Game Review: KOTOR2, and How story and choice influence gameplay.

Note: I analyze KOTOR2 to some depth.  This review may be spoilerish.

The two Knights of the Old Republic RPGs are my favourite parts of the Star Wars universe.  (Admittedly, I haven’t experienced much of SW beyond the movies and some of the video games.  Haven’t even watched The Force Awakens yet — hopefully soon!)  So when KOTOR2 received its graphics upgrade in the middle of this year, I decided to play through both games back-to-back. I was especially eager to revisit KOTOR2 with the TSLRCM mod installed.  My first playthrough was on the vanilla game — boy was the endgame substantially broken with so many storylines left on cliffhangers without resolution, leaving me rather confused about everything.  So TSLRCM is absolutely necessary for fully experiencing KOTOR2.

It’s amazing how different the two games are.  Here’s a review of my experience, and how the different philosophies of the games influence their respective gameplays in profound ways.

KOTOR1 is a conventional Star Wars-ian story.  It sits completely within the “cultural” expectations of the universe, with all the standard characters, tropes, and plot twists of an epic story, and ends with closure on all subplots and a happily-ever-after.  Bioware made a game that is practically a clone of A New Hope in every way, and you know what? that makes it a fine game in its own right.

KOTOR2 is an inversion of KOTOR1.  It takes those tropes and turns them on their heads; it takes the SW universe out of its simple idealistic world-building and paints it with the complexities and messiness of real life.  Both games deal with two major world events: the Mandalorian Wars and its outcome on both warring factions, and the opposing philosophies of the Jedi and the Sith, that led to the Jedi Civil War.  KOTOR1 dealt with the former cursorily, and took the latter for granted.  But KOTOR2 puts both issues under deep scrutiny, assumes nothing, asks the hard questions of “what if it was perceived this way instead?”, and takes the answers to their logical ends.

The logical ends are embodied in the cast of characters.  All have a background in at least one war, but they occupy grey and uncomfortable positions within those issues, positions that could never exist within the paradigm of KOTOR1.  The values, morals and philosophies are messy in KOTOR2, and the characters are likewise messy and defy tropes.  All companions, Kreia and Atton being foremost, have motives that are not easily categorized and are sometimes self-contradictory.  Character growth and development is uneven (if it happens at all), and there is no neat closure or resolution for them at the end of the story.

This is real life Star Wars.  People in the real world are messy, self-contradictory, with complicated motives and passionate emotions, who make irrational choices, and they may never find catharsis or deliverance from their pain and choices. The Exile’s companions are these kinds of people, and there are no easy or definitive answers to any of the questions that they pose to the Exile.

(Aside: I find the character of the Disciple jarring.  He doesn’t seem to fit with the cast: a straightforward, idealistic, and relatively intact personality, when everyone else is decidedly not.  In truth, the Disciple is more complex than the KOTOR1 cast; Jolee Bindo, the most interesting and complicated of that lot, is on par with him.  But compared to, say, Atton or Visas, the Disciple feels very simplistic.  Nevertheless, I think he has an important role too: a fractured idealism that clearly sees the flaws of its ideals, and is struggling to find a reason to remain true to them.  The Disciple is essentially KOTOR1 with eyes wide open in a KOTOR2 world.  I think that is also an important position to have, and I appreciate that he’s in the game.

Alright, I’ll save psychoanalyzing the KOTOR2 cast for another day.  I might just do that — they’re all such interesting characters!)

I suppose KOTOR1 and KOTOR2 are inversions of each other.  KOTOR1 takes a triumphalist posture: no matter who (Light or Dark) triumphs, that side triumphs completely, and the end of the story brings closure and completion.  KOTOR2 takes a tragic posture: whoever triumphs does so pyrrhically.  Yet that ending isn’t completely final either: there remains a flicker of hope, or a shadow of bitterness.

KOTOR2’s character development is fantastic.  Other reviews have commented on how complex it is for a Star Wars story, especially compared to KOTOR1. I agree that it’s this stretching of Star Wars themes and tropes, which the player confronts and grapples with, that makes it a fine video game.  I usually play exclusively Light side, but I might try out Dark side next time I revisit KOTOR2, to see what kinds of outcomes there are.

