Apathy is Death: The Politics of Grey in Knights of the Old Republic 2

Note: This piece contains spoilers for Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords

“So, you will do nothing? Apathy is death. Worse than death, because at least a rotting corpse feeds the beasts and insects.”

Kreia, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic 2’s resident Force expert and (not-so-spoiler alert) once and future Sith Lord, delivers this line in true cryptic form among the tombs of the monstrous, unquiet dead. Shortly thereafter, she — the vision of her that’s here, though this confrontation plays out in full soon enough — and the visions of your friends, previously arrayed against her, turn on you. They punish you for your temerity, for not committing to either destroying your mentor and guide and forsaking any thought of her redemption, or to battling the band of friends and lovers you’ve made along your journey. They do so as their chant — “Apathy is death, apathy is death, apathy is death” — is still ringing in your ears.

The first time I played the game, years ago, this result mostly frustrated and confused me. Why can’t I help all my friends, diverse and troublesome as they sometimes can be, just get along? But this isn’t Mass Effect 2, where having full Paragon or Renegade and completing a few missions is enough to make people respect and listen to you. And in KOTOR 2, compromise, grey, the middle way, isn’t just the middle option on a dialogue wheel: It’s a position all its own, and it comes with a terrible cost, exacted in slow realizations and quiet cruelties. The game endeavors to show the price of that position while also challenging the binary nature of Star Wars’ traditional light and dark morality. In KOTOR 2, the evils of inaction are often as cruel and as dangerous as those of action, and grey is often little better than shadow.

The game is full of dips into moral muddiness, but the characters that most exemplify its moral turmoil and interest in apathy are Kreia, the Jedi archivist and master Atris, and the Exile, the player character. In different but dovetailing ways, all tell the story of how grey can turn to black, and black to white, and over again. Their actions and inactions define the moral center of KOTOR 2. No character is spared the echoes of the conflict that started it all, but Kreia and Atris, two sides of a moral coin, are the strongest examples.

Kreia is the poster-woman of KOTOR 2’s exploration of light and dark, exemplifying moral ambiguity and its tendency to leave room for cruelty. Much has been said about her, and the cruelties she’s involved in are many and obvious. A woman who was once a Jedi, then a Sith, then something in between, and then a Sith once more, she is emblematic of the game’s gradient of light and dark. She’s a woman fighting against fate, against the Force itself, but her accomplishments are always cyclical, eventually repeating past failures. More than anything, Kreia represents the true cruelty inherent in grey: Lacking a goal in line with, and in fact despising, both the Light Side and Dark Side, but allowing her single-minded pursuit of that goal to tear people and things apart in her wake. Despite her loathing of the control seemingly imposed on her by the Force, she drives the events of the game through engineering scenario after scenario, shuttling the player character into destroying her Sith rivals as well as exposing her Jedi enemies for her to eliminate. Kreia is defined by action, channeling her loathing of the Force and her desire to see it fall and manipulating everyone around her in doing so. But this is defined against a background as a historian, as a teacher, and as a Jedi, one of many who sat within the confines of narrow beliefs about intervention and compassion, failing to involve themselves even as the Mandalorian Wars claimed countless lives. By placing her solidly in the middle of the light/dark meter throughout the game, while simultaneously showing the manipulations and cruelty she’s capable of, KOTOR 2 begins to show us how limited that meter is.

Like Kreia, Atris is a Jedi, a historian, a betrayer. Unlike Kreia, whose time of inaction is over, Atris waits. She plans, plots, bides her time, recuses herself. She does this from Telos, a world scarred by war that she’s made her home, from her true responsibilities to the Jedi Order, and from her relationships with the Exile and other people. Even the actions she takes are distant and detached in their own way, with her defining choice to lure the Sith to the Jedi meeting on Katarr (resulting in the annihilation of much of the Order and the planet’s populace) characterized by her own unwillingness to go herself and face any consequences, and lack of action in response. But even more pivotal than that is her choice to avoid the war, to side, stridently, with the Council against allowing the Jedi to intervene against the Mandalorian warriors as they burned the galaxy to the ground. Again and again, she berates the Exile for their choice to involve themselves in the war, calling them flawed, violent, dark-sided, selfish. She seems to hate the Exile personally; to see them as antithetical to her very concept of being Jedi. She keeps their lightsaber, the symbol of what they used to be, as a warning against passion. In one particularly memorable moment, she declares “Every choice we make, whether we know it or not, sends echoes through the Force. It can awaken feelings, ignite passions, hate, anger, fear — where none existed before. By meeting aggression, by serving as an opponent against which the Mandalorians could test themselves, you fed their hate, their lust for war.” When the Exile retorts, saying that hesitation and passivity are equally strong, dangerous emotions and impulses, it angers her. And when the Exile forces her to admit that the Jedi who ignored the Council were responsible for winning the war, she responds by saying there are “victories other than physical ones.” She concedes the material, the lives of millions, for a vague concept of moral and spiritual victory — and she knows well how hollow that rings.

In this moment, with the Exile’s questioning, it becomes obvious how defensive, how emotional, she is about her studied detachment, her careful apathy. She clings to her decision and the philosophy that buttresses it, because giving in to that creeping sensation that the Exile was right to leave them all behind is too hard. Even without the subtext of her jealousy of the Exile, however, the hypocrisy inherent in a philosophy that simultaneously positions itself as protectors and guardians of peace in the galaxy, and as beings utterly detached from the material, is obvious. Atris’ faith in the Jedi is utterly shaken by that, despite her protestations otherwise. That is why she leaves to form her own group, and why she ultimately finds herself turning darker and darker, colder and colder. That apathy to the material lives of those around her, inherent in both her and her philosophy, killed her faith and nearly the Order itself.

All of this points to a central conclusion of KOTOR 2: That sitting on the sidelines can be just as dangerous and damaging as taking to a battlefield, that isolation is something to be guarded against, and that those who recuse themselves must take responsibility for their action by inaction. It posits in game terms that you, the player character, must invest and make choices even when the outcomes seem fixed or binary, as well as that we, as people, must often do the same. And it frames this against Star Wars mainstays, such as the Jedi, digging into how the Jedi’s tendency towards a well-meaning paternalism unwilling to even fully commit to its own ideals is deeply flawed. This unquestionably digs into some complicated issues — is interventionism being framed as good, then; is the involvement of the Jedi in the prequels with the Clone Wars and their deep, calcified ties to the Republic somehow better — but it begs some interesting questions about the central tenets of Star Wars as a moral construction.

At its core, KOTOR 2 is a story that wants you to pick a side. It is also a game that understands how difficult that can be, how terrifying that can be, and how dangerous that can be. It knows it exists in a world of binaries, a world of archetypal light and dark, with seemingly clear-cut answers, but also knows those answers are anything but. It endeavors to carve out its own space in that binary, neither rejecting it wholesale nor accepting it at face-value, placing the onus on the player to determine what their light and dark should be and how that can be embodied in the world. But what it does say of its own volition is this: When time comes to make a choice, do something, not nothing.

Storyteller and story-breaker. I think about different worlds too much, and try to make sense of this one. They/them. @lightwoven