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Words: Sara Elsam
Set 4,000 years in Star Wars' past, well before the events of the very first films and devoid of any of the series' idols, 2003's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic manages to present a tale truer to the spirit of a Galaxy, Far, Far Away than any other.
Unlike many entrants into the series, it's not another lean, sleek and soulless jaunt into the mega-million bucks franchise, but a wild ride through a bleak and comic galaxy. One in which you actually make the decisions - for better, or for worse.
At its core, the Star Wars universe is a bit filthy. It's not high-minded sci-fi, but a space fantasy wrapped up in all the chaotic amorality of a western. And while it often leans into epicness and grand meaning - the struggle between light and dark or the weight of the hero's journey - it's also about a strange, vast place where lots of folks are suffering. Maybe some of them are fur-people or slug-people, or crazed evil monks that raise up robot armies, but we relate to them nonetheless.
And in Knights of the Old Republic, you get to pick your destiny. You can be bad - like, really bad. Sith bad. Want to force someone to kill their best friend? How about selling some wookies into slavery? Or perhaps you'd like to mercilessly slaughter droves of Sand People? Your psychotic pet robot friend, HK-47, will always be at the sidelines, cheering you on.
Turns out exhorting people racks up the Credits way more than running errands out of the goodness of your heart. It's hard to be good in Knights of the Old Republic: many of the choices, of self sacrifice and justice, are actually just plain inconvenient. And perhaps this way, Knights of the Old Republic illustrates that it's far easier to slip into evil then it is to maintain the good fight.
And again, this is much more interesting than the wave after wave of bland heroes paraded across the Star Wars universe. Folks who know they have to do right. These aren't the folks that necessarily make good characters, because where within them do we see our own struggle between right and wrong?
Related: Watch our video on The Best Star Wars Games in the Galaxy...
I wonder, too, if options like this - where you can get all cartoonishly evil and destructive - simply would not fly in the new wave of Star Wars games. Disney has always been focused on canon, namely ensuring that everything fits into a grander, and eminently marketable, storyline. I can't imagine being a renegade Sith on the verge of crafting a dark empire fits into that. But by staying in allegiance with canon you take away player agency - not to mention an awful lot of fun.
Any RPG, whether via tabletop or video game, resonates most when the player can shape the world around them. Within the Star Wars video games, fluting their parades of product tie-ins and links to a bloated web of infinite lore, how much agency can a player really have?
After all, you can't actually change anything, most of the time - not without tarnishing the overall universe, it seems. That was very evident in 2019's Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, which had to skirt around bigger, movie-set events happening elsewhere. But in Knights of the Old Republic, the story branches all over the place: you are a part of something larger, a force of change within it. It's a game unafraid of chaos and what players might make of it.
And like in real life, none of the choices are necessarily "right" - both Knights of the Old Republic, and life itself, simply aren't that binary. Worlds that lack grey spaces lack depth. Which is how a game where an evil robot wonders why humans aren't distracted by the fluid sloshing of their own innards packs more emotional punch than a billion goggle-eyed Baby Yodas hurled into the sun.
It's not about darkness, either. Although Knights of the Old Republic is astoundingly dark. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (our review, here) and the recent Disney Plus TV show, The Mandalorian, follow what can be construed as more adult themes. They're set in places dealing with the aftermath of trauma, where people make questionable decisions, and lots of things blow up.
Helping mitigate the woe, we have the "heart warming" comic relief of alien space captain Greez Dritus and 'Baby Yoda', respectively. Not to mention that they both feature really authentic lightsaber noises. This appears to be a selling point for any title within the Star Wars series. And you know, it's impressive, but what does it really mean?
Mostly, that both products are "good enough" entries into the franchise. They tick the boxes. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is a mish-mash of the most popular gaming tropes within the action-adventure lot. Gigantic, lushly rendered maps, swashbuckling scenes -watch, as we surf down a ramp, lightsaber in hand - with lots of lurid monsters to swipe at. Meanwhile, a gleaming user interface bids you onward to the next kill.
Package it in the beloved Star Wars IP, and you've got the kind of guaranteed money maker that causes suits at a table to shed a single, blood-soaked tear. These video games are all very pew-pew: out with the lasers, in with the coordinated outfits. They're a light show.
But there's no reason why well-known IPs should ensure that any title within their oeuvre is a hollow, by-the-numbers pastiche of What Sells. The Walking Dead narrative-adventure games by Telltale Games are a good example of this. Both commercially and critically lauded, they not only allowed the world's mythology to expand, but let the blood-soaked brand run free under the guidance of new voices. They were games that you don't need to be into zombies, or indeed even The Walking Dead TV show, to enjoy.
Knights of the Old Republic is another example of this: kind of like the Star Wars game for folks that hate Star Wars, but want cosmic friends and maybe evil mind powers. It's a stand-alone world that is also a loving homage to what makes its universe wonderful. If anything, the Star Wars video games have more scope and freedom to explore weirder frontiers than any film or TV show.
Knights of the Old Republic is not going to be the foundation for any kid's toys, but more games of its ilk within Star Wars would certainly be something to marvel at. Games that aren't scared to be played, for fear of upsetting a mammoth, often incoherent, trove of lore. Games where the sound and heft of a lightsaber doesn't matter at all.
Star Wars is a colossal and varied universe that should be played with. There are giant beasts and intergalactic assassins, not to mention an order of what are effectively dastardly space monks that can crush heads with their mind. And each of its factions deals with its own unique plight. It's a living, breathing galaxy - but presenting only its shiniest, safest parts is a loss to the brilliance of Star Wars overall.
Let's not forget: "good enough" is just mediocre in training.