More so than any other game of its time, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic opened the door toward games being accepted as art. Released in 2003, KOTOR had everything: exciting storyline, surprising twists, fully fleshed out characters, fun gameplay, and an amazing soundtrack. As far as modern role-playing games are concerned, KOTOR is an immensely important foundation–without it, masterpieces like Fallout 3 just wouldn’t be the games we know them as.
One of the most memorable parts of this gameplay was its morality scale. A huge part of the draw and marketing was that in Knights of the Old Republic, not only would you be able to play a Jedi, but you would be able to make choices that would decide whether or not you were a Jedi Knight dedicated to the forces of good, or a twisted and corrupt Sith Lord. These choices would effect what powers you could use, the ending of the game, and even your appearance.
How Do You Measure Your Evil?
In KOTOR, your morality is based on Light Side Points and Dark Side Points, which are almost always received based on choices you make in dialogue options.
While playing this game in the past, I personally tended toward the light side. Not just because I’m a big, squishy teddy bear in my personal life, but also because the one thing this game lacked was a level of subtlety when it came to what constituted the Dark Side. I’ve spoken with several friends regarding these choices over the years, and all of them agreed: you just felt like an absolute ass when you chose those “bad” options, and if you’re going to play a game for 30+ hours, you’d rather not have everyone around you giving you shit. And this became abundantly clear when I recently played through Knights of the Old Republic as a Bad Guy. To illustrate that, I’ll take you through the Cliff Notes version of my playthrough (evil Cliff Notes). Let’s start from the beginning…
Yeah, you knew this was coming.
Your First Chance To Be Evil
It’s almost immediate. You are woken up on a Republic ship by your bunkmate, and the shit has hit the fan. You’re being attacked by Sith fighters, and your bunkmate insists that you both seek out Bastila Shan–an important Jedi on board the ship. It’s imperative that you find her and see her off the ship safely, for without her powers the Republic could find itself…
“Forget it! I’m looking after my own skin!”
Granted, more of a douche move than pure evil. Hell, it doesn’t even garner me any Dark Side Points. So, all in all, off to a bad start. Your bunkmate invokes the law of “Don’t Be A Dick”, and you both head out, searching the rapidly failing ship as you fight Sith, pick locks, sneak around, and do everything else that your standard tutorial level requires of you.
Eventually, your bunkmate gives his life to save you, and you join the Captain of the fleet, Carth Onasi, as you bravely hop an escape pod and flee with your lives to the planet below.
“He was not at all afraid to be killed in nasty ways, Brave Brave Brave Brave Sir Jedi!”
The two of you land on Taris–a massive city-planet that resembles the cyborg baby that would result of a drunken grunt & pull between Calcutta and Detroit. Bastila has apparently landed here as well, so your goal becomes to find her.
On Taris, the idea of playing the Bad Guy puts you in the role of being a punk or a ganger. Most of your “evil” is based on obnoxious, violent acts. I save an old man from being robbed only to rob him myself. I work as a gladiator and kill a man in the arena. I accept jobs as a bounty hunter and murder my marks when a little bit of talk could spare lives.
Along the way, I team up with the Wookee Zaalbar and his precocious best friend, the Twi’lek Mission Vao. Mission Vao combines all the cheerful backtalk of your best friend’s little sister with the larcenous instincts of your best friend’s little brother. I can’t wait to kill her. The group is rounded out by T3-M4: KOTOR’s, very own R2-D2 ripoff. I also recruit Canderous Ordo, a vicious Mandalorian mercenary, who’s appreciation for my ability to be a righteous psychopath will keep him at my side for the majority of the game.
Eventually I locate Bastila, who is being used as the prize in an underworld racing tournament. I agree to help The Hidden Beks (an “honorable” gang) win the tournament in exchange for Bastila’s safe return. As soon as it becomes convenient, I betray them to help the Black Vulkars (a “dishonorable” gang) for the same prize. As soon as Bastila is freed I kill the hell out of those guys (because fuck having friends!). Winning the tournament gets the attention of crime lord Davik, who I betray for his ship at the earliest convenience.
Bastila safe and in tow, we hop on Davik’s ship The Ebon Hawk and flee to safety just as the evil Darth Malak orders his Sith fleet to turn the entire planet of Taris into ash.
