WARNING: here be some spoilers for the Knights of the Fallen Empire storyline. Nothing that is blindly obvious to anyone who’s at least started playing it, or read any of the posts in other places on the topic, but still: spoilers. Some folks out there may not have got around to it yet, after all.
There’s a new Empire in town. The Empire of Zakuul has apparently been sitting off in unexplored (by the Sith or the Republic) Wild Space for centuries, quietly minding its own business until it decides to give the Sith Empire and the Republic a poke with a raid led by its two princes. When the old factions unite and respond, it kicks off events that lead to Zakuul smacking down both of the old factions at the same time – this is no petty periphery state, it’s a superpower that nobody even knew existed. And it’s not exactly Evil Empire 2.0, dishing out more of the same as the Sith but bigger and badder (which is the usual trap Star Wars writers fall into). It’s a very different animal in terms of its nature and its governance. Which is interesting, given that the Immortal Emperor of Zakuul turns out to be one and the same person as Emperor Vitiate of the Sith.
The Sith Empire is a straight-up evil empire of pulp fiction. It oppresses EVERYBODY, and runs on fear. The Emperor sits at the top, and for most of SWTOR’s storyline the best that can be said about him is that he is a neglectful, absentee boss. Below him are the Sith, who endlessly scheme against each other whilst treating any non-Force sensitive like expendable trash. Next are Imperial citizens, who are amazingly loyal to the Empire as an ideal whilst doing their best to avoid or work around their erstwhile Sith masters (most of whom take the freedom of the Sith code as licence to act like psychotic children). At least the citizens have slaves to take their frustrations out on, whilst all those poor unfortunates at the bottom can do is suffer. And maybe give the droids a hard time. The Imperial economic pyramid comes to a pretty sharp point, but even the Darths of the Dark Council don’t seem to be able to enjoy their status as they spend most of their time fending off ambitious underlings.
Zakuul, however, is at least on the surface a paradise. As described in the in-game codex, every citizen receives a stipend that allows them to live like the nobility of the Sith Empire or Republic, and frees them to devote their time to the pursuit of science or art or philosophy. Larry Everett over at Massively OP ponders whether this is a form of communism or true socialism but I don’t believe it is, not exactly. There’s nothing to suggest that the state has control of the means of production (socialism), and the state certainly hasn’t withered away to nothing (the end game of communism). What we have is a post-scarcity society, very like Star Trek’s Federation or the societies that show up in a number of Peter F Hamilton’s novels. If anything, it’s a commentary on modern Western society as seen by anyone outside it – yes, we have income inequalities, and poverty on a relative scale, but the poorest Americans or Europeans are more likely to suffer from obesity than starvation. There are plenty of people outside who’d love to get themselves some of that sort of poverty.
It’s not just the economics that differentiate Zakuul from the Sith Empire. The Emperor is also viewed differently. The Sith feared and avoi9ded their Emperor even before he got into the habit of devouring worlds to fuel his immortality. Zakuul idolises its Emperor, and even rebels against the tyrant Arcann still revere his father. Valkorion sure as hell isn’t democratically elected, but he rules with the consent of the governed, whereas the Sith simply seize power and Force choke anyone who objects.
However, Zakuul isn’t the idealistic paradise that the Star Trek Federation is once you start looking closely. There’s a criminal underbelly where people have dropped out of the perfect society of course, but there’s also a decadent demi-monde where the underbelly is happy to provide services for the wealthy society. Seems that, given freedom from the necessity to work for a living, not everyone will devote their lives to art, science and philosophy after all, and at least some Zakuul citizens waste their lives away in pampered ennui and seek thrills to alleviate the boredom.
And then, of course, there’s the Emperor. Sure, Valkorion seems to be a benevolent father figure, but this is still the same being who obliterated Nathema and Ziost to fuel his own power. We haven’t seen his end game yet, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t set Zakuul up as a paradise for the benefit of its citizens, and he’s not aiding the player character solely to restore peace and justice to the galaxy. We’ve got a way to go with this story yet, but at least for now Bioware have given us a more nuanced view of an authoritarian state in our new enemy, with more subtle evils. For what is, when all is said and done, a Star Wars story, that’s not bad at all.