Written in shades of grey, with one of the all-time great Star Wars characters.
When The Last Jedi was released in December 2017, it was polarising to say the least. Critics lauded it, but fans were divided; some loved its unique take on the Star Wars universe, while others felt it betrayed the foundations upon which the galaxy far, far away was built.
The divisive response got me thinking: what makes a Star Wars story good? Personally, I rather enjoyed The Last Jedi, although I can certainly understand the perspectives of those that didn’t; the way Rian Johnson chose to portray Luke Skywalker is perhaps, the perfect example.
Think about the key elements of the Star Wars universe – the Force, the Jedi, the ongoing conflict between the light side and the dark side. The Last Jedi presents these in a way that tends to go against some of the more commonly accepted tropes that are present in the other films. The Last Jedi, after all, almost completely dismisses the concept of black and white, choosing instead to colour its story and characters in shades of grey.
But here’s the thing: The Last Jedi isn’t the first story within the Star Wars franchise to do this – far from it. In fact, the greyness of the Star Wars universe was perhaps best represented by a video game: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords, now sadly relegated to the non-canon status of “Star Wars Legends” in the new Disney order of things. I contest that KOTOR II isn’t just the Star Wars franchise’s best depiction of greyness in the franchise – it’s the franchise’s best story outright.
[Heads-Up: The Last Jedi SPOILERS Follow!]
Rather than hope, KOTOR II explores hopelessness
In many ways the trope that most singularly defines Star Wars is hope, but KOTOR II took that and turned it on its head, instead choosing to explore hopelessness. When you delve into the galaxy far, far away as it stands during the Old Republic period of KOTOR II, there is a sense of overwhelming hopelessness everywhere you travel, from the starting location of Peragus, to the climactic world of Malachor V. The Jedi are all but gone, their temple and academy on Dantooine has been destroyed, the Republic is struggling to stay afloat, and there are shady organisations and corporations doing their best to exploit the downtrodden. We’re seeing a proper dystopian depiction of the Star Wars universe.
The hopelessness present in the universe during this period of time is none more evident than during the portion of the game that takes place on Nar Shaddaa. As soon as you land on the thriving, Hutt controlled moon in orbit of Nul Hutta, you’re approached by a poverty-stricken refugee who begs for credits. If you deny him, he becomes abusive. If you accede to his request and give him some credits, your mentor Kreia admonishes the Exile:
“Why did you do such a thing? Such Kindnesses will mean nothing, his path is set. Giving him what he has not earned is like pouring sand into his hands. The force binds all things. The slightest push, the smallest touch, sends echoes throughout life. Even an act of kindness may have more severe repercussions than you know or see. By giving him something he has not earned, perhaps all you have helped him become is a target.”
While it’s easy to dismiss her words as cruel, they hold within them a sense of logic. Struggle can help one grow stronger, and who are we to take away that opportunity to develop strength? Is it compassion, or is it selfishness? As Kreia imparts her wisdom to the Exile, we are granted a Force vision depicting what happens to the man should you take pity on him: He is mugged for the credits, and left beaten to die in the streets. It is a genuine lose-lose situation that almost perfectly depicts the hopelessness that is present throughout the game.
KOTOR II explores the Force in ways the film franchise has never done
Regardless of whether you choose to play the Exile as a light or dark side character, Kreia is your mentor throughout the bulk of the game. She has a very unique and un-Jedi like view of the galaxy, and the player quickly learns that she despises the Force. Kreia views the Force as a conscious entity with a will to control the destiny of living beings, and that as an entity, it is consciously cruel. She uses it only as a means to an end:
“I use it as I would use a poison, and in the hopes of understanding it, I will learn the way to kill it.”
Perceiving the Force as a malevolent entity is something that has never been explored within the canon franchise, and it is an incredibly compelling view of one of the key elements of the Star Wars Universe – far more compelling than the “midichlorian” explanation of the Force in the prequel trilogy. Kreia is a character who, rather than wanting to harness the power of the Force like the Jedi and Sith of the films, wants instead to destroy it. She truly loathes it.
During the game, it becomes apparent that Kreia is perhaps the greyest character ever to wield a lightsaber. She’s been a disciple of both the light and dark side, and has been both a Jedi Master and the Sith Lord Darth Traya.
As the Exile gets to know her better, and snippets of her complex backstory are revealed, it’s clear that Kreia is acutely aware of both the flaws and virtues of the Jedi and the Sith. She’s a Sith Lord, yes – but unlike Palpatine or Snoke, she is not one who is straight-up evil, or one who seeks power for power’s sake. She uses the dark side as a means to an end. And it’s that complex relationship with the Force that allows her to present the Exile with knowledge and wisdom that is surprisingly nuanced, but also something that could not be learned by a typical Jedi Master or Sith Lord.
Of course, she teaches the Exile the basics such as:
But she also is quite philosophical when it comes to what it means to wield the Force, and what it is:
“It is like a cloud, a mist that drifts from living creature to creature, set in motion by currents and eddies. It is the eye of the storm, the passions of all living things turned into energy, into a chorus. It is the rising swell at the end of life, the promise of new territories and new blood, the call of new mysteries in the dark.”
Additionally, she very eloquently identifies the biggest problems that come with the Jedi and Sith’s reliance on the Force and their traditional weapons:
“A lightsaber – any weapon – only achieves worth in how it is wielded – in the effort, the struggle of one who holds it. Such a weapon does not make a Jedi or a Sith. And at times, it makes them much, much less than they are…”
“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 films have never really been able to articulate in such a way what the Force is and how it’s perceived by the various inhabitants of the galaxy, nor the manner in which it’s used by the Jedi and the Sith. The Last Jedi features some scenes where Luke attempts to teach Rey what the force is, bringing in some interesting parallels between the Luke Skywalker of The Last Jedi and Kreia, but it is rather fleeting.
