Star Wars: How Knights of the Old Republic II Became Gaming’s Great Unfinished Symphony

Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords may very well be the greatest Star Wars game ever made...despite its major flaws.

The motivation behind most video game mods is often simple or even arbitrary. Whether its adding Teletubbies to Left 4 Dead 2 or changing every dragon in Skyrim to resemble Macho Man Randy Savage, your average mod is intended for little more than to share the amusement of its creator. But occasionally, a video game mod goes much deeper than that. It doesn’t aim to simply alter an existing game, but rather add to it in a meaningful way by generating new content worthy of the original experience or fixing major issues that were otherwise never addressed.

Of these more substantial video game mods, there is one that has managed to separate itself from the pack in terms of ambition, passion, and purpose. It is known as The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod and its mission is to make what just may be the greatest Star Wars game ever released whole again.

A Disturbing Lack of Faith

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic wasn’t even on store shelves when the decision was made to choose a developer for the sequel. Usually making this arrangement before the game is even released is a sign of a publisher’s desire to quickly cash in on a good thing as soon as possible. Given the value of the Star Wars franchise, it’s very possible that was the case, but a wrench would be thrown into this money machine’s cogs as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic became the consensus game of the year for 2003 and a clear contender for the greatest Star Wars game of all-time.

In short order, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic would establish a legacy that few games ever get to enjoy. Fortunately for the legions of fans that Knights of the Old Republic would draw, BioWare hand-picked a developer with a legacy of its own to handle sequel duties: Obsidian Entertainment.

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Though a brand new company, Obsidian Entertainment so happened to be founded by some of the most important members of the PC RPG revolution in the 1990s. Among them was designer Chris Avellone, whose work on Planescape: Torment established him as one of the industry’s foremost authorities on the greater possibilities of video game storytelling. Avellone had developed something of a reputation as a media guru who would absorb every piece of possibly relevant content he could get his hands on in the name of inspiration.

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For his work on Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, Avellone reportedly grabbed every single piece of media and content he could get his hands on that bore the Star Wars name. His usual devotion to the source material of any adaptation he worked on was especially necessary in this case, as Knight of the Old Republic took place in a period barely referenced by the Star Wars films, but was also just another sign that Knights of the Old Republic II was in the right hands.

In fact, publisher LucasArts was apparently so confident in the abilities of Obsidian Entertainment to provide the next installment of the Knights of the Old Republic franchise that, despite the developer’s considerable head start, they gave them a mere 14 months to finish the game and a skeleton crew to work with.

Wait…what?

The Dark Side…

Developer Obsidian and the considerable talent among their founding members may have not been the typical recipients of the “get it done” video game sequel, but their situation was fairly standard for such an arrangement. They were not only given a development time that wouldn’t even be possible were it not for the fact the project would be able to borrow heavily from pre-existent in-game resources, but had to complete the game while still finding their identity.

Obsidian team member Anthony Davis would later argue that LucasArts was hardly the villain of this tale as they would take on large chunks of the development process and spare additional resources when possible. Instead, the flaws that made it into the game were the result of an ambitious developer attempting to create something truly extraordinary while still trying to figure out things as a team on a limited timeline.

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There are quite a few flaws to be found in Knights of the Old Republic II.Many of the game’s technical problems can be attributed to Obsidian’s reliance on the original Knights of the Old Republic game engine combined with some cuts to the testing and QA time. This means that not only are many of the character warping and combat detection glitches found in the original game still very much a factor, but both the graphics and gameplay are more or less a direct pull from the previous title.

That’s not to say that Obsidian did not make improvements to the first game (the expanded character skill development options and greater influence over your party members moral alignment are particular highlights), but Obsidian’s time crunch did not give them much room to fix the original’s technical shortcomings nor advance the core gameplay in any truly significant way. Yet, when the shortcomings of KOTOR II brought about by the short development time are discussed, it is more often than not the game’s story that is cited as the biggest victim.

A quick glance at the game’s wiki pages devoted to the content that didn’t make it into the game reveals enough scenes to comprise an entirely new experience. While some of what was cut equated to little more than a throwaway line of dialog or a comedic scene, there are far more substantial moments that weren’t incorporated into the game that deal with important character backstories and entire levels.

