Back when I first started thinking about this whole Interactive Narratives idea, the first certainty would be that Knights of the Old Republic would be my starting point. It stands as arguably the best game that BioWare have ever made, is a game I attempt to play through at least once every 12-18 months, and back at the 2004 Game Developers Choice Awards it won three major prizes: Game of the Year, Excellence in Writing, and Best Original Character (take that, meatbags).
I think we can all agree that it's pretty damn good.
Naturally, therefore, my first port of call was Drew Karpyshyn, lead writer on KOTOR and the first two titles for the also-critically-acclaimed space opera that followed as BioWare sought to create a universe that was all their own in Mass Effect. After a spot of email swapping, difficulties in aligning schedules, holidays that fell at inopportune times on both sides, we finally managed to get a little exchange going, and I fired over a number of questions to him about how he got into the business of writing interactive fiction, and his experience working with such a massive IP as Star Wars, before comparing that to building something from scratch with Mass Effect.
NB. Do be warned that things get pretty spoilerrific from this point on, so if you're yet to play KOTOR or Mass Effect, do be aware that we start chatting about some rather major plot points.
Working in the Expanded Universe
"Working in a universe as expansive as Star Wars is all about research," he told me. "You need to understand the science and lore that has come before - in this case literally decades of material has been assembled to create the SW universe fans know. You also need to be a fan of the franchise, because that's the only way to know what resonates with the audience.
"For a new universe like Mass Effect, however, there isn't an existing fan base or an existing setting. You need to do all the planning yourself (with the help of others on the team!). At BioWare, we spent almost a year planning out the universe of Mass Effect before we began working on the actual game and the Shepard's story. And because we didn't have an existing fan base we could look to in order to see what worked and what didn't, we had to trust our instincts. With KOTOR, I had a strong sense that Star Wars fans were going to love the game. Until Mass Effect actually came out, however, none of us really knew if it would connect with fans. Fortunately, it did."
As a fan of Star Wars, I couldn't agree more with the sentiments expressed above. I adored the game on release -- it managed to keep all of the best bits of Star Wars lore, while ignoring the omnishambles that was happening in the century around the Battle of Yavin IV by going back several millennia, back before the Jedi became an endangered bunch, and before Darth Bane (a character with whom Karpyshyn is most familiar having written a Expanded Universe trilogy about him) had implemented his Rule of Two for would-be Sith Lords.
It was no small feat, either. To fully appreciate the success of KOTOR, we have to place it in the context of Star Wars fatigue. Somehow, while blessed with a universe of untold stories and an abundance of rich lore to tap into for diverse and interesting narratives, Lucas and his production companies had managed to squander whatever goodwill had previously existed with two risible prequel films, the continued tinkering/bastardisation of the original trilogy, and over ten tie-ins of varying quality across 2002/2003 -- Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds: Clone Campaigns, Star Wars: Bounty Hunter, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Wars: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter, Star Wars: Racer Revenge, Star Wars: The New Droid Army, Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, and Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided just to name a few. Some of those games were really good, but the saturation effect was not.
"One of the things I love about the Old Republic setting is the sense of creative freedom that comes with it," Karpyshyn said in an interview a couple of years back. "Being many centuries removed from the events of the films means we are able to have characters and events that don’t have to be directly connected to the movies; we get to create our own heroes and villains and tell their stories. At the same time, we get to help create the foundation of what is to come later. We know what direction galactic events are heading towards, we know what watershed moments and characters will shape the ultimate destiny of the Republic, so we can use that to plant the seeds of the future in our Old Republic tales. It feels like the best of both worlds."
The player becomes The Villain
I had to ask, of course, where the idea for Revan came from. The revelation that you, the player, are in fact the genocidal evil force that brought the galaxy to the brink of destruction is one of the finest plot twists in video game history. KOTOR does a magnificent job of selling you the illusion of choice on a moment to moment basis, but there are some wonderful narrative branches that come about as a result of this revelation. Unlike Mass Effect, too, KOTOR allows you to do some really terrible things, to kill off your companions and crewmates, to slaughter innocents, to screw over the abused and the vulnerable. The worst part of it all is that even if you've been trying to be a goodie-two-shoes all along, you are somewhat doomed by your past and the knowledge that you once were the embodiment of evil.
