How Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II Made The Force Interesting

In the walled city of Iziz the caged beasts howl songs about their own matted fur into air that tastes like violence. Men stand alongside those cages, some dreaming of a home outside the walls. A nervous soldier watches from a distance, unconsciously fingering the trigger of his blaster. He’s never been a political man, he lies to himself, all this talk of blockades and coups is above his pay grade. His job is to keep the peace at the ports, let visitors know the power of their visas, make sure no one leaves. Then the tension breaks. The violence in the air becomes manifest in torn metal and broken bone as a jaw snaps shut and the soldier watches paralyzed with fear. A stranger, fresh off her ship, draws a line of light across the beast’s chest and leaves its body in the sand. The siege goes on.

Star Wars Knight of The Old Republic II: The Sith Lords is a very good video game about Jedi and Sith and all the other very Star Wars things that there are. The game, now approaching its 15th anniversary, is often considered the best Star Wars game released to date and Obsidian and BioWare’s best work. It is messy, unfinished, and deeply ambitious. It is Star Wars at its most philosophical, an attempt to carve some real-world meaning out of a world of laser swords and space muppets.

Jedi People Scare Me

To understand KOTOR 2 you first have to understand the fictional history that informs the events of the game. A few years before the events of KOTOR 2, the Mandalorians invaded the Republic in hopes of testing their strength. A group of Jedi, attempting to prevent billions of civilian deaths, broke off from the council and went to war with the Mandalorians on behalf of the Republic. What followed was an absolutely brutal war, culminating in a battle on Malachor V where the player character activated a weapon of mass destruction, wiping out the entire planet. The trauma she experienced led her to fully sever herself from the Force, an unprecedented act in the history of the Jedi Council. 

The Jedi who left to fight in the Mandalorian Wars were cast out of the Jedi Order and declared lost to the Dark Side of the Force, with the exception of the player character who entered into a self-imposed exile to the Outer Rim of the galaxy. The Jedi Civil War between the new Sith produced by the Mandalorian Wars and the Jedi Order soon followed, resulting in the near extinction of both the Jedi and the Sith and a proliferation of death across the galaxy. KOTOR 2 follows the newly rediscovered Exile as she rekindles her connection to the Force while assembling the remnants of the Jedi Council to fight back against the re-emerging Sith.

Throughout KOTOR 2 you’re told that, for most people, the Jedi and the Sith are indistinguishable from one another. This is especially apparent on Dantooine where, during the Jedi Civil War, most of the Jedi went into hiding and were subsequently murdered which transitioned into a violent period of Sith domination. The planet and its settlers were traumatized by this experience and, if you have a lightsaber equipped, reject the Jedi Exile the moment she steps foot onto the planet.

Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

KOTOR 2 is in direct conversation with the original trilogy and the prequels, which means that the perspective of the settlers on Dantooine is designed to feel alien. Of course the Jedi and the Sith are different, one might think at first, the whole franchise is about how different the Jedi and the Sith are. But as the game goes on to present more situations, more places scarred by the Jedi Civil War, that perspective begins to change.

When roguish companion Atton describes his experience being an assassin for the Sith, specially trained to murder the living hell out of Jedi, he notes there was functionally no difference between the two. Normal people don’t give a shit about what side of the Force someone is on. This is not to say, to quote the greatest scholar of our times the fallen Jedi Kreia: “theres actually zero difference between good & bad things. you imbecile. you fucking moron” Instead, it’s just a recognition of the fact that most people in the Star Wars universe never come into direct contact with a Jedi or a Sith — and when they do, it usually ends in violence.

Now We Have to Talk About Foucault

The Light and Dark sides of the Force are, in the Star Wars movies, framed as easily-identified ideological positions. The Light side argues that people should act selflessly with compassion and temperance. The Dark side argues that people should act for themselves, driven by their passion and desire. This isn’t how the Force functions in KOTOR 2 though. Instead, KOTOR 2 presents a much more interesting argument. The Force can be best understood through Foucault’s definition of power, which I’ll simplify a lot because that shit is dense: Power is a complex web of overlapping forces that drive someone or something to act. Power is not a thing someone has, it is something someone does and has done to them. 

These forces are real even when they aren’t physical. Your relationship with your friends is a force that encourages you to spend time with them, your personal understanding of what friendship means pushes you to do certain activities when you’re together. In this definition power isn’t inherently oppressive, it’s productive. Power drives you to act, positively and negatively. Every relationship, idea, and social role you have is a mechanism of power. The Force acts as a thread connecting every living being together, putting all of their lives in conversation. It’s an essential part of the field of power affecting everyone and everything in the galaxy.

This understanding of the Force frames Light and Dark not only as ideologies but also methodologies of power. The Force powers in KOTOR 2 help to define what these methodologies actually entail.

