I’ve played quite a few video games in my day, often coming back to the really good ones repeatedly over the years. But only a select few have crossed over into “I set my Steam profile to private so my friends don’t know how much I play this game” territory. Of all those titles, perhaps the most enduring are the Bioware Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games from 2003/2004.
There’s something about KOTOR that gives it a staying power very few story-driven games, even the truly great ones, have ever achieved. The two games combine a massive narrative depth with a mature treatment of the Star Wars universe that sets a gold standard for the franchise, at least in the realm of gaming. They have proved so enduring in their popularity, in fact, that KOTOR was re-released for mobile and KOTOR II was recently patched (after over a decade) to support modern PCs, add Steam Workshop support, fix bugs, and officially support the Restored Content Mod. For those who are not familiar, KOTOR II was rushed to make a physical release date, and as a result, a great deal of content was cut. Rather than removing it, however, the devs left it there for modders to find. Over the years, that resulted in a near complete restoration of that content. The game has remained popular enough to justify a complex, years-long project involving dozens of coders and artists, and it has continued to sell well enough to justify an updated Steam release with official support for that mod.
Falling thousands of years before the events of the Star Wars prequels, KOTOR showed us a universe where the galaxy is plunged into massive and bloody conflict with the Mandalorian Wars and then almost immediately into the universally disastrous Jedi Civil War, in which Jedi are not trusted, are hated by many, and are ultimately hunted to near extinction. It’s dark and chock full of moral ambiguity and some of the best Star Wars content out there. While these games are technically no longer canon, the general framework and many of the characters from this period, KOTOR games included, did “make the cut.”
The KOTOR franchise also serves as a clear spiritual predecessor to the best of both the Mass Effect franchise and Fallout: New Vegas. Many of the same people worked on many of those titles, and there are themes that almost seemed to carry over directly. While far from perfect, these games dealt with complex racial, ethical, and sexuality/gender identity issues in ways that were often groundbreaking, if occasionally facepalm worthy.
In order to best examine how these issues were handled and why we still care, a look at some of the characters from these games will be key in understanding how they interact with each other and their universe.
First up: Juhani. I briefly mentioned the controversy surrounding Juhani in a previous article, but in doing research for that bit, I had difficulty finding any articles that explored it in any real detail. Juhani, a Jedi padawan, was intended to be an explicitly lesbian character, romanceable only by a female PC. Due to bugs in the code, she was initially romanceable by characters of any gender. In an attempt to correct this, she was rendered unromanceable by anyone in some cases due to another error; but this was eventually fixed as well, restoring her sexuality. However, this all played out against a backdrop of controversy among “traditional family organizations” (i.e. bigots) that raised hell about “gay propaganda in childrens’ Star Wars games”. As a result, in addition to being the only explicitly gay character in those games, she directly informed the debate over queer inclusion in Bioware’s Mass Effect franchise. While the controversy generated by a naked blue butt in an ostensibly lesbian sex scene also mirrored the controversy in some circles over Juhani, the developers ultimately stood by their decision and kept the character gay; though their later reluctance to commit to homosexual characters in Mass Effect 2 was seen by many as a pullback after these two controversies.
But nonetheless, Juhani is explicitly gay and is additionally queer-coded in numerous other subtle ways. This usually takes the form of clever wordplay surrounding Jedi prohibitions on romantic and familial attachment. When Juhani’s former girlfriend confronts the player over her death, her exact quote is “Juhani was…a dear companion to me for many years. We spent many nights together alone under the stars,” and she chokes on the word “companion” in a way that shows she feels a need to hide it. If the player does not (or cannot) pursue a romance with Juhani, she will often speak about her past in ways that indicate anger over needing to hide parts of her identity; occasionally even using terminology that hints (if the player does not know her sexuality) at the experience of being forced to remain “in the closet.” While she is, at times, a tragic character, she is also an inspiring one. Crucially though, she is never shown to be suffering because of her sexuality, nor is she shown to be a great Jedi in spite of it. Her sexuality is very matter of fact and was a nice surprise for female PCs (when it worked) but at no point is it used to define or pigeonhole the character in a way that doesn’t fit the story well.
