When you’re a junior in college you typically don’t consider the threads that hold your life together.
Yet I find myself in an existential crisis after the relationship I’ve had for the last four years — my only “serious” one — comes to an abrupt end. Yes, I am a cliché. I’m the goddamn Indian John Cusack. Give me the boombox.
Weeks pass by, then months. Everything becomes onerous. I can’t fall asleep. Once I finally do, I can’t bring myself to get out of bed. Everything is a senseless, worthless, pain in the ass. Including eating, which I guess is okay since I could stand to shed a few pounds.
Luckily for me, the one thing this low-to-middle grade depression hasn’t yet zapped is my desire to learn. I am able to take breaks from my own sad existence by diving into my studies. As lame as it might sound, I’ve got a hard-on for my operating systems class. It’s incredibly difficult, which is perfect: it keeps my mind off of her. The semester goes by in one big blur, as days turn into nights into days, like a Vegas casino. This effect is what the underground labs at Soda Hall are famous for, and tonight my team finally wraps up our final virtual memory manager code test around 1:30 am. Another project done.
I should be relieved.
I mean, it’s the weekend. In theory, I can finally relax. But now all I feel is that same lack of purpose and the depression slowly seeping back in. I’d found a perfect distraction, and the idea of having time to myself is unnerving — almost scary. Being stuck in my own head has become my worst fear.
On the way back to my apartment I pass a Blockbuster Video. Oh shit, I have an outstanding rental in my backpack. It’s a game for the Xbox called The Knights of the Old Republic (or “KotOR”), set in the Star Wars universe — an Xbox exclusive from one of my favorite game developers, Bioware. And it has been in my backpack for 12 days, completely forgotten.
Suddenly, I have purpose. I need to play the crap out of this game over the next two days before it’s due back. I can do this.
As I approach my apartment, I hear music and shouting from within. An after-party of some sort, assembled by my “fun” roommate. With lots of people. Ugh.
I walk into the living room and am fucking Norm from Cheers as a few of the partiers celebrate my arrival with a round of mystery shots. I put on my party mask and give out high-fives before walking into my room and finding three strangers, two girls and a bro, passed out on my bed.
Alright. Now that sleep is completely off the table, it’s KotOR time. I rifle through my backpack for the unmistakable blue, gold, and white Blockbuster cover, crack the case, and remove the disc from within.
I turn the Xbox on, noting the dust that had started gathering within its ridges, and slide the disc in. A couple of my friends are making out on the couch. Whatever. I plop down on the carpet as the familiar Star Wars opening crawl takes over the TV screen, filling me in on events that occurred a long, long time ago. 4000 years before Episode I. Whoa. That was unexpected. That must be the “old” in Old Republic.
The game then drops me on the Endar Spire, a Republic ship under attack. I am an engineer trying his best to keep the ship functional under heavy fire. Interesting. And apparently I have amnesia, and don’t know who I am. Also, not a lightsaber in sight. Hmm…
The ship begins to fall apart, and I need to make my way past the boarding Sith soldiers with just a blaster and my brains. The first time I encounter an enemy, the gameplay pauses, allowing me to strategize and queue up my actions. The combat system is similar to Baldur’s Gate II, but in glorious 3D instead of the standard 2D isometric view. That’s cool.
An occasional guest stops to watch for a few moments, typically asking me why I’m not joining in the drunken festivities. I grunt and continue to make my way off the ship.
Suddenly I’m wrapped up in a complex political storyline. I travel from the megapolis of Taris to the Wookie-infested forests of Kashyyyk trying to figure out who I am and how I, a simple engineer, am connected to the legendary Star Forge that the Sith are using to build their weapons. This is intense.
But then I’m broken out from my virtual reverie by a very very cute girl named Cassie, who asks me to explain what’s going on in the game. I try not to be too taken aback as she plops down on the floor next to me and listens closely while I, trying to sound as cool as I can given the situation, explain the game.
