Halo, Half-Life, and Star Wars: These are the games that define the decade.
Here’s Part 1.
#25) Halo 3: ODST. Bungie, 2009. 9.2
The experimental Halo. The forgotten Halo. I get that $60 is a steep price tag for what amounts to an expansion pack, but I paid it gladly. ODST is to this series what Majora’s Mask is to Zelda: the black sheep. The dark one with strange music that plays out of sequence and isn’t afraid to beat the shit out of you for not getting it. I know that a lot of people don’t like it. Those people are wrong. ODST is just short of a masterpiece.
#24) Ico. Team Ico, 2001. 9.3
Fumito Uedo is nothing if not precise. I know that might sound strange if you’ve ever fought a losing battle against the controls in any of his games, but it’s deliberate. These games are designed to communicate almost entirely through their mechanics. In a way, Team Ico games are the diametric opposite of Naughty Dog’s. They’re quiet, contemplative and more than a little bit obtuse. They’re not showy, and they’re not polished. They are, foremost, artistic statements about video games wrapped up in strangely poetic and beautiful stories about lost children and the broken worlds that spawn them.
So it’s pretty good, I guess.
#24) Super Mario Galaxy. 2007. 9.3
So I made a mistake. I miscounted how many games I had in the first part. Instead of doing the sensible thing and removing a game from the said first part, I just added another #24.
So we move onto Mario Galaxy, which is a game I maybe appreciate more in theory than in practice. Thankfully, this might be the most interesting game of all time in theory. Primarily the brainchild Yoshiaki Koizumi, who first rose to prominence after creating the story for Link’s Awakening wholecloth after being asked to write the game’s manual, Galaxy is a dreamlike and fantastical game, equally filled to the brim with the serene, the surreal and the superfluous. It’s as tight a platformer as any ever made, though it lacks just a little of Mario 64’s epochal charm and bursting creativity.
#23) Diablo II. Blizzard, 2000. 9.3
A significant portion of my life as a person who plays far too many games is directly associated with playing Diablo II. For as many games that have tried (including its direct sequel) to capture its extremely satisfying dungeon crawl loop, none of them have ever come close to capturing D2’s spirit. The dark, dank corridors and open night skies of Sanctuary are one of the most affecting places to play a game in my opinion, and the excellent gothic art design is some of the best to ever grace a screen. It’s a game that feels a very specific way. A game I know as well as any other, and yet if I played it today, would still probably be challenged by. For my money, Blizzard has never come close to equaling their late 90s’/early 2000s output, and the biggest reason why is that they stopped trying to frighten people.
#22) Mass Effect. BioWare, 2007. 9.3
There isn’t another game on this list as ambitious as Mass Effect, and while I’ll be the first to admit it’s flaws (the menus are particularly horrid), there’s a cavalier sense of playful, exploratory hope that this adventure conjures that the other two games, better overall as they may be, seemed to ignore. Mass Effect owes much more to Star Trek than it does Wars, and no amount of shitty Mako segments can really erase that feeling.
#21) Super Smash Bros: Melee. HAL Labs, 2001. 9.3
What a completely insane concept this really is. Melee is the only Smash game to really achieve greatness, almost in spite of itself. I love it dearly, in many cases more than the Nintendo games it features.
#20) Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Rockstar, 2004. 9.4
San Andreas is a great game. You don’t need me telling you that. What I wonder is if it’s a game whose greatness has ever been properly contextualized. It’s either a game someone doesn’t care about, or it’s their favorite game forever. Honestly, it’s neither. It’s not the best game in the series. It’s not even the best game of 2004.
#19) The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Nintendo, 2000. 9.4
There’s a case to be made that Majora’s Mask is the strangest game of all time. Made in roughly a year, with the same assets and team as the venerable Ocarina of Time (as a cost-saving decision), but it had the unintentional effect of making the events of the game seem almost like a fever dream. Combine this with the morose, almost morbid preoccupation with death the game holds, and you could be excused for going along with the popular fan theory that the events of the game take place in purgatory, and Link is dead.
