KOTOR II: Shades of Grey

KOTOR_II

A few days ago I finished playing Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords for the first time. It was an interesting game, and I greatly enjoyed its story and the way it attempted to deconstruct certain concepts from the Star Wars Universe. Nonetheless, I did take issue with several elements of the game – especially certain ways they integrated the narrative with the gameplay.

I suppose it should be noted that the game’s development was rather rocky – it was released a year after the first game and much of the game’s ending (which is related several of my problems) was severely truncated to meet schedules. I did play the game with the restored content mod which adds a fair amount of material that was scrapped but still salvageable from the game files (unfortunately, I’m not familiar enough with the game to know which scenes were from the mod and which were original), but I am still willing to give the developers some extra slack given what they had to work with.

So what are my problems with KOTOR II? I think most of my issues can be boiled down to these things: poor pacing, limited characterization, and (the infamous) ludonarrative dissonance. I’ll go through these issues one at a time, starting with the simplest problem of pacing.

It might be a bit of a stretch to call the pacing of KOTOR II a major flaw, since it really only bugged me in two sections of the game: Nar Shaddaa (I don’t care what anybody else says,  Nar Shadaa is a sucky level) and the finale. During both of these sections the game insists on chopping-up the plot and forcing the player to take control of other NPCs to see what’s going on. For example, the player (playing as the main hero that they created in the beginning) makes their way into the base of a crime lord, then encounters a locked door; when you try and open the door the game then cuts away to another character that has been captured by the crime lord and you have to go through a lengthy process as this new character to unlock the door from the inside. I think I can understand what the developers are trying to do, and the rationale behind this choice, but it doesn’t make it any less annoying to play through. I know that one of the great ways of building a climax is to have a lot of subplots come together in the last few moments, but when a player is used to playing a character that they have built, a character that they have used as an avatar for moral choices, a character that they are mechanically comfortable with, I think it’s a little unfair to force them to play as another character that is not only going to be weaker and more difficult to play, but also carries less of an emotional investment.

There are a few moments in the game where I did find switching over to be enjoyable. Early on in the game the player can take control of a hijacked protocol droid to steal information from a Czerka office; the whole process of playing as a protocol droid is rather charming and is full of C3PO-worthy humor. A similar scenario plays out on Nar Shadaa when you have to play as your ship’s astromech droid T3-M4 to infiltrate a Hutt’s warehouse. Again, the process of playing as another character is interesting and rather humorous. Here’s the thing though, while the second scenario does have some mandatory combat, both of these situations are more focused on dialogue than anything else. They don’t take a long time to complete, and are rather straightforward. Most of the other scenes where the player is switched to a new character are all combat (and KOTOR has never had the most riveting battle mechanics), or even just running around a large map on a scavenging quest. What’s even worse is that, unless you micromanage your party’s stats (which I prefer auto-leveling because I just want to get back to the story), the characters will be significantly weaker than your primary protagonist, only making these tangents longer and more burdensome.

It actually surprises me that there aren’t more dialogue choices available in these sequences. You’d think that playing another character would be a great opportunity to reveal more about them, but they do it so rarely. It’s even stranger because most of the characters are very well-written, but oddly limited in their intractability. Maybe I’ve just been coddled by the scope of modern game standards, but I felt like a lot of characters, while interesting, were underutilized. There are several characters that can fall in love with the protagonist (mine was male, but you can play as a woman and the same thing happens), but it’s never really addressed. It will be alluded to when characters on your ship interact in cut scenes, and some might outright say it, but you, the player/protagonist, are never given any real option to do anything about it, even when you flirt with characters directly it never goes anywhere.

The characters I had the most interesting interactions with were Kreia (who has some of the best writing in the game) and T3-M4. The main reason I found these characters to be so interesting was that they were both very integrated into the world and philosophy of the game. Kreia serves as a crux for much of the game’s deconstruction of the Force in the Star Wars universe, she chimes in more than any other character to comment on what the player is doing and constantly questions your choices. She is also mechanically relevant to the player – you share a force connection with her that makes her very useful as a companion. Finally, she is integral to much of the game’s plot. When you interact with Kreia you will almost always learn something useful or interesting about the game’s story.