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So far, I’ve been talking a lot about pure storytelling and character development.  I think the different storytelling sensibilities between the two games influence gameplay in profound ways.  This is revealed mainly in the opportunities the player has to explore and influence the relationships between the protagonist and the companions.

In KOTOR1, character development is pretty straightforward and with a strong drive towards resolution and a triumphalist closure.  The KOTOR1 cast all have hidden motives that are each an external problem tied to a need for internal growth and development.  Ongoing dialogue with these companions reveal their backstory and eventually these external problems, in the form of sidequests.  The player pursues and completes those sidequests, the companion’s external problems are solved, their internal development progresses, and all is wrapped up neatly under the “Completed Quests” list.  Even though all the characters (especially Bastila and Carth) have hidden agendas, true to KOTOR1 character development, they are straightforward motives that at the end of the day are easily typecast and resolved.

KOTOR2 companion interaction is completely different, and I think more subtle.  True to the characters, the companions’ issues are too complex, and their character development too murky, for a small, self-contained sidequest.  So the dialogue serves primarily to reveal backstory, which eventually has a gameplay effect that I think goes beyond the influence meter.

I’ve read some reviews that lambast Kreia as an Authorial Mouthpiece (or even a Mary Sue). Yes, she is didactic, because she confronts and compels the player to engage with the game’s atypical narrative. I argue this is where real “roleplaying” comes to the fore and the player’s choice actually becomes significant, but it’s not initially a choice of gameplay mechanic but a choice of response.

When faced with this inversion of the typical Star Wars tropes, how will they player respond? The Exile has a plethora of choices in various key scenes: conversing with Kreia in the Ebon Hawk, the first meeting with Atris on Telos, the flashback/holovid of the Exile’s original sentencing by the Jedi Council, and all the various companion interactions and comments about the Exile’s past. These events compel the player to consider the implications of their responses not just to the events, but to the story as a whole.

While that consideration of individual responses may not have any overt outcome on gameplay, collectively they eventually lead there: influence with companions, and from there, whether to recruit them into the Jedi Order or not. That’s the ultimate decision that has both roleplay and gameplay consequences. Would I reruit Atton and Bao-Dur given their extensive histories in the Mandalorian War and Jedi Civil War? How about the Handmaiden, when that is a breach of her vows to Atris, who is the remnant of the Jedi Order that the Exile is trying to protect in the first place?

Thing is, in the course of the game I the player have been compelled (especially if I want perks from Kreia) to engage with the complex narrative and conflicting perspectives of the cast. I’ve had to make choices — as the Exile, since this is a RPG. From a strictly roleplay perspective, the decision to convert companions into Jedi becomes a matter of principles, but the black-and-white principles of KOTOR1 are now smudged into the grey of KOTOR2, and none of the companions can be easily typecast as Light or Dark, good or evil. Given the narrative, and my own responses to it, what will be my decision?

Sure, one can metagame and powerlevel their way through (it’s more powerful from a gameplay perspective to convert everyone to Jedi!), but I think KOTOR2 is a prime example of how the storytelling shapes the player response to in-game choices, and thus, makes a proper difference to their gameplay experience.

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Yes, I like KOTOR2. It’s a real story, and the characters show depth and irreconcilable complexity that KOTOR1, as good as it is, simply doesn’t have. KOTOR1 wraps up in a tidy bundle; KOTOR2 doesn’t, and I’m not talking about the broken endgame, which TSLRCM fixed quite well. The characters remain complicated and simultaneously despicable and poignant — they do not resolve and end neatly, and their stories don’t end when the game does. That’s a real story, and I love all its flawed characters, because I identify with them.

Furthermore, the game raises questions in the player’s mind, which is the most interesting part. I admittedly powerleveled during this playthrough, but my engagement with the cast has been influencing my thoughts over Star Wars. Evil and Good aren’t as straightforward as Dark side and Light side anymore. It’s definitely time for a Dark side playthrough.

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