A Long, Long, Long Time Ago…
Star Wars. When you hear that name many things come to mind. From the space opera that started it all to the legendary score that anyone can remember off the top of their head, there is no shortage of iconic elements that the series has come to be known for. Expanding from a film franchise to a multimedia based one, with Star Wars branded toy’s, merchandise, TV shows, and more. As time went on they introduced the franchise to video games with mixed reactions. Some were great, others were sub-par, and many were just plain terrible. While the majority of the games were fun to play and classics in their own right, none held a candle to the movies that started it all; save a few. This is the story of one of those few. It all dates back to 1999, shortly after the release of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Longtime fans of the movies had critical panned the movie for its story, overblown use of CGI, and terrible comic relief. The reboot of the entire franchise was a critical dud, in more ways than one, and George Lucas alongside his gaming studio, LucasArts, needed to find a way to make up for the losses they endured. And so LucasArts starting looking for the next hit developer to work with. Many developers knocked on LucasArts door from Pandemic Studios to Raven Software but one stood out from the rest, a recently renowned studio named Bioware.
The RPG Masters
Coming off their smash hit take on the Dungeons and Dragons franchise, Baldur’s Gate, Bioware was a hot commodity in the industry at the time as they were able to turn once failing franchises into massively successful and influential video games. But they hadn’t even had the chance to adapt the franchise that they were itching to work with, Star Wars. Luckily enough, LucasArts had seen their work on Baldur’s Gate and felt that they were the right company for the job at hand. BioWare’s CEO Greg Zeschuk and LucasArts producer Michael Gallo quickly went into talks about what kind of game it would be, and ended up giving BioWare two choices. They could either take the easy route and try adapting the next Star Wars film, Attack of the Clones, or go with something that would be difficult to create but involve the creative freedom they so desired. That second choice was a story taking place 4,000 years before the events of Episode 1, in a galaxy where there are hundreds of thousands of Sith and Jedi fighting each other in a galactic war. The would be given no restraints with this project… within reason. No one had ever covered this time period before so the worlds and characters they created would be wholly original, a precursor to the modern films. Anyone who wouldn’t take this offer would be a madman, so BioWare, of course, took it in earnest. And LucasArts made good on its promise of creative freedom as little to nothing was thrown out by the publisher. Whenever they sent their work over there work to Skywalker Ranch, only minute details were changed, and they were usually praise for the work they had done. The only time they ever were told to add something in was when LucasArts suggested they put the game on the newly announced Xbox, a challenge that these PC minded developers were more then up to after they had already tackled the subject with MDK2. A system with architecture that they were already accustomed to and a platform in dire need of hit titles, it was a win-win for BioWare, LucasArts, and Microsoft in general.
A Stellar Cast
As with all BioWare projects, they wanted to not only improve on what they were known for but also exceed everyone’s expectations. They wanted to do something that no one studio had truly created yet. A living, breathing galaxy filled to the brim with compelling characters, rich and exciting worlds, and stellar narratives. This was their goal, this was their dream, they just needed to find the right people suited to the roles they needed. One of the first people they brought on would be the director, Casey Hudson, who’d been working at the company for sometime, with his major credits being a level designer for MDK2. Seeing something in him, he rose through the ranks of BioWare faster than anyone had before, lending his hidden creative thought process to the project. For the lead programmers, Mark Brockington and David Falkner were brought on, tasked with helping to bring this absolutely massive world to life and on the Xbox, no less. But what’s a world without its characters? And Star Wars wasn’t lacking in that department. Led by David Hibbeln and Derek Watts, the art department was charged with bringing over 60 species across the Star Wars universe to life alongside the planets many of them called home. That was the primary job of concept artist John Samuel Gallagher and his team. As they pulled from the pages of the extended universe of novels and the movies alike, they began to take many interesting worlds from these stories and showed them in a new light. From the Wookie home world of Kashyyyk to the den of the Sith Korriban, each was given a great amount of detail by the environmental and 3D design team, enough so that they would be fun to play in yet not too overbearing on the Xbox’s weaker processing power. However, contending with the systems strengths wouldn’t even be the half of it. Hundreds of hours’ worth of scripting and voice acting was needed to make this world a reality.
But what’s a Star Wars game without its story? And BioWare’s was proving to be more ambitious than anything that had come before it. Drew Karpyshyn, the games head writer, wanted to craft a story that was galactic in scale, one that had a clear villain and hero yet had a certain morally gray tone to it. The player could be a villainous Sith or heroic Jedi, it was all up to the player in his opinion. A plethora of choices were needed to make this vision a reality so he and his own team wrote and wrote for years, coming up with over 15,000 lines of dialogue spoken by over 300 individual characters, a feat that just hadn’t been tackled in the industry before. BioWare was known for breaking boundaries but this, this was revolutionary for video game storytelling. And it wasn’t all in English either, as many of the races spoke their own languages, making the task all the more difficult. Still they persisted, and they soon passed their work over to the sound department who’d be given the monumental task of taking all the text and turning it into an actual narrative.
