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LONG BLOG

Breaking with conventions: KOTOR 2

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In the wake of recents news that BioWare is planning on releasing a unique bonus chapter for SWTOR's recent expansion, where you play as HK-55. I thought I'd like to do a retrospective look on another of my all-time-favorite games, where you get to play as the steel-hearted-deadpan-lovable-assassin droid as well.. and other thiings! Namely, KOTOR2. 

You see KOTOR 2 isn't just a game I think is good, it's a game and an RPG I always find worth replaying again and help remind me that games are always worth defending. It is developed by Obsidian Entertainment, famously known for its involvement in gaming history's most heralded western RPGs--Back when they were Black Isle they did Icewind Dale, Baldur's Gate and of course Planescape: Torment. Ever since then they've dissolved, and key members Feargus Urquhart, Josh Sawyer, Chris Avellone (now departed) and others founded Obsidian and made wonderful underrated gems such as Neverwinter Nights 2, Alpha Protocol and of course KOTOR2.. and lest we not forget, the recent South Park: The Stick of Truth.

The sad reality is that KOTOR 2 was doomed to live in the shadow of its predecessor, which has been widely praised and lauded a whole lot more than the former. This is where my stance differs from what I assume to be the common consensus opinion on the game. To me, KOTOR 2 was always the better game even without the Restoration Mod. 

It's more contemporary and human than any Star Wars story I recall beyond Empire Strikes Back--Star Wars is bombastic escapism sci-fi-fantasy about the good and well meaning underdogs, tearing down their tyrannical oppressors.. then everybody gets cake. KOTOR 2, however, is Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight or rather what Alan Moore's Watchmen was to superhero stories. It is self-reflecting on its own tropes, which is subtlety conveyed into the more-personal and less galactic-staked stories like the first game or any of the films that it wants to tell.

The game starts off with building an eerie atmosphere of isolation and loneliness, almost horror like, with locales like Peragus Mining Station. In fact, the entire first section of the game comes off as something that could have been mistaken for a horror game--But you know what?I really, really, loved it. Everything from the music, to how you're trying to decipher what has happened to whole station's crew through audio logs and examining the environment, while fighting off crazed mining droids. 

You're not completely alone though, as things would have it with western-RPGs, shortly after you wake up and examine the deceased corpses of the dead mining crew you're introduced to your first party member; the enigmatic old-woman Kreia. She is one of my favorite characters in gaming of all time, and her role largely reflects the overall narrative. Kreia explains the current situation to the best of her knowledge, she guides you in the ways of the Force and gives helpful advice through some seer-like abilities that she apparently have. Already then it's easy to imagine there's more to her than meets the eye if it wasn't already obvious.

The basic info you gather from either her, or the audio logs, is that the Jedi are more or less no more (again). You are the last of your kind, who's been exiled and drifting in empty space for the last 8 years (or so). It has fundamentally left you out of the loop, which makes KOTOR 2 quite accessible to new players alike. The basics are picked up through integrated dialogue conversations, where you design your own canon of the events of KOTOR 1.

The remnants of Revan and Malak's followers from the Mando Wars have formed a new Triumvirate alliance, that has spent all of its free time to hunt down and destroying all remaining Jedi Knights. You're their next target, because they consider you a Jedi and a threat despite you having relinquished your Jedi badge to the Jedi Scout Leaders. The interesting thing is that the game goes out of its way to examine the fundamentals of Star Wars, be it either the workings of the Force, or as in this case,  showcasing how little difference there i between Jedi & Sith.

Knights of the Old Republic 2 throws the whole Light vs Dark concept into a bin and then dump it on the dark side of the moon. All previous conventions are at best templates for how the game wants to portray the Jedi & Sith, from a broader perspective, and then goes "Hey, maybe they aren't so different after all". They both wear morning gowns for a living and carry long coloured willie shaped swords probably to compensate for something. Essentially, there is no good or evil in this game, just various shades of grey, but that might not even be adequate enough to describe the game's moral compass--It doesn't have one, for starters, and it doesn't try to pinpoint any real lesson that is to be taken away from its narrative-- Jedi & Sith alike, they are all very dangerous considering the power they wield and what that power represents; This is reflected in a lot of the backstory, conversation and exposition delivered to the player in-game. One example is the death of the planet, Katarr, which was drained of all life by an-powerful Sith Lord simply because the remaining Jedi chose to gather there in order to device a plan in how to defeat the invisible threat they were facing.

