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IGN was wrong; a critique of their KotoR II: TSL opinion piece

OK, so a part of me isn't sure I should even do this at all. I don't usually make a point of responding to in detail (if at all), most things I find on the internet, for which I am likely better off. But this particular opinion piece by IGN on Knights of the Old Republic II:

...stood out to me. And unfortunately, it did so largely because it really annoyed me with what was, as far as I'm concerned, a very dubious interpretation of numerous elements of the game, plus a few obnoxious shots at Darth Vader/Anakin and Darth Tyranus/Dooku thrown in for good measure. Now, KotoR II is a great SW game, and it does have a good story. But I think that this piece likes and praises said story for, essentially, all the wrong reasons. It makes several claims about the game, and Star Wars lore as a whole, that are unfair and misleading at best, and completely wrong at worst. And so in the name of trying to push back against that, I decided to offer up a rebuttal. That in mind, I will not be responding to everything, as there are some parts that I either agree with or are things that really don't warrant or necessitate a response for whatever reason. Instead, I'm going to be honing in on how the writer really misses the mark when it comes to analyzing the characters in the game (and Star Wars in general), and also in how he attributes a moral grayness to the game that, honestly, really isn't as present as he and so many other fans of this game believe.

So first off, let's start with talking about the characters, and in how his assessment of them is, for such a professed fan of the game, wildly incorrect:

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This is the title of one of the main chunks of the article, and it's something the author cites as a reason for his loving it. He begins by bringing up the Jedi Exile, giving an interpretation that is, frankly, kind of an oversimplification:

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OK, this, to me at least, is a contradiction; there is nothing "gray" about being a war criminal. War criminals are people we generally look at unfavorably, and for good reason. So if the character is a "war criminal", how is that "gray" and not just straight up evil? And not only that, but this assessment is a little misleading, making it seem like the Exile did what she did out of sheer callousness or malice. It completely skips over the very important fact that it was done as a desperate act to end a war that had already killed a large number of people throughout the Galaxy, and involved an enemy with a fanatical aversion to surrender who had made it clear at that point that they would not stop until they had been utterly defeated. Now, was the Exile's activation of the Mass Shadow Generator a very violent and destructive decision? Yes, and it did kill many on both sides, as the article says. But acting as though this was the act of a heartless war criminal, is kind of disingenuous. It completely ignores the fact that that Exile had a very sympathetic motive for doing it, and that it was not a cut-and-dry war crime so much as an extreme, desperate decision in the middle of a devastating battle designed to end a war, and in so doing save the Republic. Considering how much the article sympathizes with the villain Kreia (more on that later), I find it rather disappointing that the article refuses to extend the same sympathy and understanding to the Exile, even though her motives were no less sympathetic than Kreia's.

Besides that, if the Exile were actually nothing more than a simple war criminal as this description suggests, then that would be less morally gray then what she actually was; a woman whose good intentions and desperation led her to do something terrible for what she honestly believed at the time was the greater good.

So this is an example of something that is misleading. But it's the next part that goes beyond being merely misleading into straight up unfair and disingenuous interpretation:

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Alright, I'm going to be honest, this was one of two parts in the article that really annoyed me. While it's assessment of Hanharr, HK, GO-TO, Atton, and Canderous is pretty correct, the underlined parts are (again), wrong. It disregards a massive amount of context and additional facts, and in so doing really fails to give many of the characters the credit they deserve.

First off, yes, Bao-Dur designed the Mass Shadow Generator, but to simply say that and nothing more completely overlooks the fact that he not only feels incredibly guilty about doing it, but since that time has been doing everything he can to make up for it. This includes aiding in the Restoration Efforts of Telos, an action that I would hardly constitute as "gray" and would very much consider altruistic despite the article considering only Mical and T3-M4 to be so. Added to that, he is, to be frank, just as much of a Pro-Republic, Anti-Mandalorian boy scout as Carth from the first game; he consistently approves of Light Side decisions (even showing mercy to the helpless Mandalorian Kumus), consistently disapproves of Dark Side decisions, and again, is completely Pro-Republic and committed to helping restore Telos to it's former glory. To classify all of that as "not truly altruistic" seems, to me at least, kind of ridiculous. Simply put, I don't consider Bao-Dur to be "gray", and certainly not any moreso than Mical or T3-M4.

