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HK-47: a look back by his least-despised Meatbag

HK 47, as envisaged by Andy Warhol.

The arrival of HK-47 has been hinted at since PAX 2010, when a SWTOR teaser video had a HK-series droid saying “Interjection: Silence Meatbags” and he's since appeared in the Foundry Flashpoint. The new 1.3 patch notes have also confirmed that a new companion for all classes is arriving, an HK-51 droid, based on 47’s model. With the forthcoming return of the HK-series droids to Star Wars: The Old Republic, we thought it was time for a look back to the origin of the product line. (More spoilers than a modded car show, watch out.)

Knights of the Old Republic was about redemption. KOTOR II, broken as it was, followed that track even more closely. From Revan to Kreia, every character was either on the road to redemption or could be taken down that way by a sympathetic player. Apart from the droids. The droids, soulless and force-blind as they were, could only follow their programming. Here, presumably by design rather than accident, Bioware had set up the perfect test bed for questions about free will and consciousness. And HK-47, loather of ‘meatbags’, is at the heart of it. 

HK-47 first appears, with a fitted restraining bolt, in Knights of the Old Republic. He’s ostensibly a protocol droid that mind-wiped Revan buys in Tatooine, but it’s slowly revealed that he is, in fact, Revan’s personal assassin, hand-built in an apparent parody of Darth Vader’s creation of C-3P0. Revan, when he had fallen to the Dark Side, built HK-47 as a more fine-tuned tool than his Star Forge-powered army, to remove individuals (specifically Jedi) blocking his attempt to conquer the Republic. 47 would later reappear in KOTOR II, as a more grudging aide to the player, motivated solely by the desire to a) kill and b) find out who was making inferior HK-50 copies of him.  He also appeared in the Star Wars: Galaxies expansion ‘The Trials of Obi-Wan’, 4000 years later.

"Shall we find something to kill to cheer ourselves up?"

More so than his master Revan, HK-47 emerged as the icon of the KOTOR series, as Minsc was to Baldur’s Gate and Lydia was to Skyrim. Revan and ‘Surik’ (the canon name for KOTOR II’s hero) were the classic anonymous protagonists, plastic enough that the player could shape their morality. Similarly their party members could be moulded too; dragged to light or dark depending on the player’s actions. But the droids couldn’t change their morality - G0-T0 was misguided but evil, T3-M4 was silent and good - and especially not HK 47. 

HK-47 is outrageously evil. In fact, he’s the most evil character in your KOTOR team, by LucasArt’s own Dark Side - Light Side scale. Of course, he’s been programmed to be a murderous killing machine, but in Lucas’s strange universe once a droid is sufficiently complicated - like G0-T0 or HK-47 - they’re basically treated as conscious beings. That’s a very modern view of consciousness. Pentti Haikonen in The Cognitive Approach to Conscious Machines posits that, given “a special cognitive architecture to reproduce the processes of perception, inner imagery, inner speech, pain, pleasure, emotions and the cognitive functions behind these” and sufficient complexity, artificial consciousness will spontaneously emerge. 

"Statement: You are a very harsh master, master. I like you."

47’s make-up fits those criteria; he’s written as definitely conscious. He’s aware of his own programming and doesn’t want to change it, as he says himself; "Observation: I am a droid, master, with programming. Even if I did not enjoy killing, I would have no choice. Thankfully, I enjoy it very much." That enjoyment means that even altering his programming doesn’t work; killing and torturing ‘meatbags’ is a basic part of 47, it’s the premise that his philosophy of existence is based on.

This is emphasised repeatedly in the game. Meeting the Mark VII Sith Assassin droid on Korriban which, like 47, has acquired consciousness but unlike him has become pacifistic, shows that it’s plausible to overcome programming, necessary for his redemption; “It is a result of my own conscious decision, and I would not change my new values if I could”  it says, disgusting 47. Secondly, installing a pacifism module into 47 (an Easter Egg reward for completing a certain mission) almost completely eliminates his personality. It disturbs him, T3-M4 and Revan so much, no matter Revan’s alignment, that they agree never to reinstall it. 

Indeed, 47 thinks himself superior to humans - and presumably this wasn’t part of Revan’s programming either. He famously refers to organic lifeforms sardonically as meatbags, with only Revan acquiring his respect through his earlier monstrous actions. He repeatedly refers to his many previous masters - all of whom died as a result of his actions. And he happily implies that he could kill anyone; indeed, he’ll detail at length impressively well-thought ways of killing Jedi, if you let him. With this proven arrogance, there's a Nietzschean bent to the pureness of his Dark Side philosophy - elements of survival of the fittest mingled with sadism.

"That was a close one. I almost surrendered completely to peace and pacifism. How repugnant."

So the only real difference between the droids and the humans  in Bioware’s world, given their consciousness, is that the droids are not capable of being redeemed by the player. In fact, given that they can redeem themselves - as the Mark VII does and 47 refuses to do - they’re more capable free agents than the organics, which can be dragged one way or another by charismatic leaders. Perhaps, this is a statement by Bioware about the deterministic nature of the force, compared to the freedom (or randomness) implied by programmed conflicts? Or perhaps I’m just reading too much into my favourite video game character.

Though 47’s creator Drew Karpyshyn has left his post of Head Writer at Bioware, I have high hopes that the team can resurrect the irredeemable black comedy of HK-47 for SWTOR. As made clear in the intro, it’s not known yet whether we’ll just have an HK-51 companion, or a resurrection of 47 again in SWTOR. Given that we know 47 canonically survives into the time of Luke Skywalker and given that his fate is inherently bound up with that of Revan himself, 47’s presence means that SWTOR could tie up the loose ends of the first KOTOR, beyond Revan's disappearance in the Foundry Flashpoint. This meatbag will be there to see it.  

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