New lightsaber in hand, Cal leaves behind the frozen world of Ilum, the dumb Jedi obstacle course, and the collectible items that nobody wants to collect because this place sucks. We’re on our way back to Dathomir.
This is our fourth attempt at getting into this silly temple:
1) The gap is too big, give up and leave.
2) A trap drops you to the bottom of the world and you fight a dragon-bat to get out.
3) The vision that makes Cal break his lightsaber.
Just like the last time we were here, we need to meditate to progress. The door is otherwise impassible.
When Cal meditates, he again has to face his former master Jaro Tapal. This is the moment where Cal has to get over his survivor’s guilt by realizing that he doesn’t bear the blame for Tapal’s death.
It’s normally hard to depict internal struggles like this, but in Star Wars we can use the Force as a storytelling mechanism to make the internal struggle an external one. Instead of having our main character talk about his feelings with someone else, we can create this apparition of Jaro Tapal to serve as a literal embodiment of Cal’s guilt. Cal can talk directly to his inner demons, confront them, and overcome them. In this exchange Cal calmly rejects Tapal’s accusations and refuses to fight. The Tapal apparition attempts to attack Cal, but it doesn’t really have any power to hurt him. It never did. All it could do is guilt Cal into hurting himself. This was literal in their previous exchange when Cal broke his lightsaber, and figurative in the sense that this guilt has weighed on Cal for the last 5 years and prevented him from reaching his true potential.
This is fantastic. It’s a solid idea, expressed in a compelling way, that’s consonant with Star Wars loreIt’s even consonant with Traditional Star Wars!, that works in the context of a video game, and is beautifully written and performed. It gives us both spectacleLightsaber confrontations are always exciting, even if the participants aren’t actively swinging their swords around. and emotional at the same time, which is something that – at least for me – Star Wars hasn’t accomplished since 1983.
My only gripe is that it took us way too long to get here. Cal felt like a stock Normal Guy protagonist for almost half the game. And even once his problems surfaced, it took awhile for the conflict to become interesting. The first few chapters of the game focused on the Cere / Trilla conflict, and that wasn’t nearly as powerful for me because of all of my nitpicks with the author’s interpretation of the Dark Side. (And also because that conflict doesn’t really involve our protagonist.)
Once Cal has made peace with his ghosts, he finally enters the temple.
Merrin teleports in and Cal introduces himself properly this time. He’s being a little less arrogant and entitled now. That’s good. It shows character growth. He’s made peace with his past, and now he’s stopped thinking with his lightsaber.
He even hands his weapon over as a sign of goodwill. They talk about their individual damage and trauma from the last 5 years. Once they’ve bonded a little, she returns the weapon. Cal is actually acting like a Traditional Star Wars Jedi instead of a nu Star Wars Jedi in this scene. I really dig it. I just wish the story had made it clear that his earlier behavior wasn’t okay.
This story has been ignoring Cal’s outrageous body count for the purposes of gameplay, and I assumed we were supposed to ignore his confrontational posture with the Dathomir locals for the same reason. This is a problem that isn’t really an issue for moviemakers, but is a constant challenge for game designers.
The Line Between Story and Gameplay
There are some things – like cutscenes – that are explicitly part of the story, and some elements to the experience that are obviously NOT supposed to be taken literally. Things like save points, the inventory grid, or the hero magically healing gunshot wounds by crouching behind chest-high walls are all gameplay abstractions that we don’t include as part of the “story”. If Nathan Drake pushes through the mercenaries in the jungle and reunites with his friends, and if one of those friends asks him if he’s hurt, he’s not going to reply, “I was shot fifty-three times, but it wore off and I’m fine now.” To go on this adventure, we need to compartmentalize a bit or the whole thing flies apart.
I’m not really complaining that the game suffers from the dreaded Ludonarrative Dissonance. It’s not that gameplay and story are in direct conflict, it’s just that in a complex and story-heavy game it’s not always clear which bits we’re supposed to believe and which bits we’re supposed to ignore for the purposes of gameplay.
I had figured Cal was acting like a jerk on his first visit to Dathomir because the game designer wanted us to have dudes to fight here, so they contrived this conflict. I wasn’t trusting the storyteller. I figured Cal’s behavior was pretty normal for a Nu Star Wars Jedi, so I didn’t think this was setting up a character arc.
I think you could have fixed this if the story had openly acknowledged his error. When he got back to the ship, perhaps Cere could have attempted to correct him, and he could have rebuffed her. Then we’d understand his behavior was demonstrating a clear need for character growth and not just an excuse to dump mooks in our path.
Once Cal and Merrin have become friends, Cal finally gets around to explaining that he’s here to save childrenAgain, it’s been at least five years so a lot of those children are tweens or teens now. from the Empire. He could have avoided doing a lot of murders if he said so sooner, but whatever.
Once the chat is over, Cal heads inside. I thought we were here to get an Astrum, but apparently we’ve decided to confront Malicos.
Malicos sees Cal, and assumes the kid is here for training. Malicos has the idea to replace the Jedi Order with something new. It’s not completely clear what this new order would look like, but like all would-be dictators Malicos probably assumes he can figure out these “small details” once he has absolute power over everyone around him. He dreams of building a Grand New Thing, but it’s a safe guess that his new order would turn into a death cult of backstabbing and infighting. My read on it is that he’s trying to create a Sith-style theocracy without the Sith-style order. If the Empire represents space fascism, then Malicos is going for “basic despotism, but with lightsabers instead of guns.” Maybe I’m reading it wrong (Malicos seems a little vague on the details himself) but I think it’s safe to say that his new order would be a heinous disaster even by Jedi standards.