She asks questions. She seems genuinely interested. She climbs up on the now-vacant couch, lies down, and watches me play. I have an audience. A friend. And, stretch goal: a fan.
And just like that, I’m playing this awesome game while performing for this super-cute girl, which makes the game like 1000x better.
For the moment, I don’t want to be anywhere else.
While the people around me are trading Miller Lite-infused philosophies, I am trying to out-cheat my Rodian opponent at Pazaak (a blackjack-like card game).
I’m still on Kashyyyk, hoping to find a clue to the location of the next piece of the Star Forge.
The party at my apartment is winding down now, and friends and strangers are either staggering out or finding a corner to curl up in. The super-cute and interesting Cassie has drifted off into a deep sleep on the couch behind me, but in a galaxy far, far away, I am gathering new companions.
A beautiful Princess-Leia-ish woman named Bastila who has turned out to be my Jedi protector, a murderous facsimile of C-3PO called HK-47 who refuses to call me anything except a ‘meatbag,’ a Cathar Jedi punishing herself for the death of her master. And so on. I have friends.
Outside my apartment I can see the sun rising, but I don’t care: Bastila thinks that I may be strong in the Force and has started training me in the basics of the Jedi order. Nice! The game signals that a lightsaber is in my future, but I have to earn it. Bring it on.
Now the sun is shining brightly through the glass doors of the living room as the remaining hangers-on from last night’s festivities start waking up. I hear murmurs about breakfast and headaches and bathroom visits. I don’t care. I’m in the undersea labs of the ocean planet Manaan, searching for the next clue to the Forge’s origin, hoping in my heart of hearts to also find some that point to my own. It’s clear to me that I’m not ordinary. It’s clear that I’m on a hero’s journey, as trope-y as that may be. I can’t wait to discover my destiny.
I force myself to stay awake and play for several more hours, finally coming to the event that will later be hailed as perhaps the greatest plot twist in the history of videogames. With one beautifully scripted cutscene, the game reveals my identity and pulls together the threads of the story in a blinding revelation. And it all makes sense, and I can see with absolute clarity how the game, guided by my actions, has brought me to this moment of truth. I spontaneously shout, “What the fuck just happened…” and turn to the others in the room to share in my incredulity.
But there’s no one there. They’ve all taken off. It’s almost certainly past noon now. I didn’t even register super-cute Cassie creeping away. I realize that, well, our priorities might not be aligned right now.
I’m okay with that. I smile to myself, take a deep breath, and sit back down with a big grin on my face. I am having fun. I feel happy. It is an almost alien sensation. So I play KoTOR the rest of the day. Then I play all of Sunday. On Monday, before I drop the blue and gold box off at the Blockbuster Quik Drop, I go on eBay and buy my own copy of KoTOR.
It arrives a week later (praise Lord Cthulhu for Amazon Prime), and I play it all over again, this time as a female protagonist. I relive the experience, falling in love with the Riker-clone Carth Onasi instead of Bastila, and choosing the Dark side instead of the light. I relive the revelation, and it blows my mind again.
And I find that life is significantly easier, somehow.
I want to be clear about something. KoTOR is my favorite videogame of all time. It isn’t close. This isn’t surprising, given that it’s widely recognized today as being one of the greatest games ever made. Twelve years after it was first released, it’s still widely downloaded and played on the PC. Aspyr recently developed and launched a fully-featured iOS version of KoTOR and it quickly became one of the top selling paid games on the App Store.
I checked it out, of course. It holds up remarkably well. The design, the gameplay and the story were all impeccable, giving Bioware the formula that it would later use to create the seminal Mass Effect series.
But KoTOR is more than that. It’s that weekend that put a smile on my face. It’s the spark that helped my mind break free from a prison of disappointment, despair, and self-doubt. It’s the brush that brought color back into my life in the spring of 2004. It made me happy when nothing else could. It’s the attention of a pretty girl named Cassie and the love of an amazing Jedi called Bastila. It’s healing magic.
It is, by definition, art.