Another example is the character Revan himself. The revelation of the first game is that the player was Revan all along, but only with KOTOR 2 do we actually get to find out what kind of person Revan was, as a Sith, and as a Jedi. He's heralded as the hero who turned the scales of the war against the Mandalorians--His own troops and even the Mandalorians revered him as a brilliant tactician and combatant. The people closest to Revan, however, is where the most fascinating info are brought to light--The droid crime lord, GO-TO, hints at Revan's implied intentions for the Republic during his conquest as a Lord of the Sith--According to GO-TO, Revan deliberately left key structural points of the Republic in tact, possibly to prepare it for something. This theory becomes more evident when Kreia (who was also his former master) talks about Revan's supposed fall.

A topic that largely dominated the first game though the exact details in regards to why Revan and Malak defied the Jedi is only partially talked about and not really explored. KOTOR 2 wants to convey these real terrors and emotions that came with such a war, the people who decided to fight it, why they did it. It grants a sense of weight to the conflicts and characters like I've never seen in a Star Wars game before. Anyway, having said that, what Kreia says is all the more interesting with regards to how it compliments the game's underlying themes of moral complexity.

"Fall? Ah, already you presume much. You were there at Malachor. Revan's choices were always his own. It was not teachings, or circumstance, or example. It was him".

When pushed further into the reasons for why he/she became a Sith, she says

"Is that what he was? Or was he always true to himself, no matter what personality he wore? And there is something that the Council may never understand. That perhaps Revan never fell.The difference between a fall and a sacrifice is sometimes difficult, but I feel that Revan understood that difference, more than anyone knew. The galaxy would have fallen if Revan had not gone to war. Perhaps he became the dark lord out of necessity, to prevent a greater evil."

This accentuates on the points of the moral ambiguity that exists in this game, it chooses to frame the things we thought we were so familiar with in a new light--Kreia is the primary conductor for the modern anti-moralistic tidal wave the game wants to place on its own universe. The characters are what largely reflects these internal struggles, specifically those within your party--They aren't heroes or roguish underdogs that we are so incredicly used to with the usual romantic heroic tales-- they are rather a shady bunch of "social outcasts" ranging from assassins droids, former Sith, bounty hunter and murderers. They are all conflicted, vacant souls acting through their own moral compas, searching for emotional gratification to their existence., they are not blindly acting based around restrictive societal norms, they are acting based on what they feel is being true to themselves. The prerequisite Han Solo-type, Atton Rand, has h is also a murderer of Jedi and a previous soldier of the Mando Wars--According to him they followed Revan because unlike the Jedi, he was willing to wage war to save others. Platitudes and religious mumbo jumbo means little to innocents who are getting killed every day by barbarous conquerors, which is where the major philosophical debate has its heart and it becomes a recurrent topic of discussion with the game's characters, such as the former members of the Council who exiled you, or even your own crew

A particularly noteworthy moment is when you confront Atris, the master of a hidden Jedi Enclave on Telos, when trying to reclaim your stolen vessel. What makes this whole affray interesting is the fact that Atris were the one who was most adversarial towards you and your decision to join Revan's war effort--Her spite is rooted in strong emotions that stems from a form of 'affectionate' admiration towards the Exile. she's defensive and aggressive though it clouds her true feelings. She believed in the Exile, she was her hero and when she pictured hero having fallen it turned her world upside down--The emotions it sparks is so fascinating with regards to how much it felicitates the overall themes.  

