things slip in conversation about crushes or dates with the hope that someone will catch it and care. It’s all about insecurities and distrust, but wanting more.
That’s Carth in a nutshell. He doesn’t trust you, but he wants to – he keeps starting a story and then chickening out, blaming it on the player. While I can see the reasoning behind it, I find it irritating. In retrospect, a lot of my actions in high school were similarly irritating. Looking at Carth, that’s not how he should be. He’s a war hero, right? A pilot? Moreover, he’s an adult who should freaking know better. So maybe this was the designers trying to convey his fragile, emotional nature, or maybe this was just Bioware not quite knowing how to get a player to know a character over the course of a game. So while starting and stopping the same story over the course of the game makes sense from a development standpoint, it turns a war hero into a simpering teenager.
I can only assume that making a game based on a pre-existing, fictional universe contained within movies, countless novels, and comics, would be something of a daunting task. This seems especially true when you are working with a franchise like Star Wars, which has such an invested fan base.
Yet Bioware manages to do this gracefully. Knights of the Old Republic is a beautiful rendering of a classic Star Wars epic. Even more admirable is how the people behind KOTOR created a Star Wars game that is accessible to people who might not have any interest in or prior knowledge of the fiction. A person who can’t distinguish Wookiee from Ewok would have no trouble jumping in and having an enjoyable experience.
KOTOR very carefully establishes the player in the Star Wars universe. It doesn’t smack the uninitiated in the face with indecipherable jargon and mystifying references. Rather, it does what Bioware does best, introducing you to a diverse roster of interesting companions and acquaintances (although I’ll agree with Caitlin that Carth’s incessant whining is irritating and I kind of just want to send him off in an escape pod to nowhere) that inhabit multiple worlds with their own unique politics, cultures and histories.
In Taris, we find a society whose upper class willingly and unquestioningly subjects those less privileged to a life in a plague-ridden slum. The inhabitants of this slum have desperately taken to searching the sewers to find a fabled promised land, set aside just for them, where they will be able to escape.
Or on Dantooine, you, young Padawan, can save a Jedi veering dangerously towards the dark side, or help solve a murder mystery when you find a man shot out on the sparse rolling plains. You even might learn to communicate with a young stowaway on your ship, hiding from the slavers who kidnapped her.
All of these disparate vignettes allow for believable, breathing, inviting worlds, for Star Wars fans and non-fans alike.
I’m rolling this time around as a Soldier/Guardian. It’s not the most glamorous loadout, nor the most interesting, but it’s certainly the most efficient. Access to heavy armor, an emphasis on feats maximizing DPS, and dumping all my initial skill points into injury treatment makes it easy to plow through the game and focus instead on the places and people.
To Mike’s point, the other classes introduce some additional variety in terms of sneaking and manipulating computers and droids, but are otherwise useless. Especially with how costly and rare splicers and repair parts are, relying on them to overcome large groups of enemies leads to a lot of needless tedium. In theory and on paper, the mechanics sound enrichening, but in practice they contribute little to the overall progression through each new planet and dungeon, acting more like mini-games than integral systems.
Still, combat in the game is far superior to the random encounter structure found in most JRPGs. Rather than mandating an obligatory grind, each group of enemies was placed with some intention. While this isn’t news to anyone who had played Western RPGs prior to KOTOR, the fact that xp can be gained from something other than killing enemies also helps to make the world feel more coherent, breaking down the walls between “combat space” and “shopping/NPC space” that are usually so toweringly high in the Japanese equivalent.
I think this is what contributes to such a feeling of mood and place in KOTOR, and BioWare games more generally. The shifts in tension, lighting, and music that happen from one area to the next are subtle, and conversations or battles can break out in any of them, at any time, with nearly anyone. Despite the often lame writing and grizzly NPC portraitures, planets like Taris and Datooine always feel like they existed before the player encountered them, and will continue muddling on even after he or she has left.