I’ve talked about games plenty of times on this blog, but I don’t think I’ve ever done a game review. You may have seen the ads for Jedi: Survivor lately, as it’s getting a big push and is highly anticipated by fans, so I thought it makes for a good opportunity to talk about the storytelling power of video games using the original, Jedi: Fallen Order.

Please keep in mind that there will be spoilers in this post. I’ll put up a giant spoiler graphic when we get there so you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Video Games as Storytelling

Video games occupy several different entertainment niches in our society today, but I want to talk about one in particular: video games as interactive movies. Much like how we often saw Star Trek characters on the holodeck playing parts in a fictional story — either a set story like a Shakespeare play or a choose-your-own-adventure tale — video games are increasingly providing a storytelling experience where, even if there’s really only one scripted outcome, it still takes effort to get there. As a kid, I never understood the appeal of going into the holodeck on the Enterprise to act out a solo performance of Shakespeare for the sake of Shakespeare, but in the last few years video games have been making me take another look. Yeah, it’s a linear story, but it becomes your story as you play. Your actions make it happen. There’s a certain primal joy in that which goes beyond the thrill of completing challenges or defeating enemies.

I was going to scan my own copy of this, but it's packed away in storage. I found this one via Reddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/StarWars/comments/68gfsj/grand_admiral_zahn/)

Not all video game stories are created equal, of course; some are more interactive, others provide more choices. The Mass Effect trilogy had some wide-ranging effects from choices you made while playing, but many got negated as you played and reportedly the future sequel takes only one of the endings and makes it canon. That “only one ending is canon” thing isn’t new, though; the Warcraft franchise did it with its first two games, with the Warcraft I Horde campaign being canon and leading into Warcraft II, and then the expansion Beyond the Dark Portal and the later Warcraft III similarly set the second game’s Alliance campaign as canon.

When it comes to multimedia franchises like Star Wars, video games tend to be even less canon than novels, and we all know how well the beloved Star Wars novels were (all hail Grand Admiral Zahn). All multimedia franchises rank things that way, to be fair; longtime readers on this blog know how often I pointed out that the TV show Agents of SHIELD had absolutely nothing to do with the MCU film franchise, for example, but the reason I found that so egregious wasn’t that it was being done, just that the fans had been promised something else. Plenty of low-ranked media will wind up with popular elements getting canonized, or at least referenced, by high-ranked media entries. These are usually on the order of homages, though occasionally it can be more; the characters of Harley Quinn (DC comics) and X-23 (Marvel) both started off as one-episode throw-away characters in non-canon cartoon series, and then became much more

What Does a Star Wars Story Feel Like?

So the question of canon is one of degree, and for Star Wars the video games are way down the list of importance; perhaps the fifth tier of canon, after novels, shows, non-trilogy movies, and trilogy films, and ranking above only comic book tie-ins. I mention all this because I’m less concerned about whether or not the game is canon, and more on how much it feels like a Star Wars experience. We all know that “feels like Star Wars” is increasingly a high bar to pass.

Even the two breakout entries in Star Wars productions, Rogue One (second tier) and the first two seasons of The Mandalorian (third tier) were praised for being Star Wars but with a different focus. The first was Star Wars as a military spec-ops drama rather than a space opera; ironic, since the franchise is not named Star Peace, but I’d never thought about how little the films felt like war stories until that movie. Meanwhile, The Mandalorian was Star Wars as a Western, nailing the mix so perfectly that there were jokes about it being a better space western than Firefly . . . ’cause it had two seasons!

Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s been twenty years. There’s no resentment like geek resentment. Besides, I could argue that The Mandalorian did so well because of what the creators learned from Firefly — both when it came to storytelling and when it came to interference from executive oversight.

But looking at these two genre-benders helps to figure out what Star Wars feels like, because while there were big military moments in all three of the original movies, they were effectively backdrops to the real drama of individuals taking on overwhelming odds because it was the right thing to do.