That feels almost too simple for this game, which bombards the players with bizarre shit for so long that it almost becomes commonplace. Then you look up and see the moon again, and you become afraid. It’s not something Nintendo does often, but it’s extremely affecting. Even the celebratory or heroic songs, as much a part of the action here as they were in Ocarina, take on a mournful quality. I could probably write forever on how strange and wonderful Mask is and never really capture it.
It’s a game where people are just trying to go on with their lives while they know everything is going to hell around them. They ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist until they can’t any longer, and then it all gets reset and they do it again. Mechanically, Majora’s Mask is a testament to creativity and experimentation. Metaphorically, it’s something more than that. Something few games, if any, have ever been able to grasp. And it was made in 10 months by a kids’ company.
#18) Batman: Arkham Asylum. Rocksteady, 2009. 9.4
What is it about Batman that took so long to make a good game out of? Superman, I get. It’s basically impossible to represent that kind of power in a virtual space. Batman already basically exists as a series of video game mechanics. It should be easy.
Somehow, it wasn’t. For all the good things I could say about Asylum, and I could say a lot, the best is that they made it seem easy. Not perfect, but pretty great. Switching between fighting, sneaking, detecting and exploring is seamless, and it still looks good. It’s still the best of the Arkham games.
#17) Grand Theft Auto IV. Rockstar, 2008. 9.4
I said something before about how GTA games work best as time capsules, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the best one ever made. For their seventh-generation iteration, Rockstar decided to pare back a lot of San Andreas’ mechanics and sheer size in favor of trying to focus on one specific story for one specific place: Niko Bellic in Liberty City in 2008.
The results of this efforts will vary based on your tolerance for Niko’s character. Contradictory, morally ambiguous and frankly kind of cruel, Niko is the perfect character to reflect Rockstar’s more cynical worldview. While it’s still a game focused on delivering a lot of jokes, the wicked smile behind those jokes has turned into world-weariness. This is not a game that thinks very highly of anyone. It can make for a depressing time, but thankfully that setting is always there to warm you back up. GTA IV’s Liberty City is not the biggest open world in gaming history. Nor is it the most feature-rich or detailed. But it might be the most singularly focused and believable. That might mean more, to me.
#16) Half-Life 2: Episode One/Episode Two. Valve, 2006/2007. 9.5
What we have here is a tale of two games. Episode One is good, but fails to be as original or as captivating as any of the ones before it, and feels far too long. Episode Two is wildly inventive and goes places the other games never dreamed, but suffers for length.
Episode One would still be on this list, don’t get me wrong. It’s as sleekly designed and clever as any self-respecting Half-Life game should be. Still, on its own it would be in the 20s. Episode Two on the other hand, is a magnificent game, the entire Half-Life experience distilled into a six hour ride. On its own, it’d probably find its way into the top ten. So I compromised.
#15) Final Fantasy X. Square, 2001. 9.5
I know a lot of people hate this game. It’s easy to see why. A (relatively) non-linear Final Fantasy with voice acting, a grating protagonist, and an incoherent plot? It’s all the series’ worst sins, compiled.
Under the surface, though, FFX can be intoxicating. The linearity of its story makes it much easier to parse as a whole than basically any other 3D Final Fantasy, and the lack of a world map makes the entire process feel very cohesive. At its core, it might be the saddest and most emotionally mature Final Fantasy, with a world facing impending doom not with adolescent broodiness, but with blank-eyed, vacant cheeriness and a determination to keep things as normal as possible.
Tidus gets a bad rap for being abrasive, and deservedly so, but by the game’s end he ends up being one of the most transformative and aggressive protagonists in the series history. Most of the other characters are similarly transgressive, particularly Wakka and Yuna, who go through the sort of dramatic arcs not seen in ancillary Final Fantasy characters since VI.
