I had to double-check the definition of “formative-years” in preparation for this post. It turned out that it means exactly what I hoped it would, and exactly what it sounds like. Typically your formative years are the years that have a strong influence on who you are throughout your life. The years in which you built an identity for yourself and found your own unique voice as a person. For many folks, these years take place during adolescence. When I started developing my idea for this post, I knew that I wanted to revisit the games that really shaped me as a gamer and determined my gaming tastes and identity for the years to come. So that’s why this post is called The Games of My Formative Years and not The Games of My Adolescence. And it absolutely can be considered a sequel to my earlier post Games Of My Childhood.
In that post I covered four games- three Playstation 3D platform-adventures and one JRPG- and I discussed how those games resonated with me as a little kid and why I was drawn to them. I will follow a similar structure in this post (but with more in-depth analyses across several articles), and hopefully give you an insight into the nucleus of my gaming identity. I am always interested in hearing about other people’s nostalgia, so please share the games that had such a profound effect on you in the comments. I always talk with my roommate about the stories behind how he got into the games he did and what factors played a role in determining his gaming identity, so I very much encourage you to share your journeys with me!
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Growing up I was always a bigger Star Wars fan than I was a gamer. The selection of games I got was very narrow, and I ended up getting A LOT of Star Wars games (and books…and action figures…). So whenever I try to make a power ranking of my favorite all time games, there are always several Star Wars titles that make it into the top 10, because I have such fond memories of them, and they occurred during those years that formed such vivid and intense impressions on me. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic transcends mere nostalgia however. It still stands as my favorite all-time video game, edging out even The Witcher 3– which I’ve been known to defend (and worship) like a sailor in possession of the last bottle of rum.
I discovered KOTOR at the age of 12 by reading an article on it in the official Xbox magazine, which for some reason we had a random issue of. The piece went on for several pages and was complete with beautiful images depicting the Jedi academy on Dantooine and the sun-splashed beaches of Rakata Prime. I remember distinctly looking at a screenshot of the Taris Upper City, seeing the player character surrounded by gleaming spires and sassy pedestrians. The caption read something like “Immerse yourself in a living, breathing world” and at that point I was hooked. I had never quite seen or heard of a game like that before. The only RPG I had ever played at that point was Pokemon, which was 2D, black-and-white, and completely without the same sense of scale and wonder. KOTOR seemed like a game designed to meet my personal specifications; it promised nonlinear gameplay and hub areas where I could talk to ordinary citizens, visit shops, drink in cantinas, and essentially live in the Star Wars universe. And that’s something I’ve always wanted more than anything- to get inside the fantastic worlds I watched in the movies and read about in the novels of the Expanded Universe. AND the game promised that I could create my own character, right down to his likeness and his profile as a Jedi Knight. What more could I ask for?!
I asked to get the game for Christmas of 2004. At the time there were actually two games that I asked for. The other was Jedi Outcast, because I had loved Jedi Academy so much and wanted more of it. I was lucky to have received both, but it was KOTOR that won my heart. We have this tradition in my family that we save a few small gifts for Boxing Day that we call “Tree Presents”. On December 26th, our aunt, uncle and cousins will come over and we’ll have a Boxing Day meal before opening them. Despite being completely enamored with the advertisement of KOTOR in the Xbox magazine, put down Jedi Outcast as my main present request. So I got Outcast on Christmas Day, not knowing that KOTOR had been put back to Boxing Day. This next part is truly pathetic. Being the hormonal 12 year old that I was, I started crying on Boxing Day, thinking that I had missed my chance at getting this game. My sweet aunt found me on the stairs and asked what was wrong, and somehow I still had the self-awareness to realize that I was being a spoiled brat, so I said something like “I guess I’m just going through puberty, and I’m worried that Christmas won’t be as fun now that I’m growing up”. I know, I know. What a dork, right?
