Of all of the video games in Star Wars history, Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel may be the most memorable. In the rarified air of Star Wars storytelling, where generations of writers and artists raised on the movies vie for the chance to put their own artistic spin on George Lucas’s universe, the ultimate goal is to create work that fans will remember and love for a long time. And few games have reached the storytelling heights of this BioWare RPG, which captures both the feeling of sitting down and watching a Star Wars movie for the first time while also giving fans a completely different and unexpected take on the galaxy.
Set thousands of years before the Skywalker Saga, Knights of the Old Republic tells the story of a ragtag group of heroes who must stop a Sith invasion force from taking over the galaxy. Along the way, the heroes journey to seedy criminal underworlds and ancient Sith temples, go through the Jedi trials, and carve their own name in Star Wars history. There’s never quite been such a complete Star Wars video game experience since.
Pop culture writer Alex Kane explores the ideas behind the KotOR saga in the book Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, out now from Boss Fight Books. Kane’s book is a fascinating look into the development of the game that made a deep mark on both BioWare and Star Wars. It also comes at a particularly interesting time for BioWare, whose most recent release, the loot shooter Anthem, departs from the story- and relationship-driven RPG gameplay the studio is best known for. Kane’s look back at the production of KotOR is an excellent blast from the past for fans of the studio.
Here are five important things we learned about the game from Kane’s book…
Disclosure: I received a free copy of the book for review, and Alex Kane and I have both written, separately, for StarWars.com.
Knights of the Old Republic’s Big Twist
Knights of the Old Republic’s big twist — that the player character is actually a powerful Sith Lord named Darth Revan who had his memory erased by the Jedi — was essential to the game from the very beginning. With The Empire Strikes Back’s iconic twist in mind, BioWare needed something similar in order to capture that Star Wars magic. James Ohlen, lead designer on the game, also knew he wanted to have an epic space battle at the end like the Rebel vs. Imperial fracas in Return of the Jedi.
Ohlen was inspired by movies like The Sixth Sense and Fight Club when it came time for the reveal. He knew that clues needed to be placed throughout the game. The twist should not be obvious but should stem from moments seeded into the story. ”Ten percent of the audience needs to figure out your twist before it happens” in order for it to feel natural, he said in the book.
Why LucasArts Hired BioWare
LucasArts was working on many Star Wars games in the early 2000s and wanted to partner with a third-party developer to create a “sweeping” Star Wars story. Some LucasArts developers were big fans of BioWare, which had made the isometric fantasy RPG Baldur’s Gate.
Simon Jeffrey, LucasArts president at the time, approached BioWare’s Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk about making a Star Wars RPG in the BioWare mold. The three of them were responsible for sketching out the core ideas of the game.
Yes, Knights of the Old Republic Demanded Crunch
It’s difficult — maybe impossible, maybe irresponsible — to look at the sections about BioWare culture in light of Kotaku’s April 2019 investigative piece about the many problems at the studio today. The article, which covers the development of Bioware’s Anthem, kicked off a conversation about how overworked game developers burn out. In Alex Kane’s interviews, BioWare’s luminaries remember a mostly joyful experience of crunch:
“I pretty much had no life outside of work,” Mike Gallo, former LucasArts producer, told Kane. “I remember my friends getting mad at me because I had to constantly cancel on them, or just not even accept plans. I’m just like, ‘I don’t know what to tell you. We’re makin’ a game!’ And back in those days, I didn’t even care—I could work twelve or sixteen hours every day and not even think about it.”
Gallo went into detail of just how long the hours were: “Towards the end of the PC version, we were working several all-nighters. I was in a meeting with all of our ops people at LucasArts, and at one point one of the guys whispered to me: ‘Mike. You were talking, but you would fade out for five or ten seconds and then pick up again.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, I haven’t slept in forty- eight hours.’ He’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Well, you know, that’s what we do.’” After work, the team would go out drinking and dancing together, unified by the project. There were some conflicts, Kane says, but more a focus on making the work the best it could be.
Voiceover director Darragh O’Farrell and voice coordinator Jennifer Sloan would also work 16-hour days during crunch time, six months before the deadline.
The Origins of the Characters
Some of the game’s core characters — Carth, Bastila, Zaalbar, and Mission — were loosely based on characters Ohlen created for a tabletop Star Wars RPG he ran with his friends: “I’d done that with the Baldur’s Gate series, too, because it takes a long time to create characters sometimes.”
One character, in particular, evolved during development. HK-47’s voice was at first much grimmer. Actor Kristoffer Tabori didn’t feel he had found the voice and went for a more comedic tone than intended in the script, which displeased many in the studio. But O’Farrell believed in it. Eventually, the rest of the team came around.
The identity of Revan was built into the game from the start. Kane points out that having a character with no memory or history is often “a narrative demand of the form,” so giving Revan a hidden history he’d been forced to forget was key. Having Revan be a Jedi was a core part of the game’s fantasy, meant to provide a very different experience from Star Wars Galaxies, an MMORPG in which Jedi were rare.
The look of Revan’s armor was designed relatively quickly and was inspired by Mandalorian armor. The leather elements, not often seen in Star Wars, made it look ancient.
Knights of the Old Republic’s Missing Planet
The game’s planets can be visited in any order (with some exceptions where major plot points must be experienced in order). The variety of locations is one of KotOR‘s many strengths, and planets like Taris and Manaan have become memorable parts of the Star Wars universe.
Unfortunately, not all of BioWare’s ideas for planets ended up in the final product. One planet was cut from the game due to the impending ship date. This planet, named Sleheyron, would have focused on gladiator combat and been controlled by the Hutts. “But that was too much to do in the time we had,” Ohlen said.
BioWare would return to the gladiatorial combat idea for their fantasy RPG Jade Empire, which was released in 2005 and also used Knights of the Old Republic‘s Odyssey Engine. The capital city in Jade Empire, Phoenix Gate, hosts a fighting arena where masters of the game’s martial art forms can work their way up the ranks and follow some story threads. While it’s unclear if this section of Jade Empire was inspired by BioWare’s ideas for Sleheyron, it does prove that the studio was able to make its gladiator idea playable a few years later.
BioWare’s Ideas for A Sequel
There never really was a BioWare KotOR II. In an interview with Mike Gallo, Kane reveals the BioWare team didn’t want to rush through a sequel and felt it would be difficult to follow up on the great game they had already produced. But Ohlen talked about an idea they did have.
In order to out-twist KotOR, he and his team developed an idea where the player would be mentored by a character of Yoda’s species. That mentor would turn out to be the villain, with the shock coming, Ohlen said, from “‘Holy crap—Yoda’s evil?’” That twist is now locked away in the large vault of unused Star Wars ideas.