TL;DR - Play Knights of the Old Republic 2. Really. Mad props to my friend Max for badgering me for years to sit down with it.
In the seemingly endless waking nightmare that is our existence with the Star Wars and Marvel “Cinematic Universes,” we have been treated to a lot, a lot of talking about Star Wars, but it’s not exactly a critical discourse. It’s more akin to a nonstop ejaculation from—what I can only assume Disney’s horde of marketing people would condescendingly refer to as—the “enthusiast” demographic. You know, those people who make a living screaming in reaction to the latest Star Wars or super hero trailers? Or the YouTube channels where people sit around on a mildly professional looking set decorated with geek paraphernalia and take turns saying how excited they are over every little drop of meaningless information put out about the latest film?
…may have gone a little overboard there. But that has been the tone of the discourse for some time now. There is more Star Wars than ever before, engaged with by more people than ever before, and to less meaningful effect than ever before. What I mean is, more people than ever can say they’re a “Star Wars fan,” but when they say that, they might not even like the original films—they like the mainstream, edges-rounded-off, safe, popcorn-flick blockbusters that they have become.
I am aware that I am dangerously close to becoming one of those “Star Wars is deeper than you think” guys here, which is just as bad as fawning over whatever fan service Disney dusts off and throws in a trailer, but this all bears saying. At the time of its creation, Star Wars was new, unlike anything most people had seen while incorporating Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, his ideas of the Hero’s Journey into a simple, yet emotional and compelling story. This is going to sound pretentious as fuck, but fuck it—Star Wars is not overly simplistic; it is archetypal. It is simple, but not braindead. With the ideas of the Light Side, the Dark Side, the Rebellion and Empire, the Force—big shocker here, I know, but Star Wars is building off our basic ideas of good and evil. It’s not complex, it’s not subtle, but by doing so gets to portray its age-old conflicts more clearly and with more emotional force.
Put in a nutshell, “The Emperor” is not a nuanced, Machiavellian schemer. He works best as Evil Incarnate, a representation of a darkness within Luke he must turn away from or overcome. And with that freedom to be as awful as (in)humanly possible, he gets to do incredibly cinematic, powerful fucked up stuff like electrocuting and torturing Luke in front of his father. In its way, Star Wars is profound.
So, with its seemingly interminable reign in the pop culture milieu, it is easy to see how Star Wars’ absolutism and archetypal conflicts have devolved, over decades, into mindless “good guys versus bad guys” stories. With such a limited palette, how many stories are there to tell, really?
Enter Knights of the Old Republic, a Star Wars video game that seems to understand its source material better than its creator (George Lucas) or current caretakers (Disney). Developed by Bioware in the studio’s golden age, KOTOR takes place a thousand years or so before the events of A New Hope, when the conflict was not between an Empire and Rebellion, but the Republic and the Sith. Now, the story itself is your basic Star Wars coming-into-power-and-fighting-the-big-bad adventure. You have the option to play as a Dark Side character, but the game’s interpretation of that is you playing as someone who kicks the puppies of orphans as they’re crying outside their burning orphanage for fun. In classic black-and-white Star Wars fashion, if you want to be someone remotely reasonable or human, you have to play as a Light Side character who is ridiculously generous and charitable at their own expense. That being said, the setup and backstory are nuanced in a way that would be greater capitalized on in Knights of the Old Republic 2.
Before the game even starts, in a relatively peaceful time for the Republic, an unruly ancient clan of warriors called the Mandalorians started raiding Outer Rim worlds just outside of the Republic’s territory. Think “Klingons” or any of the myriad of honor-bound, warrior types in science fiction and you’ll be on the right track for the Mandalorians. The Republic, in its hesitancy, decided not to attack until the Mandalorians took actual Republic territory—and eventually, the Mandalorians attacked the Republic itself, on several different worlds at once. Overstretched and, honestly, outmatched in prowess and general strategy, the Republic’s military took loss after loss. In desperation, they turned to the Jedi for assistance. But the Jedi—being the Jedi, and rather self-conscious about only doing the right thing—waited on their decision to join the war. See, they were still recovering after their own mishaps with a rogue Jedi-turned-Sith named Exar Kun. (Funny how that happens a lot, isn’t it?) So, as they waited and deliberated and deliberated, more and more worlds were falling, millions were dying in the Outer Rim to the Mandalorians.