KOTOR II’s entire roster is painted in shades of grey
While the majority of the films’ protagonists have questionable acts in their backstories, there is no roster of film characters that come close to the moral ambiguity displayed by the vast majority of the main cast in KOTOR II. The films have always been about good vs evil, light vs dark. But in KOTOR II the main, playable character – the Exile – is revealed to essentially be a Jedi war criminal who ordered the deployment of a weapon of mass destruction that killed thousands of combatants fighting on both sides during the Mandalorian Wars.
Right from the get go it’s clear that this isn’t going to be your typical black and white Star Wars story. KOTOR II’s writer and lead developer, Chris Avellone has been very vocal in the past that he wanted to present a take on the Jedi and the Sith that was the antithesis of what the films had presented. Indeed, on the character of Kreia, he’s been quoted as saying: “She was questioning everything about the Star Wars universe that I thought should be questioned.”
Let’s take a look at the main cast of KOTOR II: The Jedi Exile, the aforementioned Jedi war criminal; Kreia, AKA Darth Traya, a fallen Jedi Master now Sith Lord; Atton Rand, a former Sith torturer and executioner; Bao-Dur, the designer and engineer of the Mass Shadow Generator which was the weapon of mass destruction deployed by the Exile at Malachor V; Visas Marr, the Sith apprentice of Darth Nihilus; Mira, a Mandalorian bounty hunter; G0-T0, a droid whose conflicting programming has led to it becoming the brutal leader of a criminal organisation; Brianna the Handmaiden, an Echani warrior who believes that violence and combat is the most pure way to express oneself; Mandalore AKA Canderous Ordo, the violent leader of the Mandalorians; Hanharr, a damaged and hate-filled Wookie; and HK-47, the enjoyable but entirely homicidal assassin droid from the first KOTOR. Perhaps the only really altruistic characters are T3-M4, the astromech droid and Mical the Disciple.
Redemption is a key theme to any Star Wars story, and KOTOR II presents a number of these characters the opportunity to redeem themselves for their past crimes. But it is the very fact that these characters all come with this dark baggage that makes their journey through the story of KOTOR II that much more interesting.
Kreia is the best Star Wars character – period
I’ve spoken a fair bit about the character of Kreia in this article, and for good reason – she is the glue that sticks the story of KOTOR II together. In many ways, she is more important to the story than any other character, the Jedi Exile included. Her character is so nuanced, so well written and so well performed by Sara Kestelman, that it’s impossible not to sympathise with her, if not root for her. You can understand her hatred of the Force. You can see the logic in her teachings. And it’s those things that make her such a great character, such a great villain.
Her backstory is a tragic one – she is a failed Jedi Master who the Jedi Council held responsible for the fall of Revan, and then a failed Sith Lord whose two sith apprentices, Nihilus and Sion, would quickly turn on her. Her disdain for the Force is entirely understandable and relatable. In the Exile, she sees the means to the destroy the Force, but ends up genuinely caring for the Exile, just as she did Revan before:
“Know that much may happen here, but above all, do not forget this – you may trust in me. We cradle each other’s lives, and what threatens one of us, threatens us both. And if you find you cannot trust me, trust in your training. Trust in yourself. Never doubt what you have done.”
She had a love for Revan, which was then duplicated with the Exile. About love, she says:
“Oh, not to love is no crime, or so the Jedi believe. It is their code that kills life… their adherence to the will of the Force.”
Indeed, it is suggested that it was her love that led to her hatred of the Force, and her fall to the dark side. There’s a line she says to Atris, another former Jedi Master who, like Kreia before her, has undergone a gradual fall to the dark side:
“It is such a quiet thing, to fall. But far more terrible is to admit it.”
There is nothing in the films that is even close to being as nuanced when it comes to the fall of a character to the dark side. Palpatine’s fall was never explored; in fact, it’s largely assumed he was just always evil. Count Dooku’s fall was not really explained either, he was instead portrayed as having made a choice to turn to the dark side simply because he craved power. Anakin’s fall was so clumsily handled that it makes him come across as naïve and dim-witted and far too easily manipulated.
Ben Solo’s fall could potentially explore a more nuanced journey than the films have previously shown – already we know that Luke Skywalker himself played a large part in it, however it’s still largely suggested that he had already been “seduced” by the lure of the dark side’s power, and the legacy of his grandfather before Luke’s drastic misjudgement during his training. Can you imagine a prequel trilogy where the Emperor is more like Kreia? Or perhaps a sequel trilogy where in place of the largely pointless Snoke, we have a character like Kreia?
So how do those points translate to KOTOR II being not only my favourite Star Wars story, but arguably the best Star Wars story to date? It takes the key themes of the franchise – hope, the Force, balance – and essentially explores the antithesis of them, presenting them in a truly unique way that still manages to remain true to the overarching Star Wars mythology. But it also forms a symbiosis with those themes: you can’t have hope without hopelessness, you can’t bring balance without imbalance, you can’t have light without dark.
KOTOR II is not without its issues, and it is far from a perfect game. It often feels rushed, and there’s clearly a lot missing that the developers never had a chance to finish. The must-have Restored Content Mod for the PC version restores much of the original vision – if you’re planning to revisit KOTOR II, then the mod is essential. But even with the mod, the ending is clearly lacking, as are other elements to the story. While it’s far from the perfect game, it tells a unique story within a universe that is far-too fond of following a set of standard tropes. It bucks our expectations, and is all the better for it.
Writer, filmmaker and gamer, Travis is based in Sydney and is of the unpopular belief that you can be both a Star Wars AND Star Trek fan at the same time. Tweet him at @Trav_J_A.