Knights of the Old Republic, and Author Dialogues

Recently I decided to play Knights of the Old Republic, a wRPG set in the Star Wars universe. I initially ignored it because I’m not into Star Wars, but I decided to give it a shot to see what all the fuss is about; it’s supposedly one of the Great Story RPGs.

There are in fact two KOTOR games, and I found them a fascinating study in contrasts. The first was made by Bioware (the Dragon Age guys), and the second was made by Obsidian (the Planescape: Torment guys), making them a uniquely perfect comparison point between the two RPG giants.

The Bioware one is garbage. The Obsidian one is a fascinating deconstruction of the franchise that understands stories need to have themes and an actual point. But there’s actually a third side also worth examining here, which is audience reaction. See, after KOTOR2’s director said outright that one of the characters is his mouthpiece, a lot of players accused the game of being a one-sided author screed. This is despite the fact that, to me, he couldn’t have been more obvious telegraphing his intent to have a dialogue with the player, not a monologue. I think it’s worth analyzing what contributed to that reaction, and I think it’s related to the differences between Bioware and Obsidian.

(As games, they are both agonizingly terrible and Obsidian should just give up on trying to attach game mechanics to their stories. Seriously, how did everyone say “Combat is so tedious we need to automate it” and not realize something had gone horribly, horribly wrong. Someone please kill D&D with fire it is so bad and I hate it so much.)

Spoilers for both games if you care, but I was spoiled for KOTOR2’s major twists and it didn’t harm my enjoyment of the story. It actually even mocks the idea of revolving around a central plot twist.

If I had to sum up the differences between the two games in one pithy phrase, I would say that KOTOR1 is cinematic, and KOTOR2 is literary. KOTOR1 is based around shock and spectacle; KOTOR2 is based around theme and character.

I think this is evident in both their openings and their endings.

In KOTOR1, you begin by crash-landing on a Sith-occupied planet after a pitched space battle. You proceed to spend several hours doing fetch quests for bland, unlikable characters that take you across multiple layers of a huge city. When you finally escape the big bad nukes the planet, killing all the NPCs you just did quests for and making all those hours a complete waste of time. Ha ha, made you care!

In KOTOR2, you begin by waking up in an eerily empty mining facility. You quickly realize that something Very Bad happened and you must piece together the mystery of what happened to the inhabitants. (Shocker, they’re all dead.) Before you can escape you have to survive a face-to-face encounter with one of the main antagonists, who blows up the facility after you leave.

I dropped KOTOR1 before I could even finish the prologue, because it was so boring and tedious and I hated all the characters. Even if I had trudged through to the end, I probably would have dropped it after that dick move of a finale, because I do not want to play a story game where hours of gameplay can be invalidated in an instant because the writers want to be edgy. In contrast, I loved KOTOR2’s opening so much it convinced me to play through the whole game; it provides both an interesting self-contained story and sets up multiple intriguing plot threads that develop over the course of the rest of the story. I think the key difference is that, despite both ending with blowing up the central location, KOTOR2 doesn’t invalidate your choices; you can’t save the inhabitants anyway, so the only meaningful choice is whether you piece together the whole mystery, and destroying the facility can’t take that away from you.

KOTOR1 ends with an “I am your father” style twist that… actually doesn’t meaningfully change things, probably because it happens at the 11th hour, followed by an epic space battle against a generic Sith badguy. KOTOR2’s finale starts with an epic space battle against a generic Sith badguy, but then pits you against the actual villain, whose real challenge is in an ideological debate, not a boss fight. It reminds me of my Fullmetal Alchemist analysis, where I noticed the exact same dichotomy between the climaxes of the manga and the 2003 anime.

There is a clear sense of each writers’ priorities here. Obsidian chose to focus on words, Bioware on action. KOTOR1 isn’t really about anything but setpieces; KOTOR2 is.

Okay, but what does this have to do with the fan response to KOTOR2?

As I said, KOTOR2’s head writer, Chris Avellone, explicitly says that Kreia, the deuteragonist and the player character’s mentor, is his mouthpiece used to express his viewpoints on the Star Wars universe. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone; he has a mouthpiece character in nearly every game he makes, and he’s very open about it. This in itself I find interesting; it takes a certain honesty and vulnerability to put yourself out there so openly.

The twist? Kreia, his mouthpiece, is the villain. She is the final boss you must debate as your very last act in the game. To me, there is no clearer way for him to convey that he is challenging the player to question his message, not just passively hear it. Casting your avatar as the antagonist in a video game is so blatantly daring your audience to prove you wrong!

