Developer Obsidian Entertainment was born of former PC RPG giant Black Isle Studios’ closure, and with the name Chris Avellone affixed as lead designer/writer there was an expectation that we’d be seeing something transcending the low standard of video games—even if they were stuck using flippin’ Star Wars (of all things: Really?) as a starting point.
What Obsidian’s crew ended up doing was to look at Star Wars, at all Lucas and BioWare and every EU author had accomplished to manipulate the monomythic structure in the creation of something palatable and brilliantly addictive, and just…wrench a knife somewhere in them there guts and twist, twist until everything that gives the Star Wars appeal is torn apart. Piece by piece, the Sith Lords subtly begins feeding you each and every tired expectation, and, as they come, what you feel is this growing sense of relief, this subconscious drive to be satiated on your own literary comfort food—but: There’s always that moment—and you come to expect that too, come to rely on it as the antithesis to your prior highs—there’s always that moment the game asks Why? Of this path so often repeated, what accomplishments do you imagine?
A beggar family, torn apart both financially and physically by war, asks for your help--a paltry sacrifice on your part to ensure their safety; maybe, just maybe, nearby stands a man asking for the same outcome, but in place of your own personal sacrifice he offers great monetary gain. It’s either-or, here, and the tendency of players will be towards “good” over “evil," so the sacrifice is made, the family hobbles off pitifully to presumed safety and bright futures. You yourself positively reflect on the morality bonuses given for another day saved--and the game stops you dead in your tracks, voicing—almost exclusively through your mentor Kreia—its frustrations with the ignorance inherent in your actions.
No matter your in-game answer for Why?, the result is always the same; your choice, perceived as the moral high ground, was nothing but a wasteful performance of ignorant folly. Drawing parallels of your actions to vampirism, your acts of kindness, of Jedi charity, do nothing but steal what power the helpless may hold for your own use (i.e., the experience points gained by your choice, an idea reflected in Star Wars lore itself without any game-y statistics). No matter how buried motives are under the guise of self-sacrifice, helping the needy only serves to weaken them, altering their perceptions on universal modality and, in some cases, making them targets to others more desperate and lethally-driven towards the same goal.
By following the ‘goodness’ of the Jedi code—a lie fabricated for self-preservation and personal profit—it's suggested you just led an entire family to their death.
This deconstructive direction outside the realm of predictable comfort is what makes the Sith Lords such a massive improvement over BioWare’s excellent predecessor, and, really, the story is just too dang good for Star Wars; its goals far too high and self-aware, but also something the Star Wars brand has desperately needed for a long time.
Yet, while the writing of the Sith Lords is far stronger than its prequel, I rate both titles the same, and may, personally, even view the first as a better game. Achievements aside, the Sith Lords is riddled with bugs, moments of atrocious pacing issues and literally a quarter of the game unfinished. Many of these issues have been repaired by dedicated fans over the years since release, but that’s still not enough: The long intro segment and Nar Shadaa still feature pacing issues that stem from more than a rushed development cycle, but simply clumsy planning and writing.
Kreia’s continued domination over the players’ own emotional turmoils are what champion this game ahead of so many others, her words forever scarring views of Star Wars as fluffy entertainment. Amidst the wealth of coding error that would come to define Obsidian’s games, it’s that writing--that twisting of archetypal norms and the assumption of a moral compass built from her presence that make this journey so darn good. In the rush to finish this game under a holiday development schedule, she’s written out as Darth Traya, but despite the new name’s implications, despite the donning of black robes, she's never convincing as a villain. (It’s hard to buy her shadow mask when she’s always right, even if she is pushy and demanding. Her role as a mentor is far more believable.)
It’s long before she makes her name in betrayal that she raises the avatar and herself from the dead. Five years have passed since Revan redeemed herself and saved the galaxy (the pawn of a Star Wars cliche repeated almost by the decade), and the next galaxy-wide threat is already in full effect. It’s unfortunate that not many seem to know it. This behind-the-scenes orchestration of tragedy is defined by absence in TSL: The concentration of power so great, so abnormal even by Star Wars standards that it threatens itself strictly by persisting, every moment needed to devour the essence of this life that connects every living being. Sith Lords Sion and Nihilus, Kreia’s guiding hand, the avatar herself—exiled by choice from the Jedi Order for her own acceptance of rational, necessary darkness—are all representative of the ultimate consequence of the power sought by good and evil in Star Wars lore, each in their own way black holes eating away at what seems, on the surface, like a coherent system guided by a familiar mythos born long before ’77.
The rest of the supporting cast lends a helping hand in reinvent the Star Wars universe, too, with the best among them following the same route the game’s overall quest system takes. The first to join your cause is--of course--a clone of Han Solo even down to the predilection for familiar catch phrases, but as the story progresses his character is turned inside out, his snarky personality made merely a coping mechanism for his horrific past. Another is a twist on the now-stereotyped wookie: A psychopath tortured by his own culture, he adheres under a broken sense of honor to life debts--you know, that cultural norm handed down from his homeworld that would bind him to anyone who saves (or spares) his life--that also drives his psychopathy. He’ll fight alongside those owed such a debt, but not without the constant reminder that his only wish before dying is to gleefully dismember them.
It’s this team of equally-lost souls the avatar and Kreia influence and guide on their mission to remove the devouring endgame. Since the conclusion of BioWare’s epic, Revan’s vanished and the Jedi Council lie in ruins. Barely a handful of members still live, and that persisting, devouring force quietly ravaging the galaxy has them in hiding. It’s the Exile’s job to pull these hiding Jedi out of their inherent selfishness either by hunting them down or banding them together to Save the World.
Fantastic characterization and dialogue aside, story progression doesn’t bring the same joy or discovery BioWare gave players, due possibly to overcomplication or ridiculous ambition beyond TSL's budget. The series has since become an MMO, and the characters’ fates removed from the postmodern, deconstructive tone of TSL back into comfortable, anticlimactic Star Wars fare.