Modding the Sith Lords: How Fans Salvaged KOTOR 2

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Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords seemed like a very easy game to make. It came hot on the heels of its Bioware-developed prequel, which is still one of the most colorful, optimistic tributes to the Star Wars universe. You had a fake Chewbacca, a fake Darth Vader, a fake Death Star, and the perfect “I am your father” plot-twist to tie the loose ends together. The game ended with either world domination or A New Hope’s medal ceremony depending on your allegiance. Good and evil, love and hate, life and death, the beautiful two dimensions of the Star Wars canon.

It feels like they could’ve just done that again. Give us a new fake Darth Vader, give us a new forbidden Jedi to fall in love with, give us a lightsaber duel in the foreground and a space battle in the background. Making a Star Wars game isn’t that hard, if all you want to do is make a Star Wars game. In retrospect that seems like the one thing Obsidian Entertainment wanted to avoid when they set out to make Knights of the Old Republic 2.

The worlds you travel to in KOTOR 2 are nearly dead. There’s the abandoned Jedi strongholds of Dantooine, or the equally abandoned, equally destroyed Sith tombs of Korriban. You venture to the seedy Hutt-dominated moon of Nar Shaddaa and get wrapped up with slumlords, assassination contracts, and human trafficking. You finish the game by yourself, all your party members left to ambiguous fates, and face off with the mysterious old woman who’s been guiding your destiny all along. When you strike her down, you’re still not sure if you’ve won anything.

“I do prefer KOTOR 2 over 1. That’s not to say I don’t love 1 immensely; I do with all my heart. But it was your typical Jedi vs. Sith/good vs evil plot. Not much wiggle room. It was a Star Wars game first, and an RPG second,” a Knights of the Old Republic subreddit member named Nick Zabawa told me. “The Sith Lords is different. It’s an RPG with a Star Wars setting. And the grey area, good lord the grey area. I point to the infamous Nar Shaddaa landing pad conundrum. If you help the poor man, Kreia [one of the lead characters] reprimands you. If you are cruel to the poor man, Kreia reprimands you.”

At every corner Obsidian worked to make KOTOR 2 a darker, more nuanced version of Star Wars. Yeah you still get a fake Chewbacca, but he’s a murderous darkside psychopath. Yeah you still kill dark jedis, but they’re far more empathetic and coherent than paste-ins like Darth Maul or Emperor Palpatine. It’s one of the most profound shifts in tone a licensed property has ever risked. Mainstream history tends to protect the binary origin stories, but there’s a reason the diehards vote for The Sith Lords, or Empire Strikes Back.

It’s just a real shame it wasn’t finished.

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If you played The Sith Lords when it came out, you’d notice a couple things. First you’d be overwhelmed with the aforementioned bleakness of the world-building, and then you’ll wonder why you’re repeating the same cutscene over and over again. The game was rife with technical issues. I had to start a new character entirely when my campaign’s brain fell out somewhere in Nar Shaddaa. It was well reported that Obsidian had to cut content and crunch hard to get the game out by deadline, and so a lot of stuff fell by the wayside. That’s nothing new, content gets cut all the time in the videogame industry, but it’s rare for whole worlds and entire endings to get abbreviated for a Christmas release date.

For months there were rumors about what KOTOR 2 was supposed to be. What happened to that “droid planet” they talked about in the pre-release interviews? Why are all these loose ends left to a lengthy bit of exposition at the end of the game? Who were Darth Sion and Darth Nihilus really? For a long time it felt like those questions would never be answered.

However, when KOTOR 2 was released on PC, all those incomplete files were left untouched on the disc, and any enterprising player could scroll through them and discover what was cut. Sure enough, a group of modders who loved the game and were curious about its mystery started piecing together a narrative through the fragmented code. They called their product The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod, or TSLRCM, and they just released a new version of their mod last year.

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“I think a friend from school mentioned in passing that you could mod the game. So I did a Google search and found The Sith Lords Restoration Project [a precursor to the Restored Content Mod] by Team Gizka. To me, it sounded awesome simply because it was going to add a ton of missing content and flesh out the story. I thought of it as a director’s cut vs theatrical cut of a film,” said a modder known as VarsityPuppet who has worked on the restoration since 2008. “It didn’t feel like a scavenger hunt as much as it felt like digging for treasure. You weren’t expecting to come across these tidbits of cut content, but when you did you asked yourself ‘Oh is this a new thing? What could this have been intended for?’”

