In game design, a “vertical slice” is a representative chunk of a game, showcasing important facets of its design within a limited space. At Loser City, Vertical Slice is a place for us to talk about the small but essential pieces of a work of art that might get lost in broader analysis. This is where we talk about the chunks that stood out to us and told us something, good or bad, representative or fluke.
Today, Games Editor Jake Muncy starts off the column by discussing the beginning of the 2004 PC game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords.
You wake up, suspended in a tank full of healing chemicals. You drift off, only to wake up again, outside the tank, lying on the ground. There are strangers suspended in the tanks around you, hanging in suspended animation, peaceful. Only one thing: they’re all dead. Everyone’s dead, and you don’t know where—or who—you are.
This is how Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 begins. For the big, exciting sequel to what many still call the greatest Star Wars game of all time, it’s not the opening you’d be expecting. In Bioware’s original game, you begin as a seemingly insignificant cadet on a Republic ship thrust into a disastrous battle. Within minutes, you’re in league with the ship’s commanding officer, being hunted by the Sith, and fighting to save a legendary Jedi with whom you seem to have a mysterious connection. It’s exciting, fast, and feels important.
Here, though, you’re alone, irrelevant, and confused. And the game works hard to make sure you stay that way for a while.
I suppose describing that the opening of KOTOR 2 in the fashion I did above is a little misleading; there is a short (and optional) tutorial section before that opening. In it, you play as a maintenance droid on the Ebon Hawk, a freighter that the main characters used in the last game to get around. It’s about to fall apart, careening into an asteroid field, its inhabitants—including the future player character—unconscious or worse. None of them are the heroes of the first game. The droid is, I suppose. He’s T3-M4, the same maintenance droid that hung with the Ebon Hawk the first time around.
As T3-M4, you fix the ship enough to not kill everyone, sending it toward an asteroid mining facility called Peragus. This is where you wake up, in a tiny, isolated space station situated precariously on a big rock next to a bunch of other big rocks, only luck and good planning keeping you from being pulverized into nothing. It reinforces the sense of isolation that those first moments after the tutorial immediately introduce. You’re in the middle of nowhere, and it seems like you might be the only living person in light years.
As you dazedly wander out of the infirmary, you find a computer terminal. Reading it, you get some glimpses at what’s been going on while you’ve been out. There have been mysterious accidents around the facility, and a lot of its denizens have died. The dead people in the infirmary, though, weren’t among that number. Instead, someone injected lethal doses of sedative into their tanks. Yours, too. Text on the screen—your character’s perplexed, elliptical thoughts—muse that a high dose of sedative like that could have been survived by, say, a Jedi. Are you a Jedi? If so, why was someone trying to kill everyone but you? And who else is even around to have done it?
The obligatory Star Wars opening crawl before the tutorial explained that this game takes place five years after the Jedi Civil War, the name it gives to the war from the first game. It also says that all of the Jedi are dead. So where have you been? The game seems content to just multiply your questions at this point, reinforcing your alienation. You’re even alienated, at this point, from your own player character. Most Western RPGs of this style give you a chance to define your character, crafting their history, learning about their world only as they do. KoTOR 2 refuses you that opportunity. Your character has a history. You just don’t have any idea what it is.
So you move on, looking for more clues. Your search leads you to a morgue. Every bed is covered by a body. One of them is the body of an old woman who, according to the medbay computer, was the only other person on board the Ebon Hawk with you. Par for the course by this point, you have no idea who she is. You begin to rifle through the bodies for anything useful or informative.
Then the old lady wakes up. Y’know, the dead one. As if this couldn’t get any stranger (or scarier; a friend of mine told me she was so startled by this that she quit the game for several days). She says her name is Kreia, and she claims to be friendly. At least a little.
Kreia is dressed like a Jedi, but something about her seems off. She’s deliberately cagey with regards to information, as if she’s hiding something. And how, precisely, did she trick the doctors and medical droids into thinking she was dead? On top of that, she’s just creepy. Her voice manages to be simultaneously soothing and cruel. She claims to be your ally, and, at the very least, you need to work together to figure out a way off the mining station. But you can’t shake the feeling that she’s not exactly your friend.
As you continue to explore, you find exactly one other living soul, a Han Solo type (I mean, something about this had to be a Star Wars cliche) named Atton Rand. He’s locked in the facility’s prison, which seems to be the only reason why he’s not dead. You two interrogate each other, trying to assess threat levels, and you eventually release him, conceding you could use his help to get off the station.
During this conversation (spoilers for the first game but honestly go play Knights of the Old Republic, what the hell), Atton recognizes you as the Jedi brought on board from the Ebon Hawk, and you pause to discuss the history of the Jedi Order. You briefly discuss Revan, the protagonist from the first game and one of the most important characters in the entire Star Wars mythology (pre-Disney reboot, at least). He was a pivotal figure in the Jedi Civil War, and his actions had the chance to either save the Republic or doom it. As you talk, it becomes clear that the two of you can’t agree on what happened to him. Or her?
Was Reven a redeemed Jedi, or an unrepentant Sith? What has happened to the Republic, the central civilization in the galaxy, in the past five years? Who won the war?
That’s how far removed from the action you are. You don’t even know.
Unsettled by that realization, you continue exploring, trying to find a way to get to the Ebon Hawk, sealed away behind a network of traps and force fields. Hopefully, you can use it to escape. If you can live that long.
Aside from Atton, Kreia, and a bizarre protocol droid, the only other things you meet for the first hour or so of the game are mining droids reprogrammed to be hostile. They’re notoriously inaccurate shots, however, and don’t prove much of a threat. So you comb the empty corridors, walking over dead bodies, each moment of uneventful silence making the experience more uneasy. There’s little left to find. It’s mostly you, a couple of untrustworthy voices in your ear, and the stale smell of recycled air.
The beginning of KoTOR 2 stands in stark contrast to a typical Star Wars story. Star Wars is a series of epic adventures and daring heroics. Instead, this game begins with you anxious and isolated. You’re not a hero, even though it seems like you have connections to some, being a Jedi and all. You’re just trying to skate by and get out, investigating the mystery of all those dead miners if only to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to you.
The majority of the gameplay time not spent just walking is spent poring over computer terminals, watching fragmented logs, figuring out which doors to open where to find your escape route. It’s more horror than heroism, and the structure, focused on information and simple puzzles, is almost more adventure game than RPG.
It’s a daring start. That traditional Bioware RPG structure is one that emphasizes the player character’s importance. These games are significance simulators. Knights of the Old Republic 2 is eager to subvert that, taking away your connection to the major events of the universe and alienating you from your player character by giving you no indication of who she is. As the player, you’re not an important person. You’re just there.
This beginning is an indication that this is going to be a darker, more unusual game than its predecessor. Developers Obsidian Entertainment apparently decided that following up Bioware’s masterpiece in a direct way, recapturing the classic space opera feel of the original, wasn’t worth the attempt. The time you spend on the Peragus Mining Facility showcases a willingness to flout expectations and push the boundaries of the established format, temporarily jettisoning the central hallmarks of the previous game—detailed character interactions, technically demanding combat, morally loaded quest lines—in favor of building atmosphere and dread.
And, oh, are there reasons to dread. When things finally do start happening, and a dark presence arrives in an abandoned Republic cruiser, it’s the start of a story that takes you into a cruel galaxy, a place on the edge of being buried under darkness forever. After a couple hours alone with corpses, silently stalking the edge of known space, Knights of the Old Republic 2 has ensured you’re in the right mindset to face it.
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to functioning as Loser City’s Games Editor, his writing appears on The AV Club, Ovrld, and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.