Also the art style is gorgeous, the combat system the series’ best thus far and the overall atmosphere excellent. Still looks great, too.
#14) Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Kojima Productions, 2001. 9.5
I’m not sure I could ever really describe what makes MGS2 such a strange game, even in the confines of its own insane series. I tried a couple years ago, but even then I don’t really think I got it.
A lot of people would try to single out the moment “Colonel Campbell” loses his mind as the moment when MGS2 goes off the rails, but honestly, the whole thing is insane. Right from the start, it’s a game that is openly lying to you, then laughing about it. It’s a game about the audacity of sequels, the deconstructive nature of gaming, and the nature of art being separated from the artist.
Also, there’s robot ninjas and giant robots and you can shoot a zombie vampire in the head.
#13) The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Nintendo, 2003. 9.6
Thoughts and prayers out to those misbegotten souls who argued, way back in 2002, that the Wind Waker‘s art style was bad and wouldn’t age well. Not that it was much of a question at the time, but few games from this era look anywhere near as good as TWW, recipient of maybe the least-necessary HD remake of all time, still does.
It’s fun to look at all the nitpicks of this game that seemed like controversies at the time and have now faded away in the face of its greatness, which is now self-evident. Toon Link is a wondrous visual creation, the most expressive and emotive version of the character there’s ever been. Sure, the game as a whole is a littler simpler than the others, and I understand how that could sour your experience. I’ve always thought games should stick with their biggest strengths above all else, and intricate dungeon design is one of Zelda’s.
But Zelda’s biggest strength, at least to me, is the sense of adventure and wonder they can conjure. The weird and the whimsical in equal measure. A mythic sense of freeform exploration and possibility that, until recently, no Zelda game since the original came even anyone close to as nailing as well as The Wind Waker did.
#12) Halo 3. Bungie, 2007. 9.6
Probably the biggest gaming release of my life in this point was when I had to wait two hours in the bitter cold to get the Collector’s Edition of Halo 3, with the stupid collectible helmet at midnight in September 2007. It was the first “real” Halo release that I actually had an Xbox for, and I was ready. I watched all the Vidocs. I played the beta. I’m still willing to bet that I saw more of Halo 3 before release than any game before or since.
So maybe that’s why it was kind of disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, it has probably the best campaign of the core games, from a structural side. It’s the only one that actually feels finished. I think that level of polish is part of what makes it a less exciting game than its two predecessors.
The first Halo went through nearly a half dozen different permutations before being shoved out the airlock with the original Xbox after less than three years development. The sequel had to scrapped entirely basically 20 months from launch. Both of those games have some very rough edges, but that’s what makes them great. They have ambitions that Halo 3 just isn’t interested in.
I’ve still put more time into this game’s online multiplayer than probably any other game ever, but I’m one of those weird mutants who plays these games for the campaigns, and Halo 3’s is merely just pretty good.
#11) Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Kojima Productions, 2004. 9.6
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but there’s a lot to unpack in this Hideo Kojima game. What I love most about MGS3, which is still Kojima’s masterpiece, is that the game around the weird metatextual hypernarrative is the first and only one in the series that would still be a great game in its own right.
Until MGSV, Snake Eater had pretty easily the most gameplay opportunities in the series. It’s the most open of the PS2 era games for sure, taking MGS2’s greatly improved engine and staging and improving to something truly emergent and wonderful. Some of my very favorite boss fights of all time are here.
As for the more subersive stuff (after all, Metal Gear Solid has always couched some strong transgressive, anti-war subject matter under the facade of just being another war game), well, I’ll let a more qualified voice take it from here.
#10) BioShock. Irrational Games, 2007. 9.7
Look, it’s BioShock. You know what it is. Or you don’t, in which case why are you reading this? It’s probably the most immediately recognizable and influential game of the last 15 years. As I’ve said before, it’s not necessarily the best game of its time, but it’s almost certainly the most important. I just played it again last year, and was surprised at how well it still holds up. It’s a little less sim than most Immersive Sims, but makes up for that in spades by still being one of the visually and thematically interesting games ever made.
