In a game where you’re constantly faced with making decisions that reflect directly on your morality, and with a clear form of moral measurement, how couldn’t we talk about this? Get ready, because this is a huge topic about the games, and the Star Wars universe in general, that I couldn’t possibly contain to one post alone.
One of the first things I noticed about Bioware’s Dragon Age games was that there was no immediate consequence for making moral vs. immoral decisions, or choosing benevolent vs. mean dialogue options. (The very first thing I noticed was that you couldn’t attempt to pick locks unless you were a rogue, which honestly makes sense, but was still super annoying to me.) I was so used to KOTOR’s immediate gratification for specific actions that this lack of distinct moral guidelines threw me off a bit. There was no direct path to “the light side” or to “the dark side” because, in Ferelden, those things don’t exist. Good and evil, of course, still exist and manifest in different ways, but there’s a lot more room for negotiation.
KOTOR, on the other hand, makes navigating the moral waters pretty clear cut, and provides a handy tool for monitoring it. Your alignment meter is always just to the left on your character screen, and as you gain or lose light and dark side points, your portrait becomes more menacing or saintly. I especially love the way your character
becomes more visibly, physically corrupted as you make decisions that lead you down the path to the dark
side. It’s cohesive with the
depiction of corrupted characters in the films – especially the prequels. As the audience sees more and more of Palpatine’s evil side, he becomes more and more wrinkly and decrepit, always approaching that hooded, horrifying state in which he exists during Return of the Jedi. Anakin becomes literally disfigured at the climax of his corruption, and as a result must physically inhabit the suit and mask that identify him as Darth Vader. Revan doesn’t have such a dramatic transformation, but the visible change is still a nice nod to this pattern in the series (and Revan is obviously in favor of the classic Dark Side Mask fashion statement).
But the game is similar in its treatment of morality beyond this disfiguration and adherence to the dark and light sides of the Force. While the fluctuating alignment bar and the plot’s focus on changing loyalties, and corruption as well as redemption, indicate something of a moral spectrum, it is much more expressive of a binary. We can see this in things as small as the feats your character will be able to use most efficiently. Playing as a character who is constantly fluctuating between light and dark, or who is always somewhere in between, limits you to universal powers, which are much more advantageous if used in conjunction with feats that may be accessed through a strong specific alignment. This same sort of thing occurs in the movies as well. We only ever see characters like Count Dooku or Darth Sidious using Force Lightning.
The sorts of characters we meet also follow the basic good guy vs. bad guy dichotomy of the films. The game’s companions all fall on one moral side, or the other, and occupy certain character archetypes we’ve come to expect out of Star Wars, and which we associate with particular alignments. Carth is the well-intentioned, slightly hot-headed pilot; Bastila is the proud and eager Padawan. HK-47 is a bloodthirsty assassin literally built for death. Canderous is the self-interested Mandalorian who values war and honor above lives. And so on. They’re alignment bars show us exactly what we would expect of each character. Even Jolee, the most morally grey companion, is five points above truly neutral, and must be killed in order to fully move down the dark side path. Jolee’s film equivalent might be found in Han, who acts on behalf of himself instead of the greater good – that is until his heroic return to the Battle of Yavin. Characters outside of your party represent this unquestioned binary as well. Master Vandar, who is the exact same unnamed species as Yoda, acts as the head of the Jedi council on Dantooine, and indicates an assumed wisdom and goodness of the Jedi, which the plot of this first game doesn’t really dispute.
As Revan moves to and from the light and the dark, we are reminded of poor, misguided Ani, who started as a beautiful little cinnamon roll child-slave and ended as a sad, repentant, broken man. Revan wrestles with recovering a dark past and attempting to overcome it (or perhaps reclaim it, depending on how you play), but, as far as the first game is concerned, the darkness of this past is never in question. The decision to defy the Jedi council, and their subsequent decision to erase Revan’s past from their memory and effectively “kill” the dark lord are never debated in KOTOR I. (KOTOR II is nothing but debate on this and similar topics, but that’s for another time.) Similarly, we are never wondering if Anakin is perhaps in the right as he begins to distrust and betray the Jedi council on Coruscant. Instead, we see it as a simple tragic fall brought on by his simple tragic flaw.
I guess the title of this post was somewhat misleading. This was more about the absence of gray morality than anything else. But stay tuned, because KOTOR II is a whole different beast when it comes to this topic. Or is it?