In addition to her sexuality, however, Juhani is arguably the most narratively complex and emotionally compelling character in that game. She is a Cathar, a race of catlike humanoids, and was sold into slavery after the death of her parents when they were forced to flee the destruction of their homeworld. She is found to be Force-sensitive and eventually makes her way to the Jedi Enclave on Dantooine where she begins her training. When the player encounters her, she has turned to the dark side after believing she killed her Jedi master in a fit of rage. If the player kills her, her lover confronts them, expressing anger and presumably dealing with the Force-related stuff that goes along with it. If the player returns her to the light side, she will join the party and can become a female PC’s lover (or a male PC’s very close platonic friend) and start a quest that eventually involves confronting her former master (from her time as a slave). In examining her past, the game neither shies away from the horror of real life African slavery in pre-Civil War America nor fetishises it; choosing to present a more general picture of how horrific the institution of slavery is and subtly referencing specific aspects of slavery in America to add detail. This insidious form of human supremacy (slavery in the Star Wars universe is often targeted against non-human races) and the fight against it has become a staple of good Star Wars fiction over the years and this is a key example of KOTOR addressing it (the quest line with Zaalbar’s family being another fantastic example).
Juhani is both an explicit and a coded queer character, a racially persecuted character, a survivor of abuse, and an ultra badass Jedi companion to Revan, one of the most significant characters in Old Republic history (It should be noted that in these games Darth Revan could still be canonically female). In making one of the most emotionally compelling characters a queer woman and having frank depictions of racist abuse and its effects, KOTOR was ahead of its time. By doing that in a way that felt neither appropriative nor patronizing, they set a bar that would not be raised (even by their other games) for over a decade.
Another character that hit several often ignored high notes on the inclusiveness front is a
starfleet admiral Sith lord: Kreia. A complex and mysterious character who is famous among fans for sounding exactly like an evil Captain Janeway, Kreia is otherwise known as Darth Treya and is a member of the Sith Triumvirate. After being cast out and having “suffered indignities” at the hands of her erstwhile peers, she tracks down the Jedi Exile and joins their party, serving as both a mentor and as a looming opponent. She continually points out the negative repercussions to actions the player takes that show strong Force affiliation, be they dark side or light side, and simultaneously reprimands the player for trying to be too neutral. Basically, she makes you question your decisions, no matter what they are. While she is not often seen as a favorite party member after the first few levels, there is no question that Kreia’s character is one of the deepest and most complex in the game, arguably moreso than the Exile themself.
Kreia is also an elderly woman who is blind and loses her hand early in the game. She directly rebuts both ageist and ableist narratives while serving up subtle feminist perspectives and incredibly biting Sith sarcasm. When the player asks her about her eyes, she responds, “I could heal my eyes whenever I wish to. I do not wish to,” quickly establishing that she is more capable in battle without her eyesight than elite commandos and Sith assassins with augmented vision. When she loses her hand, she responds that she doesn’t really need it, and means it; she is later shown Force choking a Wookiee while holding him three feet in the air with her missing hand, rivaling perhaps even Vader’s classic use of the power in A New Hope. When people imply she’s too old for combat or comment on her looks she gives the Sith version of Yoda’s classic line: basically, informing them (ok… usually Atton) that she could kill them with a thought but she’s old enough to know they’re not worth wasting her time. All the while she is manipulating events at a galactic scale and maneuvering everyone, the PC included, into the exact position she wants them in.
In short, Kreia is about as hardcore it gets and all the attributes of her character that are prejudicially seen as weakness make her stronger; eventually to the point where she is nearly powerful enough to literally murder the Force itself. It is key, however, that she does not usually mirror tropes found in characters like Daredevil, who gain powers specifically due to their physical handicaps. She is a Jedi/Sith and uses Force sight in a way that normal vision seems to interfere with. She’s running a long game so complex it would make Palpatine envious, the loss of her hand is treated as totally inconsequential to her given the level at which she operates. She also somehow manages to serve as an effective mentor to the player character no matter what their alliance, and is integral not only in the story but in the mechanics of leveling the player character. While Mission Vao in KOTOR I also addresses ageism in a small way, and both severed limbs and blindness appear frequently in the Star Wars canon, they are rarely used to directly confront these issues beyond the symbolic.
