How KOTOR Laid the Groundwork for the Mass Effect Trilogy

Written by  Thursday, 09 August 2012 14:20
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Recently BioWare responded to the outcry for a more complete and comprehensive ending to Mass Effect 3. Most people appear to be satisfied with this new iteration, but there are still suggestions that the new ending remains inadequate because it's just a series of cinematics with a voiceover. Taking previous games into account, though, it's always been apparent as to what the new revision would be, and using the game story analysis skills that we've talked about before it's easy to analyze a game's story and design to determine the outcome.

me3-kotor-parallel

See, game developers are notorious for reusing what works when they move on to their next project. Engines, models, art assets, sound, level design, and even story arcs and plots are all re-usable. Even when artfully concealed, developers will return to these tendencies and give you a glimpse of what might be ahead in your single-player campaign. Some will even reuse stuff that works in the same game, like the different platform-and-puzzle sequences in Naughty Dog's Uncharted series. Sometimes it works out well, other times it gets annoyingly repetitive (like the [Dragon Age] or TES games, and the building/dungeon level designs they reuse again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and … you get the point).

 

As in life, the past can often reveal the future. Sometimes more about that future than we may be comfortable with. But being aware of that tendency can at least prepare you for what you may find in a later work by the same company, especially if some of the same people are working on the new IP.

Knights of the Mass Effect

To illustrate this, let's look at Mass Effect Game Director Casey Hudson's previous foray into the realm of the sci-fi epic, when he was in charge of BioWare's major Star Wars masterpiece, Knights of the Old Republic.

Fair warning: This article will contain a little spoiler action for the KOTOR and ME series.

When the Mass Effect series first came out, people gradually grew to love the games. The first game didn't exactly storm the shelves of the local game store. Still, word of mouth propelled it until ME 2 came out. That's when the general public (and the media, of course) really started to catch on and started foaming at the mouth. Game-of-the-Year awards abounded. It was groundbreaking, ya hear? Earth-shattering! A fresh new look at the sci-fi odyssey! Right?

Maybe not.

If anyone really wanted to see the genesis of this series, they just had to look back to an older sci-fi title that let you "choose your path," as the tagline claimed. Casey Hudson first flexed his story muscles in the 2003 space RPG, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR). He was joined by Mass Effect Senior Writer Drew Karpyshyn (who also wrote parts of ME 2).

After careful story analysis of KOTOR and Mass Effect, we reveal that the two really are shockingly similar.

We've talked before (also linked above) about the structure that a story-based campaign game will likely follow. As a quick refresher of some of the KOTOR storyline elements, let's look at some of the things BioWare has repeated, which should make examining other games the same way a little simpler.

me3-kotor-3The Ebon Hawk attempts an escape.

KOTOR begins with your character creation - immediately following that, you wake up on a ship under attack (called the Endar Spire). This is the typical tutorial stage where the game developers tell you what to do, help you figure out how to play the game, and basically keep you from dying in the first ten seconds or so.

Tutorials will almost always be bad storytelling because NPCs are explaining things to you that your character should already know…things like where your gear is stored and how to shoot a gun. It's like a nuclear physicist showing up to work one day and a guard saying, "Sir, you look confused. Just take your ID card from your inventory and swipe it on that lighted square over on the wall." Because, of course, even though you're a nuclear physicist, really rare knowledge like how to open doors escapes you on occasion. Happens to the best.

So you're on the Endar Spire, given instruction and background from a crew member named Trask Ulgo. He holds your hand and helps you learn how to fight (you're an amnesiac Republic soldier, so you've forgotten how to do anything). This takes you through a fight or two until you come to a situation against an opponent you aren't tough enough to face yet. Ulgo fights and gives his life so you can keep going, because the game would be very short otherwise. Left alone, you hear Carth Onasi over your comm. unit. His disembodied voice then directs you to the escape pods so you can get off the ship.