One Jedi, however, advocated joining immediately. And not just any Jedi, but the Jedi’s greatest student, the closest thing they had to a celebrity, Revan. Without going into too much detail, let’s just imagine, for the sake of illustration, that this is Luke Skywalker. He’s a hero. A guy like him arguing that the war should be fought resulted in many, many Jedi joining him. And right off the bat, the war started turning around under Revan’s command. He, apparently, was not just a hero, but a great general. And at a final battle at Malachor V (more on that later,) Revan defeated the Mandalorians once and for all. But then his forces went missing for a few months, only to reappear under a Sith banner and turn on the Republic. In a Caesar-like fashion, Revan was marching on the capital with troops he had converted to his cause. Imagine US troops sailing back from Japan in World War 2 to attack Hawaii and San Francisco. It was like that.
Desperate, out of options, facing the end of the Republic (again,) the Jedi take Revan alive with a small SEAL-Team-Six-type squad, and wipe his memories.
EXPOSITION END (SORTA)
Here is where KOTOR starts its story. You play as an amnesiac Revan, turned against his former allies without his knowledge. This premise eventually devolves into black-and-white good-and-evil, but at least at the beginning, there are shades of grey. Was Revan so wrong for joining the war? Why did he turn back on the Republic? And was it at all ethical for the Jedi to, essentially, brainwash Revan and turn him into their own weapon against the Sith army he helped create? The game never really answers these questions, nor is it very interested in them. It is, however, interested in giving you plenty of opportunities to be the most comically evil or charitable individual. The former is particularly amusing, as your face gets all evil and Palpatine-y with wrinkles and yellow eyes and yet, somehow, your companions still manage to be surprised every time you do something ridiculously evil, all “That was a really cruel thing you just did!” (Because I look so trustworthy and have been so nice up to now! Facepalm.)
But the questions that KOTOR refuses to scrutinize too deeply, Knights of the Old Republic 2 focuses on entirely, with an almost nihilistically sharp attention paid to the grey areas of Star Wars. At the end of KOTOR, Revan renounces his old ways and saves the Republic—yay! But KOTOR 2 starts a few years later, and Revan has gone missing, the Jedi are being hunted, the Republic is crumbling, and no one seems to give a shit—guess that “yay” was premature? You play as one of the Jedi who immediately joined Revan in the Mandalorian Wars, one who has now been exiled for her actions.
You wake up, alone, defenseless, trapped on a remote mining outpost, hunted by bounty hunters and Sith alike. One of the first people you talk to, Atton (a Han-Solo type who actually only poses as that to hide that he used to be a Jedi Hunter), makes one point resoundingly clear: he and the rest of the galaxy give zero shits that you’re a “Jedi” and not a “Sith”—to them, you’re all the same, lightsaber, Force-wielding maniacs who force (sorry, had to) the galaxy into countless wars all in the name of “balance.” And it only gets darker from there.
Your other companion, Kreia, is someone who refuses to identify as either Jedi or Sith. She finds such absolutes tedious—the Jedi are too rigid, and the Sith are too mindlessly destructive. Kreia, along the journey, happily manipulates everyone around her and encourages you to do the same (although, as she bitterly admits at one point, she’s too unlikeable to be totally successful—she is forever doomed to be the voice of reason no one listens to.) And it is Kreia that serves as the mouthpiece for the greatest themes, ambiguities, questions within KOTOR 2.