The article's assessment of Visas, Brianna, and Mira is similarly misleading and disregarding important bits of context; for Mira, being a Mandalorian does not automatically make you bad or even gray, and honestly, there isn't much to indicate that Mira has ever embraced the Mandalorian way despite being briefly accepted by them as one of them. In fact, (and the article utterly fails to mention this), Mira has a strong aversion to killing people. She is quite possibly one of the very few non-Jedi Star Wars heroes who rigidly tries to avoid killing before joining the Exile, and expresses unhappiness over how much more killing she's done since joining the Exile. She has even repeatedly refused to kill Hanharr despite both everything he's done, and his constantly trying to kill her, which to me feels more like a Superhero and their arch-enemy then a character whose in "shades of gray". And like Bao-Dur, she also consistently approves of Light Side decisions and dislikes Dark Side ones. To simply say "she's a Mandalorian bounty hunter" and leave it at that overlooks all of this. Mira is not Boba Fett or Jango Fett; she's a woman who was enslaved by the Mandalorians, only briefly accepted by them as one of their own, and ultimately is a woman who, in many ways, goes in the completely opposite direction of a Mandalorian as a woman with a strong aversion to killing. Again, I don't see how this could be construed as "gray" or "not truly altruistic".

Likewise, merely calling Visas Marr the "Sith Apprentice of Darth Nihilus" and nothing more also disregards context. Visas is really more Nihilus' slave then genuine apprentice, being forced to serve him against her will and suffering regular abuse from him. Upon being defeated by the Exile she joins them immediately so as to escape from her enslavement, and does not exhibit the kind of cruelty, sadism, or power and bloodlust of a Sith Apprentice, unless being influenced by a Dark Side player character. But for the most part, Visas is incredibly mellow, shy, and un-confrontational. Simply put, this is not Darth Maul or Darth Vader we're talking about. One could still call her gray maybe, but not because she's a bad person or regularly does bad. Rather, Visas is "gray" because she lacks a strong moral identity in either direction, only getting one by spending prolonged time with the Jedi Exile. This is reflected when she revisits her old room on The Ravager near the end of the game and either embraces the Dark Side for real, or rejects it and embraces the Light Side. But prior to this, Visas was just going whichever way the wind blew, especially when it led her away from her abusive master who she really had no genuine loyalty to. This is clearly not the same thing as what the article insinuates by simply mentioning that she's a Sith Apprentice and nothing more, as if to suggest she's gray because she's a violent, unstable, psycho anti-hero. This is not the case.

And finally, there's Brianna, and once again, the overly simplistic assessment of her in the article completely disregards context:

1) Brianna's belief that violence and combat are a way of expressing one's self is not without limits; Brianna believes in fair and honorable combat, and abhors gratuitous cruelty or slaughter of the defenseless. For instance, if the player does things like kill the aforementioned Kumus or side with Azkul and his mercenaries in front of her, she expresses shock, horror, and disgust, and rightly so. Conversely, if you spare Kumus, she is impressed that you would show mercy to a member of your war-time enemies. She also praises you for, among other things, giving a Starport visa to a widow and her children on Onderon so they can get off the planet. So believe in violence and combat as a form of expression she may, but she's not a bloodthirsty psychopath in "shades of gray".

2) Continuing from the above, like Bao-Dur and Mira, Brianna consistently approves of Light Side decisions, and disapproves of Dark Side decisions. In fact, Brianna makes a point of lecturing you regularly if you behave in any way that is not 100%, perfect model Jedi as Brianna understands it. In essence, exactly what Bastila Shan did to the player in the first game. Now, this can be annoying, but it's not really the same as being "gray", and it's certainly not some kind of violence-loving psychopath who only values combat and nothing else.