Star Wars started out as a love letter to samurai films, through a sci-fi lens. Even the name Jedi comes from the Japanese term for a period drama, jidaigeki. Talking about samurai films and their cross-pollination with Westerns could be a blog post of its own, and I’m wordy enough as it is, so suffice to say that Star Wars is and has always been about the lone hero, a symbol of and heir to tradition and duty, facing down barbarians who threaten to take away what is good and beautiful. The samurai film as a genre, even if it’s set in a different historical period, is rooted in the nostalgia of the early Japanese film industry, when there was still living memory of life before the Meiji Restoration, before the abolition of the samurai class, and the consequences of the fascist takeover of Japan. It’s why Westerns — rooted as they were in that in-between era of the American Southwest after two wars (three if the story is set in Texas) and before the technological change of the late 19th century fundamentally altered an entire region — were able to lift samurai stories almost wholesale and set them in the Old West with barely any change to the script.

Sometime I’d love to do a multi-part blog post series on the original Star Wars trilogy, its setups about the Republic and the Clone Wars, and how the prequels could have been better structured. For now, it suffices to note that the core of Star Wars is rooted in the image of a lone hero facing overwhelming odds for the sake of doing what’s right — whether that hero is armed with a katana, a six-shooter, or a lightsaber.

And as you might guess, that’s the feel you get from the video game Jedi: Fallen Order. It’s a story about the last surviving Jedi setting out to secure hope for the future, armed only with his wits and a laser sword. And no, he’s not named Skywalker or Kenobi.

And now, after many spilled electrons, it’s time for that spoiler graphic.

The Actual Review . . . Finally

Ultimately, Jedi: Fallen Order does not boast an amazing plot full of twists, turns, character development, or even particularly jump-out-of-your-seat-and-cheer moments. Even if you don’t already know the basic plot of the original Star Wars trilogy (and how is it like under that rock, my good sir?), the game telegraphs where it’s going multiple times and you can easily guess the ending (though I admit I wasn’t expecting the final action sequence until about ten seconds before a distinctive sound came through my speakers, so that was very satisfying). So it might not seem like an excellent example of the power of storytelling through gaming.

And yet, that’s exactly why I wanted to use Jedi to talk about this, because it did something very impressive. It took a low-budget, filler video game to make me feel like I was playing a Jedi in the Star Wars universe. And it did it without making it about a single character from the films.

Jedi: Fallen Order is the story of Cal Kestis, a former apprentice (padawan, okay, whatever — we already established I’m old and cranky) who had narrowly escaped Order 66 at the cost of his master’s life. He’s been hiding out on the planet Bracca for the last five years, working as a scrapper and keeping his head down. When he’s finally exposed as a Force-user, he has to flee the Inquisitors, Dark Side users who hunt Jedi. He’s picked up by Cere — a former Jedi Master who has lost her powers — and Greez, the pilot of the Stinger Mantis used to go between worlds in the game. They take him to safety on the planet Bogano, which we’re told isn’t on any Imperial maps.

There, Cere hopes to find a holocron hidden by another Jedi Master, her own teacher, which holds the locations of more Force-sensitives throughout the galaxy that had not yet been taken in to the Jedi Order. This holocron becomes the McGuffin of the story, the reason why Cal has to journey around, fight stormtroopers, solve puzzles, and repair his connection to the Force.

On Bogano, Cal finds a little droid, BD-1, which serves as his guide, companion, and assistant through the story. BD-1 is a little information droid that used to belong to Cere’s teacher, but has had most of its memory locked to prevent anyone who doesn’t pass certain tests from accessing what it knows about the holocron. To unlock that memory, Cal and BD-1 have to travel to the planets Zeffo, Kashyyyk, and Dathomir — with a layover on a crime syndicate’s asteroid base — to find clues in a gigantic treasure hunt.

All in all, it’s a fairly basic story, and accurately described as Uncharted: Star Wars Edition. The impressive part is that you feel like it’s actually Star Wars without a lot of crazy visuals, giant cinematic powers, or over-the-top scenes. It’s paced well, has plenty of homages to higher-tier media, and even has an abundance of that quintessential Star Wars feature: walkways with no railings.