A lot of little things were cut from The Sith Lords, and if you poke around the source code you’ll find extra lines of dialogue or combat encounters that didn’t make it to the finish line. But there’s also some massive, legacy-changing stuff hidden below the surface. The entire final sequence of the game is shockingly different. In the retail product you slog through the conclusion alone, culminating in a weird, limp, final encounter that doesn’t leave anyone fulfilled. When you’re running the Restored Content Mod you learn that you were supposed to have confrontations with a number of you party members in your journey through the final level. An entire boss encounter hinges on the participation of a guy named Atton Rand. If he dies, he dies in your arms and confesses his love.

VarsityPuppet spent most of his time working on the HK factory. HK-47 was a charming, bloodthirsty droid who makes it into your party in both Knights of the Old Republic 1 and 2. Originally there was a lengthy segment where the player would take control of HK-47 and wreak havoc on the industrial plant producing his doppelgangers. The whole sequence is nearly two hours long, and required quite a bit of spelunking to uncover.

“Unlike the first half of the HK Factory, which was more or less complete (minus some wonky camera angles) the factory sublevel lacked a reasonable conclusion to the side mission. It was difficult to put together a stream of events that made sense with the available voice over and still worked well with the rest of the game. It went through several iterations, and I even took liberties with the events of the plot but it worked out for the better in the end,” says VarsityPuppet. “I came to an understanding of HK-47’s character in the game. The need to eliminate these bastardized versions of himself was a nice arc for him, and the dialogue for those levels were entertaining.”

It seems almost criminal that players didn’t get to watch these scenes pay off on the disc. These characters meant something to people. Putting them out to pasture in crunchtime isn’t fair.

“Before the mod, at nearly every turn you are confronted with some broken piece of dialogue or an open-ended plot development that confuses and distracts the player. Kreia, your player’s mentor in KOTOR 2, just didn’t make sense. And entire sequences of the game, like the battles on Telos, Dantooine, and Dxun/Onderon especially, just didn’t add up,” says Ralph Gilliam, 21, who counts KOTOR 1 and 2 among his favorite games of all time. “It was like being given several parts of a beautiful mathematical equation, but having to make up important bits because the author forgot to mention they existed. Frustrating, to say the least. But when I did my first playthrough with The Restored Content Mod, all the pieces seemed to click into place. Like being able to see a sunset in color after only ever seeing the world in grayscale. And it was every bit rewarding as it should have been. The amount of additional content, which is utterly coherent and additive to the experience, is something we only ever see now in DLC packets. It was remarkable to have everything suddenly make sense.”

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There is something spiritual about returning to a videogame you love with a little more context. A few more moments with the characters you love. The people who’ve stuck with Knights of the Old Republic long enough to follow the TSLRCM project are certainly interested in the extra levels, or the extra battles, but what truly drives them is the opportunity to spend some more time in this universe, with these people. There’s probably never going to be a true Knights of the Old Republic 3. This self-made mod is all they’ll get.

“I learned more about the characters I had come to love so much, and couldn’t look away from the screen until I had completed a play through. Bao-Dur and Atton were my favorite companions, and I got more time with both, and the other too,” says Zabawa. “The fact that the third installment was ditched in favor of the MMO will always weigh heavily with me.The cliffhanger ending of KOTOR 2 set it up perfectly; setting off to find Revan to help him in his quest to stop the lurking threat that waits in the darkness of the Unknown Regions. But both Bioware and Obsidian have moved on to bigger and better things. The chances of it actually happening went from 0 percent to 0.1 percent when Disney bought Star Wars, so I will always have hope, however misplaced it may be. I still have 1 and 2 though, so they can fill the hole that 3 was supposed to fill.”

For now, they’ve got their friends. DeadlyStream and the KOTOR subreddit, the forums that serve as the hub for the Knights of the Old Republic community, are still very active all these years later. These kids, who are now men, still talking, coding, and connecting over this ancient Star Wars RPG. That’s something you can only find in videogames.

“I keep coming to the forum because it’s full of people who love this game as much as I do, maybe even more,” says Zabawa. “That sense of community with a handful of nerds who cling to an outdated series is what draws me.”

With TLSCRM getting a comprehensive release last year, it feels like maybe the search is over. That the secrets of The Sith Lords source code have been finally expunged. I ask VarsityPuppet this, and he respectfully disagrees.

“There is still more to find. Until we’ve listened to every voice-over and looked through every asset in the game, I’m not convinced that the search is over,” he says. “All I know is that my game, which I pour my creativity and a ton of time into, is still around. I don’t think I’d ever go back and play the originals as they are. I would see all of the things that were cut out of the game and probably get depressed because there’d be so much work to do.”

Luke Winkie is a writer living in Austin, TX. Follow him on Twitter at @luke_winkie.

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