But nothing in the game was affected quite as much as KOTOR II’s finale on the surface of the planet Malachor V. While you can play through around three-quarters of the game without really feeling like you are missing significant chunks of the game’s story, the thin veil that Obsidian had constructed to cover up the story’s missing elements unravels in a singular moment when you finish an anti-climactic battle with what is supposed to be the universe’s most dangerous entity (the haunting Darth Nihilus) and suddenly find yourself heading to the game’s final moments without a real understanding of how you arrived at the conclusion or what exactly you hope to accomplish there. Even worse your fellow party members, who have until this point become just as integral to the story as yourself for all intents and purposes, simply disappear from the experience. What characters do appear again are involved in moments that have little to do with what came before and leave little emotional impact.

From there you engage in a couple more anticlimactic altercations, have the option to receive a brief glimpse into future events beyond the game and watch the credits. If this rushed explanation is frustratingly lacking in satisfaction, then it is doing an excellent job of recreating the experience of the game’s finale. It’s the video game storytelling equivalent of a parent trying to rush to the ending of a bedtime story when the children refuse to fall asleep. Only those kids didn’t have 40+ hours of emotional investment tied into the outcome. The power of a story’s ending cannot be overstated and Knights of the Old Republic II’s ending is nothing short of a travesty that nearly destroys the majority of the experience that came before.

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Or at least it would have if what came before wasn’t perhaps the most compelling Star Wars story ever told.

…And the Light

Looking back on the story of 1977’s Star Wars, it’s hard to not view it as a relatively simple tale of good vs. evil. It’s an utterly fascinating and well-crafted take on that set-up, but really you’re dealing with the story of a farm boy who becomes a hero by rescuing the princess from an evil sorcerer. Yet despite its simplicity, there were trace elements of something deeper in place. These include rumblings of a Clone War, the conflict between the Rebels and the Empire, and let’s not forget the mysteries of the Force. On their own, these are all small—sometimes even assumed—elements of the driving plot. However, they all combined to generate a level of intrigue that helped raise Star Wars far above the typical sci-fi yarn of the time.

This soon led to the Star Wars saga’s infamous expanded universe: a series of books, comics, and other media designed to build upon the nuggets of information in the movies and create a bonafide mythology. The same mythology that Obsidian designer Chris Avellone reportedly immersed himself in.

When it came time to contribute to the wider Star Wars universe, Avellone took a cue from the expanded works and pursued something more ambitious than the typical good vs. evil fare. In that regard, KOTOR II has often been compared to The Empire Strikes Back in terms of Star Wars follow-ups that shifted the tone of the story. While the comparison is apt from a plot quality perspective, the difference between the two pieces of work is that Empire Strikes Back incorporated a darker tone that explored the notion of evil triumphing over good.

KOTOR II, on the other hand, offers no such luxuries. It deals not in good and evil, but rather moral ambiguity. Knights of the Old Republic made a name for itself by allowing players to choose between the light and dark side of the Force through their every action, but here you are constantly forced to somehow discern one from the other through a lingering shade of grey. In doing so, KOTOR II became one of the first major pieces of the Star Wars canon to honestly examine why the pursuit of the light side does not make one a hero, nor does a fall to the dark side represent the actions of a black hat villain. It argues, rather successfully, that in the heat of the moment the choice between the two is not an easy one.

But the complexity of this tale goes far beyond expanding the difficulty of the gameplay’s choice system. Taking place five years after the story of the original Knights of the Old Republic, the world of Knights of the Old Republic II is one that is more than willing to move on from the pain and destruction that the Jedi and Sith have caused with their latest war. In fact, few of either party even factor in the sequel’s universe.

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What Jedi do remain have elected to abandon the Order and their cause in favor of exile or an attempt to re-enter society. Meanwhile, the Sith are represented by Darth Sion and Darth Nihilus, two villains who certainly look the part of bad guys but are both far too tragic to completely despise. Sion is a Sith lord whose obsession with immortality has granted him a wish that he now regrets. Nihilius was once a Jedi who survived a catastrophic battle that left him needing to absorb Force energy and those that wield it in order to survive. Together, they hunt the last of the Jedi down.

