Concept art for Knights of the Old Republic II

Do I really need to do another KotOR II post, you ask? I’ve written about it, I’ve made videos about it, I’ve tweeted about it. Surely by now I’ve said everything I need to say about it?

No, I still haven’t. Something about it always eludes me when I try to write about it. The game is special to me, in a way that I find difficult to fully articulate. You’ll notice the title says 15 years, even though KotOR II was released 17 years ago. That’s because I first played it on Christmas Eve 2006, which still feels like yesterday, and it is slightly terrifying to realize it is almost half my life ago.

No other game, no other work of fiction, echoes in my head the way this one does, especially on dark winter evenings when I feel like a 16-year-old kid again, pondering the meaning of the Jedi Exile’s story.

There’s no perfect way to play the game. Every playthrough will involve some sacrifice. I’d argue the least satisfying way to play it as a bloodthirsty, unrepentantly dark side Exile, but even that makes a degree of sense. The horrors the Exile has witnessed could easily render them a twisted monster.

My preferred style is to play the Exile early as a cynical and bitter ex-Jedi, who over the course of the game gradually comes to understand the quest to find the lost Jedi as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for redemption. The tremendous spiritual gulf between the person who coldly ordered  the use of the Mass Shadow Generator at Malachor V and the person who is capable of fighting to save Telos from Darth Nihilus, to redeem Visas Marr and Colonel Tobin, is a fascinating character study, and it’s this spiritual journey that I think makes for the most compelling interpretation of the story.

Does this say something about me? I don’t know; maybe so, although I think in this instance it’s just my preference for a narrative where the protagonist changes compared to one where they don’t.

Besides, despite the fact that it’s a role-playing game, and the character whose role I am playing is the Exile, the Exile is not the character with whom I most empathize. No, that would be Atris; the historian who delves into realms of esoteric lore because she is incapable of letting go of the past. Like everyone in KotOR II, Atris is haunted by the events of the war; not by what she did, but what she did not do, and the nagging thought that the Exile was willing to take a risk that she never would.

That burning resentment, which she masks as loyalty to the Jedi code, fuels her, and ultimately leads her astray from the Jedi teachings. And Kreia observes that Atris views the Exile as her “champion,” saying to the Exile “you were all that she could not be.” Note that this is exactly the relationship of the player to the player character in a video game. The avatar represents the person we wish we were.

If you play KotOR II “right,” you are forced to ask some questions about yourself. Like the Exile in the cave on Koribann, you “revisit the dark moments of your past.” Everything in KotOR II is about redemption and regret, about reliving moments of failure, of weakness. To paraphrase Kreia, “you find yourself… or you find yourself lacking.”

So many lines in KotOR II echo in my mind: “It is all that is unsaid upon which tragedies are built,” or the Exile’s line to Darth Sion, that Kreia chose them because they “could turn away from it.” (“It” being the Force. Among other things, KotOR II is about turning away from power.)

Anyway, back to Atris. Atris who, despite her flaws, is not an irredeemable monster, and for me, one of the most powerful scenes in the game is when the Exile acknowledges their own role in making Atris what she is.

Atris replies with three sentences that are very important. The first is “save Telos,” which is just a comment on the immediate threat: Telos is under attack by the Sith.

The second is “save the galaxy,” which is Atris’s recognition of the fact that unless the Sith are defeated at Telos, they will scour the galaxy. In other words, this battle is also the key moment in the entire shadow war of Sith vs. Jedi.

And then she says the most important thing of all:

“Save yourself.”

I take this to mean that Atris realizes, possibly even before the Exile has, that they can be redeemed in this moment. That the battle of Telos, a planet ravaged by war, and struggling since the Exile’s destruction of Peragus, is the moment when the Exile can finally atone for Malachor V. Like Kreia says early on, the Exile is the battlefield. The terrible galaxy-shattering religious war has been waged in the Exile’s soul, culminating in this fateful hour.

Like all the really great epics, the secret of KotOR II is that, for all its vast scale, it is a very personal story. Everyone, I think, has something in their life that they regret, or that they would like a chance to do over again. That’s what KotOR II is about, and that’s the subtle beauty of its choice and consequence system: play it as a dark-sider, and it feels hollow and meaningless. Play it as a light-sider, and it’s a hopeful story of redemption.

I’ve gone on enough, I suppose. My words alone can’t convince you of what this game means to me, and maybe it truly is a case of “right place, right time.” Maybe it wouldn’t have struck me quite the same way if I’d played it earlier in my life, or later. But I hope I can least convince you of this much: that Art, supreme, powerful, meaningful Art, capable of moving someone on a very deep level, can come in all sorts of forms.

I guess it’s easy for people to read all this and wonder how I can care about a game so much, and to point to everything it inherits from the silly traditions of pulp sci-fi, like laser battles and speeder races and women in metal bikinis dancing for space slugs. (Though these last two elements, it must be noted, are optional.) “It’s just a game,” they might say, shaking their heads. Well, yes; it is, after all, just a game. But art is always “just” art.

There is a school of thought in criticism which seems to implicitly believe that History is over, that all the truly great art has already been made, that the canons of world art and literature are complete, and anything new must be inferior.

Needless to say, I don’t believe that. Like KotOR II itself when it was released, the artistic canons of the world are in a highly glitchy, unpolished state; fascinating but still in need of work, and creators of today still have as much capacity to make things that speak to the human soul as their predecessors did. There are great works yet to be made, just as the Exile is a “veteran of a war yet to come.” To see them needs an expansion of our minds, and a willingness to look in unlikely places. Like the lost Jedi, Art may not be found where you expect, but in those humble, unassuming places no one even bothers to look.

Which brings me to the last point I want to make: KotOR II‘s overarching plot is about finding the lost Jedi. But what’s under-appreciated is that “the lost Jedi” are not who you think they are. The lost Jedi are not Masters Vrook, Zez-Kai Ell, Kavar and Vash, the old leadership of the collapsing order that splintered during the Mandalorian wars, and that failed to understand the teachings of Kreia.

Along the journey to find these old Jedi, the Exile meets people scarred by the wars, fighting as best they can to survive in a galaxy decaying into chaos: Mira, Atton, Bao-Dur, Brianna, and Mical, all of whom the Exile can instruct in the ways of the Force. And Kreia reveals at the end of the game:

They were the lost Jedi, you know. The true Jedi, upon which the future will be built. They simply needed a leader, and a teacher.

The light side ending of KotOR II captures it all: the symbolic passing of the torch from Kreia to her greatest pupil, the Jedi who learned to survive without the Force, and atoned for the horrific violence of the Mandalorian wars, and planted the seeds that will eventually heal the galaxy.

Viewed this way, the ending is an optimistic, if bittersweet, story of renewal. From the bleak ruins of a war-torn galaxy, something new can come, once the old order has finally collapsed. Kreia’s death at Malachor (“Rest now, Kreia. Your time in this place is over.”) symbolizes the end of one era and the birth of another. It is fundamentally a story about taking responsibility for the past and creating “something that will carry your people’s memory into the future,” as Kreia tells Mandalore. It is the cyclical cosmic epic of birth, growth, decay, death, and rebirth.