There are 8 Light Side Force powers: Force Aura, Force Valor, Force Barrier, Heal, Revitalize, Stun, Stun Droid, Battle Precognition, Force Enlightenment, and Inspire Followers. These powers focus on subjecting one’s own body to the Force through buffing and healing, the exceptions being Stun and Stun Droid the latter of which eventually becomes Destroy Droid — the only damaging power aligned to the Light side of the Force. (Despite their obvious personhood, Star Wars mostly doesn’t count droids as people because they don’t have any Wizard Bugs in their blood.) These powers restrict and enhance the body without causing direct harm. The Dark side, in contrast, focuses on subjecting others to the Force, and as such all of the Dark side powers are attacks and debuffs with the exception of Fury, which makes a Sith really good at stabbing for a while.

It would be easy to categorize the Light side as nonviolent and the Dark side as violent, but this misses the point. Force Valor is a buff that improves all of your attribute points, but to what ends are those attribute points used? Violence. Sure, your Intelligence modifier gets a boost for 20 seconds but what really matters is your Strength, Dexterity, and Charisma. The stuff that makes you hit harder. Heal is used to either keep a fight going or prep for another one. A Light side character will be as effective an instrument of death as any Dark side character, given the right timescale. 

So when you’re recognized as a Jedi on Dantooine, it isn’t because of your robes or your wizardly demeanor — it’s because you have a lightsaber. What those present recognize is your ability to kill any of them on a whime. The presence of a Jedi is an implicit threat produced by their capacity for and, in the Republic, authority to do violence. KOTOR 2 is one of the few pieces of Star Wars media I’ve been exposed to that recognizes how fucking terrifying it must be to be a normal person standing in front of a Jedi.

More Jar Jars:

Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

Methodologies of Power

To be clear, there’s still an ideology associated with each side of the Force, but it isn’t what defines them. KOTOR 2 allows for players to choose powers from the opposite alignment of the Force if they want. By the end of the game my maximum Light side Jedi Exile used Force Lightning to wipe out entire battalions of enemies single-handed — it just took more out of her than it would’ve a Dark side character. She practiced compassion and self-sacrifice, but she could still whip ass when she needed to. Ideology influences methodology, but they’re treated separate concepts.

Through this lens the Light and Dark sides function in a way akin to Foucault’s idea of power-knowledge. Basically (VERY BASICALLY), when power is exerted it produces a body of knowledge, that knowledge then begins exerting power on the subject and facilitating new technologies of power, this process then repeats infinitely. To commit to the Light or Dark side is to be influenced by a body of knowledge that produces and affects the technologies of power you engage with. Methodology produces ideology, ideology affects methodology, the process repeats. 

The Jedi Civil War was, arguably, a natural product of the Jedi’s decision to treat ideology and methodology as the same thing. The Jedi Council argued that if you wanted to go to war with the Mandalorians, even if it was so you could protect people, then you were a Sith lost to the Dark side of the Force. In that act of rejection they pushed those practicing the methodology of the Dark side to the ideology of the Sith. This is the same reason Anakin turns to the Sith — the Jedi deny him the means to save Padme, which pushes him closer to Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious. 

Framing the Light and Dark sides of the Force as methodologies instead of ideologies helps to explain what balance in the Force actually looks like. Balance isn’t having good and evil in equal measure, it’s a way of keeping one’s methodologies in check. Thus, the Exile, an individual who uses both Light and Dark sides of the Force, exemplifies balance better than any Skywalker ever has. 

Dark Side, Light Side, I’m the Jedi With the Force Lightning

The Last Jedi seemed to be approaching this conclusion by allowing Kylo and Rey to draw power from both sides of the Force while still maintaining their individual moral compasses and objectives. Rey never turns her back on emotion — she embraces it and therein lies her strength. Kylo on the other hand is constantly swinging from one extreme to the other, unable to find any internal sense of self outside of Light and Dark, and comes to represent the galaxy itself. His obsession with legacy, and by proxy the history of the Jedi and the Sith, is his greatest weakness.

The Light side is vulnerable to the Dark side and the Dark to the Light. These methodologies create openings for their counterparts to thrive. The Sith’s overreliance on the Dark side leads, inevitably, to the rise of the Jedi, and vice versa. Kylo’s empathy overwhelms him the moment he’s consumed by rage. The first time he has the chance to build a genuine human connection he instead allows his ambition to drive him towards conquest and conflict. Balance in the Force isn’t prophecy, it’s practical advice. 

At the end of KOTOR 2, exhausted by the ceaseless conflict generated by Light and Dark, your companion Kreia tries to kill the Force. For Kreia and, several Jedi Orders, the Force is an inescapable divine will. There is no outside of its gaze or influence. It is the fundamental source of power in the world. Kreia believes that by destroying the Force she can be truly free, no longer subject to the will of something greater than herself. And Kreia, like Jedi Councils throughout the ages, is wrong.

Or maybe I’m the dumbass and it really is all about prophecy because, as J.J. Abrams so eloquently said about the revival of Palpatine in Episode 9: “It’d be weird if it wasn’t.”