This time of year is always important for the video game industry, as they move their products into stores for the coming holiday rush. Games have become one of the most successful forms of popular entertainment, with recent years seeing multi-million dollar launch events that break records once belonging to Hollywood. Early December is the peak time of year for selling the latest installments in hit franchises to loyal fans.
10 years ago today, the sequel to 2003’s Game Of The Year was released. And not only was it a sequel to an award-winning instant classic; it was set in the Star Wars universe; George Lucas’s billion-dollar space-faring fantasy whose allure has captivated generations. Small wonder, with such a pedigree and promise, that LucasArts was eager to ensure it was released in time for the Christmas shoppers–they wanted to be sure to get everything they could out of this highly-anticipated title.
This eagerness caused them to encourage Obsidian Entertainment to push the release of the game forward, even if it meant not having time to finish the ending as originally planned. The result was that the game, though eagerly bought up by thousands of fans, did not receive quite the same delighted reviews as its predecessor; that it was criticized as incomplete, or incoherent. Its last few hours in particular were perceived as a rushed muddle of action sequences that arrived at a confusing and unsatisfying conclusion.
And so with this moderate, but not spectacular, success behind it, the “Old Republic” franchise moved on; to be resurrected again, briefly, first as a book and then as an MMORPG to go to war against World of Warcraft–a war which, like the Mandalorian Wars that form the background of KotOR II, is a futile and depressing effort from which no combatant ever returns victorious.
Obsidian Entertainment has moved on as well, most notably to the retro-futuristic Mojave wasteland of Fallout: New Vegas. Both developer and franchise have gone their separate ways; and though talk of another Obsidian-made Star Wars game surfaces now and again, it seems likely that, given Disney’s purchase of the galaxy far, far away, the darker and more mature tones Obsidian always brings to their stories may not be as welcome.
So what to make of Knights of the Old Republic II, ten years later? Now that the Star Wars film series has been ended and revived yet again, now that Mass Effect, BioWare’s spiritual successor to KotOR I, has run its course, and left its original fans as bitter as Star Wars fans dismayed at the prequel trilogy; where does that leave Obsidian’s strangely rough, brooding tale of the exiled Jedi who travels the galaxy not to defeat an Empire or rescue a princess, but to come to terms with the effects of war on the human psyche?
In spite of the name, canonical Star Wars has rarely been about war. The original film series depicts an insurrection against a tyrannical empire; but this occurs largely in a couple of battles–primarily, the story is about the Skywalker family. The prequels deal with the run-up to a war in the first two films, and the end of that war in the third, but Lucas shunted the details of the war into comic books. (A few of which were written by KotOR II creative lead, Chris Avellone.)
The Sith Lords, though, is very much about war, though not in the shallow sense of being a Call of Duty clone with a Star Wars coat of paint. KotOR II is about war in the way that The Deer Hunter is about war–it is exploring the mental and spiritual toll that war takes on everyone it touches. Or, as Kreia tells the Exile early in the game: “You are the battlefield. And if you fall, the death of the Republic will be such a quiet thing, a whisper, that shall herald the darkness to come.”
Kreia is always the focal point for any discussion of Knights of the Old Republic II, and even the game’s detractors will usually admit that she is one of the greatest characters in the history of video games. A mysterious old woman, allied neither with the Jedi nor the Sith, yet overwhelmingly knowledgeable about both, she at once fits the Star Wars tradition of the Wise Mentor and violates it utterly. She is a gadfly in the Star Wars universe, questioning everyone and everything; and by the end, the player comes to understand that her rebellion is against the Force itself; the mysterious metaphysical “energy field” which most characters accept with a (sometimes literal) hand-wave, but which she attempts to understand and destroy. Many players find it immensely satisfying to see this brown-cloaked Nietzsche slicing through the pop-philosophy of Lucas’s universe.
Kreia’s occasionally harsh criticism of the player’s actions are emblematic of one of KotOR II‘s distinctive features: namely, that it is not necessarily meant to make the player feel good. In literature, film and television, it is common for a story to leave the audience sad, or contemplative, or shocked. But games are meant to entertain; and to write one that does not simply laud the player for their victories over ever more powerful foes, but instead compels them to think about what they are doing–to think of, as Zez Kai-Ell says in the game’s pivotal scene, “all the death you caused to get here”–was a bold move, indeed.
In this way, KotOR II is the forerunner of another one of the most fascinating games released in recent years–2012’s Spec Ops: The Line. Though different in style and in tone, (not to mention that SO:TL is far more polished and graphically advanced) Yager’s dark satire of military shoot-’em-ups is at its core the same tale as KotOR II: that of a soldier who commits an atrocity and is forced to face the consequences.
But while Spec Ops is a sharp, tightly-plotted tale with every element integrated into its gripping narrative, KotOR II is less minutely-engineered, and more filled with oddities and curious plot threads which lead in unexpected directions–or sometimes nowhere at all, thanks to the content having been cut at the eleventh hour. While this makes the game seem less focused and at times even hard to follow, it also lends it a certain feeling of scope; an epic, vast implied scale that even next-generation open-world RPGs have not matched. There is a hauntingly depressing quality to the sprawling modules of Citadel station, of gloomy isolation to the corridors of Peragus, and of melancholic splendor to the partially restored surface of Telos, that creates a peculiarly memorable and powerful mood.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about KotOR II‘s plot threads without also discussing The Sith Lords Restoration Project–the fan-made effort to restore the cut content. While interesting in its own right, and a must-play for any fan of the game, the restored content ultimately raises more questions than it answers. Some of it really is integral to the story, but other parts are relevant only as curiosities, and serve only to add unnecessary complications to the game’s already complex plot.
But even with the missing pieces restored, insofar as possible, KotOR II remains a very odd, misfit game–an exile, like its enigmatic, war-worn protagonist. If the original KotOR was an effort at making a playable version of the summer swashbuckling blockbuster epic that Star Wars helped revive, then KotOR II was an attempt at making a playable version of a more mature, David Lean-ish kind of epic. It is not designed for commercial success and records, but for critical success and acclaim. It is Oscar Bait in a medium that does not receive Oscars.
It is possible that being part of such a widely recognized franchise hurt its chances among the very people most likely to appreciate its many virtues. Critics searching for video games that prove the medium is a mature art form, not merely an entertaining diversion, can be too quick to dismiss a “mainstream” game in search of something more unusual. And few entertainment franchises show a more striking disparity between their commercial success and their reputation among critics than Star Wars.
In spite of its less-than-universal acclaim, though, KotOR II has not been completely forgotten by gamers. In 2010, it was included in the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Kreia still frequently appears on lists like “best video game characters” and “best female antagonists in video games”. But it has not been considered particularly “influential”, either; certainly, it has not become a household name like, for example, Valve’s Half-Life 2, released three weeks earlier.
Much of the plot of Knights of the Old Republic II is concerned with finding that which has been lost–be it knowledge, people, or places. As Kreia explains at the end, the real “lost Jedi” the Exile has been searching for have been there all along–“they simply needed a leader and a teacher”. Similarly, the nightmarish planet of Malachor V–the site of the pivotal battle that is at the heart of the game’s entire plot–had been forgotten by the Sith Lords of times past, before being rediscovered in the Mandalorian Wars and spawning the innumerable stories of victory, heroism, defeat, death and horror that the Jedi Exile encounters on the journey across the galaxy.
And so it is fitting, as the medium matures and gamers and game critics cast about for evidence to prove its legitimacy as an art form, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords sits quietly on the fringes of the game universe like Malachor V; not at the center of attention, perhaps, but still well remembered by all who have seen it firsthand.