Obsidian Entertainment’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords (2004)

kotorii_steamDeveloper Obsidian Entertainment was born of former PC RPG giant Black Isle Studios’ closure, and with the name Chris Avellone affixed as lead designer and writer there was an expectation that we’d be seeing something transcending the low standard of video games — even if, or in spite of, their use of the Star Wars license to do so, a license that was at the time stuck on a loop of self-created cliches and stilted creativity, and would continue to be stuck in a loop until the 2016 release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

What Obsidian’s crew ended up doing was to look at Star Wars — at all George Lucas, BioWare (with the first Knights of the Old Republic), and every author in the Expanded Universe (EU) had accomplished in creating something brilliantly addictive with the monomythic structure — and wrench a knife somewhere in the franchise’s guts and twist, twist until everything that gives the Star Wars appeal is torn apart. Piece by piece, the Sith Lords subtly begins feeding you each and every tired expectation, and, as they come, what you feel is this growing sense of relief, this subconscious drive to be satiated on your own literary comfort food — but there’s always this moment, and you come to expect that too, come to rely on it as the antithesis to your prior highs — there’s always this moment the game asks Why? Of this path so often repeated, what accomplishments do you imagine?

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In the game’s beginning stages, a beggar family, torn apart both financially and physically by war, asks for your help. It’s a paltry sacrifice on your part to ensure their safety, and there’s no reason not to do it, except nearby stands a man asking for the same outcome, but in place of your own personal sacrifice he offers great monetary gain. It’s either-or, here, and the tendency of players will be towards ‘good’ over ‘evil,’ so the sacrifice is made in favor of that beggar family, who then hobble off pitifully to presumed safety and bright futures. You yourself positively reflect on the morality bonuses given for another day saved — and the game stops you dead in your tracks, voicing (almost exclusively through your mentor Kreia) its frustrations with the ignorance inherent in your actions.

“If you seek to aid everyone that suffers in the galaxy, you will only weaken yourself… and weaken them. It is the internal struggles, when fought and won on their own, that yield the strongest rewards. You stole that struggle from them, cheapened it. If you care for others, then dispense with pity and sacrifice and recognize the value in letting them fight their own battles. And when they triumph, they will be even stronger for the victory.”

No matter your in-game answer for Why?, the result is always the same: Your choice, perceived as the moral high ground, was nothing but a wasteful performance of ignorant folly. Drawing parallels of your actions to vampirism, your acts of kindness, of Jedi charity, do nothing but steal what power the helpless may hold for your own use (i.e., the experience points gained by your choice, an idea reflected in Star Wars lore itself without any statistics). No matter how buried motives are under the guise of self-sacrifice, helping the needy only serves to weaken them, altering their perceptions on universal modality and, in some cases, making them targets to others more desperate and lethally-driven towards the same goal.

kotor2_kreiaBy following the ‘goodness’ of the Jedi code — a lie fabricated for self-preservation and personal profit — it’s suggested you just led an entire family to their death.

This deconstructive direction outside the realm of predictable comfort is what makes the Sith Lords such a massive improvement over BioWare’s excellent predecessor. Really, the story is just too good for Star Wars, its goals far too high and self-aware, but also something the brand has desperately needed for a long time.

Yet, while the writing of the Sith Lords is far stronger than its prequel, it’s hard to call this sequel a better game. Achievements aside, the Sith Lords is riddled with bugs, moments of atrocious pacing issues, and literally a quarter of the game unfinished. Many of these issues have been repaired by dedicated fans over the years since release, but that’s still not enough: The long intro segment and Nar Shadaa still feature pacing issues that stem from more than a rushed development cycle, but simply clumsy planning and writing.

Kreia’s continued domination over the players’ own emotional turmoils are what champion this game ahead of so many others, her words forever scarring views of Star Wars as fluffy entertainment. Amidst the wealth of programming issues that would come to define Obsidian’s games, it’s that writing — that twisting of archetypal norms and the assumption of a moral compass built from her presence — that make this journey so worthwhile. In the rush to finish this game under a holiday development schedule, Kreia’s written out as Darth Traya, but despite the new name’s implications, and despite the donning of black robes, she’s never convincing as a villain. For one, it’s hard to buy her archetypal mask as a shadow figure when she’s always right, even if she is pushy and demanding. Her role as a mentor is far more believable.

“What do you wish to hear? That I once believed in the code of the Jedi? That I felt the call of the Sith, that perhaps, once, I held the galaxy by its throat? That for every good deed I did, I brought equal harm upon the galaxy? That perhaps what the greatest of the Sith Lords knew of evil, they learned from me? What would it matter now? There is only so much comfort in knowing such things, and it is not who I am now.

It’s long before she makes her name in betrayal that she raises the avatar and herself from the dead. Five years have passed since the events of BioWare’s Knights of the  Old Republic, since Revan redeemed themselves — the pawn of the Star Wars cliche repeated almost by the decade — and saved the galaxy, The next galaxy-wide threat is already in full effect, but not many seem to know it. This behind-the-scenes orchestration of tragedy is defined by an absence in the Sith Lords: The concentration of power so great, so abnormal even by the brand’s standards that it threatens itself strictly by persisting, every moment needed to devour the essence of this life that connects every living being. Sith Lords Sion and Nihilus, Kreia’s guiding hand, and the player’s Avatar — exiled by choice from the Jedi Order for their own acceptance of rational, necessary darkness — are all representative of the ultimate consequence of the power sought by good and evil in Star Wars’ lore; each in their own way black holes eating away at what seems, on the surface, like a coherent system guided by a familiar mythos born long before George Lucas’ 1977 film.

kotor2_ep4posterThe rest of the supporting cast lends a helping hand in reinvent the Star Wars universe, too, with the best among them following the same route the game’s overall quest system takes. The first to join your cause is — of course — a clone of Han Solo even down to the predilection for familiar catchphrases, but as the story progresses his character is turned inside out, his snarky personality made merely a coping mechanism for his horrific past. Another is a twist on the now-stereotyped wookie: A psychopath tortured by his own culture, he adheres under a broken sense of honor to life debts — that cultural norm handed down from his homeworld that would bind him to anyone who saves (or spares) his life, made famous by Chewbacca himself — that also drives his psychopathy. He’ll fight alongside those owed such a debt, but not without the constant reminder that his only wish before dying is to gleefully dismember them.

It’s this team of equally-lost souls the avatar and Kreia influence and guide on their mission to remove the devouring endgame. Since the conclusion of BioWare’s 2003 epic, Revan’s vanished and the Jedi Council lie in ruins. Barely a handful of members still live, and that persisting, devouring force quietly ravaging the galaxy has them in hiding. It’s the Exile’s job to pull these hiding Jedi out of their inherent selfishness either by hunting them down or banding them together to save the galaxy yet again.

Fantastic characterization and dialogue aside, story progression doesn’t bring the same joy or discovery BioWare gave players, due possibly to overcomplication or ridiculous ambition beyond Obsidian’s budget. The series, along with all EU material, has since been removed from canon in the wake of Disney’s franchise buyout. Most Star Wars fiction before and after Disney’s purchase remained safe to the cliches of Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope, including 2015’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens. With the recent release of Gareth Edwards’ subversive Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in 2016 — 12 long years after Obsidian’s RPG was released — perhaps there’s hope again that these old tropes need to continue being turned on their heads in order to keep the franchise fresh and interesting.

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BioWare’s secondary studio in Austin, TX, revived the KOTOR brand with an MMO in 2011.
written June 2013, revised January 2017 for That’s Not Current
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