Once you escape, you crash land on a planet called Taris. Taris is a planet-wide city, similar to Coruscant in the Star Wars canon. This is your first staging area to find out more about the story and begin collecting team members. The first team member is Carth, who helped you out of the wreckage of the escape pod before the Sith could find you. This is when you learn that Malak, the game's primary antagonist, is scouring the galaxy to kill Jedi, and a very important one named Bastila Shan was on board the Endar Spire.

Now she's missing somewhere on Taris.

You can also recruit other team members on Taris, such as a Twi'lek rogue named Mission Vao, her Wookie companion Zaalbar, a computer-expert droid named T3-M4, and a Mandalorian mercenary named Canderous Ordo (hmm, a warlike mercenary? Surely Urdnot…-err, I mean you're not serious). And, of course, your first major mission is to do what you must in order to free Bastila. This takes you throughout Taris and multiple branches of the storyline. It also gives you the first real chance to alter your story based on the morality choices you make.

This mechanic has become central to BioWare games and many others who hope to reach the same level of game prominence… to varying degrees of success (Kingdoms of Amalur, anyone?). It also fits a Star Wars game, if a bit restrictive in its binary light side/dark side choice breakdown. The decisions you make can have a real effect on some aspects of the game and how your story will play out in certain cutscenes. We'll talk about the ultimate ending possibilities later (hint, hint).

Anyway, while on Taris you get plenty of opportunities to ask questions of your team members and get back story, much like every Mass Effect game (and other games of this subgenre, like Neverwinter Nights, Baldur's Gate, Dragon Age, Icewind Dale, and so on). However, you can also spend time in cantinas, learn to play various mini-games that will recur throughout KOTOR (like dueling, playing Pazaak, and swoop racing), and buy and equip new gear. You level a lot early because of the missions you have to go through to keep the main story moving forward, regardless what moral decisions you make.

Once you have rescued Bastila and finished what you need to on Taris, you are directed to board (steal) the ship which will be your new staging area for the rest of the game. The Ebon Hawk has multiple rooms, some of them occupied by any NPCs you have recruited to bring with you. You can chat with these characters to gain background, further developing your own character based on your moral choices in these interactions. They will also offer information that can lead to new side quests if you choose carefully. There are even places to repair or upgrade weapons and navigate your ship to other worlds. But before you can explore or find any of this, you escape just in time to watch millions of innocents being killed by Malak's ship. It builds character.

Next you discover that you could be a Jedi on Dantooine and must train to become stronger and more powerful. Plus, you get lots of new abilities and equipment (like a freaking light saber!). You solve more problems while there, learn how to fight using your new abilities, and investigate and solve crimes. You can even recruit another team member, the fallen Jedi Padawan named Juhani, if you don't decide to kill her (see how decisions can affect small aspects of gameplay, even if they don't really change the ultimate ending?).

Is a lot of this starting to sound familiar?

me3-kotor-2This is, uh, a team building exercise. Yeah. Character building, that's it.

Remember Mass Effect 2? You wake up after being dead, (curiously similar to KOTOR where your former identity – Dark Jedi Revan – has been taken from you, effectively "killing" you). In ME 2, you wake to hear Miranda's voice telling you what to do. It's the same as the opening of KOTOR, just in reverse: The disembodied voice leads you until the teammate takes over. You go through the basic tutorial with Miranda's direction, learning how to shoot and take cover and generally not die (again) until Jacob helps you the rest of the way to the escape shuttle.

Working your way around Taris is similar to life on The Citadel in the first Mass Effect game, what with its varied sub-missions and mini-games. KOTOR has a shorter build-up before you get to the first staging area, but once you wake up after the beacon on Eden Prime is destroyed in ME 1, you wind up in the same situation. You can spend time and effort going through the different levels of The Citadel buying and selling equipment, solving people's problems, and collecting teammates like the Krogan mercenary Urdnot Wrex, former C-Sec Officer Garrus Vakarian, and a Quarian computer expert. You also get a lead on an Asari scientist on another planet (that you recruit) named Liara T'soni.

