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In an interview with Eurogamer, BioWare's James Ohlen opens up about how Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic came to be, the origins of the iconic Revan character, the importance of Ebon Hawk for every BioWare game since Knights of the Old Republic, and more. He even shares some ideas they were considering to include in a potential sequel. A few snippets:
How do you follow a game like Knights of the Old Republic, the most famous original Star Wars tale a video game has ever told? Forget about Obsidian's sequel for a moment and imagine it was BioWare staring at a piece of paper wondering how to follow a twist like Revan's. Because once upon a time BioWare was - and it came up with an idea.
Yoda. Not the actual Yoda, because canonically he's untouchable, but someone a bit like him; we know so little about Yoda's almost nonexistent species even someone in his likeness would have the same effect: trust. "We felt like Yoda was the ultimate - everyone trusts Yoda," James Ohlen tells me, lead designer of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
James Ohlen was also lead designer of Baldur's Gate 1 and 2, Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age: Origins, and director of Star Wars: The Old Republic, the online game. These days he's creative director of BioWare Austin, and he's working on Anthem. He's BioWare through and through.
Yes, Yoda would have been the perfect tool for deceiving you.
"The initial twist in the first two-page concept we had for Knights of the Old Republic 2 was you were going to be trained by a Yoda-like figure," Ohlen says, "someone from the Yoda race. That character was going to train you in the first part of the game but then you were going to discover this Yoda figure was actually not the good Yoda you expected...
"He was training you to essentially be his enforcer, a Dark Lord to conquer the universe, and he was going to become the main villain." Dun dun duunnn!
Originally, Star Wars was only one of a few licenses BioWare was considering. It was the year 2000, the turn of the Millennium, and BioWare was trying to figure out what else it could do.
"Strangely enough, before we picked Star Wars, I remember Ray [Muzyka] coming into my office and throwing a couple of books on my desk and telling me to read them because we were negotiating with the authors," Ohlen recalls. "And one of them was the book A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin.
"That never went anywhere," he adds, "but that's how I started reading it - after the first book I was like 'holy s***!' and ran downstairs to the bookshop."
BioWare settled on Star Wars because it was, and probably is, the world's most well known fantasy. Publishers know it, banks know it and shoppers know it. "And," Ohlen says, "we were all enormous Star Wars fans."
The game LucasArts signed up for, however, was quite different. "When we first signed the deal, all that was known was it was going to be a Star Wars role-playing game done by BioWare," he says. "What LucasArts had initially expected was us to do a paintover of Baldur's Gate, and it was going to be a 2D, side-scrolling Star Wars game."
But to BioWare, Star Wars meant movies. "It wouldn't feel true to Star Wars if it wasn't cinematic." It meant bringing the camera down behind the player and showing a full 3D world. It meant cutscenes and fully voiced characters. More than any other BioWare game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic paved the way for the cinematic style we know BioWare for today.
The Star Wars movies also presented a problem. "We wanted to be able to tell an epic story," he says, "because that was always something we fought for. Even during the Baldur's Gate days we were being pushed to do a very down to earth, non-epic story, and we were like, 'No! You're going to be the son of the God of Murder and it's going to be epic.' We feel like with escapism, you want it to be larger than life.
"But with Star Wars it's harder to tell a larger than life story during the movie era because all of the big events - Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader - happen in the movies."
The solution came from a Dark Horse comic series called Star Wars: Tales of the Jedi, set thousands of years before - and well out of the way of - the Star Wars films, in an era known as the Old Republic. All BioWare had to do was bump the timeline forward a bit in order to implement technology more familiar to the films - "the comic books had Lightsabers with cables attached to a power belt, and starships with sails" - and hey presto! it had a perfect setting for its own story about a ragtag group taking on an empire.
BioWare didn't spend much time on Revan at all. "Darth Revan was less of a character because he was going to be the player, so we didn't actually want to develop him too much," Ohlen says. "Darth Malak was the one we spent more time giving a character arc to and a background to and a personality to." And no prizes for guessing which wheezy movie Dark Lord he's modelled on with his large stature and robotic jaw, albeit with splashes of red instead of all black.
Revan's name took all of about three seconds to conjure. "The funny thing is, people on message boards will try and guess at the incredible depth we went to name the characters," Ohlen says. Could Revan be an old English spelling of 'raven', and mean a dark-haired and thievish person? Could Revan come from the noun "Revanchism", which means "a policy of seeking to retaliate, especially to recover lost territory"?
"What they don't realise..." Ohlen adds with a chuckle. "Maybe I shouldn't be revealing this because it wrecks the mystery!
"I think I flipped through a book and there's a villain in one of my D&D campaigns - a lot of the names came from my old Star Wars campaign I ran as a teenager - called Revanac, and I was like, 'That's not very good, I'll just lop off the last part.' Revan, boom, done."
There was one Star Wars movie character BioWare knew Knights of the Old Republic couldn't do without - and one whose inclusion would have a far reaching effect on both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series.
"One of the cores to Star Wars is the Millennium Falcon," Ohlen says. "The Millennium Falcon is as important a character as some of the main characters like Han Solo and C-3PO and all the rest. We wanted to have the Ebon Hawk be your own Millennium Falcon, we wanted it to be a core of the game. It was, essentially, your home base."
Being in the Ebon Hawk made you feel like you were flying around space, but you weren't, it was an illusion - you only ever saw cinematics of the Ebon Hawk flying down onto planets or away from them. It was also an area you could have, as Ohlen says, "more intimate conversations and character moments".
"It worked out really well for us," he says. "It was a good place for you to roleplay with your companions and to make the world feel bigger than it actually was." The idea stuck and BioWare would use it again and again. "The Normandy [in Mass Effect] was modelled after the Ebon Hawk; even your travelling campsite in Dragon Age: Origins was modelled after the Ebon Hawk."