A point of order: In my last post I childishly mocked the game for having the absurdly overcomplicated title of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order EA™. While funny, this isn’t actually true. If you look closely at the title you’ll see the game is – and I am not making this up – properly called Star Wars™ Jedi: Fallen Order™ EA™.
I apologize for the confusion.
For the record, I played through this game four-ish times. I mostly played on the “Jedi Knight” difficulty, which is the default. The exception to this was my final but incomplete trip through the game, where I set it on Easy and blasted through quickly to round up a few screenshots and some extra footage. I played on PC using an Xbox controller.
At the start of this series I compared the game to Dark Souls. That’s not really fair or correct, but it’s also not my fault…
Dark Souls is Not a Genre
Dark Souls shouldn’t be a genre, because naming genres after games is always messy and confusing. Sure, both Dark Souls and SWJFO feature deliberately paced melee combat that requires careful use of blocking, dodging, and parry timings. They both have an attrition-based system where you have a limited pool of healing items that can only be replenished by resting at fixed locations, which will cause all enemies to respawn. But the two games are massively different when it comes to tone, setting, traversal, exploration, visual presentation, punishment, leveling systems, pacing, and storytelling. Saying that SWJFO is a “Dark Souls style” game isn’t any more correct than saying Half-Life is a “Doom clone”. Sure, they both feature shooting crap with guns and one of them is clearly inspired by the other, but the games are more different than they are alike.
The problem is that we have a gap in our nomenclature, and so we’re plugging that gap by inserting the names of games. Lately we’ve fallen to mashing the names of all of the genre members together: SoulsborneoTo encompass Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro..
What we really need is a one-word descriptor that can sum up the idea of “timing-based melee combat with a fixed pool of healing between checkpoints”. Maybe Soulsborneo will stick, but there’s still a lot of ambiguity around that termAre we referring to the combat, the difficulty, or the setting? Would it still be Soulsborneo if it had the same gameplay but a handsome protagonist, a plucky sidedkick, and a happy ending?. We invented the word “Metroidvania” to convey “Open-world game where you gain access to new areas by acquiring new tools through gameplay”, so there’s hope that we can eventually nail something down that can be commonly understood. Then again, we’re still using “roguelike” to describe games with permadeath that force the player to iterate on the game to discover and master its systems.
Until we can settle on a word that conveys this idea, we’re probably doomed to wave the phrase “Dark Souls” around, literally for lack of a better word.
So let’s talk about those difficulty settings…
On my first play-through, I really wanted to do it on the easiest difficulty. I’m not proficient at this genre, and I really just wanted to take in the scenery and the story on the first go. If I liked the game and had a good time, then I’d crank up the difficulty and invest the time to master the systems. That’s what I did with Batman.
However, a lot of the SWJFO combat is built around hitting the parry / attack / dodge buttons at the right time. The easier difficulty makes these timing windows significantly larger. My fear was that if I played on Easy and then moved to Normal, then all of my muscle memory would be working against me. Essentially, the game would have taught me to play wrong, and I’d need to re-learn how to play when I graduated to the higher difficulty levels. I really didn’t want that.
This is particularly troublesome in a game built around melee combat like this one, because when we talk about “parry timing” we’re not talking about a fixed interval of time. There are a lot of foes in this game and they all have different proportions, different fighting styles, different animations, and different weapons.
Once I fight a few stormtroopers, I’ll get a feel for the timing. If he’s winding up, it’s too soon. If his weapon has crossed the halfway point between us, then it’s too late. After a little trial-and-error I’ll find the sweet spot between those two. But then I face a trooper wearing a different hatDifferent weapon / costume / combat role / whatever. and he’ll have different animations I’ll need to learn to recognize and react to. And then another set for the Inquisitor. And the Nightbrother. And all of the creatures. And the various bounty hunters.
If I bump up the difficulty and the timings change, then I don’t just need to re-learn some generic “parry timing”, I need to re-discover that sweet spot for every foe in the game. In my experience, overcoming and altering ingrained muscle memory is significantly harder than just learning something new from scratch.
What I Wanted
I wanted an “easy mode” that would more or less function like the normal gameplay. The timing windows would be the same. The only difference would be how much damage I deal, how much damage I take, and how much health you recover from healing items. I wanted to learn how to play the “real” game, but I wanted to do so in a situation where I wasn’t going to be quickly punished for my mistakes.
