Dr. Bente Videbaek
20 April 2015
A World Shackled to a Morality Play: Deconstruction of Ethical Systems in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords
As a damaged starship, leaking fuel and flotsam into space like dripping vitae, sparking with but the barest hints of life, drifts dead through unknown space a lone, mute droid, washing amidst the bodies of fallen, unconscious or perhaps dead comrades tries to keep the ship from dying. Solitary the ship drifts off towards the only known piece of civilization, a mining operation in the asteroid field of an exploded planet. It is a somber, curious scene that begins Obsidian Entertainment’s 2004 roleplaying game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, especially considering it is just the game’s tutorial. Compared to the tone of the openings in each movie in the Star Wars film franchise there is little of the scale, the grandeur, or excitement. Yet this scene sets the tone perfectly for a game that seeks to undermine and subvert the fabric of what makes the universe of Star Wars so wonderful or, rather, so simple. Epic scenes of colossal battleship armadas are replaced with scenes of remoteness on the fringes of galactic strife while the presence of the innocent bystander is magnified. The archetypal hero story worn on Star Wars’ sleeve and the conflict between what boils down to the good, the light side, and the bad, the dark side become muddled in the ethical issues they arouse in their simplicity. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords analyses the ethical issues that occur in a war-torn world by viciously and systematically deconstructing these pieces of Star Wars lore and canon that seek to dichotomize two warring ideological factions, one good the other evil. Through the game’s gameplay systems, plot and characterization of both the playable protagonist, dubbed throughout the game as “The Exile,” The Sith Lords proves what it means to live an existence devoid of the simple meaning that the conventional hero’s story creates, becoming instead a non-entity, a black hole of sub-worth, feeding off others and, eventually, denying other people their ability to make decisions in a world shackled to a morality play.
The intention from the very first conception of The Sith Lords was the deconstruction of those elements of the Star Wars fiction that neither the films nor the book series nor the whole entangled extended Star Wars mythos sought to delineate (Purchase). From the start, George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise was conceived as a straightforward portrayal of what Joseph Campbell identifies as “the monomyth” or the “hero’s journey.” It’s a tale quite literally as old as time, as Joseph Campbell illustrates in his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, wherein he describes how, throughout ancient mythology of a great many cultures, the same story repeats itself (18). The figure of the “tyrant monster” arises. “Wherever he sets his hand,” writes Campbell, “there is a cry… a cry for the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence, will liberate the land” (16). The liberation comes not at the hands of peaceful negotiation, but from the hand of irrefutably justifiable violence, conducted at the edge of a sword, or, in this case, a lightsaber.
Luke Skywalker is that kind of violently just hero, whose battles against the evil empire mirror the stages set forth by Campbell, from the hero, Luke’s “call to adventure” (Campbell 49) in A New Hope as he is met by the escaped droids C3P0 and R2-D2 and receives the princess, Leia’s message, through to his final confrontation with the Dark Lord of the Sith, the Emperor in The Return of the Jedi, representing the “crossing of the return threshold” (Campbell 217). Though a work of Science Fiction, the Star Wars franchise finds more of its soul in the mythological, worshipping the abstract notion of “the force” as a means of explanation for not only a system of belief, but also for the efficacy in the universe to actually do good. Luke destroys the Death Star because of his attachment to the force. He defeats the Emperor because of its bond to him. The morality play stays hidden by the style of the filmmaking, as the original Star Wars film trilogy mimicked the classic style of serialized adventure television such as “Flash Gordon.” Star Wars is a story that focuses not on the galaxy’s effects on the individual but on the individual’s effects on the galaxy. The planet Alderaan is destroyed but nary is a glance paid to it, even though it represents an utterly tragic loss of life. The story instead stays focused on Luke’s inner struggle to accept his destiny and the power of the force. Luke’s journey leads him towards temptation, yet he proves his religion and philosophy right at the very end by defeating the only other opposition, committing large-scale acts of war along the way. Death and morbidity are subjects the films never seemed to look too closely at, a fact which The Sith Lords seems more than willing to scrutinize.