Bastila guides us to Dantooine, the home of the Jedi order. They seem interested in a bond that I share with Bastila, and offer to train me.
My first five minutes in the chambers of the Jedi Council are spent lying my ass off. I make them believe that I am interested in the Jedi Order and in making the world a better place, despite my apparent love of murdering biker gangs and running like a chicken from exploding ships and planets. They buy it completely and BOOM: Jedi powers. Which means Force Choking every snarky fast food attendant I see.
“Sir, for the last time–we’re not a Taco Bell! How are you doing this???”
The Council sends me off on a quest to prove myself, leading to one of the first major differences that choosing the Dark Side takes. It seems that a nearby grove has become darkened and corrupt–the source of its evil spreading to the nearly flora and fauna. The reason is unknown, and I am sent to scope things out. Apparently they were just going to let this “corrupt grove” issue sit until some Padawan came along to take care of it. Upon arriving at the grove, I find a furious Juhani, a young Jedi who has fled the Order. She has lost her mind and given over entirely to the Dark Side.
Now, anyone who has played this game knows that fighting and sparing Juhani teaches her a valuable lesson in mercy. She sees that judgment is something to be avoided, and that her crimes (she believes that she has killed her master), no matter how great, can be forgiven. You take her hand and guide her back into the Light, and she joins you on your quest as a valuable ally and friend.
But I straight up murder her ass.
I am not going to traverse the galaxy followed around by that face.
This is the first time in Knights of the Old Republic that my actions as an evil character cause such a permanent consequence. The Order is saddened that she is gone, but I lie convincingly, telling them that she was too far gone into the Dark Side to be saved.
Another memorable moment on Dantooine concerns a local villager, who has lost his daughter to a group of Mandalorian raiders somewhere on the planet. In promising to help him, I choose the dialogue choice of “Those animals! I’ll kill them for what they’ve done to your daughter!”
This is the first Dark Side option that has less to do with ordinary cruelty and more to do with going against the Jedi Order’s code against passion and fury. Your angry response is hardly one that the average person would consider “evil” or “bad”. But the Jedi Order preaches against allowing one’s vision to be clouded with emotion, be they anger or love. And thus, Dark Side points. This is a rare moment of subtlety in the morality meter of KOTOR, and can even be considered a bit uneven when you begin a romance with Bastila that isn’t assigned with the Dark Side.
These two moments: the death of Juhani and your penalty for passion, shape my character on Dantooine, moving me from an ordinary street punk to a furious Sith apprentice.
After following the footsteps of Darth Malak and Darth Revan in an abandoned temple, we learn of our mission to find the four Star Maps on four different planets, and off we go (red lightsaber in hand) to Manaan.
The ocean planet of Manaan is largely inhabited by Selkath, and is known for its neutrality in the war between the Sith and the Republic. Therefore, representatives of both armies will be here. Therefore, this should be a great place to start some trouble.
I am stopped outside the Ebon Hawk and informed of a docking fee that I must pay. I use my Force Persuade powers to convince them to let me out of a measly 100 credits, and Bastila warns me against using my abilities for the morally gray. Canderous, on the other hand, seems impressed as hell.
Why, thank you, Canderous: Dark Side points.
While on Manaan, I find that the Star Map’s location is known by the Republic, who will be happy to help me out. I just need to break into the Sith Embassy and gather some inside info on them there first. “Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” policies in a roleplaying game–who’dathunk it??
After another round of Sith Murder Death Kill, I’m taken to court.
You heard that right: court.
I’ve trespassed on Sith property and… well… killed a bunch of them, so the ever neutral Swiss Selkath have taken it upon themselves to hold a trial to see what should become of me.
Pictured: The Selkath Henri Guisan.
True to my Bad Guy image, I lie my ass off, accusing the Sith of everything from treachery to kidnapping to murder (all of which they’ve probably done, but it’s not like I’ve got any proper nouns to use during my trial).
I’m let off the hook.
The Republic lead to an underwater research facility, where a massive Firaxis shark has awoken, driving the nearby Selkath researchers insane and sending them on murderous, fishy killing sprees. I remedy the situation by poisoning the motherfucking ocean, proving once again that subtle evil is for pussies.
With the giant shark dead, I’m able to find the Star Map. However, my method has ruined a massive amount of kolto, Manaan’s major export. Kolto has powerful healing abilities, and was being used by both the Sith and the Republic, so my psychopathic impatience has probably led to thousands, if not millions, of preventable deaths.
