Jedi, Zombies, and GLaDOS: How Story is Changing the Game Industry

“You gotta get this game.”

I looked at my cousin with a quizzical brow.  Sure, I had my fun with Super Mario Brothers back in the day, but I was far from a hardcore gamer.  I was in college and working part time plus volunteering at my local church.  I didn’t have time for this computer adventure called “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.”

“But you gotta at least try it!” He pleaded with me again.

Maybe later, I replied.  And so I went on with my daily routine of studying, taking exams, and volunteering.

A couple of years passed and my cousin handed me a box.  “Here you go.” He said.  I looked at the title.  “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic”, it read.  He then explained I could have it because he got a newer copy from the “Best of the PC” collection.  And being the Star Wars fan that I was, and also finally being free from full-time-student-status, I decided to give the game a try.

And what I experienced was one of the greatest stories I had ever been witness to.

(spoilers following…)

I’ve always been a Star Wars fan.  Ever since I first witnessed Luke leave Tatooine and follow Obi-Wan and the droids into space, I’ve always loved the story of Star Wars.  I’m even not ashamed to admit that yes, I enjoyed Episode One (and even collected those little circle toy things offered from Kentucky Fried Chicken.)  So when I began playing KoTOR-as Knights of the Old Republic is often called-I expected it to be good, but not great.  After all, there was no Han or Leia.  There was no Luke or Darth Vader.  There wasn’t even Jar Jar (maybe that was a good thing, though.)  Instead, we get a story set thousands of year in the past where there’s a bunch of Jedi and Sith running around in a very different looking galaxy.

Like the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I grew up with as a kid, KoTOR follows the same principal-you play a character, make a choice during a conversation, and the story follows your choices.  You can either save the galaxy or conquer it or be a grey character who does a little bit of both.  But what makes KoTOR so exciting isn’t just the complex characters, emotional side quests, or exotic landscapes you visit on your quest to become a Jedi.  It’s learning that the villain you hear so much about throughout the tale-how Darth Revan practically brought the galaxy to its knees through conquest-is actually you.  The pilot who flies you around saving people?  You caused the destruction of his planet.  The loyal bounty hunter who fights by your side?  You crushed his people and left them scattered.  The madman who’s running around destroying other worlds for power?  He was your apprentice.

And then you learn the Jedi who were now training you to fight the dark side actually reprogrammed your memory so you would retrace your steps and find the Star Forge-the machine that helped you conquer the galaxy.

Yeah, it gets pretty deep.

When KoTOR was first released, it became an instant hit.  Bioware, the company that made it, became a household name in the gaming industry and went on to create another successful series entitled Mass Effect.  But what made KoTOR stand out wasn’t the graphics or the gameplay.  It was the story.

Before, gaming was a simple yet fun way to spend an evening with buddies button-mashing your way through a castle or asteroid field.  As gaming evolved, however, story has gained a bigger role.  Instead of just saving the princess, you learn why you have to save the princess and how she got locked up in the first place.  Instead of saving the world with an ABAB combo with the controller and calling it good, you get drawn into a story that has you just as hooked as the final boss battle.

Even console games are jumping on the success of story.  Modern hits like “The Last of Us” and “Portal 2” take players on an emotional roller coaster ride.  Unlike KoTOR, these games give players little choice in changing the overall story, but create a setting so gripping we probably wouldn’t be able to write it better.  With Portal 2, you see GLaDOS, a sadistic robot who uses Chell, the player, as a human guinea pig to test science.  You then must team up with your former enemy (who is now comfortably nested in a potato) to escape another crazy robot, all the while learning the history of your scientific prison.  And though I haven’t played “The Last of Us” (I’ve never been a big fan of zombies), from friends I have heard who have played it, the story is one of the reasons the game is considered great.  Joel’s decision to save Ellie over (potentially) the rest of the world is a choice that makes us ponder whether we would’ve done the same thing.  And knowing Joel’s past, how he lost his own daughter so tragically at the beginning of the game, it makes the decision all the more powerful.

In the end, gaming is evolving.  No longer is it the simple button mashing fun that it used to be.  With the integration of story, games are becoming more complex and involving the audience in newer ways.  Though not all games have great story, some stories make great games, and with tales like “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic”, these stories are now becoming just as popular as their book and movie counterparts.