From the desolate opening The Sith Lords strays rarely along the same paths undertaken by both its predecessor and the franchise at large, nor by any example the monomyth provides. The first game in the series began in similar circumstances to A New Hope, as the protagonist to the first game awakes during an fight in space, escaping as a Sith boarding party crushes the hero ship’s meager defenses. The Sith Lords begins instead, after the initial section having controlled the lone droid T3-M4, with the player’s character falling from a liquid tank in a medical station aboard the Peragus facility, surrounded by similar tanks filled with the dead. The image encapsulates the omnipresence of death in The Sith Lords, deaths made inconsequential and yet ubiquitous, inescapable. Unconscious, the Exile could not help but be the pawn of an elaborate conspiracy that led to the deaths of nearly every individual on the station. There is no call to action for the Exile. The Exile at this time is driven less by a desire to reform the galaxy than he or she is to simply survive. It is a situation that puts the player off guard, and as the Exile learns more of what transpired in the station, elements of scene composition and dialogue similar to those used by horror genres leave the Exile and the player feeling removed from agency, powerless. Every man aboard the station was murdered by a group of HK-50 model assassination droids after discovering the Exile was, in fact, a Jedi, for which a large bounty has been placed on their heads. After meeting a strange old woman who calls herself Kreia and a rogue by the name of Atton Rand, the Exile escapes the facility, pursued by mysterious Sith assassins. From then on the Exile and player spend their time visiting new locations and drawing companions to them. Through this gameplay, a sense of the underlying story begins to emerge.
War has stayed unattentuated in this age of galactic history and, by extension, in the life of the Exile. First came the Mandalorian Wars, which nearly brought the Galactic Republic to extinction. There, against the caution of the Jedi council a group of wayward men and woman, led by the Jedi Revan managed to bring the Republic back from sure death, yet becoming consumed by the war in the process. Their tactics became more ruthless, callously strategic. At the final battle of the Mandalorian wars at Malachor V, the Exile, recognizing inevitable defeat at the hands of the Mandalorians, activated a super weapon designed by the engineer Bao-Dur, a man who joins the Exile’s crew in the course of the game. This was not like the destruction of Alderaan, which was glanced over, a tragedy that should never be referenced again. The weapon, called the Mass Shadow Generator, created at the center of Malachor V a gravity well that crushed at its singularity the main strength of the Mandalorian fleet and a great deal of the Republic’s fleet in one final gambit of victory at any cost. There were very few survivors. Each mass death, which the companion Visas Marr, the last remaining member of a species devoured by Darth Nihilus describes living through as “my life, my agony was a flicker in the darkness that was the planet” makes smaller men and woman out of the survivors, eroding them away. The world of Malachor remains a symbol in The Sith Lords for the impossible-to-escape pull of death. Every character the Exile brings aboard his or her ship is tied to the events at Malachor V. They are pulled to it, crushed metaphorically within its sick embrace.
The characters themselves serve as digressions from the archetypal Star Wars character. Atton Rand seems to be an easily formatted Han Solo-type, a rogue, a drifter. Yet he has a darker past. A Sith assassin, trained to hunt and murder Jedi, Atton, released from his anger and hatred at the destruction of Malachor becomes a husk of a man, void of purpose. Mira is a bounty hunter and refugee whose parents perished at Malachor. Bao-Dur is the engineer responsible for the device that committed mass slaughter in the last moments of the Mandalorian War. Each is bound to the exile by more than emotional ties. They are bound to the force, sensitive to it and thus entangled in it. The force in The Sith Lords gets viewed more as the manifestation of a philosophy, a powerful tool as well, but also a shackle. The player in their choices, whether they be good or evil, may develop bonds through to these characters so intimately that these companions will follow the Exile to whatever moral ground he or she falls to. If the Exile shifts to the dark side these character portraits become ashen, gray and menacing. The only one of your group, though affected by the magnetic pull of the Exile’s presence, to fully recognize this pull is Kreia, the old woman and disgraced Jedi, companion to the Exile, instructor and grand manipulator.