Anyway, Cal isn’t interested. Maybe Malicos doesn’t want Cal to tell other Jedi about what he’s been doing on Dathomir, or maybe he’s just a dick that can’t take “no” for an answer. Anyway, a lightsaber duel ensues.
Let’s Talk About Saber Duels Again
You probably remember that back in part 11 I suggested making these fights less visually ridiculous by having combatants stumble or falter when their opponent has a successful attack rather than showing them surviving dozens of full-body lightsaber slashes. That’s a nice first step, but we could do a lot more if we wanted to be ambitious.
One of my gripes with SWJFO is the lock-on system. In a group fight, I just don’t see the point of using lock-on. When you lock on to a foe, you’re telling the game to make your character always face one particular enemy. That’s not super-helpful when you’ve got three people in front of you. I’d much rather do the Batman thing and push the stick in the direction I want to block / attack, since manually switching targets is slow and fiddlyTo change targets you need to flick the analog stick to the side and then allow it to return to center. It’s slow, it feels terrible, and I found it sort of dodgy and unreliable in a hectic fight..
The one place where lock-in is useful is a one-on-one duel. So it’s really obnoxious that the lock-on system is effectively broken during boss fights.
When you lock-on to an enemy, the game highlights them with a tiny dot to show which foe you’re currently focused on. The thing is, if the two of you get too far away then the lock is silently cleared. The bosses in this game have a lot of big moves where they leap backwards and then launch themselves at you. This breaks lock-on. So what happens is they leap back, launch at me, I parry, they land a little to the right of me, and then I swing at the empty air in front of me because I was expecting the game to keep me facing the right way. So then I fuss with the camera to get them in the middle of the screen so I can lock on again. I take another swing now that I’m facing the right way, but the moment of opportunity is gone and I need to wait until my foe overextends themselves again. You end up fighting the controls instead of the boss.
This is silly. This is a boss fight. You have one adversary. You can’t run away. There’s nothing in the environment that requires our attention and no secondary foes to worry about. There is literally no reason for me to ever want to look anywhere else. Even ignoring the needs of the player, there’s no reason to have the villain fly off-screen. Basic cinematic rules dictate that we should keep the camera in a spot that’s useful for the audience.
Now, we could fix this by just keeping the camera lock during boss fights regardless of distance. That’s certainly what the developers ought to have done. But let me propose something a little more ambitious as a solution. Take a look at this image:
In the movies, a lot of lightsaber fights end up looking like that. It’s a cool camera angle that shows both of our combatants. It’s dramatic to have the frame split between these two opposing forces and it lets the audience get the best view of all that awesome choreography that everyone put so much work into.
This view gives the set designer the freedom to create a good backdrop for our fight. They can have the combatants backlit to create a duel of silhouettes. They can leave the background dark / muted and shine a light on the characters to keep our attention focused on the people rather than the scenery. They can leave everything dark so each character is illuminated by their own lightsaber, thus underscoring their allegiance / personality.
But in video games we’re stuck with this over-the-shoulder view where the most valuable screen real estate is spent on our protagonist’s back. The protagonist blocks our view of the adversary, and the camera swings around to create a lot of motion blur and confusion without giving us any deliberate dramatic framing.
I don’t see why we can’t have the more cinematic framing in a video game. In fact, Virtua Fighter did this exact thing way back in 1993, and it worked really well. Assuming you’re on the left side of the screen, you press right to close distance and left to back away. Pressing up will have you walk away from the camera and down has you walk towards it. The camera can respond to keep the fight in profile, thus rotating around the fight as needed. As a bonus, that rotation looks like a slick and stylish cinematic choice rather than the brute-force mechanical movement we get from an over-the-shoulder view.
There’s nothing about this setup that would be incompatible with the established mechanics. Block, parry, dodge, leap, and attack would all work exactly as before. The movement controls are all screen-relative, which is effortless for the player to adjust to. The player wouldn’t need to worry about babysitting the camera during the fight. We could even do some subtle things with the camera to heighten the tension during the fight. When things are tense we can have the camera dolly in so our combatants fill the frame. When we want a break in the fight, the bad guy can retreat and the camera can transition to a more wide-angle view. This would put the characters against our awesome background while the two sides trade verbal jabs. If we’re going to shove movies into our video games, then we might as well make full use of the language of cinema.
 It’s even consonant with Traditional Star Wars!
 Lightsaber confrontations are always exciting, even if the participants aren’t actively swinging their swords around.
 Again, it’s been at least five years so a lot of those children are tweens or teens now.
 To change targets you need to flick the analog stick to the side and then allow it to return to center. It’s slow, it feels terrible, and I found it sort of dodgy and unreliable in a hectic fight.
The Best of 2013
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2013.
The Biggest Game Ever
How did this niche racing game make a gameworld so massive, and why is that a big deal?
Punishing The Internet for Sharing
Why make millions on your video game when you could be making HUNDREDS on frivolous copyright claims?
What is Vulkan?
There's a new graphics API in town. What does that mean, and why do we need it?
Crash Dot Com
Back in 1999, I rode the dot-com bubble. Got rich. Worked hard. Went crazy. Turned poor. It was fun.