Tali – the Quarian – helps you prove that Saren is really a villain (and thus the primary antagonist of the story). Once you have proved this, you become a SPECTRE, one of the Intergalactic Council's lone-wolf operatives (kinda like a Jedi Knight), and begin your quest to stop Saren's plot.

Every Mass Effect game lets you travel to other worlds aboard the Normandy, much as KOTOR has you jetting to multiple worlds in the Ebon Hawk, each world with storylines of its own. While doing so in KOTOR, you encounter a shady corporation named Czerka that seems to be mucking things up for Wookies on their native world of Kashyyyk and the Sand People on Tatooine. You discover an intergalactic criminal underground called "The Exchange." You also buy, sell, and upgrade your equipment. You accomplish all of this while making choices that lean you closer to either the light or dark side and send you hurtling to the inevitable Final Battle with Malak. Boss fight!

Seeing a pattern yet?

Czerka Corporation brings to mind another mysterious organization in the Mass Effect series that has issues with non-human species: Cerberus.

KOTOR's "The Exchange" is reminiscent of ME's Shadow Broker network.

Malak's complete destruction of Taris certainly shows where the cinematic of the Reaper attack on Earth at the start of Mass Effect 3 came from.

On Dantooine you learn that Malak is trying to conquer the galaxy with something called The Star Forge. While you're there, you have the opportunity to kill, spare, or convert Juhani to your side, just like Urdnot Wrex on Virmire in the first Mass Effect.

In order to stop KOTOR's Malak, you must find the location of the Star Forge using the maps that an ancient race left behind on different worlds (like the Protheans and their beacons).
Once you find it, you must land on the planet close by (populated by tribes of an ancient species known as Rakata) in order to access the Star Forge itself.

This sounds absolutely nothing like the search for The Conduit that Saren is after.

... Which takes you to a mysterious planet called Ilos, where you are told by a long-dormant Prothean program called Vigil that you must fight your way through the Geth that have been left behind by Saren.

... In order to use The Conduit and catch/stop Saren before he destroys everything.

And BioWare doesn't just reuse writers, directors, and scenes they like - like any good game developer or publisher attempting to save money, other assets are also reused.

me3-kotor-1

Mass Effect fans might recognize the voice of KOTOR's Carth Onasi as that of Raphael Sbarge, who voiced ME's Kaiden Alenko.

Bastila Shan from KOTOR? That would be Jennifer Hale, known more affectionately to Mass Effect fans as the voice of the female Commander Shepard (FemShep).

KOTOR's Juhani makes an appearance in the Mass Effect series as the biotic criminal Jack, both voiced by Courtenay Taylor.

Heck, there's even a loading screen in KOTOR that tells you "It is believed that hyperspace travel was brought to this galaxy by an advanced race now extinct." Mass Relays, anyone?

So was it really that much of a surprise when even the new extended ending for Mass Effect 3 was shown as a series of animated stills and a few brief cinematics with commentary? That's all you saw at the end of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Dark Side, Light Side, didn't matter. You got a few cinematics showing how your chosen path affected the ending with spoken commentary. And here's the thing: That's all you needed.

Both series needed to end the way they did (once the Extended Cut was applied to ME 3, that is). It's good storytelling when it wraps up briefly like that. The big issue most people had with the Mass Effect series' endings was that their choices weren't reflected enough in the final cinematics.

But they were reflected in the gameplay.

If you killed Wrex on Virmire, or lost Jack when going through the Omega Relay, or chose the Geth over the Quarians in ME 3, didn't that choice show up in the story before the end?

Of course it did.

None of this is meant to detract from KOTOR or the Mass Effect series. Both are fantastic and have an incredibly high replay value (I still replay KOTOR, dated graphics and all). It just illustrates how the past can give you a glimpse of the future, especially when it comes to a writer/director's tendencies. And that can often give you an edge in determining what comes next for you.

At least, in games, anyway.

What games do you think have striking similarities, even across genres? Do you agree with the above? Let us know in the comments.


- Jake "WolfpackLax" Nantz

Last modified on Thursday, 09 August 2012 16:51

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