#9) Deus Ex. Ion Storm, 2000. 9.7
I had a lot of trouble deciding where to put Deux Ex. On one hand, it’s one of my favorite games. On the other, I can’t imagine what playing it for the first time today would even be like. Even for its time, it was not a visual powerhouse. The voice acting ranges from camp to outright racist, and it’s hardly easy. There could not be a game like it made today. Not something this big and unwieldy. It would take 10 years to make.
And yet…it’s just different from anything else. It’s a game where random bartenders lecture you about the extension of governance. It’s also a game where you can light giant robots on fire. It’s a game that directly quotes Thomas Aquinas less than five minutes before it has a character who wears trenchcoats and sunglasses at night. It’s a game where every conspiracy theory is true. It’s also a game where every conspiracy theory is true.
I think, in the end, Deus Ex‘s legacy is one of malleability. It truly allows you to play it however you want, and is not only accepting of all outcomes, but prepared for them. It’s a game that lets its protagonist be wrong, constantly, and yet still allows him to be generally likable and competent. It’s the “greatest PC game of all time,” but also the most admirable, and that’s a hard balance to get right.
#8) Halo 2. Bungie, 2004. 9.7
What a giant, unwieldy mess this game is. Subject to perhaps the first real multimedia marketing campaign in the industry, Halo 2 is one of those games so influential that a lot of the worst trends in gaming can be laid at least partially at its feet. Rushed sequels, prelaunch hype, preorder bonuses and the overriding prevalence of online multiplayer in shooters that only recently seems to have turned, Halo 2 was a major contributor in all of those.
And yet, it’s hard to really blame the game. After one of the absolute rockiest development cycles in recent memory, it’s kind of a miracle that what we got was even playable, let alone great. The campaign is a sore spot for a lot of people, but lack of a real ending aside, I love it. It takes risks few sequels really have the nerve to. It has an edge, the sort of edge that only comes from a lot of creative people working hard, way too hard, a freewheeling sort of grit, that makes it truly stand out even today.
It’s kind of the last game from that original Bungie crew, which is a group I found myself weirdly in tune with in the mid-2000s. It’s one of the best sequels in gaming history.
#7) Portal. Valve, 2007. 9.7
What I’m about to say might not fit in with the ranking I’ve given it, but Portal is probably the only “perfect” game I’ve ever played. It’s the only game I couldn’t think of a way to change or improve. Initially conceived as a throw-in, Portal quickly became the biggest reason to play The Orange Box. It’s not just a great puzzle game, but one of the few truly funny games ever made. Portal 2 is a great game, truly one of my favorites, but it suffers from trying to be broader in tone than the original, just as it suffers from treating the puzzle sections a little bit like padding between story or comedy sections. Portal has no such flaws. At roughly 3-4 hours on the first playthrough, it is all killer, no filler.
More than that, it’s a strangely subversive game, an obliquely feminist critique of the first person shooter as well as being funny, taut, challenging and to this day thoroughly unlike anything else that has ever been made.
#6) Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. Obsidian Entertainment, 2004. 9.7
I’ll talk a little more about the original KotOR very soon, but independent of the series’ formula, this second game exists as a very unique, very dark take on Star Wars that I wish more of the series would trend towards. The worst thing the prequels did is permanently disabuse the very idea of Star Wars being something more complicated than the black/white, good/evil dynamic of the original films. I loved The Force Awakens, but the complete lack of subtext or even any kind of political discussion only hurt the film (without consulting Wikipedia, could you describe the relationship between the Empire and the First Order?).
