zophar53's Blog

Posted on May 4th 2019 at 08:00:00 AM by (zophar53)
Posted under Review, books, Boss Fight Books, Knights of the Old Republic, Star Wars


The year was 1999. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace had fans of the franchise more excited than they'd been in a decade and a half. Lucasfilm and LucasArts were churning out merchandise and video games like crazy. The past handful of years had given us some pretty great games, including Dark Forces, Rogue Squadron, and Shadows of the Empire. As great as those games were though, LucasArts wanted a grand, story-heavy RPG, and this was the perfect time to get that going.

Thus began the process of bringing Knights of the Old Republic, which many consider to be one of, if not the best, Star Wars video games of all time, into being. It's a little surprising it took as long as it did, but the latest entry in the Boss Fight Books collection seeks to shed light on the process of making an epic Star Wars RPG a reality.




As someone who hasn't actually played KOTOR but has heard endless praise heaped upon it for years, I was particularly interested in finding out what made it so great, and how it all came to be. To those unfamiliar with Boss Fight Books, they're a series of short (roughly 200 pages each) books that focus on a single game per edition, focusing on their development and cultural impact. This particular volume was penned by Alex Kane, and while this is his first book project and I'm not personally familiar with his work, his relevant writing credits include sites like Kotaku, Polygon, and starwars.com.


Unlike Chris Kohler's Final Fantasy V, which I reviewed upon its release in late 2017, Alex's entry focuses less on KOTOR's cultural impact or his own love of the game, and presents itself more as a full-on retrospective. That said, he does take a short chapter at the beginning of the book to sum up the context behind the game at the time, how it's been embraced by fans in the years since, and the kinds of things you'll find in the pages to come.

This intro chapter is the source of my main criticism of the book. It does a good job of conveying how meaningful the game has been to the franchise, the RPG genre, and its fans, but in the process of doing so, there are a surprising number of instances of needlessly dumbing things down. Starting with a description of Star Wars itself and a broad overview of its cinematic history, it later defines the term "player character," and then, only a few pages after stating the game "harbors a surprise twist on par with the one in The Empire Strikes Back", blatantly spells out what that twist is.

This is something I've noticed in Boss Fight Books before, and it continues to be a curiosity for me. I get the idea of wanting the book to appeal to as many people as possible, and the author's note chapter succeeds in placing KOTOR and BioWare as a developer in their proper contexts canonically and in the historical video game landscape, respectively, but in 2019 I find it hard to believe there's anyone who exists in the venn diagram cross-section of "people who don't know what Star Wars is" and "people who would want to read a book about a Star Wars video game."


Beyond that first chapter, the book contains a plethora of interviews from people who helped bring Knights of the Old Republic to life, both from LucasArts and BioWare, and even a few of the voice actors. The chapters are well organized, with sections focusing on things such as conceptualization, getting the mechanics and systems to work properly, art, and voiceover. Even as a stranger to the game itself, it was really interesting to read about how even though it was LucasArts who proposed the idea of setting the game 4000 years before the events of the movies (a time period not even the Expanded Universe fiction had explored to that point), they also originally wanted the game to be more like BioWare's previous game, Baldur's Gate.

The chapter on the visuals, in particular, was one of my favorite sections. Even though setting the game so far in the past gave BioWare the freedom to tell a story not bound by the events of the films, they very much wanted the environments to "feel" like Star Wars. Reading about John Gallagher, who designed most of the characters and costumes, getting to meet legendary illustrator Ralph McQuarrie filled me with awe and wonder. I'm not even an artist, but my love of Star Wars, combined with these interviews, was enough. "[The BioWare team] got to hold the Oscar that McQuarrie had won for Best Visual Effects with Cocoon in 1986. McQuarrie showed them his original work, offered advice, and shared stories about 'George and the old days.'"

"If you look at the Star Wars guidebooks, or the Ralph McQuarrie treasury, which is magnificent, some of the little side doodles in the margins contain a lot of really interesting information," Gallagher states later in the chapter. "McQuarrie remains the luminary. [You'll be looking at] throwaway sketches that never showed up in any of the movies...that cues you on to other things." It's passages like these that make Knights of the Old Republic so fun to read.


The voiceover chapter was another one I really enjoyed. Anyone who's ever played a BioWare game knows they've been doing massive amounts of voiceover work in their games throughout their history, but I was surprised to learn that one person, Darragh O'Farrell, has been the primary voiceover director for LucasArts for more than 20 years, including not just SW games, but their adventure games as well. In fact, it was enough to make me want to go back and play The Dig, hearing of the talent behind it.

The last couple of chapters focus on the struggles of getting the game done in time for submission to Microsoft, then getting the PC version working in time for release. LucasArts producer Mike Gallo describes things like finding a bug in the opening tutorial that crashed the game on the same day they submitted to Microsoft, and the team going into "super-crunch mode," pulling all-nighters to get it all done in time. Reading this kind of thing in 2019, with so many stories about crunch being hugely burdensome on people at so many studios even now, was concerning. Gallo also mentions that they all wanted the game to be as good as it could possibly be, and that the team would frequently bond over drinks and dancing following paydays. It's pretty clear from many of the interviews that while there were many struggles in getting KOTOR made, no one regrets the long hours, instead looking back with appreciation for how their work was embraced by the franchise's fans, and gone on to inspire other works in the canon, both pre- and post-Disney acquisition.

While the vast majority of the interviews used in this tome are all-new, Kane also pulls a number of quotes from interviews various Lucasarts and BioWare people have made in the past. I was happy to see that these past quotes are all sourced in the back of the book, not just with links, but also with short descriptions reminding me what each one is referencing. It was a touch I appreciated, and helped bring back some context if I decided I wanted to explore the additional reading.


As a whole, Knights of the Old Republic is an insightful documentary-style look into the development of one of the most well-loved Star Wars video games to date, filled with interesting anecdotes and tidbits from many of the people who helped create it. It's an enjoyable read and should appeal to both fans of the game wanting a deeper look into what it took to make happen, as well as those who haven't played it but have always wondered why people embraced it with such passion. In a broader sense, this book continues the trend of Boss Fight Books ability to release quality material in an easily-digestible format, whether the focus is a particular author's personal feelings about the game they're discussing, or simply a deep dive into a game's production.

Personally, I've had a copy of KOTOR sitting in my Steam library for some time now, probably a title I picked up during one sale or another, as tends to happen. As I type this fresh off this read, I'm realizing I have a mostly free weekend coming up. I may have to book myself a trip to a galaxy far, far away.

Knights of the Old Republic is available in both ebook and paperback formats on bossfightbooks.com, Amazon, and various bookstores around the country.

**Note: I was provided a complimentary ebook advance review copy of Knights of the Old Republic for the purpose of this review. I have purchased several Boss Fight Books, but have not backed any of their Kickstarter campaigns.


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Comments
 
All in all sounds like an interesting read, though since I haven't played it yet should probably hold off until after.  But, I need to get back into the Boss Fight Books.  It's been a while since I've read one (not since the beginning, I think).

And on that note, if anyone is like me and has a nicely shaped electronic device for reading ebooks, I would buy these directly from the Boss Fights website, as they only charge $5USD (where Amazon charges $6USD).
 
Good write-up. I, too, haven't yet played KOTOR, aside from booting up a copy to make sure it works, and fooling around with it for a few minutes. That said, I see the appeal, and it's a universe that certainly lends itself to this kind of outside exploration.

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