Under the stewardship of Julian Kwasneski, the lead sound designer, BioWare would bring in over 70 experienced voice actors to provide each race with a distinct accent and give each of the main characters unique and “interesting” personalities. Still, they didn’t have enough actors to play each part. To rectify this, they had them act as multiple characters at a time, spreading them throughout the galaxy so the average player would never notice. Actors such as Catherine Taber, Tom Kane, Jennifer Hale, and more played this careful balancing act, trying to make each of their characters their own. These characters would be the foundation of BioWare’s new world, a living breathing world with many different people from all walks of life whether they be light or dark. While the voice actors certainly had a lot on their hands that was nothing compared to what Jeremy Soule, the games composer, had to go through. Living up to John Williams iconic score was a tough call. It had to be perfect and nail that classic Star Wars feel all the way through yet still be original and memorable in its own right. Having worked previously on The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and BioWare’s own Neverwinter Nights he was more then up to the task, giving the game the classic soundtrack that it is known for today. Classic yet original, those were the feelings that BioWare were trying to capture when they were creating the ultimate Star Wars experience. Their only hope was that it would exceed beyond their expectations.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, releasing on July 15th, 2003, was everything that a Star Wars fan could hope for. The ability to play as Jedi or Sith, the worlds that they only had encountered in the pages of books, and the characters that were as detailed and remarkable as the ones that existed in the films were all here and more. After using the extensive character creator to create a protagonist to your own liking you are quickly thrust into the world of Knights of the Old Republic, a world ravaged by a war between the Galactic Republic and Sith Empire. Waking up on board the Endar Spire, under attack by the Empire, you fight your way through the ship only to be forced to flee with fellow Republic soldier Carth Onasi. Crash landing on the Sith occupied planet, Taris, the two hatch a plan to save Bastila Shan, their leader, and escape to the Jedi enclave on Dantooine. As the journey continues their merry band of misfits continues to grow from Mission Vao to the murderous HK-47 with you slowly becoming a Jedi, learning of your mysterious past, and challenging the dark lord of the Sith, Darth Malak. Along the way you have to make various choices, akin to Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, but with the signature Star Wars flair. These choices can either be just minor ones like deciding where to go to major, impactful choices that reverberate throughout the game. If you act in an evil or heroic way you gain light side or dark side points which contribute to who your character will become. Heading down the path of the dark side may disgust the majority of your member while others may relish in your villainy. The fate of the galaxy is in your hands and whether you conquer or save it was all up to you.
But as with any BioWare game, story and gameplay go hand in hand, and Star Wars: Knights of The Old Republic was no exception. There were your variants of classes both new and old that felt right at home in the Star Wars universe with unique stats to go along with them. Even the Light side and the Dakr side became intertwined with the gameplay as force powers specific to each side would be attainable after some time. However, for the battle system, Knights of the Old Republic still held to the d20 ruleset implemented into the third edition of Dungeon’s & Dragons that started the company on its winning streak… albeit with lightsabers and blasters as the character’s weapons of choice. On the surface combat seems to work in real time with fluid lightsaber duels being a major part of the experience. In actuality, though, battles are round-based; time is divided into these rounds, and then combatants attack and react to each other simultaneously, giving the illusion of real-time combat. The number of actions you can perform each round is directly related to this. As with any other traditional turn based RPG your party was crucial to combat. Thankfully, you could take command of them on the fly, allowing you to experiment with different combat techniques and understand their own quirks. Sometimes you wouldn’t even have to fight. If you were on the light side, you could persuade your way out of a fight while embracing the dark side could result in you having the ability to force choke an opponent before they even attacked.
The Stars Are Yours
Knights of the Old Republic seemed like the perfect Star Wars game on the surface. Fantastic lightsaber combat, otherworldly characters, and fantastical planets with wild life and locals to match. However, its inner workings felt distinctly like a BioWare title. A company that had arrived in the gaming industry out of nowhere, after making hit after hit, found the pinnacle of its creations in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Selling nearly 3 million copies across the Xbox and PC, their first entry into the Star Wars mythos wasn’t just the hit Microsoft had wanted but a phenomenon in the making. While the movies were falling apart at the seams, the video games had just reach their peak and BioWare had created the tipping point. A harbinger of things to come, BioWare was not only leading Star Wars itself into new and untrodden territory but the genre as a whole towards something greater. The American RPG for years had honed in on the gameplay aspect while leaving the story department a bit lacking. A few outliers had existed, for sure, but they were never the majority, never the norm. With its innovative dialogue and morality systems alongside its stellar storyline and captivating gameplay, Knights of the Old Republic changed the very nature of the genre for years to come, launching its developers into stardom and its tale into the annals of history. And to think. None of this would have happened without one simple choice.