How HK-47 got a life of its own.
HK-47, the robot, the myth, the legend. Image: BioWare
When you Google the term "meatbag"—Motherboard's theme this week—most of the top results are going to feature a mean-looking red robot named HK-47, whose defining characteristic is his open contempt for our fleshy human forms.
"Explanation: It's just that...you have all these squishy parts, master. And all that water! How the constant sloshing doesn't drive you mad, I have no idea," HK-47 tells your character in developer BioWare's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
The role-playing game was first released in 2003, but HK-47 has gone on to cameo in multiple games and books that followed, stretching his legacy across four millennia of Star Wars history.
"Strictly speaking, one meatbag is the same as another." —HK-47
David Gaider, the writer at BioWare largely responsible for HK-47, told me he was an afterthought compared to the work that went into other characters. Originally, he wasn't even going to have any dialogue.
"I finished up my work on the other characters a little bit early and I had an extra week so [Knights of the Old Republic lead designer] James Ohlen suggested that I go and write something for HK-47," Gaider said. "At the time I was like, ugh, I wasn't thrilled with the idea because I didn't know what I would do with him and I only had a week to put it together."
Some of HK-47's best lines in Knights of the Old Republic. Credit: BioWare/Shem L
A character in a BioWare role-playing game has many more lines than a character in a feature-length movie, not only because the game is longer, but because players can choose branching paths, each of which needs different dialogue. Gaider said that HK-47 had the least amount of lines in the game, but that's compared to an average of 3,000-4,000 lines per character.
"It was still a lot to do but I wrote pretty fast in those days," Gaider said.
The other mean robot that's going to turn up when you Google "meatbag" is Bender from Futurama, and he said it first. It's actually his second line in the pilot episode of the show, which debuted in 1999, four years before the release of Knights of the Old Republic. However, Gaider said he wasn't a big Futurama fan. As he remembers it, even if Bender was an initial touchstone, he wanted to do something different.
"Commentary: Organic meatbags have such delicate staminas. Perhaps you should consider cybernetic implants, master." —HK-47
"Once you put yourself in a robot's headspace, humans are really gross," Gaider said. "Their petty little needs, their processes and fluids...what if you could hear all that? The blood and things sloshing around inside the body. From the robot's perspective it would just be really gross."
Another way to understand HK-47 is as the polar opposite of C-3PO from the original Star Wars movie trilogy. Whereas the polite, golden protocol droid is eager to serve his masters, HK-47 is openly hostile, and happy to help his masters to their doom.
He's kind of like a sci-fi genie, a powerful being that can fulfill your wishes, but you have to be careful what you wish for. Gangsters, politicians, corporate executives—HK-47 has served them all as an assassin, but somehow, by serving them and getting them what they want, the masters always die in the process.
"There's a Canadian TV show called the The Littlest Hobo," Gaider said. "It was about a German shepherd and every episode he would go from owner to owner, and help them help themselves. I thought it would be interesting to have HK-47 go from owner to owner and help his masters into their own self destruction."
The Littlest Hobo intro.
Gaider was done with HK-47 when he finished his work on Knights of the Old Republic, but the robot lived on. He appeared in a Knights of the Old Republic 2 (developed by Obsidian), and the massively multiplayer online game based on those game called The Old Republic.
BioWare intentionally set the Knights of the Old Republic thousands of years before the events of the movies so it could have more leeway in terms of what kind of story it could tell. The closer you work to the source material, the more you'll have to run things by Lucasfilms' continuity cops, who keep the multi-billion dollar mythology in order.
Star War: Galaxies, a now-defunct massively multiplayer online game set around the time of Obi-Wan and company, was popular when Knights of the Old Republic was released. Since HK-47 struck such a chord, Galaxies' designers wrote a story that would allow HK-47 to appear thousands of years in the future, making him one of the oldest characters in the Star Wars universe.
Gaider, by the way, knows very little about all of this. I asked him if he ever read though HK-47's Wookieepedia page to keep track of all the places HK-47 has appeared since he gave him his personality, and was embarrassed to learn that Gaider of course wasn't nearly as big of a Star Wars nerd as I am, and has never even heard of the Star Wars wiki Wookieepedia.
"Explanation: It's just that...you have all these squishy parts, master. And all that water! How the constant sloshing doesn't drive you mad, I have no idea…" —HK-47
Gaider won the 2004 Game Developers Choice Awards "Original Game Character of the Year" award for his work on HK-47, but has gone on to earn much greater honors. Most recently, he was lead writer on Dragon Age: Inquisition, which won multiple "game of the year" awards, including the prestigious DICE 2014 award from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, and a special recognition award from GLAAD for its "groundbreaking" representation of LGBT characters.
And yet, for now, the evil robot Gaider wrote in a short week might still be his single most popular character.
"I found it a little ironic that he's the shortest character I've done," Gaider said. "He had one note that he hit, and he hit it really well, but he wasn't that complicated and he went on to be this really popular character so I was a little chagrined at first, but people really like him, so I guess that's pretty cool...Every time someone would mention him appearing in some other game third-hand. I'd think wow, he's still kicking around?!"
Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form. Follow along here.