So to summarize, this part of the article was almost completely wrong. Bao-Dur, Mira, and especially Brianna, are not "morally gray" or in "shades of gray", they're among the more solidly good/noble/Light Side characters in the game, and this is further reflected by how when they first join the party, their alignment screens have them all on or inching towards, the Light Side. They are no less altruistic, benevolent, or Pro-Republic/Jedi then Mical and T3-M4 are, so citing the latter two as the "only truly altruistic" party members is ridiculous.

Again, how a man who professes to love KotoR II's story so much could so utterly misrepresent so many of it's characters (in an unflattering way no less), is kind of hard to fathom, and yet here we are. But then, this is what I meant when I said that the article praises the game for the wrong reasons, claiming that the entire cast is in shades of gray when, in reality, they mostly aren't. After all, I could argue that Hanharr, HK-47, and GO-TO aren't actually gray; they're solidly bad. I would say that the only truly gray members of your party are Kreia, Atton, Mandalore, and Visas, and that last one is not for the reason the article says. So in fact, the party is not all in shades of gray; some are altruistic, noble, and Light Side-aligned, others are the opposite, and some are in the middle.

So, now that I'm almost 2,000 words into this, I figure it's time to actually address my problems with how the article praises the story. Like many who have praised KotoR II's story, the author is attracted to the apparent moral grayness of the tale relative to most other Star Wars materials. Except...well, that supposed "grayness" isn't as present as one might think.

To be honest, I might just tell you all to read this:

...and be done with it, as that piece rebuffs the idea that KotoR II is supposed to be about moral ambiguity much better than I could ever hope to pull off. But all the same, I'll attempt to do a bit of it myself. I apologize in advance if it sounds like I'm merely echoing what that above piece says, but it really is right about a lot of things regarding KotoR II (much more so than the IGN article is).

To start, let's look at how the author highlights Nar Shadda as an example of the game's "hopelessness" or "grayness":

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There are two major problems with this. The first, is in how it doesn't acknowledge that, on the same planet, you also get the chance to convince a criminal who kidnapped a child to let her go...or sell her into slavery. Now, how anyone could try and paint this is a gray choice or a "lose-lose situation" is beyond me. In my experience, people always point to the above example in the text of a man who asks for money as "proof" that Kreia is right or that the game is depressingly gray, but this is cherrypicking; it completely ignores how, on the same planet, you are presented with an extremely black and white moral choice; save an innocent child, or sell her into slavery. How anyone could paint that as gray (and the game doesn't try to I might add), is beyond me. Yes, life as a poor refugee on Nar Shadda sucks, but as anyone who has studied American slavery alone will tell you, being a slave sucks much, much more than being poor. Granted, slavery on Nal Hutta isn't exactly the same, but I'd imagine it's still a miserable existence.

Likewise, the game consistently presents binary choices over and over that reward either Light Side or Dark Side points. So the claim that the game is "gray", or that it's "lose lose situations" is silly; there are only two ways to deal with the situations on Peragus, Telos, Dantooine, and Onderon. And to highlight just the Dantooine example, I am hard-pressed to see what is "gray" about helping an obviously evil and sadistic mercenary and ex-Sith Trooper massacre the defenseless inhabitants of Khoonda who are also Republic-aligned. If you abet this, you get Dark Side points, and rightly so. Especially when (again), the game doesn't even pretend that it's gray; your only voiced motives for helping Azkul are 1) Greed, 2) A desire to kill a Jedi Master, and 3) Just because you felt like it. None of those are remotely sympathetic reasons for helping Azkul, and appropriately, the game doesn't even pretend that they are. Some of your so-called "shades of gray" and "not truly altruistic" party members will rightly admonish you for siding with Azkul against innocent people.

Then there's the Jedi Masters. What motive does the Dark Exile have for killing them beyond a petty desire for revenge and power-lust, and to gratify their utter selfishness? Near as I can tell, none. So once again, this is not a gray decision, and indeed the game doesn't even pretend that it is. You get DS points for every Jedi Master you murder, after all. Plus extra points for going out of your way to sadistically taunt Master Vrook before killing him. Where is the grayness here?

