BY TOM HUGGINS: I’m a huge fan of choice in gaming. I prefer playing single player to multiplayer and for the most part, I’m looking for a good story. That’s mainly because I can’t spend as much time gaming as I like. So when I do sit down for a session, I want it to be in-depth and to give me as many ways to play as possible. Despite all the options available these days for games with branching narratives, there’s one in particular that I keep going back to, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
The game was released in 2003, and its moral choice system is as good now as it was the first time I played it on my Xbox. Since then I’ve owned it on PC and most recently finished playing it on my iPhone. So what is it about KOTOR and its mechanics that keep me returning after 17 years?
I think the reason lies in the way that morality is threaded through the fabric of the game, and the split of light and dark in the force gives it the perfect way to explore that. Despite the age of the game, I’ll give a spoilers warning here for those that haven’t played it yet.
KOTOR’s protagonist has a rollercoaster of a moral journey. Revan goes from principled Jedi Knight to Sith Lord and back again. At least, that’s the ‘canon’ path for him to follow. In truth there a multitude of ways for you to carve out your own version of Revan and his personality. The games opening scene allows you to set the tone for your character right from the first conversation. You can willingly move to help the republic ships crew who are under attack or state your desire to look out for number one. Although this interaction doesn’t affect your alignment in the way consequent conversations do, it does immediately introduce one of KOTOR’s best elements of morality.
The game doesn’t force you to choose to be good or evil in any meaningful way. If you need to complete an action for story purposes, that might seem inherently aligned one way or another, there’s usually reasoning that fits either way of thinking. This always indicated to me that choice, and the morality behind them was integral to the story of KOTOR. I’ve played through the game around 20-30 times on various platforms and over time I’ve appreciated the depth alignment plays more and more.
The first time I played it I did the usual light side run, picking all the most Jedi like responses I could find. I quickly followed this up by doing a strictly dark side run and wreaking Sith style havoc wherever I went. Both playthroughs we’re great fun but by the time I’d finished the second, I came to a realisation. Though my choices affected the overall story and some of the mechanics, the NPC’s who followed me we’re true to who they were. What I mean by this is that if one of the group was naturally aligned to the light side, they stayed that way and even questioned my crueller actions. Those that more naturally leaned to the dark would spur me on to enjoy the darker moments. In other words, their morality was important to them. After years of games full of passive characters, it was interesting to have a supporting cast who had their own opinions outside of a cutscene.
In terms of its effect on game mechanics, the game has the advantage of a system ready-made for its content. The force and its balance of light and dark are well established within Star Wars cannon. As a result, it makes it easy to determine how a tip towards one or the other would work. While no force powers are restricted to one alignment, the amount of force points they use when active is affected. Certain armours and weapons are also limited to dark or light side users, but this doesn’t affect things as much as you might think. Bioware does a good job of balancing things out so that each item usually has an opposing counterpart.
The really interesting part about this game, however, is that it actually encourages you to remain neutral. While Carth is waving his ‘go team light’ banner and HK-47 is calling everyone ‘meatbags’ and asking you who he can kill, there are constantly characters that blur the edges.
The obvious example of this is Revan who spent time at both extremes but other NPC’s test the ground in a more interesting manner. Bastilla begins the game as a snooty, high handed Jedi who is very happy to warn you against the dangers of the dark side. As time goes by, however, conversations with her expose her doubts about the Jedi way of life and the actions of the council. The theme is also explored through Juhani, a Jedi who has fallen to the dark side when you meet her. This leads to your choice to redeem or kill her, but the clearest example of this philosophy is found in Jolee Bindo.
Bindo is grouchy, blunt and a great choice for a fight companion. He’s also a former Jedi who left the order willingly because he became disillusioned with the way they operated. He constantly advises you against picking one extreme, becoming the proponent of the ‘case by case’ approach. He makes the message clear that total alignment one way or another is limiting your view and cutting off potential paths. He has principles, and in fact, will attempt to stop you if you choose to enact a dark side story ending. He will also however follow you, no matter how dark you become, as long as your goal is to stop the Sith.
Ultimately I think the game gives you the freedom to play through it in whatever way seems right to you. Whether you want to save the republic or destroy it and rule, you can still make choices throughout the game that might not directly reflect that. This is a game that values flexibility and choice and in an RPG that’s invaluable. That’s what keeps me playing KOTOR.