How Knights of the Old Republic Unites A Fractured Star Wars Fanbase

20 years ago, Knights of the Old Republic offered a breath of fresh air for the Star Wars franchise. 20 years later, it remains a powerful uniting force.

Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic
Photo: EA

It has been 20 years since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was released. Published by LucasArts and developed by BioWare, the title was initially released on the original Xbox and has since been ported to numerous other platforms.

Despite its longevity, Knights of the Old Republic is a game that, in some ways, represents a very specific era in the Star Wars community. At a time when new Star Wars releases were relatively fewer and further between, fans were typically hyped for any new content. Now, a flood of new Star Wars media from so many places has highlighted a divisiveness within the fanbase that was perhaps always there but seems more pronounced than ever.

Yet, Knights of the Old Republic continues to be one of the few areas where much of the fan base seems to come together. It’s a game that has stood the test of time and is lauded as a fantastic display of what the franchise can do at its peak. It’s not just Star Wars enthusiasts that recognize its value though. Gamers across the world can easily attribute some of the changes in the RPG genre to the successes of KOTOR. But how did a game from decades ago build up such an expansive fan base? And ultimately, why does it unite the Star Wars community when it sometimes seems like little else can? 

When 900 Years Old You Reach, Look as Good You Will Not

Knights of The Old Republic is a role-playing game that famously explores what was, at the time of its release, a relatively new time period in the Star Wars universe. Set four thousand years before the events of the Star Wars films, KOTOR centered on an original character that the player had a hand in crafting. When the player-created lead character’s memories go missing following a massive Sith attack on the Republic, the player must attempt to piece together the events of their hero’s previous life while taking down the evil Darth Malak and his regime. 

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Knights of the Old Republic did a lot right for its time. The game combined many elements of what was formerly considered to be PC-style RPG gaming while still appealing to a core console audience. More importantly, it used those elements in ways that felt true to its significant source material. From the customization of its playable characters to the high level of interaction with the world, the title ensured that players felt as if they lived within the galaxy far, far away.

Sure, there are elements of the game that haven’t aged well and even some that drew criticism at the time. The graphics certainly no longer feel top-of-the-line, and the same can be said for some of the technical qualities of the music and sound editing. There’s a dated feel to the whole project in terms of our modern expectations that will inevitably be difficult for some to overcome. Yet few of those faults overshadow everything else the game is doing. To this day, the sense of ownership KOTOR instills in its players allows nearly every kind of Star Wars fan to make the game their own.

The Power of the Dark Side

Though unique in many ways, Knights of the Old Republic also offered Star Wars twists on some classic RPG concepts that BioWare had pioneered and refined in the years leading up to the game’s release.

Consider the game’s variation on RPG class systems. The archetypes of the Star Wars galaxy play into that classic genre concept perfectly. The Soldier, Scoundrel, and Scout are available to begin with and the Jedi Guardian, Consular, and Sentinel eventually helped players take things to the next level. Your class choices (and when you’re asked to make them) are closely related to both the game’s story and the greater Star Wars universe. It’s a key area of the game where the narrative and gameplay support each other and benefit from that relationship. Your stats tell you that you’re becoming more powerful, but those narrative elements actually make you feel your character’s growth.

The game’s turn-based combat mechanics accomplish something similar. It’s a somewhat simple and streamlined form of menu-based combat that nevertheless made the most of the weapons and combat scenarios of the Star Wars universe. It’s not the most kinetic style of gameplay, but it still felt exciting and dynamic. More importantly, it ensured players retained control over everything that was happening. Their tactical choices soon proved to be as impactful and dynamic as their narrative decisions. There was no mindless button-mashing or fast-paced FPS action. This was a game designed for those who wanted to think and come to understand their character.

Yet, KOTOR‘s Alignment System soon proved to be its most genius concept. As players progress through the game, they can make choices that will change the personality, belief system, and even physical appearance of their character. Action gameplay became as compelling as conversations with NPCs because each had consequences and each reflected both the player and the choices they’ve made. Again, it’s an idea that we saw in previous RPGs (even other BioWare RPGs), but it’s not an idea we saw in a lot of console RPGs up until that point. Besides, it’s the ways that idea was re-imagined for the Star Wars universe that made it feel so magical.

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In KOTOR, gamers are able to perform actions that determine whether their character follows the path of the Dark Side or the Light. Though your chosen path is represented by your character’s looks and attributes, your choices are most prominently showcased in the ways they alter the game’s narrative. Minor and major events are often dictated by your decision to either be evil (or perhaps just a jerk) or to walk a more noble path. The implementation of such a complicated mechanic drew players deeper into the story and the world and remains a key reason why KOTOR continues to be beloved among RPG fans of a certain generation. Yet, that idea arguably spoke loudest to Star Wars fans.