Kreia, neither villain nor friend, a companion that lies to the Exile and to the player, who seeks to teach just as much as she seeks to betray, represents duality and duplicity. Considered widely as a supreme example of a well-written female character of which in games there are woefully few (Cross), Kreia quite literally works inside the head of the Exile. She is the font for the destruction of the moral philosophies espoused by both the Sith and Jedi, having been, at one time or another, a master in both disciplines, finding neither to be philosophically satisfactory. Katherine Cross writes, in her article, “Characters Done Right” on Kreia’s importance to the game, calls, “The essence of what Kreia taught Jedi was that reliance on the Force was weakness, and that true strength came from not needing it. More dangerously she even suggested that the Force itself was unnecessary, and that perhaps much pain could be spared if it were gone from the universe.” Kreia acts as the main force of deconstruction on the meaning of the force, and the effect it has on people, believing it to be parasitic, functionally destroying free will. At a point in the game on Nar Shaddaa, the Exile is approached by a beggar. The player may either give the beggar money or violently refuse them. In either case Kreia condemns the action, saying that to give the beggar money might lead him to become a target whereas propagating violence leads only to more violence. Kreia cares deeply about these issues, saying at one point in a conversation with her that “apathy is death.”
Kreia believes that the force is a force for only control. As a Sith lord, Kreia, who takes the name Darth Traya, lord of betrayal, took two disciples, both of whom remain entirely dependent on the force. Darth Sion is a walking corpse, held together by sheer anger and control via the force, existing in the half-light of total, permanent agony. Darth Nihilus, on the other hand, Kreia’s other apprentice, is a being of absolute hunger, a creature that, through the destruction of Malachor V, which caused in him a great hunger for force energy, must consistently suck out the life of other beings in order to sustain him. Kreia is eventually cast out by her apprentices, yet sees in the Exile a far more amenable candidate for her mentorship. She cares for the Exile in an almost motherly fashion, defending him or her as the gathered Jedi Masters, in their fear of what the Exile represents tried to permanently sever the Exile’s connection to the force. Yet she adores the Exile for the simple reason that, against all possibility, she could turn away from the force and the shallow morality play it tries so deeply to instill (Cross). In an approach Cross calls “Machiavellian,” Kreia wishes for a world where “the internal struggles, when fought and won on their own, [should] yield the strongest rewards.” It is why she betrays the Exile, in spite of how much she cared for him or her. It is why she engages in open warfare between herself as a renewed Sith lord and the republic again, to make the world stronger for it. It is why she tries to destroy the force entirely.
War is intrinsic to the Star Wars experience, death too. Yet, at least in the film franchise, the aftereffects, the misery and suffering that occur the moments after a war has ended are never explored. War is a challenge for the protagonist to overcome. War is a fight between good and evil. Whether that is Luke or Anakin Skywalker, where death is conducted it is done in the faith that their cause is just. Only in Revenge of the Sith is any atrocity committed by a hero, and even then it is only after Anakin has “fallen to the dark side.” The great Master Yoda in Revenge of the Sith speaks reverently of death and of the force in its relation to death. “Death is a natural part of life,” he says. “Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealously. The shadow of greed, that is.” The Sith Lords rejects this notion emphatically. War becomes abstract, an idea, in Star Wars. War, as Kreia remarks, is a means by which people grow stronger “You see, the war, the true war, has never been one waged by droids, warships, or soldiers. They are but crude matter, obstacles against which we test ourselves.” Death in The Sith Lords holds vigil over every world the Exile visits. The force, the literal manifestation of the metaphysical concept of life, whether light or dark, becomes synonymous and symbolic of life. The Sith Lords mocks this connection. Planets such as Telos and the mass graveyard of Malachor V are wounds in the force and the ghosts of death come back to continuously haunt the Exile for his or her partaking in it. The Sith Lords takes place five years after the end of what is known across the republic and in the refugee camps of the people displaced by the war as the Jedi Civil War. For in the minds of the people affected, the war was a conflict of ideologies within the same culture, and not a fight between righteousness and darkness.
From the planet Telos, a world bombed to oblivion from orbit in the first Knights of the Old Republic, The Exile meets one of the few remaining members of the systematically exterminated Jedi order, a surly, haughty, deeply resentful woman cast in the glimmering white of her snowbound refuge. She tells the Exile of the Sith remnants, shadows of the broken Sith armada that have hunted the remaining Jedi to near extinction, sending the Exile off, not so much on a quest but into a descent towards the heart of the Galactic power struggle between the Sith and Jedi. As archetypically an ice queen as the Jedi Master Atris may be, she along with the few remaining Jedi masters, but principal among them, symbolizes the haughtiness brought about by ideals of goodness and wisdom represented by the Jedi. These masters are no wise sages like the eternal Master Yoda character which leads the protagonist like Luke to enlightenment through the acceptance of a religion. Masters such as Kreia are shunned for having new ideas that conflict with the narrative set forth by the stodgy group of Jedi masters. This religion, the force, blinds these so-called masters to the eternal suffering their adherence to an ideology has brought to the innocents and the disenfranchised.