But Atris is but one of many--There also the rest of the people in your party, and like I mentioned approximately two paragraphs ago, they aren't heroes in any shape or form--Your own reasons for fighting the Sith are ultimately determined upon the player's choices, though the character themselves are mostly in it for more complex and less heroic reasons.In contrast to your  They all have their share of inner struggles of self-resignation that largely revolves around the Mandalorian Wars in some way. Bao-Dur, the zabrak mechanic is haunted by role he played in the deaths of thousands when building and consequently using the deadly superweapon, The Mass Shadow Generator, to kill an entire planet. The Bounty Hunter, Mira, tries to forget about the death of her home caused by that war losing herself in the hunt for targets with no purpose, Visas is the last of her species, an ex-Sith and a conflicted individual, who submitted herself to the Dark Lord who killed her planet. The Handmaiden Brianna suffers ridicule and bullying for not sharing the same mother as her non-force-using-sisters (a mother who happened to be a Jedi) which ultimately makes her a social pariah in their eyes and lead to some interesting development in her character arc. Kreia refers to them as the Lost Jedi, the Jedi the galaxy needs, the kind that aren't dictated by teaching or example but by their own nature as individuals and being true to themselves. 

The point that is being made, however, along with many others things is that Revan wasn't corrupted by some mind controlling "affliction" as Star Wars seems to would have it with these things, and his fellow soldiers didn't follow him because of that. It was a conscious decision he made to gain power in order to save the galaxy form an even greater threat--The very definition of the anti-hero. The spectrum of what is the right thing to do is determined by entirely by the Exile, the player actions, and how one chooses to react to them--The game isn't interested in dictating what's right and what's wrong, it only cares about making the player care on every action, choice and consequence delivered their, and become stronger for it. The men who served under him followed him because they believed in him, because he was only one who was willing to reach out when it really mattered. On reflection, the branded term of having fallen to the Dark Side was something the Jedi had condemned on Revan--At best it could be thought of as a metaphor, if anything else, served as a convenience for those on the side lines to help categorize, brand, those whom are excluded from being able to make rational choices--A term alluding to an individual's state of being as discombobulated. In Revan's case, it was the Jedi's way of condemning his choice of turning his back on them. Although the game makes the point that Revan most likely never lost his "way" at all but instead found himself. His true self

Here there are no absolutes except for those extreme cases with regards to the Council, who made the decision of Exile a reality, which was a judgement that was made out of caution and fear of the unknown. They play the role of the old belief (the classic understanding of Star Wars) that is slowly dying from the new wave of thinking, the kind that doesn't need the Force or have their actions be dictated by a code-- Revan knew what he was doing, he made the choices he did, and did what he thought was right just like anybody else who followed him. Hubris being hubris, it ends being the downfall of any Jedi and Sith and even when it might seem like the old Council takes heart by owning up to their mistakes they are ultimately doomed to repeat them--Because of you, because you are an anomaly who does not feel the Force like they do, like how the galaxy does, therefore you are a threat to everything they believe in. For them, the Force is more than just a source of raw power used to boost their combat efficiency and skills to protect the Republic. It’s everything. The Jedi believe in the Force as a religion, as a motivator for their ethics, their social ties, their politics. The Force is the source of wisdom, direction, purpose.

 “Take the greatest Jedi Knight, strip away the Force, and what remains? They rely on it, depend on it, more than they know. Watch as one tries to hold a blaster, as they try to hold a lightsaber, and you will see nothing more than a woman—or a man. A child.

The Force is the beginning and the end of everything that is Star Wars. Knights of the Old Republic II, even played in the “lightest,” most heroic way possible, doesn’t seem particularly invested in any of pre-determined understanding of the Force. No one gets a happy ending, and the Force is as much of a threat as a promise. Knights of the Old Republic II, in short, doesn’t believe in Star Wars.One of the most interesting  Kreia makes the point that the Force is the flesh, seed, shell and the entire fucking apple tree of what makes a Jedi a Jedi--They rely on it more than they knowq, and it is in spite of this fact that Kreia decides to open the galaxy's eyes.  The Jedi are not above or below the common man, they are just as much capable of greed, arrogance and/or making mistakes through their stubborn reliance on the Force--mistakes that will make innocent suffers. To Kreia, the Force and its followers are threats to the galaxy. 