The prequels tried to be complex space operas about tariffs and intergalactic treaties, and failed miserably. That doesn’t mean at least some sort of moral complexity can’t be done in Star Wars. Just look at the The Sith Lords. Written by admitted Star Wars agnostic Chris Avellone, TSL goes out of its way to deconstruct the light/dark morality of Star Wars in a way nothing else has before or since. The Jedi are shown for what the prequels showed them to be: rigid, naive moralists whose good intentions can’t cover their bad results. The Sith are shown to be more individualists than murder cult, and both extremes get some badly needed shading that deepens them as fictional entities.
To put it another way, KotOR is a Star Wars game, full of laser fights and quippy sidekicks and cool sci-fantasy gadgets in name, but also a game about the moral ramifications of applying ethics to a sci-fi setting in practice. Several of the party members are directly meant to correspond to ethical arguments and individual philosophers (Bao-Dur is a Deontologist, G0-T0 is a Utilitarian, Atton is a Kantian, Mandalore is a Realist, so on).
It’s true, the game doesn’t really have an ending (despite the best efforts of Team Gizka), but video games are unique in fiction in that they really don’t require one. It’s less immediately memorable than the original, but darker, more stylish and more interesting to think about. It’s the Majora’s Mask of this series, and I will forever be upset that we never got another one.
#5) Metroid Prime. Retro Studios, 2002. 9.8
Metroid Prime is the closest thing to perfect that isn’t Portal on this list. The only real fault I take with it is some of the backtracking is uncharacteristically lackluster for this series, and some of the boss fights are really bad on repeat playthroughs. Other than that? It’s immensely good.
Prime is also the game that awakened me to the importance of art design in games. The map screen here is one of my favorites in the medium, a completely 3D scale map of whatever area you’re in. But what fascinated me was how a simple hallway would become an intricate, complex looking cluster of branches or rocks forming the walls. Everytime I found a new area, I would compare the map representation with the actual location, and every time I was pleasantly surprised. For a game that fosters a need for exploration as much as this one does, that can be an absolute godsend. Combine that with the still never-duplicated scanning system, and I might have gotten as lost in the lore with Metroid Prime as I have any game ever.
#4) Shadow of the Colossus. Team Ico, 2005. 9.8
Most people will tell you what their favorite Colossi is. For many, it’s the 13th Colossus, nicknamed Phalanx. It’s easy to understand why. Transitioning between slow, elegiac periods and fast, exciting climbing, it’s a microcosm for Shadow of the Colossus as a whole. It’s also one of the saddest fights in the game. Set in the mysterious “Forbidden Lands,” Shadow follows Wander, an otherwise unknown young boy who has apparently stolen a sacred sword, a horse and the body of girl he loves before fleeing there in an attempt to revive her.
Meeting some sort of being, named Dormin, Wander makes a deal: Dormin will revive the girl if Wander slays sixteen Colossi. That’s the whole game. What makes it one of the most affecting game stories of all time are the small details. How most of the Colossi react to your presence less like evil video game bosses and more like confused animals trying in vain to defend themselves. How each and every boss shoots out insidious looking black tendrils after they die, and how every time Wander wakes up after that, he looks just a little bit darker. How, perhaps more than any game I’ve ever played, the community is an active part of the game’s lore and history. How a lesser game would fill the periods between boss fights with inevitably disappointing fights against normal enemies, full of stats and weapons and all that video game nonsense. This is not a lesser game. This is an incredible game. I’ve still only beaten it once, and I might never need to again.
Shadow of the Colossus infamously pushed the PS2 to its absolute limit, and in doing so became the best game ever released on the best-selling console of all time. It inspires awe, fear, wonder and sheer majesty in equal measure, while still being one of the most unorthodox and challenging platforming game every made. By the way, my favorite Colossus? Either the fifth, Avion, or the third, Gaius (pictured above).