The reason this is obvious to me is because I take it as self-evident that all art has a message. All art is an expression or projection of the artist’s personal world, and that world carries all the baggage of their beliefs and biases whether they recognize it or not. Of course, other people don’t see this, as evident not only by the Kreia hate but also all the screaming about why media is suddenly so political these days. I suspect both reactions are caused by the same thing: Audiences who only notice they’re being lectured when it’s something they don’t already agree with. Having you debate the villain is the author shoving their beliefs down your throat, but having the villain erase hours of good deeds with a single act of cruelty isn’t, because the former says openly what it’s doing and the latter doesn’t.

And to be honest, this tracks with what I’ve seen of the rest of Bioware’s catalogue. As much as I like Dragon Age, it is galling how much it pretends its blatant centrist propaganda isn’t political and it totally doesn’t take any sides. (Interestingly, KOTOR2 delivers a number of scathing criticisms on centrism.) To me, that is what’s didactic: Pretending you don’t have a message when you obviously do, trying to slip it past our critical thinking. It’s dishonest and manipulative — or, at best, incompetent, if you truly don’t realize all you’re bleeding out through your art. I call this “suicide of the author”, and it frustrates me to no end.

In such an environment, I respect authors who wear their heart on their sleeve and will freely tell you they’re trying to convince you of something, even if I don’t agree with it. (I love Fallout: New Vegas but Avellone’s mouthpiece there is an insufferable twit.) It’s refreshingly honest, and it tells me that the author knows how art works and what they’re doing. And honestly, I think possibly an even bigger reason for the kneejerk rejection is that that’s scary. Meeting an author’s vulnerability with honest engagement makes you vulnerable too, and that’s uncomfortable if you’re not used to it. But it’s worth it, and it’s what makes art so valuable.

7 Comments

  1. Dsph says:

    As bland as KotOR 1 was, it accidentally provided the perfect setup for KotOR 2. The first game is about as generically Star Wars as it’s possible to be – it’s got all the tropes, archetypes and story beats you expect. I had fun with it when it came out, but it hasn’t aged well.

    The second game takes all that Star Wars stuff, including the same assets in places, and takes it apart. It twists them around into an extremely interesting and insightful narrative.

    Taking an existing thing and making it good really seemed to be the Obsidian special, back in the day.

    1. Seed of Bismuth says:

      Kotor 2 the LoZ: Majora’s Mask of Star Wars media.

  2. Roarke says:

    KOTOR II does remind me a bit about Disco Elysium in how much it engages with the player and encourages them to challenge its messages, though I think DE lacks the mouthpiece of KOTOR II. KOTOR indeed would also have benefited from just being a walking/skill check game like Disco Elysium. Still, SW just wouldn’t be SW without glowing swordsticks.

    1. Honestly, it would probably have worked better if lightsabers just gave you massive bonuses to DE-style combat checks instead of everyone being able to take five lightsaber stabs to the face without blinking. The need for lightsabers to be “balanced” with regular weapons just completely neuters them compared to their depiction in the films.

      2
      1. Roarke says:

        There are a few SW games that got that right, and they are a glory to behold. I’m thinking of the first two Battlefront games, where Jedi were hero units in a giant Battlefield-style FPS game, and also the Jedi Knight series. The large unit count on both sides in Battlefront made it fine for Jedi to be unstoppable death machines; they couldn’t individually turn the tide of a massive battle.

        The Jedi Knight series is honestly my favorite SW video game series, particularly Jedi Outcast and then Jedi Academy. Outcast gives you a predefined character in Kyle Katarn, who is a pretty cool dude, almost if a noir detective was a Jedi. He even tries to lean on someone with the line “I’m not a Jedi; I’m just a guy with a lightsaber and a few questions.” He then becomes the wise old mentor (but not an Obi-Wan style sacrificial lamb) in Academy.

        All that said, I am having a blast imagining the DE-style skillchecks for a disaster Jedi.

        HAND-EYE COORDINATION
        LOW: 28%
        +1 You goaded him into the swing
        +1 He’s still reeling from the drinks
        -4 You don’t have your lightsaber, idiot

  3. Raven says:

    I’ve never played the KOTOR games, but I *have* played most of the storylines in SW:TOR, the MMO that’s set a few hundred years after them. I’d love to hear what you thought of that game. Some of the character stories (Imperial Agent) are amazing and some are total snoozefests (Republic Trooper) imo.

    1. I refuse to touch MMOs with a ten-foot pole. Everything I’ve heard of it sounds terrible, anyway. I was never interested in the grand metaplot with the True Sith and whatnot, it only ever felt like a distraction.

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