She despises the religious worship it has earned, its existence and function as an all-knowing entity deciding the destiny of life in the galaxy with little room for free choice. Although, what she hates the most is the fact that its mere existence perpetuate an endless cycle of ideological war that kills millions, even entire planets (Malachor V, Taris). It's possible that a lot of this hate started from her own conflicted differences with the Jedi and the Sith--She's been betrayed by both, ultimately taking up the name of Darth Traya. One who's been betrayed and will betray in return. She has seen students fall, jedi ridiculing and condemning her teachings and worse.. exile. Her interest in the Exile is tied to the fact she was the only, who could walk away from Malachor, from the Jedi and the from The Force, wllingly and live through it.  All of this fuels her desire to silence the Force and set the galaxy free from the shackles of the established order. All of this is tied to the biggest revelation in the game, which is centered around the answer to the Exile's disconnect with the Force--The reveal pinpoints that the Council didn't deliberately cut her off from the Force, in fact it is something she(fuck it I'm just gonna refer to the Exile as her now) chose to do subconsciously on her own volition to survive.

The Council merely acknowledged it and fears what it might bode ill for their entire Order, and argues a possible danger it might have for anyone else. They call her a “wound in the Force,” where the echoes of the dying travels through on a massive scale and never reaches their destination, explaining that something happened to her out on the edge of known space, during the last battle of the Mandalorian Wars, the site of a terrible superweapon-enabled massacre perpetrated by Revan’s army. Such mass death and suffering harmed the Force directly, creating a tear in its fabric that found a home in the Exile. It absorbed all the pain and death, emanating from the thousands of dead souls that echoes the vacuum, surrounding Malachor, buckling under that baggage, the Exile as one of the only surviving perpetrators of that massacre, was left carrying the weight segregated from the galaxy to suffer. The immense terror, agony and strong emotions that emanated from the tear was too much on the Exile that she'd resort to cutting herself off from the Force entirely, in order for her to survive.

The Exile is a product of the Mandalorian Wars much like the Sith whom now hunts her-- They  feed off on the living Force driven by all the anger, hate and misery that enamored Malachor during that final battle and now still fuels the enigmatic Trayus Academy on the dead planet. Sion, the first Sith you encounter, is a walking corpse whose sole hatred is what is keeping his parts clinging together, and Darth Nihilus is a big vaccum, shell-of-a-man whom endlessly hungers to devour all Force sensitive creatures--He consumed an entire planet of Force sensitive,  largely responsible for the near extinction of the Jedi, and he will persist until there's nothing left, whereupon his attention will be turned to the Sith, then the rest of the galaxy until there's nothing. The Dark Lord's name which refers to the concept of "nihilism" that perfectly summarizes his whole character-He's a husk bred from war and conflict in the human shaped form of a void-He's a man who was rendered emotionless and hollow after the countless lives lost by the Mass Shadow generator tore a whole in the fibers of the Force--Every perturbed fervency exuding from the thousands of dying, every inch of pain, regret, all of the worst horrors of war and death on a massive scale created a vast "emptiness" that enamored and overwhelmed him and turned into a hunger.

The Exile is the pale reflection of this; Somewhat like the Sith hunting her she's an anomaly, an unknown, her presence is that of a conduit that draws strength from others around her (forming peculiar Force bonds). These bonds are the source of her sudden returning Force Powers, which stems from the people around her and even more so for those that are Force Sensitives -- It resonates with both parties, and its effects goes both ways The game makes a lot of back, and forth, points about whether the Exile is directly influencing the actions of her closest allies, and it is very much part of the Council's fears. The real reason for her Exile was something much worse than her following Revan to war, it was her condition as "wound" and the systematic repercussions it could have on the galaxy and their entire Order; Th punishment was tame in comparison to how severe it might have been but at the time it was carefully decided due to the unknown nature of the Exile's condition--There was no threat at the time, and the Council believed that contemplation and exile could possibly bear positive insight on what had happened to her and how she may be healed. Although, after the Sith decided to reveal themselves, after Katarr, they conceived its power as dangerous and believed her to be a source for new teachings of the Sith-The bonds the Exile creates so easily, sharing and absorbing any tense or strong emotions and descends towards others, while feeding on life around her. The Council claims that those who travel with the Exile are attracted to her power, it draws people in like a black hole, and it consumes everything; a vacuum where life ends.