Next up: Carth Onasi. Yes, really, Carth. This character is essentially put in the “Han role,” flying the ship and always ready with a blaster. In many ways he’s a generic white dude with a hero complex. But, unlike everyone’s favorite scoundrel, he rarely gives in to toxic masculinity. He’s not the hero of the story; he’s a supporting player and he knows it. At least he knows it once he finds out that the player character (in the first game) is in fact Darth Revan, albeit with no memories whatsoever of that life. Revan was responsible for not only a massive betrayal of everything Carth fought for, but for the death of his wife and abduction of his (Force-sensitive) son by the new Sith faction for use against the Republic in the Jedi Civil War. Upon learning the player character’s true identity (after forming a deep, potentially romantic, relationship with them) he reacts with shock and anger, but ultimately judges you based on how you have acted during the events of the game. In KOTOR II, Carth speaks to the PC at the end of the game and reveals his relationship with Revan. If Revan was female in the first game, he explicitly says he doesn’t want you to bring her home or even tell him where she is; he just wants you to tell her he’s waiting for her. He is supportive and accepting, even when the woman he loves has gone beyond the Outer Rim of the galaxy to confront some vague evil that is so dangerous she can’t bring anyone she cares about with her or even give them a clue where and what it is. He stands by her and respects her agency even after learning that she may need to remember more of her previous life. Depending on how you play the first game, this can actually come off as a rare depiction of a heterosexual male in the victim role of an abusive relationship, but in a light side playthrough it makes him come off as being a genuine and sensitive (pun intended) dude and, while he has his braggadocious or patronizing moments to be sure, is a welcome take on this type of character.
Lastly, I straight-up cannot write anything about KOTOR without mentioning the coolest fucking droid in the galaxy: HK-47. We’ve looked at droids before here at LGG&F, but HK-47 always bears another look. The question of how some droids have an apparent connection to the Force as they cannot feel it directly (even if you retcon midichlorians, this is canon) is one that comes up frequently; as is the treatment of droids by organics and the moral implications of their sentience. Clearly droids like R2-D2 or KOTOR’s own T3-M4 have some sort of connection to the force and are able to act in ways that make them appear force sensitive. HK-47, in my opinion, is at the very top of that list. He is not a Sith droid, he is a droid Sith. He regularly remarks on how droids are seen as objects and how he derives pleasure in killing “meatbags” who underestimate him, he understands the galaxy in a way normally reserved only for a very few organic Sith lords. While the issues surrounding droid rights are explored elsewhere, having HK-47 as an evil character that hammers those points home makes for a particularly complex and impactful exploration of the topic. He’s also a lot of fun at parties.
Other characters are also memorable and deep. Visas Marr, Mission Vao, Bao-Dur, Mira/Hanharr, Jolee Bindo, Brianna, even Mandalore all spring to mind. But these are some of the ones that, to me, are most memorable in contributing to my positive memories of those games and my desire to replay them even after all these years. The detailed and sincere way in which these complex themes are addressed through these characters’ stories keep me coming back. I think many share that view and the fact that one of the most pivotal titles in establishing video games as a “legitimate” storytelling medium also delivers some solid blows for diversity and representation is one that I look back on with a steady sense of geeky pride.
In revisiting these games, (which I encourage particularly if you haven’t played KOTOR II with TSLRCM) you will be treated to some of the most emotionally and intellectually compelling Star Wars stories out there, and ones that give us some solid representation along the way. As the countdown to Episode VIII approaches, looking back at some of these successes and how KOTOR and KOTOR II handles these issues will be crucial. Given that The Force Awakens has shown us that the new films are willing to delve into the moral ambiguity that makes great Star Wars and has also presented a diverse and well fleshed out cast, I think the fans and filmmakers alike would do well to remember some of these lessons especially if they consider adding a queer character or if they delve into the issues of human supremacy that go along with the Dark side being in power. In the meantime, I’m going to play some Pazzak; may the Force be with you.