Ultimately, the morality in KotoR II is little different from the morality in KotoR I, or for that matter in the rest of the franchise. As with the rest of the lore, Light Side choices may have lots of short term struggling and difficulty, but eventual long-term benefits for the greatest number of people, while Dark Side choices lead to instant gratification and short-term gains for the individual, but devastating consequences for the masses both immediately and in the long term. KotoR II does not subvert this, much as Kreia (and her fanboys), do their damndest to convince you that it does.

But there is another way in which the above piece of text doesn't think things through, and that is something that the Reddit article I provided a link for also notes: that Kreia is always, always, always the one who colors things with a gray paint brush. She is always the one who questions your motives behind your actions and tries to frame things as a hopeless, lose-lose scenario. She approves of more carefully planned actions and greater shrewdness, but cares not for the morality of the acts; only the planning, thought, and motives. Kreia exists to challenge the player's motives but this doesn't actually mean that the conflicts you're presented with are all that gray. Again, I don't think too many people would argue with a straight face that there is any reason to do things like sell children into slavery or help mercenaries slaughter innocents beyond selfish greed or petty sadism. Whereas there is a very compelling reason to fight against such behavior, and that is to promote and safeguard life and liberty (which, incidentally, is what the Jedi have always been sworn to do).

Now, to go back to the beggar example, Kreia attempts to make you doubt every move you make, but again, this is her function. She exists to provide that challenge to keep one on one's toes, but that doesn't make her nihilistic perspective correct. Again, the game rewards you if you stay true to your decisions, and it's clear that the purpose of the game, is not to promote "grayness" or an arbitrary middle, but to encourage you to make choices and not flounder in the middle. But it also urges you to make them for the right reasons. So, for example, the Exile is encouraged to do the right thing not because the Jedi way or Jedi dogma tells her it's right, but because she recognizes on her own that it's right and wants to do what is right. This is the true meaning of KotoR II. And to prove it, I would point out that there is no true way to be wholly gray or "neutral" in the game beyond jumping wildly and erratically between Light Side and Dark Side decisions, or closing off important sections of the game. Now, you can be a mostly evil character who sometimes shows compassion, or a mostly good character who sometimes does the wrong thing, but the game doesn't actually reward you for this, and in any event, you're still aligned with the Dark Side or the Light Side. Maybe not 100%, but still ultimately one or the other. The game will judge you for your moral choices, and this is because the boundaries of morality (which in the game and greater SW lore is represented by the Force), need to be there in order for life and society to function, and that is more important than the freedom of having your actions judged, which is the carrot Kreia dangles in front of your nose.

And of course, that brings me nicely to the next point, which is addressing the article's obsession with, and absolute worship, of Kreia. Or didn't you hear?:

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Now, that sort of thing is mostly a matter of personal taste, but one thing I think I do want to address and push back against, is how the article not only likes Kreia, but really seems to take her side:

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OK, first off, Midi-Chlorians are not a "view of the Force", because they're not actually the Force:

That annoying misconception out of the way, this here is yet another example of liking the game for the wrong reasons. Because despite what the article insists, Kreia is not actually right. Her whole perspective is based on something factually not true, that the Force is a fully sapient deity, and a malevolent one at that. For a counter-argument (one that, unlike the IGN article, relies on cited sources and objective evidence), I direct you to something from our own community:

Besides that, there is also something else to consider; the Exile herself. The Exile is the only person who has achieved what Kreia desires to bring to the entire Galaxy...and it was horrible for her. It is made very clear that the Exile found life totally cut off from the Force agonizing, depressing, empty, and unendurable. So, if Kreia had her way, everyone who survived the death of the Force would likely end up like the Exile. Added to that, is two other things that really make her point of view questionable:

1) The Galaxy has, in no way, benefitted from the loss of the Jedi. Not even a little bit. That the player gets Light Side points by, essentially, stepping into the role of a Jedi and doing as the Jedi have always done, should pretty definitively prove this all on it's own. Well, without the Force, there would be no Jedi, and thus no order of relentlessly altruistic mystic warriors to protect people, which leads nicely to point number 2...

