Monday, March 5, 2018

Almost Mass Effect: How I learned to love "Knights of the Old Republic" (Narrative structure analysis)

I did a VLOG-like video on this earlier; you can watch it below, but I'm not very satisfied with how it came out, so I thought I'd collect my thoughts on this subject better and put them in writing, for those of you that can't be arsed to deal with my incoherent ramblings on-camera.

Playing older games is a predictable experience; some games, however revolutionary in their time, just don't hold up, so you play a bit of them for your gamer cred and then you move on. Other games are instant, timeless classics that, despite some shortcomings, you'd easily play forever. In rarer cases, the game may not have aged well at all, but while playing you have a revelation; you see that diamond in the rough that everyone saw and you start appreciating its value.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) is one such game for me. I had tried playing it several times before, but I always got distracted by something more interesting and dropped it. After The Last Jedi, I got into a Star Wars binge that has been going on for over two months and part of that binge was playing through Star Wars games I hadn't finished before.

If I had talked or written about KOTOR a month ago, my words on it would've been very different and not very positive. Vanilla KOTOR just hasn't aged very well; the story is very straight-forward with little substance, the characters are likeable but ultimately formulaic and the gameplay is the standard cRPG, only with botched UI and controls, because of the game's cross-platform distribution between the PC and the original XBOX.

The primary problem I was facing was that I couldn't understand my own, player-made character. Spoilers follow, if you care, but the significant plot twist of KOTOR is that the player character is a brainwashed Darth Revan, the Sith master that started the Jedi Civil War and was betrayed by Darth Malak, his apprentice. This information becomes known to the player about half-way through the main quest. Of course, this game being over 15 years old, this factoid was something I was aware of for years before I ever tried the game out.

Darth Revan, in both KOTOR games and especially the first one, is a constant presence in the story. He permeates every facet of that first game and though some of it exists as foreshadowing and backstory for what's to come, his status in the story gives the character a life of his own. He becomes a very specific person, a very specific legend within the KOTOR universe. It's a solid writing approach and a good plot twist, but I believe Bioware wrote themselves into a corner with Revan.

Whenever I play this type of custom-PC cRPG, my first character reflects my personality and choices and thus usually ends up as a "good guy", so to speak. Now, the morality system of KOTOR lacks subtlety, to say the least. Think Mass Effect's Paragon/Renegade system, only even more black and white. The "light side" options border on the saintly and the "dark side" options cross over to cartoony devilish. Because of this, I kept feeling a constant disconnect from my character. My customized character was this all-around-good Jedi, but this same character was supposed to have been the same guy that fell to the Dark Side, started a war and slaughtered thousands. I couldn't see how my character could've been Darth Revan.

Even with the mind-wipe plot device, the dissonance wouldn't go away. KOTOR is a standard redemption story (or revenge story, if you play Dark Side) and the way Revan is presented, there is very little chance of connecting with him on an emotional level. Therefore, the redemption lacks organic motive, it lacks the pathos that makes this type of story work. How could I buy into wanting to be redeemed, when my entire experience with my character has been that of a paragon of morality?

This problem extended beyond the player character. Without this understanding, there was no immersion; without the immersion, the companions felt flat, the world empty and the details of the KOTOR univese merely dressing without substance. Going through the game was largely a chore that reflected badly on the gameplay as well, because I simply was not invested in anything that was happening.

What changed everything was the sequel, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, The Sith Lords. What KOTOR II did and prompted me to instantly restart the original game right after finishing it was that it re-framed Revan as a character, as well as his story. The sequel is far less rigid in its view of morality. Good and evil are very relative terms, especially when it comes to the religious branches of the Jedi and the Sith. Because of this, Revan's character gets some much-needed context that was missing entirely from his own game. Revan wasn't evil, necessarily; he fell to the Dark Side, but he didn't become simply a Vader or a Palpatine. He started a war, but allowed the Republic to maintain its infrastructure. He didn't want conquest, he sought to prepare the galaxy for the looming threat he saw in the horizon (which, reportedly, would've been the original Sith race if the series had continued, not unlike the Mass Effect Reapers).

Once I got all that, I knew how I was supposed to play KOTOR and actually enjoy it. Instead of trying to RP my own character, I started playing Revan; a pre-made, canonical Star Wars character. There was still a bit of role-playing of course, but primarily in the small choices, like in some local events. Instead of playing KOTOR like Baldur's Gate, I started viewing it like Mass Effect and Revan was like Shepard; pre-defined, the star of the story, with a set past and future and only how he walked his path path was mine to choose.

So, in my second playthrough, I modded the game heavily. I added as many visual mods as I could to add variety and to clean up the aged, console look of the game. I gave Revan his canonical face and off I went, starting the game again. I had a blast with it, because this time I knew who Revan was and what motivated him. I recused myself from adopting the binary morality system, to the extend that it was possible. Darth Revan wasn't evil, so the big Dark Side options were off the table. At the same time, Revan was a ruthless general preparing the galaxy for war through battle, so overly Light Side options were out the window as well. If a situation called for Revan's intervention, I'd pick the light side option, but I wouldn't go out of my way to be the good guy. I wouldn't let Revan fall to being a cartoon villain, but I wouldn't let him be a model Jedi either. As such, where in my first playthrough I had peaked my character to the Light Side before the half-way point, my Revan in play No. 2 was almost always balanced in the middle; sometimes just barely above, sometimes just below it.