She's a breach, not unlike one Giorgio Agamben's description of a "homo sacer," which refers to an individual  being unclad of all social standings or civil rights. A bare life, taken apart from the rest of society—made holy and unique by her abject separation from the world around them. Given her nature as that of a bipedal hole in the Force, she is a pulsar of bare life, unraveling and suspending the normal order of things by her mere presence. Although, in the context of KOTOR 2, where we illustrate the Force as an ideological construct as well as a metaphysical one, the Jedi Exile leans closer to Agamben' description of a "refugee"-a titular vacant, whereupon the pillars of the galaxy's lineage starts to crumble. In a lot of ways it really makes sense with regards to her current situation. She's a drifter, a nomad, stripped of any connection to the Force which the Jedi argues as the lifeblood for the galaxy. It's through her, as a wound, as someone who chose to willingly walk away from war, from the dark side, that the hypocrisy of the Jedi and social pedestals are brought to question. Where the Jedi sees a threat, Kreia sees a symbol for revolution and emancipation. 

It is here where the Council's intentions are made clear and Kreia's plan comes to fruition. It involves using The Exile's wound in the Force as a cipher to create more wounds, directly harming it, with the inevitable outcome of killing it entirely. The Force would be no more, and without it she argues, no more Jedi, no more Sith, no more war. Like mentioned earlier, this is her desire for reformation and setting the galaxy free to star anew, it is pictured as a cultural renaissance more than act of genocide. A chance to burn it all down and start over, to rethink all categories, to imagine the world without the Force—without ideology.

Kreia condemns the Council's decision to destroy her power as blind arrogance, she forces them to see the world the way the Exile sees it, without the Force--She drains its touch from them completely and effectively killing them. In the aftermath, she urges the Exile to come after her, to either join or destroy her. Of course, because this is a videogame, she ends up being the final boss no matter what you do, and you have no choice but to kill her. But still, her questions, her hopes, remain. The Exile represents a new space where an individual exists separate from culture and ideology, she's simply livin and although it might be an unspeakable hardship to enforce, it could also be thought of an opportunity to rethink the and while that is an unspeakable hardship, it is also, maybe, an opportunity, a gateway into rethinking the oppositions and constructs that define us.

The conclusion that is meant to be drawn is that the distinctions of Star Wars is flawed from a modern cynical perspective--The lements of Star Wars, the very definition of what its distinct, lustful-adventurous outlook that secured its place in the western cultural heritage. Kreia desires a world, where these threads unravel and let itself loose.

The truth is that we all need to rationalize our actions to help ourselves through the day--The Jedi and Sith do the same. The former decided not to go to war against the bloodthirsty Mandalorians, refusing to goat their desire for conflict and provoke any heavy emotions in which they believe would lead to the dark side--A conscious decision made that would ensue millions of people losing their lives to the Mandalorians onslaught to protect the innocent. It showcases that the Jedi aren't always compassionate, or goody-goody as they might seem, they are practical to the teachings of their own code which is ultimately what brands them as "selfish"  and fools by Kreia, by the citizens of the galaxy  and by the game itself.. It also reflects a lot on The Jedi Civil War(the events of KOTOR 1), as it has come to be known, which is a title given on the basis around the common conception that people see little difference between either Jedi or Sith-It's possible that it was born out of spite from their inaction during the previous war or perhaps something that has always existed? Either way, it works to get the overall point across that the game desires to make.

There's one final thing I wanna touch upon before  I close it off -- I've talked about the companions, Jedi, Sith, Kreia and the Force but what about the people outside of these jurisdictions? This is one of the major conflicts that preaches its message on. The paradox of the simple storytelling that celebrates when Luke beats the bad guys and blows up the Death Star, while ignoring the possible collateral it leaves behind, the innocent dutiful normies that are part of it. Where exactly do all of these people factor into the grand adventure? Well, KOTOR 2 examines the framework quite thoroughly, where even the most insignificant pirate adds value to the plot.  Kreia's teachings stretches beyond the common boundaries and understanding of the Force but also the template for its universe's ethology-The various NPCs, locales without any overwhelming powers all reflect this.. Star Wars has always been littered with shady individuals outside of its lightsaber-wielding warrior magicians, everything from smugglers to bounty hunters, pirates, soldiers, and or others characters with questionable motives. This is when I like Star Wars the most--It's when remembers how it still manages to be grounded in a world that  feel so much like our own. 