#3) Halo: Combat Evolved. Bungie, 2001. 9.8
I’ve never understood why Halo isn’t more celebrated by the more intellectual types of game reviewers. There’s precious little analysis of Halo out there, and what there is tends to talk about the game as if it’s an adventure game masquerading as a shooter, a frivolous little nothing that doesn’t overstay its welcome. While some of that isn’t necessarily wrong (I’m not going to argue Halo is a paragon of video game writing), the presentation of it all is what makes this game so interesting.
From directly referencing Keats within the first three minutes of the game, to naming achievements after Melville lines, to the Master Chief’s name, Halo has always had a subtle literary edge that it seems most people just ignore or don’t understand. Combine this with the very unique letterboxing and giant scope, and Halo: CE is presented in a thoroughly different manner from anything else.
Then there’s the gameplay, which is so finely tuned that every portion of it feels as though it sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus. Halo CE‘s shooting is smooth enough that a new coat of paint could have convinced me it was a brand new game when the Anniversary edition released in 2011, and it still feels more intuitive and easy to grasp than any other console shooter. Every disparate piece of the game feels as though it was designed in conjuction with the rest of it. The units are just orthogonal enough to fit in with the modular enemy placement of DOOM (i.e., a room filled with Elites is a much different experience than the same room filled with Jackals). The vehicular sections are still amazingly fluid, with animations hiding the transfer of perspective.
The soundtrack is weird and synthy (another literary reference here). It took me a long time to understand what about Halo I love so much, and I’ve still never really nailed it down. I know that I have Composer Marty O’Donnell and Cinematic Director Joseph Staten to thank for most of the stuff I’ve mentioned, but it’s still not all of it. It’s a game that mixes Gregorian chanting with electric guitar, deep synths and lots of string music and still sounds fresh. It mixes doofus Aliens references with 18th century British poetry. It mixes long, contemplative walks with bombastic chase sequences, and never feels stale or uninteresting or dull, save a few Flood sequences. It’s a first-person shooter that relies on isolating the player, yet is best played cooperatively. How does that happen? Remember how you felt the very first time you saw the eponymous ringworld on the horizon in the game’s second level? Few things have ever felt more wondrous and intriguing in all my years of gaming, and it’s still intoxicating to experience. Is it simple nostalgia? Is nostalgia bad when it’s for great design and presentation?
There’s a strange purity of design to Halo, the shortened and frantic design schedule forcing the team to expunge a lot of the bloat that had come to define shooters over the preceeding years. It plays like how I envision a shooter should play, fluid and simple, yet mechanically complex and malleable under the surface. An emergent, wildly anarchic game that still retains the focus and force of personality that only linearity can provide.
I said before that the end of Bungie’s Halo games marked the end of a studio that I really came to care about, and I think this is the reason why. I never quite got exactly what their formula was, what alchemy they used to create a game like this, a game of immense structural and systemic genius that still feels like it’s flying by the seat of its pants, making things up as it goes along. I probably never will.
That’s what makes it interesting, right?
#2) Half-Life 2. Valve, 2004. 9.9
Unlike Halo, I can tell you exactly why I love Half-Life so much. It’s far too polished and clinical an experience not to understand. It’s the pacing.
“Pacing” is one of the most difficult video game terms to describe, but in this context it’s simple: Half-Life 2 never stops mutating around you. It’s almost as if Valve took a bet to prove that they could master every conceivable FPS subgenre in one game. The first few chapters, through the streets of City 17 and the Canals, are classic Half-Life. Ravenholm is a survival horror shooter. The coast chapters are Fallout or some similar post-apocalyptic game. Nova Prospekt is a corridor shooter. Coming back to City 17 is every military shooter of the day. Finally, the last few levels are some new, hitherto unknown physics mod that still has yet to be duplicated, where you fling people around with the power of a particularly angry god. Maybe a bit like Portal, but instead of portals, you just interact with the Combine through their more fleshy interfaces.