I’m banned from Manaan forever, but who cares? I’ve got to get to Tattooine.
Tattooine was always one of my favorite planets in KOTOR. Not only because of its Skywalker-origin goodness, but because that’s where I recruit HK-47, who has always been my favorite side character in the game.
HK-47 is a sociopathic assassin droid who peppers our adventures with stories of his previous masters (all of whom he eventually killed himself). He’s tough in combat and crazier than a North Korean dictator–sort of a warped parody of C3PO. He loves a good fight and refers to all organic beings as “meatbags”.
He’s going to get along with my character just fine.
The local Sand People have been attacking people left and right, and HK’s specific purpose is that he can translate the Sand People tongue, leading to the possibility of a diplomatic solution. But who the hell has time for that? Besides, the Czerka Corportation has offered me, like, three cents for each gaffi stick I bring them.
And you know how much I love pennies.
“Statement: I too love pennies.”
After momentarily confusing this game’s genre for fantasy and slaying a dragon, I find the next Star Map, and I take my sociopathic robot with me to…
Beautiful Kashyyyk! Home to trees, Wookiees, and slavers!
It’s my time spent on Tattooine and Kashyyyk that takes me from standard Sith Apprentice to full-fledged Corporate Sellout. On Tattooine I worked for the Czerka Corporation (who apparently manufacture misery and frown lines), and I’ll find myself in their employ on Kashyyyk as well. Though on Kashyyyk I’ll mostly spend my time convincing certain members of the Wookiee tribes to sell their own people into slavery.
Naturally, Zaalbar has a problem with this. Remember Zaalbar? I sure as hell didn’t. I was having so much fun being BFFs with a Mandalorian and a murderous droid that I completely forgot I had a half-hearted Wookiee on my side. Zaalbar and his father had both been thrown out of their tribe for using their claws in battle (something which is very bad, apparently), and Zaalbar’s brother took over, selling out his own people to the Czerka Corporation.
While searching for the Star Map on the forest floors, I come across Jolee Bindo, an old Jedi Knight who embraces neither the Light side nor the Dark. He’s basically the most neutral character in the game outside of T3-M4, and pretty hilarious when he wants to be. But not when he tries to talk me out of killing Zaalbar’s father, who is nearly feral and roaming the jungles. I notice, however, that his attempt to talk me out of it does not stop him from swinging his own lightsaber into the old Wookiee several times.
Star Map found, I return to Zaalbar’s tribe, where I assist his brother in convincing him that working with Czerka and selling your own people into slavery is a good idea.
Damn, thems some tasty Dark Side points.
Onboard The Leviathan
On our way to the final planet of Korriban, we are intercepted by the Leviathan, a massive Sith vessel. This part of the adventure is important as it gives away KOTOR’s infamous twist: that you are actually the amnesiac Sith Lord Darth Revan. I’m sorry if those spoilers ruined something for you, but let’s face it: this game is ten years old, so….
…This game is ten years old?
Oof. That stings.
I think that this is where I find myself truly empathizing with the Dark Side of the storyline. Up until now, playing as a Dark Side character has resulting in me being little more than a nuclear-powered douchebag. I kill when I don’t need to, I betray for shits and giggles, and appear to have absolutely no qualms with doing whatever I want to get my way.
However, what the Jedi Council did to Revan strikes me as thoroughly screwed up. Revan lost his battle when he former friend and partner Darth Malak attacked him, leaving him to the custody of the Jedi. The Jedi, sensing an opportunity, erased Revan’s memories and replaced them with memories that they completely made up. They then planted him onboard a ship with Bastila and just hoped that he would join them to fight back against Malak and his infinite Sith fleet.
I can’t be the only person who sees this sort of psychic lobotomy as going way too far. Even if my character had been fighting for the Light up until that point, could anyone blame him if he lost his mind with anger over finding out the truth? I know many people find some of what the Jedi say about love and passion to be a little against the grain, but it takes a lot to deny that literally reprogramming your enemy to fight for you has some shady moral implications.
I escape the Leviathan through Bastila staying behind to battle Malak. As the Ebon Hawk sails away, the bleakness of the end of this chapter feels a lot like the end of Empire Strikes Back–bleak, the hope of a happy ending feeling distant.