Being able to explore the temptations of the Dark Side felt fresh, especially since the Star Wars movies had always been presented from the Jedi’s perspective. There was genuine freedom in the opportunity to shape your character’s morality. The sense that you were doing something forbidden only enhanced those feelings of freedom. That concept generated a personal connection that encouraged fans to pay attention to the world around them and gave them a more personal motivation for nearly every moment.

A Long Time Ago

Knights of the Old Republic was a defining title for the Star Wars timeline. The fabled Old Republic era is a much more familiar (and widely beloved) concept now largely because of that game. It fleshed out a dazzling new time period, set before any of the stories Lucasfilm had previously told. It was a mystical and mysterious period, where the Sith Lords were amassing power and the Jedi and Republic itself were continuing to find an identity. It was a time of great change, devastating conflict, and intriguing characters, and it has only grown in scope, acclaim, and wonder in the years since KOTOR‘s release.

Despite the presence of some familiar franchise tropes, KOTOR‘s era felt unlike anything Star Wars fans had seen before. What fans of the franchise didn’t want to take their customized characters and become entrenched in a landscape full of new possibilities? Removed from so many previously established pieces of lore, the Old Republic proved to be the perfect place to do just that.

The key to the game’s success in that area was its weathered feel. The Old Republic still had the futuristic tech of Star Wars but it combined it with an aged aesthetic that ensured the world was lived in. Combine that with droids and blasters that genuinely felt like ancestors to the gear from the original and prequel trilogies, and you have world-building that constantly contributes to both the moment-to-moment and the great franchise storytelling in nearly every respect.

That approach fostered a new level of intrigue among a fan base that had been hit over the head with familiarity. Even with the expanded universe of materials, the original trilogy time period came to be relied on too much. The Old Republic represented a fresh new period of mystery that encouraged risk-taking and new storylines. No one knew what to expect and there was little else to compare it to. Modern Star Wars fandom loves contrasting projects against one another and ranking releases, but KOTOR’s era, and the ideas BioWare explored in it, have long helped it stand tall on its own.

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A Story a Jedi Wouldn’t Tell You

Despite its many other accomplishments, KOTOR’s legacy will ultimately be its storytelling. As noted above, every single aspect of the title, from the combat mechanics to the alignment system, character customization, class system, and world-building, all ultimately serve to enhance the game’s narrative. Yet, even when you remove the interactive elements from the experience, you’re left with a story that stands tall on its own.

KOTOR features some of the best writing in the Star Wars franchise regardless of medium. The game’s original narrative managed to introduce a variety of characters that fit well into a legendary pantheon of iconic cinematic heroes and villains. Those heroes and villains ultimately merge in the game’s legendary twist which reveals that the player’s character is actually the dark Sith Lord, Darth Revan. It’s a moment that was not only shocking on its own but called into question the previously often unchallenged notions of inherent good and evil among the Force users in the Star Wars universe. Coupled with character relationships that actually evolve (including a potentially forbidden romance that has been cemented in Star Wars lore), and it’s clear the title didn’t have to hold back on its narrative beats and has long been better for it.

The beauty of the storyline is that there’s a little something for everyone. It’s a vast and detailed narrative that each player can get something different out of. That level of depth is another reason why KOTOR has often bridged the different sides of the fandom. Because ultimately, the nature of the game meant that BioWare and LucasArts could pack in all of the key tropes and unexpected turns of a perfect Star Wars story. 

This Is The Way

Today, KOTOR’s legacy has contributed to a rapidly expanding universe. The excitement (and trepidation) that followed the announcement of the KOTOR remake is a clear demonstration of the power of the original. Knights of the Old Republic 2 and The Old Republic MMORPG both did a great job of following in the footsteps of the original and have built up loyal fan bases in their own right. Even subsequent novels and comics took the best bits of KOTOR‘s worldbuilding, character development, and lore and established them in the Expanded Universe in even more vivid detail. That in turn will influence the role the Old Republic plays in the current canon timeline, after Disney recently announced it will officially be recognized as part of the galaxy’s long history. 

All of that success brings us back to the powerful realization that KOTOR is Star Wars. It’s everything Star Wars should be. Every single quality aspect of this title came together to create an experience that no other series or franchise could muster. It made the most of the genre and never defined itself by its limitations. That’s something fans have come to respect even more in the years since KOTOR‘s release. And with the personalized nature of the game’s storytelling, it’s hard not for each individual experience to have had a profound effect on the players that stayed with them. It is a cinematic experience on par with watching A New Hope for the first time as well as a uniquely powerful gaming experience that resonates to this day.