Where Should LucasArts Take Star Wars Video Games?

Let's get weird

Through all the bellyaching, Cinema Sins-ing, fan debates, and literal picket lines, there’s one thing on which even the most diehard zealots of the many and varied camps of Star Wars fans can agree: The Mos Eisley cantina scene rules. The weird, bubbly music, the aliens cobbled together from cannibalized Halloween costumes and random junk, the sheer loud and messy craziness of it all treated like it’s just another rough Friday night at some shitty dive bar; that’s Star Wars in a nutshell. It took the futuristic shininess of Flash Gordon and other 50s and 60s pulp sci-fi and rubbed some grime into it, enough to make it feel like a place where real people lived and yearned and fought.

So why are so many Star Wars video games not just devoid of that oddball sense of adventure but actively shying away from it? In the upcoming Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order you take on the role of Cal Kestis, a young Jedi so bland he looks and sounds more like a placeholder sketch than a genuine person, as he struggles to make his way in the wake of Order 66 and the massacre of the Jedi Order. The gameplay preview is all black-masked Imperial inquisitors, Kestis blabbing about survival, and shouting stormtroopers. The aliens on offer are taken straight from the movies, the action slowed to a decorous crawl, the environments lifelessly cut and pasted from Imperial bases and dingy alleyways across the Star Wars films.

Where could Star Wars games go if they weren’t tethered to this numbly impersonal aesthetic? What’s out there that might be more of a storytelling risk, that might ruffle feathers and disappoint expectations? What is there beyond reskinning Battlefield with Stormtroopers and Rebels or giving us yet another photorealistic white guy chopping up his enemies for twenty-two hours? What is there beyond grind-heavy MMOs with lackluster voice acting, paint by numbers mechanics, and limp stories? If idle speculation won’t get us a more interesting game, at least it’ll give our imaginations some exercise.

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Stranger in a Strange Lando

Lando’s a great character to dig into because he’s long on charisma and short on backstory, a perfect combination for a dashing rogue to headline a story-driven RPG. Imagine him crossing a Hutt crime lord on the cramped and dirty Smuggler’s Moon of Nar Shaddaa, maybe by cheating her at space cards, and touching off a wild run and gun struggle to get his ship back from the gangster and her goons. Along the way he’d meet up with a colorful crew of rejects and ne’er-do-wells and try to turn the whole mess to his advantage, maybe in a kind of Yojimbo play-both-sides scenario. He could wine and dine an elderly alien widower to finance his escape, impersonate an Imperial officer to bring a garrison down on his gangster enemies, get up to all kinds of daring scams and fake-outs with some gunplay and atmospheric dogfighting in the urban trenches of the planet thrown in to keep things spicy.

A smug wookiee cat burglar, the rebellious droid L3-37 from 2018’s Solo, a terse, ill-tempered gunman concealing behind a scarred face the secret that he’s a deserter from the one-time Clone Army, and maybe a withered old fortune teller who may or may not be a Sith outcast — it’s not hard to put together a team with plenty of Star Wars lore both fringe and central to dig into. With Lando himself there’s so much to explore. Why is he so self-consciously debonair? What drove him to spend his life pursuing status and money? Is he the shiftless son of aristocrats? A nameless orphan who made good? Is he happy? Sad? He has the smooth, emotionally inaccessible glibness of a really great noir protagonist, someone who can reflect the world back at itself in whatever light he needs to; someone whose real personality is locked away behind a rotating series of public faces. There’s gotta be at least one game in all of that.  

Be Very, Very Quiet; I’m Hunting Jedi

Even if Fallen Order looks like the most boring possible way to approach the material, the period after Order 66 is ripe for all kinds of violent and exciting storytelling. A first-person action/stealth hybrid with the player in the role of a Force-sensitive assassin tasked with hunting Jedi by the Imperial Inquisition feels much more immediate and visceral, and with creative art direction and more restrained mechanics it could circumvent the over-the-top histrionics and whitebread cast of The Force Unleashed to deal directly with life at the street level. Imagine the Coruscant underworld sequence from the opening of Attack of the Clones, all neon and monolithic art-deco cityscapes, and what it might feel like to navigate that on foot as an agile killer capable of slithering up drain pipes and crawling through vents.

The vast chasms and soaring spires of Coruscant would make a thrilling and varied environment in which to operate. Carrying out a hit by plummeting three hundred stories onto some poor shmuck’s back and putting a lightsaber through his ear is an experience that sells itself, and the plot hook of service to a newborn Empire built on lies and carnage is ripe for all kinds of storytelling twists and turns. Most importantly it would give players a view of the Star Wars universe they haven’t seen before, combining the high adventure of the films with the slower, more fleshed-out storytelling and environment-building video games enable.

Super Troopers

Their marksmanship may leave a lot to be desired, but in their white plastoid armor, helmets skull-like, voices filtered into mechanical flatness, the stormtroopers are one of the most indelibly iconic sights in all of Star Wars. Here and there a dedicated fan can find some fiction centered around the stormtrooper corps — short stories, animated television episodes, comic books — but the boys in white have never had their own long-form piece of media. A turn-based grid tactics joint would be the perfect fit, the different kinds of trooper occupying the place of traditional RPG classes, dense mechanics centered around training and equipment. The aesthetic of the corps begs for complexity and meticulous design.

Getting granular with the gameplay and bringing the stormtroopers into close and constant focus also affords a chance to reinterpret their classic design with any number of stylized revisions. Something simple and elegant like Transistor or Kentucky Route Zero, something baroque and grimy like Darkest Dungeon — Star Wars games too seldom stray from realism, and by daring to do so they could help prepare players for stories less staid, more ambitious. Imagine playing as an elite squadron of troopers tasked with crushing the Rebellion on a fringe world only to discover that the system’s governor is staging insurgent attacks himself in an effort to boost his budgetary assistance from Coruscant. The troopers would explore their backstories through political twists and turns as they attempted to restore order to the sector while balancing the demands of the various political and military factions around them, a series of slow-burn storylines leading to a washed-out and bittersweet resolution.

A Galaxy Too Close to Home

More than any single premise, what a Star Wars game needs is a sense of adventure and longing based in the certainty that it’s a tiny corner of a much larger and stranger universe. Games like Fallen Order hew too close to everyday life, to the bland visual palettes of other sci-fi mainstays like Mass Effect and Destiny, to the rote archetypal storytelling that works so well in propulsive, exciting 90-minute movies and so poorly in games that take twenty or more hours to finish. Where’s the artistic ingenuity that gave audiences the cantina scene in the first place? Where’s the spirit of adventure that led to a trio of cantaloupe-headed musicians toodling away while an old man hacked the arm off an anthropomorphic fly with a sword made of light?

The last thing the long and checkered history of Star Wars games needs is another white guy saving the day, especially not when to all appearances Fallen Order’s leading man lacks even the earnestness or humor of your Luke Skywalkers or your Reys. Give us wild costumes, hideous creatures, magnificent sights and humbling spectacles. Give us things we’ve never seen and places we’ve never even thought to imagine. Give us, in short, Star Wars, and not some dour remix of every generic AAA blockbuster slog produced since 2007.