The main driver for it is Cal himself, and to a lesser extent his relationship with BD-1 (who fills a similar character niche as R2D2, or as I prefer to think of him thanks to Zahn, “Artoo”). Early on, Cal tells Cere his connection to the Force is damaged, and that every time he meditates, he’s back in “that moment.” Over the course of the story, we see flashbacks of his training aboard a Venator-class destroyer. Each time he relearns an old ability — which then unlocks new game skills to purchase — we get another flashback. Once his final connection is restored, we have a much more extended trip down memory lane as we see exactly what caused the damage in the first place: the day Order 66 was received. We see how the clones were his friends, who enjoyed playing games with him and even participated in his training; then the order was received, and his friends tried to kill him . . . and did kill his master.

Frankly, this is one of the best portrayals of PTSD I’ve seen in fiction, and it’s done so simply even subtly that you might miss it; but this story gives us a look at something we never got in the films: the trauma of the young survivor, old enough to understand what happened, young enough not to have really grasped that it wasn’t his fault that bad things happened.

Beyond that personal journey, the game succeeds at the thing that it set out to do: have fun with lightsaber combat. Cal isn’t a massive powerhouse able to take on an army through brute force; he’s an apprentice who never finished his training, and who has let his skills and connection to the Force atrophy for five years. Even during his training, one can be pretty certain he never had to be in combat in the first place until the day of Order 66. To me, this is great because so much of Star Wars has become centered on the Force-user powerhouses who can move mountains from across the galaxy. The original films were much more subtle about how to use the Force, which made Yoda lifting Luke’s X-Wing visually impressive. Unfortunately, the prequels and sequels tend to portray Jedi as being able to use the Force to overcome anything but the plot. Admittedly, it even happened in the EU novels, which is why Zahn made a big deal out of Luke using the Force less in Spector of the Past and why, rolling back the power creep from so many other novels

Jedi: Fallen Order returned me to an era where a Jedi was impressive enough to strike fear into the hearts of stormtroopers just by showing up, but not so much that attacking a Jedi was just slightly slower than suicide. If you do everything perfectly, you won’t get hit; but if not, a single stormtrooper can kill Cal. It gives a certain challenge and flavor to the story that can easily get lost when Jedi have inconsistent powers according to the writers’ whims. Besides, if Obi-wan had to sneak around the Death Star, an apprentice shouldn’t be able to take on a Death Star’s worth of troops.

Another detail I appreciated was the stormtroopers themselves, and the conversations they’d have with each other before they noticed Cal approaching. Sometimes they’d be giving disguised game tips on fighting the creatures encountered in the game, but often they’d just talk about the world and their lives, such as blaster practice. Turns out they’re very aware of their problems with aim, but frequently blame it on someone else.

When they did spot Cal, they also often said something I hadn’t considered before: traitor. The original trilogy was done before the twist with Order 66 was conceived, so we never got to see much of the fallout of labeling the entire order as traitors. It makes sense that the stormtrooper population, or at least a good portion of them, would believe the propaganda. (This is probably in other tie-in media, but I haven’t kept up with the Star Wars scene as a whole since New Jedi Order, and that was back when the EU was still canon.) The story never shows Cal thinking about that, but I have to imagine that it wouldn’t be an awesome feeling to cut down soldiers who are only attacking him because they believed a lie.

With the sequel releasing this week, I had to spend some time replaying the original, and I found myself taking my time. I realized that what I loved most about the game was the feeling of Star Wars itself. Fallen Order was never intended to be the hit that it was, even if it was still minor; and yet it managed to nail an old-school feel of what it means to be a Jedi without ever feeling like it pandered to nostalgia or retread old ground.

That’s valuable in any kind of multimedia franchise, as getting the feeling of one medium across in another is difficult. Even when the video game is the top-tier media format (as with Mass Effect, Horizon, Final Fantasy, or Halo), that kind of immersion is important or else you’ll never be able to tell a good story in the first place.

I won’t be able to make time for playing the new game immediately, but you can expect a blog post about that sometime in the future — and probably other video games as well. If you have a favorite game you’d like me to cover, go ahead and ask; I can’t promise anything, but if it’s got a strong story chances are I’ll be interested.