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Filling in the Gaps: Gray Areas in 'Knights of the Old Republic'

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011
The Star Wars universe gets a shot of complexity from Bioware's celebrated RPG.

Note:  It should go without saying that there are some spoilers for a few Star Wars events in here, specifically for Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic.  If you haven’t played it yet, what is wrong with you? Go play it and come back later.


Intergalactic Star Wars Day was last week, which of course brought the whole Star Wars juggernaut to my mind. I’ve had a soft spot for the original trilogy ever since I first saw it as a wee lad and was (briefly) terrified of Darth Vader as a boy of five or six (or however old I was when my parents doomed me to a life that would forever feel hollow because there are no lightsabers in real life).  Nor am I exactly alone in my love for the series and my own inclination to discuss it here.  It’s a topic of discussion that everyone comes to sooner or later, and the best thing about Star Wars is that the size and scope of the world—a literal galaxy with its own millennia-spanning history painstakingly constructed (sometimes sloppily) by multiple sources, all ostensibly under the benevolent eye of George Lucas, that there’s almost always something worth discussing.
  
As a kid, I think the best part of Star Wars was its simple Manichaean conflict between the Jedi and the Sith.  Even now as an older kid who is ostensibly supposed to pass for an adult and with a slightly more complicated view of the Way Things Are (namely, a greater appreciation for the various shades of gray that fall between Light and Dark), the simplistic story of The Good Guys versus the Bad Guys presented in the Original Trilogy remains comforting.  There’s no real moral qualms in the series because the movie takes place on a scale where everyone has made a conscious choice of sides, even the civilians.  It is Us or Them.  Sure, there are hints of greater complexity—Obi Wan does lie, after all—but the greater Light versus Dark theme is so absolutely overpowering that even Han Solo comes out as a paragon of light by the end of the trilogy, ‘scoundrel’ though he may be.


Knights of the Old Republic retains that Light versus Dark theme, but it adds some much needed shades of gray into the world, giving the player a few choices which make the game a more matured version of Star Wars, a slightly more complex view of the galaxy, and a slightly more cynical view of the Jedi Order.  In the face of the Mandalorian Wars, the Jedi refuse to get involved, starting the chain of events that lead to the Jedi Civil War which is going on when the game begins.  The fall of Revan to the Dark Side is borne out of the frustration with the Council and his decision to go to whatever lengths necessary to defeat the threat without the aid of the full strength of the Jedi.  The Order’s status is further undermined by the revelation that they’d decided to essentially brainwash a wounded Revan into fighting for them.


The Order is not the collection of lawful paragons it claims to be, as many of them even seem to hold grudges against Revan (and in the sequel, the Exile).  It seems as if the galaxy would be better off without the Order, although the alternative is hard to swallow as the ‘better’ choice.  While some of the Sith’s allies have their own peculiar senses of honor (the Mandalorians are beautifully rendered as the Spartans of the galaxy and their code of honor has a quality to it which almost makes you ignore all the slaughtering of women and children), the Sith are almost cartoonishly evil—none more so than Darth Malak, who bombards an entire planet on the off chance that Bastila is still there. 


What brings the moral ambiguity of the Star Wars universe into focus is not necessarily the major players (although you can certainly play Revan as a thoroughly gray character), but the civilians you encounter.  There are of course the standard cruel crime lords and pious poor people, but there are also people with gambling debts brought on by bad decisions, or the otherwise nice housewife who is in some kind of bizarre relationship with a robot she programed to act like her dead husband.  It’s a tragic, creepy situation that you have to navigate as best as you can.  Do you bring the robot back, or lie and say it was destroyed, or actually destroy it?  There is not a good resolution to the problem that will result in all parties being happy.  Your traveling companions are similarly a cast of somewhat conflicted folk—is there really common ground to be found between a Mandalorian soldier who continues to revel in the glories of war and the whining, broken-hearted Republic soldier who lost his family to the war?  Should you pick a side, or should you just say whatever the two need to hear to make them leave you alone so you can get back to the ‘saving the galaxy’ thing?  You can play through the whole game without coming out strongly for either side, though in the end you do eventually need to decide who is going to live and who is going to die.  The interesting thing is that if you have played throughout the game trying to avoid one side or the other, the choice becomes even harder.  After all, the Jedi Council has been more hindrance than help, and there’s still the whole ‘brainwashed you into service’ thing which certainly is going to cause some resentment.  Then again, if you even have the most basic understanding of the Star Wars universe you know that the Sith are the Bad Guys.


Except for fact that many of the planets under Sith rule seemed hardly to notice it.  There’s the odd atrocity here and there, and the training facility on Korriban for new Sith recruits is certainly harsh, but for the most part people go on with their lives as they did when the Republic was in control.  The crime lords are still crime lords, the poor are still poor, and for the most part people are still working as before.  This seems to be the ultimate message of Knights of the Old Republic, the gray that sidles easily into breach between Light and Dark which the original Star Wars trilogy never addressed: namely, that most people aren’t invested or even interested in the grander scale of the battle between Good and Evil.  They’re too busy surviving to really concentrate on whether or not their ruling body is committing atrocities, brainwashing or standing by idly while atrocities are committed.  This comes through even more in the (sadly disastrous) sequel, and it is something which, from the looks of things, Bioware may continue to explore in The Old Republic.  Something to look forward to.

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