When asked about Revan, Kreia raises several interesting points about his “fall.” Did he ever fall, or was he always like this? Was he simply acting pragmatically in a way that the Jedi could not understand? In his assault on the Republic, he left key military production facilities and worlds standing, as if he was planning in the long term to keep the Republic standing. Kreia also reveals that she was Revan’s mentor, that she taught him to leave the Jedi to pursue a path that was less encumbered by dogma, without becoming a destructive monster. She also points out, that in many respects, people do not become their best selves until they are tested by conflict. So, charitable acts that take this hardship away from them—or, say, rushing to the defense of the Republic—rob them of these tests. And the Republic has never truly been tested, because the Jedi always rushes to its defense. Perhaps it deserves to fall?
As an exiled Jedi who knew that the Mandalorians had to be fought immediately, you are an ideal next pupil for Kreia. Throughout the game, your character is referred to, several times, as a “wound in the Force,” as you are still distanced from the Force due to the traumatic events of Malachor V (a clearer metaphor for trauma, I cannot find). See, Malachor V was not any regular battle, it was a deliberately cruel feint on Revan’s part where he lured the Mandalorians out with his own, least loyal forces. And with all of his (and your) enemies all together, the exile gave the order to fire a superweapon that destroyed the entire planet. Obviously, ordering the death of so many left a bit of a scar on the main character.
That this connection to the Force can be wounded, battered like this, frightens the Jedi and makes them regard you as an abomination. Where there should be a connection to the Force, your character only has an emptiness—she is one of the few people who has chosen to turn away from the Force and succeeded, and not only that, still lived. So the question is raised—is your character deafened to the Force, somehow hollow or dead inside, or is she more alive and free for being able to distance herself from it? The Jedi Council thinks the former, while Kreia thinks the latter.
To question Star Wars’ archetypal ideas of the Light Side and Dark Side is to question our basic ideas of good and evil, and to wonder what the Force really means is to question, on a spiritual or philosophical level, our connection to the universe. And KOTOR 2 does this all the time.
Take the villains, for example. They are not classic Star Wars villains, bent on power or domination. In fact, they are portrayed as the victims of their own perverted connection to the Force, as they are both also victims of Malachor V. Darth Sion, whose body has millions of bone fractures and is about to fall apart at any moment, holds his shattered form together with only the Force and his pain. Darth Nihilus has been so wounded that he can only live by consuming the Force around him, literally living off the destruction of others for his own benefit. He is constantly hungry for more because he is incapable of supporting himself—only taking from others. (Do I need to bring up that this is an obvious trauma metaphor again? I am reminded of lifeguard training, how someone who is drowning will involuntarily drag you down if you give them the chance.) I won’t beat around the bush here; these are the coolest, creepiest Star Wars villains I’ve ever seen. Nihilus cannot even speak, reduced to otherworldly shrieks from underneath a mask.
KOTOR 2, by acknowledging, not just that the Force can be wounded, but that it maybe should be—to hide from such trauma would be too similar to the reclusive, self-contained, disconnected Jedi—advocates for a much more mature worldview than its source material. In KOTOR 2, where there should be Star Wars dogma, there are only questions, and where that belief in a greater power should be, there is only its wounded remains or emptiness.
Adding to this feeling of emptiness is the game’s general lack of content. It is a large, ambitious game, running about 30 to 40 hours, but it was developed in only 14 months. Therefore, there are huge areas that have only a few quest lines or missions. Yet this empty feeling actually adds to the game. It presents an empty, uncaring, cold universe where yes, a lot is happening, but you can’t actually do that much in it or change everything in it like you might expect to.
But it is not entirely nihilistic, for two reasons—the ending, and a scene in the middle of the game. In a vision in an ancient tomb, you see your allies turn on Kreia, saying that she has been manipulating you this whole time. Now, you can do the good guy thing and defend her, or agree with your allies. However, there is a third option—to simply say, “if you have a problem with her, you fight her.” At which point everyone turns to you and says, one at a time, “Apathy is death.” And then they all attack you. So clearly, KOTOR 2 acknowledges the dangers of its own nihilism, and tells you, as directly as possible, that despite operating in shades of grey, apathy or neutrality is not an option. Just because things are complicated doesn’t mean you get to do nothing or try to stay in the middle.