2) ...that the game also shows a massive number of characters who haven't a jot of Force power in them, yet still manage to be horrible to everyone around them. Azkul and his mercenaries, the Exchange, Czerka Corporation, the HK-50 Assassin droids, the myriad criminals, thugs, and psychopaths you run into, etc. None of them need any Force power whatever to treat their fellows horribly. In fact, most of the places you go to in the Galaxy are not teeming with Dark Siders. Telos, Nar Shadda, Dantooine, and Onderon prior to the big war are, in essence, almost examples of what Kreia wants; worlds without people who can harness the Force or use it. And yet, have any of these places benefitted? Are any of these worlds truly better off for not having protection from the Jedi? It doesn't seem like it, and again, when you behave in the role of a traditional Jedi, people tend to be very grateful, and you accordingly get Light Side points. None of these worlds need the heartlessness of the Sith to be miserable, but it does really seem that they could all stand to have the Jedi around to save them.

So between it all, however sympathetic Kreia's perspective might be (and it is, given everything she's been through), it is not in the end a right one, and at this point it frankly annoys me to see people treat it like it's correct without actually taking the time to consider it. That Kreia was badly burned by both the Jedi and the Sith makes her cynicism understandable, but that by itself doesn't justify her. Not only is her interpretation of the Force factually wrong (no matter how much the IGN article enjoys said interpretation), but even if one agrees or sympathizes with Kreia's hatred of the Force, it's clear that life can't exist in any state worth admiring without it. The Exile is proof of that (as are the Yuuzhan Vong, characters who exist outside of the Force and are, at least initially, incredibly destructive, genocidal, religious fanatic monsters. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for getting rid of the Force).

One last thing I think I'd like to address also, is how the article, to be frank, goes out of it's way to compare other Star Wars villains unfavorably to Kreia. Now, what do characters like Count Dooku or Anakin have to do with KotoR II? Well, frankly nothing, but since the article decided to needlessly throw stones at great villains, I thought it only right to rebuff that:

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Let's start with that last one. Now, admittedly, I'm not the biggest fan of Snoke, but calling him "largely pointless" is, to me at least, not really fair; Snoke isn't a very interesting character, but he does serve a valid role in the story, being the person who corrupted Ben Solo and set him on the path to becoming Kylo Ren, as well as manipulating his interactions with Rey throughout Episode VIII, which culminates in Kylo turning on him and in so doing furthering his own character arc. Moreover, as the Supreme Leader of the First Order, Snoke directs them in their actions. So in other words, pretty much all of the main villains in the Sequel Trilogy trace back to Snoke. Literally the entire conflict in those movies would not exist if not for Snoke's actions. Now, one could accuse him of being more plot device than character, and that wouldn't be an invalid perspective. But to say that he's "largely pointless" disregards his legitimate importance to the narrative. I'm not saying Snoke is a very interesting character, or better than Kreia (he isn't), but I wouldn't use the word "pointless" to describe him. That descriptor better fits Captain Phasma, and even she has a somewhat legitimate role in the story, if only because of her connection to Finn.

As for Dooku and Anakin, this is the other part that really annoyed me. I don't think those criticisms in the above text are fair to the characters, and I especially dislike how it gives a much easier pass to Kylo Ren.

First off, Count Dooku's fall to the Dark Side was not born out of simple power-lust. As detailed at length in among other sources the Revenge of the Sith novelization and "The Conversion of Darth Tyranus" from Jedi Vs. Sith: The Essential Chronology of the Force, Dooku left the Jedi Order behind because, like Kreia, he had become disillusioned, albeit for different reasons. Where Kreia felt betrayed and scapegoated by the Jedi, Dooku had come to believe that the Jedi Order had become nothing more than servants to a corrupt, incompetent, and decadent Republic, and that the Sith were the better alternative. Dooku genuinely believed that the Sith under Palpatine and himself could bring a better, more genuine order and peace to the Galaxy that would be superior to the Republic. And by the way, before people inevitably play the "that's not the movies!" card, even the movie alludes to this somewhat:

Now, much of what Dooku says to Obi-Wan in that scene is intended to deceive him (and the audience), but his disdain for the Republic's corruption is genuine. So to portray Count Dooku as someone motivated only by simple power-lust and nothing more is yet another disingenuous argument by the article that disregards evidence.