KOTOR 2 is the kind of Star Wars experience that preaches philosophy that feels genuine to our understanding of the world. On Nar Shaddaa, you're braced with one of the many moral dilemmas in form of a panhandler, asking the Exile for money, whereupon you're lectured on the folly of sticking your nose where it doesn't belong -- Helping them unto something they haven't earned derives them of any independence, and being cruel only begets more cruelty which also defeats the purpose to Kreia's lessons about self-reliance and preservation.  It's a repeated lesson that finds itself repeated again on the planet of Nar Shaddaa which is inhabited by the various facets of shady caricatures that was mentioned a few written lines ago. As soon as it does Kreia argues the dichotomy of natural selection that necessitates growth through mortal struggle. It's the nest from which they have to fly from by themselves and only then will they be able to face the future. It won't come as an unusual lesson to take to heart for anyone familiar with their basic literature, but it's a concept that shambles the Jedi teachings that propagates the Star Wars mythos.

To emphasize a previous point again; All of what has been said is this is meant to underline that unlike your comfortable bubble universe that is the George Lucas canon; The world of KOTOR 2 is a gloomy, grim and dangerously real take on the Star Wars mytho--It's build around major conflicts, but how do we really determine the scale of these conflicts. War is terrible, war costs lives, war is pricey in more ways than one. The Mandalorian Wars was nothing but a footnote in KOTOR 1 to establish the state of ongoing affairs, whereas in this game it is the wheels that makes the car going. It's a deconstruction of the frames set by Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and the formulaic, comfortable plot structure of decades of pulp adventure stories. Instead of a hero on a journey you're an exile, in every sense of the word, forced to stand alone alongside an entourage of fellow outcasts- The Mandalorian Wars is culmination of everything that is happening in the game--The journey of the game is better compared to that of a journey to self-discovery. The Exile has to retread every step from the Mando Wars, face every choices and consequence of  her past an accept what happened. It's a story of self-discovery and self-reliance through the spectacles of Star Wars.

The real tragedy of course was always its planned role as a holding pattern for a third game that never came to be. KOTOR 2 ends on an inevitable cliffhanger that leaves a lot to be desired. Avellone disclosed the ideas he and the team had in mind for the aforementioned KOTOR 3 to Eurogamer and it is sad that it never happened. But we'll always have KOTOR 2 and even on its own it is still great.

It can be bought on Steam for the price of an ice cream sandwich with added achievements and the restoration mod to boot. So if you haven't already, check it out


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About FakePlasticTreeone of us since 7:26 PM on 01.03.2016

Something, something, something plastic, something, something, tree, something...Radiohead.

Favorite games(Those I can think of anyway):
Persona 3, 4 & 5
SMT: Digital Devil Saga 1 & 2
SMT: Nocturne
Knights of the Old Republic 2
Silent Hill 2 & 3
The Yakuza series
Catherine
Nier & Nier Automata
Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
Valkyria Chronicles
Metal Gear Solid 2 & 3
Gravity Rush 1 & 2
Virtue's Last Reward & Zero Time Dilemma
Binary Domain
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep
Jade Empire
Mass Effect 1
Dragon Age: Origins
Vampire Masquerade: Bloodlines
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
Zelda: Wind Waker & Majora's Mask
Thief 2
Hitman Blood Money
Half Life 2
Bayonetta 2
God Hand
Deadly Premonition
inFamous 1 & 2
The Jak & Daxter Trilogy
Sly Cooper Trilogy
Ratchet & Clank - PS2 Trilogy
Banjo & Kazooie
Super Mario World
Psychonauts
The Longest Journey Series
Grim Fandango
Monkey Island 1 & 2