When I got a handle on the canonical Revan, I got a handle on the rest of the story, the world as presented through KOTOR, the inner politics and the other characters. I started getting into the experience, despite its occasional pacing problems. The party companions, in particular, I started viewing from an entirely different perspective and that was vital to learning how to enjoy the game. As mentioned before, good characters are key to a good RPG story. There is a reason Mass Effect 2 is the best in that series and it's not because it plays better than the other games (it doesn't). It's a very personal story, revolved around the characters, with far less focus on the silly space boogeymen plot that the first and third games devoted themselves to. KOTOR & KOTORII share a similar dynamic, but upon reflection the characters of KOTOR are a lot more integral to the plot by comparison.

The companions in KOTOR aren't very interesting; their motivations are basic, their personal stories fairly typical and so on. Their function, however, is extremely important in the story, because almost all of them operate as a means to provide context for Revan as a character. They are different aspects of Revan, a means through which to humanize the legend that looms over the story of the game. It's actually a brilliant approach, characterizing the canon character without limiting players from making their own protagonist in-game.

Juhani is the Jedi that fell to the Dark Side and was redeemed. She became a Jedi, because she believed in their purity and heroism and she fell, because she was impatient and overarchieving; not unlike Revan himself. Her prior relationship with Revan serves as the warning of what will happen if the player becomes too enamored with the legend as well.

Jolee is the veteran Jedi, who has little respect for the Jedi teachings. He's good and his heart is in the right place, but he makes his own choices and most of them have led him away from the Jedi way. He is subject to his emotions, which is generally forbidden for Jedi, but he has perspective, he knows which emotions to trust. He is what Revan wanted to be and would've been, had he not been corrupted and fallen to the Dark Side.

Carth, one of the "main" companions, is vital in the beginning of the game, because he exists to convince both Revan and the player that they're nothing more than ordinary Republic soldiers. Carth is the loyal soldier, the man that seeks to protect his people, but who has no mystical tools or laser swords to do that with. Unwittingly, he contributes to the facade the Jedi Council has built and through his mere presence throughout Taris, right after the game starts, when the player is most receptive, he convinces Revan that he's just another soldier and not someone with a great destiny.

Mission is a child. Despite her troubled upbringing, her mind is still virgin when it comes to wars, death and real adversity. She's the reflection of the mind-wiped Revan, a clean slate thrown into a complex world shaped by legends. She's capable and trusting, but ultimately naive and in need of direction; not unlike the new Revan himself. Revan may not, canonically, be of Taris like Mission, but because it is the first area in the game, it frames the rest of the experience. Mission is Taris' child, wetting her feet before she sets out to see the galaxy and, in this context, so is Revan.

Canderous Ordo, the Mandalorian, never speaks about himself; he is a weapon for Mandalore and all he does is recount stories from the Mandalorian Wars. He does it from his perspective, but in doing so, he provides context for the player, as Darth Revan was the man that won the Mandalorian Wars for the Republic. Through the reverence for Revan in Canderous' words, the player gains perspective on who Revan was before he fell.

Lastly, Bastilla is arguably the most important companion. She's the (canonical) love interest for Revan, but her value in the story goes far beyond that. Bastilla walks the exact same path Revan did. She's a very skilled Jedi Knight with a bright destiny ahead of her, but her rashness and over-eagerness make her flirt with the Dark Side too often. She struggles with staying true to the Jedi teachings, because she's tempted by her emotions. Bastilla's future is dependent entirely on what Revan and the player will choose to do in the game. She's the personification of the second chance Revan gets in life, it is through her that the player experiences their redemption or revenge story.

The only ones that don't seem to fit in this reading are Zalbaar, the Wookie and the droids. But, arguably, Zalbaar exists to flesh out Kashyyykk as a planet and the droids, particularly HK-47, are just fun to have around.

So, this is how I stopped worrying about the inevitable backlash from bashing this game and learned to love KOTOR. I don't think it is a coincidence that this game served as the blueprint for later Bioware games and especially Mass Effect. I also don't think it's a coincidence that, starting with Mass Effect, Bioware moved towards the pre-defined player character whose fate the player can shape in relatively small ways. When I played that series, I wrote a long post explaining that the backlash for Mass Effect 3's ending was unwarranted, because the character was written by Bioware to allow very limited control to the player. Shepard was always heading in one direction and only the journey would differ in small ways for each player. It's ironic that for Revan, this is the best way to play and understand the character. I'm not saying they should do it, but it would be interesting to see a remake of the original KOTOR with the new Bioware design philosophy. After all, KOTOR was a product of its time; it was a cRPG, because that was the type of RPG Bioware made at the time. In this day and age, when the company has moved on (for better or worse), it'd be intriguing to see KOTOR return with a fully-voiced, canonical Darth Revan at the story's helm.

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