The Galactic Republic sits in shambles, and its peoples, displaced by the by the Mandalorian War and the Jedi Civil War congregate in slums and live in abject poverty. In the course of the Exile’s dark odyssey to find the last remnants of the Jedi councils the Exile comes to the stinking cesspit of the moon-city that is Nar Shaddaa. Careful attention is paid to the dichotomy of the sheer unfathomable life in the city versus its existence as the dregs of civilization, of corruption stink and death. Quoting from Giorgio Agamben, games columnist Jake Muncy wrote, “Bringing to light the difference between birth and nation, the refugee causes the secret presupposition of the political domain—bare life—to appear for an instant within that domain.” The refugee represents in this mode of thought an ugly topic, a creature that exists outside a nation as only unfathomable creatures can, symbolizing the fear of complete detachment from the realities on holds dear. One of the Exile’s companions, Visas Marr states, “Never have I been to a place so alive with the Force, yet so dead to it. The contrast is like a blade.” The refugees and criminals the Exile meets on Nar Shaddaa mirror the character’s own internal strife. Exiled from the Jedi order, the only Jedi to return from the Mandalorian wars to face the judgment of the Jedi council, his or her connection to the force cut, the Exile became lost adrift without home or cause to fight for. For the Exile, the galaxy disabused him or her of gallantry as if once the Exile could have been a beacon for the monomyth, but was ultimately found wanting. The Exile had met his or her call to adventure and found in it only torment and regret. The travels of the Exile are the actions undertaken post-adventure, having fought and bled for a cause he or she once believed in, yet only made into an echo because of it.
At the moment of the destruction of Malachor V, with death untold occurring around the Exile, the force became wounded, and in order to survive, the Exile cut his or her own connection to it, preferring to live without the force than to die with it. Games columnist Jake Muncy compares the Exile’s condition to a description by Giorgio Agamben called “Homo Sacer,” human life that exists entirely on the Aristotelian plane of mere biological existence and far and away from a social existence. They are like refugees, for which home becomes a foreign concept, turning them into outsiders. The Exile stands opposed to the likes of Luke Skywalker in that, no matter what bonds he or she forms the Exile will always stand alone, and in that quiet detachment from the war-hardened galaxy pictured by Star Wars, become the embodiment not of an ideal or as a purposefully crafted hero’s story but as a human being in but rawest sense. To Muncy, “the Jedi Exile is an anomaly, a breach, not unlike Agamben’s homo sacer, an individual reduced to bare life, set apart—made sacred—by her abject separation from the world around them.” The Exile’s sacredness comes from the individuality allotted to him or her. The Exile, not unlike Darth Nihilus, draws in the force sensitives around him or her, feeding off of them, feeding too off the death the Exile must inevitably cause as the violence of the galaxy collapses in on itself. The Exile is a microcosm for Malachor V, a black hole of love and emotional connection. The Exile is thus too a microcosmic example of the power of the force distilled in the most terrible tragedies of humankind.
For a series of films, of games, of books, of media uncountable, as fun, exciting and wonderful as they might be, Star Wars never seems to wish to treat war and violence as little more than a means to an end, as black and white showdown of good and evil, as a morality play, or, most ironically, as a game. Perhaps the greatest achievement of The Sith Lords is to work within those tenets of Star Wars fiction, space battles, lightsabers and romping adventures, while still maintaining a watchful eye on the hidden meaning it may be portraying. Though admittedly not the most well designed or polished or even complete games, The Sith Lords shall still stand proudly as an achievement in what can be done to decompress and flex a narrative as strong and profitable as Star Wars, turning such a stable franchise over and looking at the soul hiding underneath.
Avellone, Chris, Zbigniew Staniewicz, and Julian DeLange. “Fear Is the Path to the Dark Side.” Interview by Robert Purchese. Eurogamer. Gamer Network, 31 July 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Vol. 17. New York: Pantheon, 1949. Print.
Cross, Katherine. “Characters Done Right: Kreia of Knights of the Old Republic 2.” Web log post. Borderhouse Blog. N.p., 4 Feb. 2011. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.
Muncy, Jake. “Vanishing Points.” Kill Screen. Kill Screen Media, Inc, 13 Apr. 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.
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