Finally, at the end of the game, Kreia betrays you and knowingly gives information to the Sith that will let them loose on Telos, the last planet of the Jedi, and the last hope for the Republic to rebuild. She then returns to Malachor V, where she hopes to somehow recreate the horrific events there and make an even greater wound in the Force, maybe even destroy it outright. Because Kreia, it is revealed, hates the Force. She hates that both the Jedi and the Sith have to rely on it, hates its constant influence on everything and how it manipulates everyone in the name of balance. In Revan, she says, she saw the Force at its most alive, and in you, she sees the death of the Force. And for that she admires you, even loves you.
There are several ironies here. Kreia hates absolutism, but attempting to destroy the Force is an even more extreme, absolute act than either the Jedi or the Sith are capable of. Also, a greater wound in the Force would likely not destroy it outright, but simply create more monsters like Sion or Nihilus. Finally, by taking these actions, Kreia accidentally brings about balance yet again. Because what Kreia wants—a life without the Force—is impossible. When something is consciously nowhere, the lack of it is everywhere
KOTOR 2 becomes, almost by accident, the most profound, hopeful story in Star Wars. A story of absolute loss, of being absolutely broken by the world at its worst, but coming back from it slowly, painfully. Where the Force, usually unassailable, can be damaged or wounded, but how that actually makes us stronger. It’s like that truism in screenwriting—“a hero’s accomplishments are only as good as the difficulty of their struggle.” It is easy for Star Wars to be hopeful when you know everything is going to work out, when the Force will always bring balance. But ironically, by showing the Force at its very worst, KOTOR 2 shows how it will never leave. If it can come back from this, what can’t it come back from?
I actually started KOTOR 2 with the intention of being a cutthroat, pragmatic Revan-type character. After becoming sick of the cookie-cutter morality of the original KOTOR, I was consciously trying to be the least straight-up “good” or “bad” character. I wanted my character to stick by her actions, to question the Jedi, but not be a cartoon villain. Here’s the thing, though—the game actually succeeded in changing my mind for the more positive. Throughout, characters hammer you again and again on your actions in the Mandalorian Wars—was it worth it, knowing it led to Revan turning, that kind of thing. And at first, I stuck by it profusely. “Yes, I saved lives, fuck you”— answers to that effect. But around the halfway mark, I actually reconsidered. My character would go with Revan all over again, if she had the choice, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t acknowledge how she regretted the consequences. She was no stuffy Jedi, but she tried to change and be her best self.
I am reminded of Blake’s ideas of “higher innocence” here. Reacting to Milton and Paradise Lost, Blake wrote that both Heaven and Hell, good and evil are necessary, for “without contrarieties there is no progression.” Meaning—in a very Kreia-like, way, I hope you notice—that conflict and tensions are necessary to grow. Unlike the Bible, Blake does not lament the Fall as regrettable, but acknowledges that knowledge, experience, and exposure to evil is necessary to come back to an even Higher Innocence. This is when our innocence is bolstered by knowledge. We do not have to wallow in our bad experiences—they are an opportunity to grow.
That is what Knights of the Old Republic 2 does for Star Wars. It brings an otherwise archetypical and naïve series into experience and maturity. But by deconstructing it or discarding its weaker elements, KOTOR 2 actually shines an even brighter light on the profound aspects of Star Wars. After being defeated, Kreia asks only one more thing of you—that whatever you do next, it be entirely your choice. So, the game’s last message is imparted. The world is complicated, but there is still right and wrong, and all we can do is our best, listen to our own wisdom. From emptiness comes unlimited potential.
…see why I’m annoyed by the new Star Wars now?