Why, exactly, did I pick up Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic a week ago? It’s one of those big honkin’ computer roleplaying games with a gazillion quests, made by Bioware, the folks who brought us Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Sure, the Xbox version was very well-reviewed, but we are talking about a Star Wars game here, at a time when George Lucas has been doing everything in his power to self-destruct his franchise and make all fans of his galaxy far, far away embarrassed that they ever liked it in the first place. But I still have a soft spot for the Star Wars universe, in spite of Episodes One and Two. It’s not because of childhood nostalgia, either; rather, it’s a recognition of the Platonic ideal of the world of Star Wars, of the fact that a teeming, space operatic galaxy that features monastic telepaths wielding laser swords is a pretty darn cool idea. And as I’ve noted before, even the recent movies have been visually striking. If you just plug your ears, you want to like it.
So I bought the game hoping it might be closer to the Ideal Form of Star Wars than the recent movies were. An unconscious desire to revel in superfluous free time (while I still have it) was almost certainly a factor as well. And so far, it’s been pretty good. Granted, the story isn’t particularly compelling, but it has all the core strengths of a good Bioware game, and the inherently addictive progression structure that will keep you up just a half hour more so you can finish that one quest and get enough credits to buy your sidekick an upgrade for his blaster rifle. The biggest step up from previous CRPGs I’ve played is that the combat graphics have a lot more variety. For example, when you swing your lightsaber at the attacking Sith Trooper, it won’t be the exact same slashing motion every time. This means that after you’ve given your party commands and the battle is proceeding pretty much on autopilot, it actually has a dynamic, cinematic quality that makes it fun to watch. And of course you can pause the action at any moment to fine-tune your orders.
Just as the story is no great shakes, the quality of the dialogue rarely distinguishes itself, either. This is a problem for a game with a lot of those dialogue trees where you fulfill quests and collect clues by talking to people. Fortunately it’s possible to click through the conversations pretty quickly, so you don’t have to listen to the voice actors speaking every single word. Which brings me to my point: writing dialogue or any other kind of prose that a CRPG player can read in-game is a difficult and self-policing enterprise. If it’s boring, the player is just going to skim it and click on through. Nothing’s keeping them, since all games these days have built-in quest trackers so you don’t have to be constantly scribbling notes on scratch paper like in the old days. If the words are not intrinsically interesting, they won’t get read. While playing Knights of the Old Republic I skim through 90% of the dialogue windows that pop up, but it’s easy to tell when it’s actually good stuff, because then I stop and listen and read.
Morrowind has a similar thing going, both with its dialogue and with all the little history texts and little side stories you could encounter in countless books scattered all over the place. There, too, maybe 10% of them were actually worth reading. I’m not talking about some high literary standard, either, but about competent prose and something in it to hook one’s interest. CRPGs have no trouble holding—even dominating—a player’s attention with the gameplay, but is it really too much to ask that the texts in a game rise to a similar level of quality? Maybe someday.
Knights of the Old Republic does have some potential for replayability, since you can pursue either the Light Side or the Dark Side in the course of the game. This follows the same pattern of earlier Bioware games, where your menu of choices in any given situation basically boils down to “behave” or “don’t behave.” It’s a gimmick that’s getting old. Morrowind has a much better model, with multiple Houses and Guilds you can join, many exclusive of one other, so that playing the game again isn’t a matter of experiencing the same encounters in a different way, but of seeing stuff and fulfilling quests that weren’t even open to you before.
I’m wondering now if Jedi Academy would have been a wiser purchase, since it’s an action game that doesn’t rely as much on story. The decision will soon be moot, unless they’ve invented a way to strafe-and-shoot while simultaneously burping a baby. I don’t think so, though I’d bet real money somebody somewhere is working on it.