"It's hard for me to point to something specific in the creative process, because Revan's character evolved organically through the development of the game and story," said Karpyshyn. "I think the core of the idea that the player was Revan came from James Ohlen, who is now Creative Director at BioWare. But in the two years we spent developing the game, we constantly reworked and refined the idea and how the twist would be presented to players. Creativity is like that: it's rarely one brilliant, perfect idea that works. Usually you have lots of small things that add up to something awesome in the end."
Revan, of course, is a Jedi-turned-Sith-turned-Jedi (depending on the ending that you plump for in the game, and that brings with it it's own difficulties. Back in 2011, Karpyshyn talked about writing a character who walks a path between two completely opposed philosophies.
"The thing I like about Revan is that he rejects the extremism of both philosophies," he said. "He tries to walk a path between the light and dark, taking the good and bad from each. While I was working on the Darth Bane series, I wanted to portray certain elements of the dark side as positive – things like the importance of the individual and the quest for reaching one’s ultimate potential. Of course, pushed to the extreme these things become twisted and, for want of a better term, evil. But you could say the same thing about certain Jedi philosophies. Trying to remove emotion from your life, trying to be completely rational in all things, can lead to someone become cold, distant and aloof. Revan is a character who wants to pick and choose from both sides to create his own moral code; I think that’s what makes him so interesting."
It also reflects the blank slate of an amnesiac character, delivered into the player's hands to determine a moral direction. Speaking on the subject back in 2012, Karpyshyn further elaborated on the difficulties of creating a malleable character in terms of player experience, and how that presented difficulties when it came to returning to the universe of KOTOR and its Obsidian-developed sequel in the Old Republic novels he published several years later.
"Obviously tackling a character as beloved yet undefined, as Revan or the Exile is an incredible challenge. It would be impossible to create a version of Revan or the Exile that felt 'right' to every gamer, so instead of going down that road I had to work with the version of each character that I felt worked best with previously established canon for their respective stories. Using that as a foundation I was able to mould and shape Revan and the Exile as they appeared in the novel [Karpyshyn released a sequel novel to KOTOR titled "Revan" in 2011, set two years after the end of the game] into what I felt were interesting and compelling characters that embodied the spirit of the original games.
"[...] I played KOTOR many, many times during the development of the game. By the time the final version was released I had played every class/gender/light-dark combination possible multiple times in my role as lead writer. I also had to play the game in bits and pieces, often replaying sections after we had rewritten them, or playing through parts of the game multiple times in a row to test each dialogue response to make sure everything worked properly. As a result, I didn’t have a clear memory of my 'preferred' version of Revan – all the different ways I played sort of blended together. However, I think that was a good thing – it allowed me to approach the novel without a heavy bias towards a particular archetype from the game."
Along for the ride
It strikes me, of course, that what I remember most about the BioWare games I've grown up with, many of which Karpyshyn has worked on, is down to the latter part of the company's mission statement: "rich stories, unforgettable characters". KOTOR would not nearly be as glorious an experience, and as captivating and engrossing a journey were it not for the fantastically written companion characters, and the ways in which you can befriend them or, alternatively, piss them off. With that in mind, I asked Karpyshyn about the process of inventing these characters, and if he had any favourites in terms of his creations.
"BioWare has always excelled at creating amazing characters to join you on your journeys," he said. "Part of that comes from having an amazing team of talented writers and other creative people working on the game; we take feedback and ideas from everyone about what they'd like to see and we try to make sure every player will have at least one character they will connect with. It's really about diversity and trying different things.
"As for my favourite character, this is another loaded question. But I'm willing to answer this one. Obviously HK-47 is awesome, but I didn't write him - David Gaider did. I enjoyed writing Joker in Mass Effect 1, though he wasn't an actual companion. But my personal favourite was probably Liara - I liked her mix of innocence, scientific reason and personal struggle with her own history."