Not that I’m really going for a happy ending here.
“Who needs happiness when I’ve got this badass costume?” –Darth Revan
The last Star Map is somewhere on Korriban, home to the Sith Academy. This is where I expected things to get really intriguing as a bad guy: literally touching down on the origin planet of the biggest evil the galaxy has ever faced.
But my exploits largely consist of the same cruelty and betrayal I’ve played at all along. I kill my way into the academy and murder my competition. I betray both of my Sith masters and kill every Sith in the academy on the way out.
The most interesting thing about being evil on this planet is the loot that comes out of it. Searching the various Sith archaeological digs is one of the more fun parts of the entire game, and most of the loot can only be worn by Dark Side characters.
On my way to the Star Forge system, the Ebon Hawk is yanked out of the sky by some sort of device on the surface on an unknown planet. It’s on this planet that stuff gets really shady.
After doing the usual “strike a deal and then betray-murder everybody”, I run into Bastila on the top of an ancient temple. She has been studying under Darth Malak and she looks good.
I tell her to bow before me–that I’m her new master, and that we’re going to take Darth Malak out like Kung Pao chicken. Jolee has followed me into the temple and tells me that he won’t let me go to the Dark Side. This drive was strangely absent when I killed an innocent Wookiee in Kashyyyk, but whatever. I kill another member of my party with the help of BDSM Jedi Barbie, and we make our way back to the Ebon Hawk.
When it’s clear how things have gone down, Carth blows up, accusing me of being the same person Darth Revan had been before my memories were erased. I threaten to kill him, but he runs off into the underbrush before I can bring my lightsaber to bear.
Mission Vao also has a serious problem with all of this, so I order Zaalbar to kill her. Zaalbar owes me a lifedebt, but still refuses to kill his best friend. A little use of Force Persuade changes all that.
So in recap:
I kill a Jedi, cause the oldest companion I have to go into hiding, and use my powers to force a Wookiee to kill a fourteen year old girl.
Feeling pretty good about myself.
You trick the Republic into thinking that you’re still fighting for their side and make your way into the Star Forge itself, searching for good ole Malak.
The Star Force is a place where there are a lot of differences for an evil character. Oh sure–you’re still mowing down roughly a billion Sith and droids in its many levels, but little things stick out. Like the badass Darth Revan armor you can find…
“Again: Feeling pretty good about myself.”
Also, when you finally battle Darth Malak, he reveals a cluster of Jedi that he has captured and put in stasis. Throughout your battle with him he will stop and drain the life forces of one of these poor, unfortunate souls, effectively recharging his health bar and making your life that much harder.
…Unless, of course, you drain their souls yourself. Which I highly recommend doing, as it effectively recharges your health bar and makes Malak’s life that much harder.
There’s no question about it: Knights of the Old Republic is a masterpiece of storyline, gameplay, and just about everything else. In playing it as the villain, however, I could see serious problems with the morality meter.
The first and most important is that the notion of the Dark Side lacks subtlety. I know that this has been true of many villains in the Star Wars universe, but Emperor Palpatine didn’t take over the Senate by murdering everyone who stood against him (not immediately, anyway). In KOTOR you either play a saint or a foaming at the mouth monster.
Bastila warns that the Dark Side is tricky and insidious–that it is possessed of a creeping pervasiveness that takes you over when you’re not expecting it. So why are the options of being evil or good so damned obvious? No one really thinks of themselves as evil–evil is something seen from the outside. Even those we see as evil see themselves as doing something that is necessary and just.
I know that that only raises questions that can’t be measured quite as easily, and KOTOR certainly gets a pass for being one of the first games to successfully implement the notion of playing a “good” character versus an “evil” character. Not to suggest that there are no well-crafted moments for the Dark Side in there–there are many. Just not as many as there should be.
On the other hand, choosing the side of darkness is really disconcerting. You end up doing some awful stuff, and it has a way of following you. I suppose this is respectable on the part of the game’s creators–if you want to be a bloodthirsty maniac, they certainly aren’t going to let you off light.
Playing the bad guy in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic gets an H for Highly Unpleasant. You get some cool powers, and the costumes are definitely more impressive. But like the prostitute wearing the Tiffany earrings, I’m not sure I’m happy with what I had to do to get them.