It’s all the little bits in between, the piecemeal doling out of the story, delivered less through exposition and more through environmental storytelling. The grimy little details of the world. That ineffable art style. Some of the very best incidental dialogue I’ve ever heard, in any piece of fiction. The graffiti dotting the walls. The seams here are showing (there seems to be only one voice actor for 90% of the citizens), but these feel less and less like flaws as time goes on and more like mere limitations of the form. We don’t criticize Eliot for using punctuation.
All of the creatives involved with this game, from Viktor Antonov to Kelly Bailey, seem to have almost been pulled inexorably into one another for just this brief time, and then never again. It’s almost like they were channeling something more than themselves for a few months, and then it disappeared. We’ll never see its like again. The best shooter ever made. The best game ever made.
#1) Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. BioWare, 2003. 9.9
…And yet, my favorite game is still KotOR. It always has been. I was a fool to ever think otherwise.
There’s a thousand reasons why I love KotOR. To go into them all would necessitate another playthrough that I just don’t have the time for. So here’s the short version.
As I said earlier, these games were the first to really take the idea of Star Wars seriously. This isn’t the most intellectual or philosophical sci-fi universe, but it’s most certainly the biggest one, the one with the most possibility. Space isn’t the final frontier in Star Wars: it’s the only one. The ideas in Star Wars aren’t the biggest, but there’s more space to use them. So what a perfect fit BioWare was for this license. Their strengths, which they routinely fail to play to as of late, are in painting unique socioeconomic areas, with unique problems, characters, and factions for the player to, you know, role play with. Like it says in the name.
So each of the four major planets in KotOR (not even counting the three story-based ones that have to be played in a specific order, and the various ships), are amazingly unique to BioWare’s style. Not since 1977 have the desert wastes of Tattooine seemed so…waste-y. The giant, arboreal treescapes of Kashyyyk giving way to the terrifying-the-first-time Shadowlands. The oppressive, patriarchal chaos of Korriban. The real crown jewel here is Manaan, a picturesque water planet whose natives are (allegedly) completely neutral to the wider Galactic conflict, and heavily enforce their neutrality. So you’ve got Republic soldiers and Sith troopers unhappily coexisting while unironically beautiful music plays and you, the player, have to tiptoe through mountains of red tape to get anything done. And then you venture under the waves and everything turns into BioShock but four years earlier and everyone has been driven insane by some manner of eldritch horror and you have to kill them all.
I could go farther; I could talk about the way this game is written so every single conversation feels natural and coherent. How the characters are drawn in ways that two minutes of seeing them argue with one another about the merits of war is more enthralling than ten hours of George Lucas’ pandering Iraq War parable could ever be. How, despite the restrictiveness of the player morality system, the characters themselves inhabit every conceivable ethical station. Canderous the pragmatist, Carth the optimist, Jolee the cynic, Mission the naif, HK-47 the nihilist.
I could talk about Jeremy Soule’s charming, fairtytale score that manages to sound similar enough to John Williams’ trademark bombast without being derivative. I could talk about the extremely dense, yet surprisingly flexible D-20 system the game runs on, which allows BioWare to automate combat, their weakest area, to an extent that it can actually be fun on higher difficulties.
But instead, I’ll end this with my absolute favorite thing about KotOR, something I’ve never seen discussed anywhere else: the theatricality of it all. I don’t just mean that trademark Star Wars operatic nonsense. I mean the way the very conversations are staged. I know this was a technical limitation, but I love the way people who are hurt in this game have just the one animation. People who are angry have just the one animation. The way people simply wait for the other person’s line to be over before they interject. The way people run into frame to deliver overwrought monologues, then die. It embraces the inherent clunkiness of Star Wars’ subject matter and turns into something more Shakespearian.
I realized a few years ago that, for as much as I enjoyed being a massive Star Wars nerd in my teens, I really only love a scant few things from the license. The rest is kind of a Pavlovian response at this point; nostalgia for the sounds and feeling Star Wars evokes than for any real quality. There are two exceptions: The Empire Strikes Back, and this. My favorite movie of all time, and my favorite game.