It took me a while to get the hang of KOTOR. Up until this point, I had only really played linear adventure titles. All of a sudden I was wandering the streets of Taris and not really knowing where to go or what to do. When I did finally get used to the whole RPG thing, the game revealed itself to be everything it promised AND MORE. There is a reason that Knights of the Old Republic is my favorite Star Wars property of all time, regardless of medium. The fact that it took place 4000 years before the events of the movies gave it an incredible amount of creative freedom and a real sense of freshness. The quality of the writing and dialogue was far superior to that of George Lucas’ movies. For the first time I felt like I was getting a Star Wars narrative that was nuanced, complex and mature. I remember Saturday mornings; my brother and I were sitting cross-legged in our pajamas, and we were shocked that a Star Wars character had used the world “bloody” (which, in the UK is a soft swear word).
I liked the scale of the narrative, gazing in amazement at seeing the Sith existing not as hidden shadows but openly as a rival institution to the Republic. We got to talk to Sith troopers and officers who had thoughts and opinions of their own, that led lives as normal and mundane as those of the Republic troopers opposite them. For the most part they were remnants of the Republic army that had fought in the Mandalorian wars, and they and the Republic seemed like rival superpowers, much like the USA and Russia during the Cold War. The planet Manaan was always particularly intriguing because of its neutrality in the galactic conflict. It gave us a nuanced setting in which both of these superpowers wanted the precious resource Kolto, which was harvested by the native Selkath in an underwater chasm known as the Hrakert Rift. We had this great setting that presented two rival powers as political institutions, each of them vying for diplomatic favor. There was tension and intrigue between the officers on Ahto City, and we could go around and talk to the Sith and see that they were just as human as the Republic, the only notable exception being that the latter talked in heroic American accents and the Sith were cast as smug Victorian imperialists. It’s okay though. I actually find it quite funny and amusing that the British accent seems to be the accent of choice for the villains in the Star Wars universe. Just look at Grand Moff Tarkin and practically every other Imperial officer in the film series.
All of the worlds had a unique and interesting story. On Kashyyyk we were presented with another interesting and nuanced narrative that seemed to draw on real world issues, this time with the introduction of Czerka Corporation as a greedy, profit-hungry company intent on securing a monopoly on the Wookie slave trade. I liked Czerka because they were a different kind of villainous entity than what we were used to with the Star Wars universe. Then you had Korriban, where you had to go undercover as a Sith acolyte and get inducted into the academy. It just seemed like every mission was unique and well thought out. I realize at this point that I’m beginning to sound like a complete sycophant, but let’s just drop all the pretentions and come clean: that’s exactly what I am. I think the system in which almost every planet had a hub area followed by a wild area really worked well. The game beats out Mass Effect, because the Mass Effect series never really settled on what it wanted to be. Everyone had a different idea about what they wanted from the games, and as such the series was tugged in many different directions as it went on, and each title felt incomplete and never fully satisfying. I was always on the side that wanted the series to massively increase the RPG elements for which Bioware became famous. The company was built on the legendary titles of Jade Empire, Baldur’s Gate, and best of all KOTOR. In the first Mass Effect game we had Noveria, which almost seemed to channel the model of the KOTOR planets by having a hub area followed by a more wild, action-orientated area. But the problem was that the hub area on Noveria was lifeless and without much interesting stuff to do or explore. And sadly the series never really fulfilled its RPG aspirations, culminating in the diarrhea-clogged mess that was Andromeda.
Ranting about Mass Effect’s flaws might seem irrelevant to this post, but it’s far from it. Ultimately what I took away from Mass Effect says a lot about my expectations as a gamer, and those were shaped by my playing of games like KOTOR during my formative years. The impression this game made on me was so strong that it determined by and large what I would want from a game in the future. If I had grown up playing games like Halo and Splinter Cell, would my takeaway from Mass Effect have been different? What do you think? What games drove you as crazy as KOTOR drove me?