Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic celebrates its 20th anniversary today, July 15, 2023. Below, we take a look at how it challenged and subverted some of the most common Star Wars tropes.
Star Wars is obsessed with what machine and memory create, the blurry selves at the intersection of metal and flesh. Darth Vader is the clearest example of this. Anakin’s descent to the dark side materializes in his deformed body. Obi-Wan says he is “more machine than man”, a fact that is taken advantage of in the stated impossibility of his redemption. Evil in Star Wars is associated with a crippled body, specifically a body that was once meat, muscle, and nerves, but is now wired with circuitry.
Droids can’t be “force-sensitive” like people can, and so they can’t bear the moral weight of metal. But they are still considered inferior. Droids provide slave labor and belong to both heroes and villains. New Hope establishes within the first 20 minutes that droid memories are regularly erased. Luke’s uncle Owen casually suggests that he ask Luke to take out the trash. In the Star Wars universe, there is a whole class of people whose memory capacity depends entirely on the people who possess them. Both inside and outside of his fiction, the perceived personality of sentient beings depends on whether or not you are metal.
While much of Knights of the Old Republic’s narrative engine focuses on simple binaries of good and evil, machine and man, it also pushes them. It might seem strange, because in retrospect, KOTOR looks like an attempt to return to the good old days of Star Wars. In this way, it is distinctly non-subversive. It offers many of the same thrills and intrigue as the original movies. An evil empire rises and threatens a fleeing resistance group. Your hero picks up two brave robots: an astromech and a protocol droid. The climax is destroying a powerful space station. Most famously, of course, is that the plot hinges on a twist of identity.
Still, KOTOR plays with the established formula. The game’s take on Han Solo is a teenager, his C-3P0 is not a queer coded butler but a murder-obsessed robot assassin: the fan-favorite HK-47. Her identity twist is not about heritage, but about self. The player’s own identity is revealed to be the Sith Lord Revan whose memory was erased. Previously presumed dead, Revan was brainwashed by the Jedi, hoping they could be the key to defeating the Sith Empire.
This twist has a decidedly odd character. Revan was a chosen name, separated from Jedi and Sith until they turned to the dark side. Consider Revan’s Mask, a device to enable KOTOR’s twist, but also something that renders them formless, unable to be properly perceived, until the Jedi remove it. The game is incapable of reckoning with this “queer horror”, to borrow a phrase and a setting. A light side Revan has no room to feel betrayed, nor a dark side Revan motivation for anything other than a little revenge. Revan’s choices are between re-assimilation into the system that rejected them or becoming the Space Empire’s Viper leader.
It’s not a compelling choice, because the difference between light and dark borders on parody. Physically threaten the trader for a lower price or don’t, barter a peace treaty with the Tusken Raiders or slaughter them all, pledge your allegiance to the Empire on Korriban or remain loyal to the Fractured Republic. However, buried in the subtext of the game, the difference between dark and light can seem slight. In one of the many seeds of the game’s twist, a member of the group describes “Dark Jedi interrogation techniques” that “can erase your memories and destroy your very identity.” But only ordinary Jedi actually use these methods in KOTOR’s story. Later, when companion Bastila is tortured to join the dark side, her memory and sense of self remain intact. Yet both sides use power cruelly to reshape others, unafraid of bolstering their ranks through coercion.
The equivalence between dark and light is something it shares with the prequels. Stormtroopers (in A New Hope) and Jedi (in The Phantom Menace) appear on Tatooine for their own dark ends, then disappear. None of them intend to free slaves. Mace Windu asserts that the Jedi are not warriors; he leads battalions an hour and a half of film length later. The binaries between flesh and metal are also questioned. Clones and droids serve the same purpose: they are both made and both die for their creators. Attack of the Clones delivers one of the franchise’s most visually arresting moments of visual poetry: the fleshy clones are crafted in an entirely cold, unnatural environment while the battle droids are built deep in the heart of a mountain, encased in Earth.
While Star Wars maintains a most adept personality logic, it also relentlessly equivocates between machine and man. In Return of the Jedi, Luke recognizes his father’s humanity in his severed, gleaming hand, a robotic limb like his own. In KOTOR, Revan restores HK-47’s memory much like they later restore their own, though they never fully regain their memories. Revan’s mind is as malleable as a droid’s. Along the same lines, both KOTOR endings are basically the same, with Revan in front of a crowd, celebrating their victory. The main difference is in the colors of the flags flown and the music played.
Lately, Star Wars has turned entirely to the more conservative and restorative elements of its fantasy. The Mandolorian and The Book of Boba Fett lead on the same empty posture of mythology and action figure. Even The Last Jedi, which drew massive and misplaced anger and received somewhat outsized praise for its subversion, ultimately affirms the mythical, yet still consumerist, power of the franchise. The film ends with children acting out one of the film’s scenes with a handmade Luke Skywalker toy.
It’s easy to think of Star Wars as one big glitter trap. The massiveness of his cultural import, the frequent barrenness of his world, and his compromised but stubborn insistence on easy binaries can make him feel boxed in. Imagining popular science fiction, whether or not it bears the name Star Wars, that actively challenges and dismantles its assumptions seems impossible. Revan inspires me. I want a better world for them, for all Star Wars machine-men, where memory and individuality are unconditional and cannot be stolen. But for Revan, like everyone else, there is only one destiny: to play the role that others give you and do what needs to be done.
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