Kreia
Ah, Kreia, you superbly written mastermind you…

T3-M4 also has a strong bond to the game’s narrative. He is one of the few characters to return from the previous game, and (moreso than Mandalore or HK-47) his personal story branches the gap between the two  games in an interesting way. Interacting with T3 helps the player learn a lot more about the history of the setting, and learn more about other characters. I also appreciate the humor of the one-sidedness of any conversation that takes place with an astromech droid that can only speak in chirps and beeps.

Unfortunately, it might be the strengths of these characters that weakens most of the others. Kreia and  T3 are very useful for providing exposition, but I think they are used too much to tell the player things that they could learn other ways. Characters like Atton have most of their backstory alluded to solely through cutscenes with Kreia, and while the protagonist can eventually confront these characters about their pasts it feels a little anticlimactic (especially because a character with decent influence can blow through most dialogue options in one conversation). The game also tries to have all of the plot arcs wrap up at the end (this goes back to my pacing problem), it’s kind of annoying to have every party member go through their own little adventure during the climax when a lot of them feel arbitrary. Like, do we really need to have the Hanharr vs. Mira showdown when we 1) already defeated Hanharr earlier in the game, and 2) could be seeing the protagonist decide the Fate of the Galaxy instead? Why couldn’t all of the character plots been more solidly integrated into the main story, or at least been concluded earlier?

I think a lot of KOTOR II’s problems stem from the fact that it tries so hard to provide interesting and varied narrative choices, but doesn’t have the ability to utilize all of these choices in ways that are fun to play. One thing that was particularly bothersome for me was the lack of any “neutral path” of play. In the game the player can make “light” and “dark” side choices that influence whether the character is more jedi or sith, which is  pretty common in RPGs and also directly crosses over mechanically from the first game, but one of the major points of the first game is that you, as the protagonist, must pick a side. It’s all part of the game’s narrative. In KOTOR II though, one of the major themes is that there aren’t always such clear-cut options. Maybe the light/dark duality of the Force doesn’t always work.

It’s known to a lot of the fans of the game that Kreia was primarily written by Chris Avellone, one of the game’s lead designers. Avellone wanted to subvert and question the implications of the Force that so many Star Wars fans took for granted, and helped steer KOTOR II towards a “grayer” tone. Compared to the first game, there are more “neutral” or morally ambiguous choices for the player to consider, and Kreia constantly wants the player to question their actions and their ties to the Force, criticizing the methods of both the Jedi and Sith. It’s a pretty awesome direction for a Star Wars game, but the game makes almost no effort to reward a player who tries to be a Grey Jedi that is sometimes charitable and sometimes cruel.

RevanconfrontsSithEmperor.jpg
Really I just want to play a character that’s like Revan as described in the lore…

Some may point out how Avellone said that, while Kreia is a conduit for his criticisms of Star Wars, that doesn’t mean she’s right. But I’d also like to take one of Avellone’s quotes about player interaction (this is stolen from his TVTropes page, and is from an interview with Duckfeed.tv):

“… if you give the player the ability to create a certain type of character, make sure that you honor the player’s character build. What I mean by that is, if you give a character to option to dump 500 points into speech, make sure that they have an experience that’s very cool and is appropriate for a speech based character. The same thing is true if you’re a stupid combat monster; if you’re a sneaky thief who no one ever sees… If you’re allowing the players to build a character like that with the rule set, then make sure your content supports that experience.”

It is entirely possible to play the game as a neutral character (and it’s even possible to do so without the protagonist having an unrealistic good/evil split personality) and therefore it seems appropriate that the game should acknowledge this potential build. I’m not saying that the game needs to make this the best choice, or that such a build should have the best ending to the game. I’m just saying that, as a potential build, and as a build that fits with the game’s tone, shouldn’t it be something worthy of the game’s attention?

Again, I (obviously) wasn’t there for the development of this game (and it was clearly a process that had numerous problems), but I still think these are issues worth discussing. KOTOR II is still a great game, and the fact that it made me think about these issues should be taken as evidence that it’s a great game. But even great games have flaws, and these flaws can help games progress just as much as strengths. I think that KOTOR II was definitely an important step for games, but some of these issues are still prevalent – especially for new designers – and maybe by looking at these flaws we can continue to make better and better games.

Cheers,

-PH

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