This is where your character comes into play. As a former Jedi exiled after causing the death of thousands, your character has severed his/her connection to the Force and the abilities that come with it. You begin the game alone and unaware of your past. In that regard, it is very similar to the setup of the original Knights of the Old Republic, as both see you playing a major figure with a bout of amnesia. Unlike the original game where your character was an important catalyst for the fate of the universe, here you are just another Jedi on the run who is ultimately a tool in a conflict that is without glory. An instrument that can perform great change in the universe, but a tool nonetheless.

And the person controlling this tool—besides the player—is one of the greatest gaming characters ever created: Kreia. Kreia presents herself as a mentor, but what she really is a sort of Rashomon presenter. Only rather than being an unreliable narrator, she is something of an unattached one. Her true identity as a disgraced Jedi that became a Sith Kord is secondary to her presence in the game as a twisted moral compass. Kreia may be a Sith, but she is one that is no longer interested in seeing either side survive. Her true goal is to destroy them both.

Kreia’s stance on this issue means she is a mentor that ultimately does not care about your moral direction. She will not hesitate to inform you of the futility of your actions regardless of their alignment. You will beg her to provide some guidance in a world that is devoid of such a thing, but by refusing to do so, she serves as a sadly appropriate guide through a world where right and wrong seem so irrelevant. The few moments she does lean towards one side or the other stem from regrettable old habits and a lingering belief that such sides always have existed and always will should she not intervene.

There is more to the tale that is well worth covering, but what it all boils down to is one of the most subtle deconstructions of the binding elements of the Star Wars mythology ever devised, as well as one of the most complicated and satisfying video game plots ever presented. It is a driving plot that serves as sufficient motivation for more casual players, while those wanting something deeper can easily get lost in its ambiguities.

Though this does beg the question: where do the ambiguities end and the cuts begin?

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A New Hope

The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod—which began life as The Sith Lords Restoration Project—has passed through a series of modders and teams over the years who never quite got around to restoring the game to its original state but have been able to implement significant pieces of missing content. Not just missing sections of dialogue used to enhance character motivations or in-game items, but entire planets and levels as well.

Yet the most significant piece of content that was restored is the game’s ending. Despite all of the technical shortcomings and other missing elements, it is the game’s original ending that stands as the biggest blight on its legacy. The restoration efforts address this shortcoming brilliantly. 

The restored Knights of the Old Republic II ending doesn’t completely reimagine the finale, but rather uses pieces of dialogue hidden within the game’s code to insert a few simple scenes that address the original ending’s most glaring issues.

Most notably, this new ending actually attempts to explain how you arrived at the game’s final planet and what your motivation there is. While it still feels like there is a missing scene between the fight that precedes the final area and the final area itself, the added moment where Surik has a vision of the final boss’ current location at least gives you a reason for being there.

Perhaps even better, this new ending provides on-screen conclusions for two of the game’s most important characters: Atton and Visas Marr. The Visas Marr moments wrap up the relationship plotline that had been brewing for some time, while Atton’s content finally allows him to have a showdown with Darth Sion and finally properly end what is possibly the most enjoyable character story in the game.

What’s so truly incredible about the restored ending isn’t so much how it becomes the missing piece of the entire experience, but that it manages to provide something so much more satisfying with assets that were already built into the game and were just never implemented. While it’s understandable that such a rushed development cycle led to certain sacrifices, how such an appropriate ending hidden within the coding of the game itself was left on the cutting floor is a mystery.

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Largely due to this fixed conclusion and technical remedies, it’s hard to argue against the content restored version of the game as the definitive version of Knights of the Old Republic II. At the same time, it is for the most part a director’s cut and, like most director’s cuts, not everything that didn’t make it into the final game was meant to. Infamously removed levels like the HK Droid Factory actually turned out to detract from the pace of the overall experience somewhat, while other scenes devoted to expanding upon character relationships and arcs at times shed too much light onto pieces of the story that were meant to be shrouded.

The driving force behind the ambitious content restored mod was the compelling nature of the game’s original story and a desire for fans to uncover the aspects of the game apparently buried under corporate cutbacks. It was an admirable goal that bared many fruitful results, but the truth is that Knights of the Old Republic II is far from a victim of setbacks. It is a work of art that is equally compelling whether you are focusing on its broader strokes or the negative space between them.

Like Beethoven’s No. 10, treating Knights of the Old Republic II as merely unfinished is the surest way to deafen yourself to the symphony it is.