The best Star Wars games all have something in common: they stand apart from the movies.
Knights of the Old Republic. X-Wing and TIE Fighter. Jedi Knight. Even Republic Commando. These are the zenith of Star Wars in video games, and they all come from the same place – they’re games set in the Star Wars universe, but not too close to the central characters, planets and events of the films.
There’s something of the tale of Icarus about Star Wars in video games. The potential of games in the universe is enormous, but the closer one soars to the brightest stars of that universe the higher the chance of burning up and feeling like a lame also-ran. I’m looking at you, The Force Unleashed.
Even when games do retell the film stories the most successful tend to be those that abstract events – stuff like Lego Star Wars, the definitely non-canon multiplayer skirmishes of Battlefront, or the vehicle-focused Rogue Squadron and Star Wars Trilogy Arcade games. It’s no coincidence that Rogue Squadron significantly worsened when they added on-foot segments where you played as famous heroes. Too close to the sun yet again.
While like any Star Wars fan with a heart I still pine for Knights of the Old Republic 3 for this very reason, this is also what makes Jedi: Fallen Order the most exciting Star Wars projects in years.
As a concept it manages to tick all of the boxes. Its premise uses one of the most iconic scenes in the movie saga as a springboard, giving more casual fans vital context. But beyond that, so far it appears to be a disconnected, unique story that just so happens to be set in one of the most interesting periods of the Star Wars canon.
Star Wars is a bright, expansive universe – or at least it has the potential to be. To put it plainly, it’d be incredibly easy for Jedi: Fallen Order to veer off into fan-wank territory. What starts as a gritty tale of survival could end up with some naff quest to Tattooine to track down to Obi Wan, or to Dagobah for Yoda. At this period in the canon, Darth Maul is potentially out there somewhere, scuttling about after being retconned out of death and given robotic spider legs by a cartoon. And of course there’s Darth Vader himself, skulking across the universe at this period in time hunting down hiding Jedi like Cal, the lead character of Fallen Order.
It’d be really tempting for Fallen Order to go down any one of these paths, especially the latter. In theory being on the run from Vader, all-powerful and invincible as he stalks you like Mr. X in Resident Evil 2 could be thrilling. But the truth is a great Star Wars game doesn’t need that iconography. It doesn’t need to get up close and personal with these sorts of characters: and as titans of the universe, it makes a lot of sense that a lowly street rat, a Jedi in a fight to survive, wouldn’t ever meet such characters anyway. Some new, mysterious Sith Inquisitor hunting Jedi on Vader’s orders can be just as effective narratively, and you won’t have to listen to some not-quite-there James Earl Jones impersonator as a result.
One has to hope that Respawn can resist the temptation to head down such a path, and also resist the no doubt focus-group led calls from publisher EA. EA executives allegedly asked workers on Visceral Games’ now-cancelled Star Wars adventure game where Chewbacca was after seeing a demo, and ex-Visceral staff described this sort of focus as one of the things that ultimately killed their game. This is the sort of thinking that in my opinion suffocates a concept like that of Fallen Order.
“It’d be incredibly easy for Jedi: Fallen Order to veer off into fan-wank territory”
This delicate balance between a recognisable and familiar setting and all-original content is what titles like X-Wing, TIE Fighter and Jedi Knight got right. When those games did cross over into battles and scenes from the movies or introduced famous names, it felt like an event. It felt, appropriately, like you’re in the presence of a legend. Given its setting, this is exactly the sort of approach I hope to see in Fallen Order – a restraint towards exploiting the most iconic images of the source material which in turn gives original concepts room to blossom. This doesn’t just go for the film characters, either – I feel the same approach should be afforded to the cast of Rebels and other major Star Wars media set in the same era.
I’m hopeful the game is going to get all of this right, too. Last week Chris Avellone, one of Fallen Order’s six narrative designers, told VG247 how important story is to the game. Avellone knows how to make this sort of thing work, too: he was lead writer on Knights of the Old Republic 2, one of the Star Wars games most disconnected from the wider lore that also manages to be one of the most thematically interesting Star Wars stories in general – even in a semi-finished state. Avellone is exactly the sort of person who can inject originality while still feeling true to the rest of Star Wars.
The universe Lucas created is an open-ended science-fantasy fairytale, and too often those creating new works in it are too beholden to the established lore and iconography. Hopefully Jedi: Fallen Order can be the sort of Star Wars game that creates its own lore and becomes a beloved series staple in its own right. We haven’t seen that since Knights of the Old Republic, and it’s about time it happened again.