In any event, going even a little bit easier on Kylo Ren, or acting as though he has more nuance to him is...well, wrong. Kylo Ren has never on any occasion to my knowledge exhibited the good intentions that Dooku had of improving the Galaxy by replacing an inefficient democracy with a competent empire. As shown by among other things his massacre of the Jakku villagers for no reason other than to be cruel, his childish temper tantrums throughout TFA, and his seeking to rule over the First Order for no real reason beyond thinking he deserves to, there's a pettiness to Kylo Ren that the article accuses Count Dooku of. Likewise, to describe Anakin as "naive, dim-witted, and easily manipulated" doesn't acknowledge that the man who manipulated him spent 13 years working on him. By the time Anakin was hanging on Palpatine's every word, they had known each-other for over ten years and Palpatine had long ingratiated himself to Anakin as a father figure. There's also the fact that, at the time, he was desperate to keep his pregnant wife from dying after having already lost his beloved mother, and this is reflected in how when he submits to Palpatine, he's outright begging for his help.

Compare that to how Ben was being corrupted by Snoke by the time he turned on Luke; there is no evidence that Snoke had ever ingratiated himself in Ben's life to the degree that Palpatine had with Anakin. So the fact that Ben trusted a complete stranger more than his own parents and uncle makes him, and there's no real nice way to put this, a terrible judge of character. And yet it is Kylo Ren that the article goes easier on than Anakin and Dooku, both of whom it dismisses rather derisively.

Now look, I hate Hayden Christiansen's terrible acting as much as the next guy, but still, acting as though trusting a stranger more than your parents and uncle, is less dubious then listening to a man who spent over a decade winning your trust, is just silly. Again, there's a pettiness to Kylo Ren that the article accuses both Anakin and Dooku of. Now to be fair, much of Dooku's nuance isn't in the movies, and again, Hayden Christiansen's acting is terrible. But even so, citing Kylo Ren as a more thoughtful and sympathetic villain? Yeah, sorry, I don't buy it. Again, trusting a complete stranger over your own uncle and parents, is not more sympathetic or any less dubious then reluctantly making a devil's pact to save the woman you love with a man who spent 13 years getting your trust. If the latter makes one "naive, dim-witted, and easily manipulated", then why is the former any better? I'd be curious to see what a "difficult to manipulate but can still be tricked" character would look like in the author's mind. We all knew that Anakin would be manipulated by Palpatine into becoming evil, so with that in mind, what would the author have preferred? The acting may have been terrible for that character, but his reason for becoming evil, is really not any worse than Kylo Ren going evil out of a mix of a misunderstanding and trusting the wrong person, or even honestly Kreia's cynicism born out of bad experiences. Kreia's story is a sad one, but no less than Anakin's.

So ultimately, when it's not needlessly taking shots at the movies or Star Wars lore in general, the article can basically be summed up as liking KotoR II primarily because of a perceived grayness, moral ambiguity, and lack of genuine goodness in the characters, the settings, the choices, and the story itself. But as I think I have now shown at length, that really isn't the case; the cast is not universally or overwhelmingly gray or morally bankrupt, the morality choices are still binary and largely black and white, the Galaxy is one that clearly needs the Jedi in direct defiance of Kreia's cynical appraisal of them and the Force at large, and yes, Kreia is actually wrong. Now, none of this means that one shouldn't love KotoR II's story; it has excellent writing, dialogue, character work, and gets some things right that even the first game didn't (mostly in regards to its villains). But its one thing to love a good video game, its another to love it for the wrong reasons. IGN's article, at least in my opinion, does the latter.