On the other hand, there are people who really do have trouble hitting these timing windows. Due to age, experience, or personal ability, they just can’t execute the moves quickly enough to get through. That day is probably coming for me soonI turn 50 next year.. Those people will be looking to the difficulty slider to make the controller inputs easier to physically perform.
Essentially, this single difficulty selector is being used to adjust two different things: How difficult it is to input the correct actions, and how many mistakes you’re allowed to make before you die.
As it was, I played through on Normal difficulty and struggled quite a bit. This game uses Dark Souls style checkpoints. As I’ve explained before, I do not cope well with those kinds of setbacks. I really wanted to engage with the full mechanics, which means I hit a couple of difficulty spikes and wound up getting really pissed off at some points.
In an ideal world, I suppose a game might let you adjust these two things independently. My ideal choice would be to play on HARD mode in terms of timing windows so that I need to be really precise, but EASY mode in terms of my health bar so I’m not getting sent all the way back to the last bonfireThey’re actually meditation circles in this game. while I practice. I could make the physical inputs as exacting as possible, but make it so that my character was super-tanky and able to survive lots of input blunders unit I “git gud”. Then I’d turn up the difficulty for later playthroughs so the game was no longer using kid gloves.
So that’s why I never messed with the other difficulty modes in my various play-throughs. As a result, I ended up playing on a harder difficulty than I was comfortable with. And despite what masocore fans will insist, the game wasn’t “saving me from myself”. I really would have enjoyed the game more if I didn’t find the combat so stressful, and I would have found it less stressful if I had a way to make it more lenient without messing with the input timings.
I did try easy on my final half-trip through the game, and it was awful. The timing windows are so generous that just about every block becomes a free parry. Enemy aggression was turned down to the point of being patronizing. Some foes would stand still for several seconds and let you hack away at them with impunity. Easy lacked any depth or challenge over the long haul, and Normal was too stressful for the first few hours while I was trying to get the hang of the genre.
Difficulty is a complex and multidimensional problem. The designer can’t hope to make everyone happy. But as luck would have it, this particular game was calibrated so that nothing felt right for me. It didn’t start to feel good until I was a little ways into my second trip through the game and everything started to click, and that’s a long time to wait.
Long, Long Ago…
In the previous entry I said that this game plays things incredibly safe. However, it does do one thing to break from tradition right at the start, and I really approve: This game doesn’t feature the now-standard Star Wars opening crawl.
So let’s talk about the opening crawl for a minute…
In moviemaking, it’s generally agreed that having the audience read a few paragraphs of text is a pretty big no-no. Most filmmakers will tell you that reading will make the audience bored and restlessI remember frantically asking my Mom to read it to me back in 1977, because I was just six and the text was going too quickly for me to read on my own.. If at all possible, you should show rather than tell. Barring that, put your exposition into dialog and use it to convey someone’s character / viewpoint. But George Lucas has always been great at building complex worlds and bad at conveying those worlds to the audience gracefully. If you read the original script for Star Wars you’ll find agonizingly loquacious passages in the middle of action scenes and characters awkwardly dumping tons of useless information on the audience in the middle of otherwise important exposition. In a lot of ways, the early scripts for Star Wars: A New Hope feels like one of those situations where a movie was adapted from a really long book and the filmmaker didn’t know what was safe to cut.
Dan Aykroyd is a similar kind of writer. He’s a man with a gift for coming up with wonderfully inventive worlds. Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers, and Spies Like UsSpies Like Us isn’t as well remembered as the other two. I think it’s just as clever as Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters, but the plot revolved around Cold War nuclear fears, and it felt dated the moment the wall came down. In contrast, the other two movies have a sort of timeless quality to them. all came from Aykroyd’s imagination. And like Lucas, he doesn’t seem to know when to quit. According to Hollywood legend, Aykroyd’s original Blues Brothers screenplay was a ludicrous 324 pages long. That would have made for a five and a half hour movie. That’s about the same as watching Avengers Infinity War and Avengers Endgame back-to-back.
Luckily for us, John Landis was holding Aykroyd’s leash. Aykroyd would turn in a witty, ingenious, but unfilmable script, and then Landis would hack it down into something that could feasibly be filmed in a universe of finite resources and safely shown to the general public. The result of this perfect duo was a brisk movie that revealed a world that always felt a little bigger and a little stranger than what we were being shown.
Then in 1991, Aykroyd was set free. Without Landis keeping an eye on him, he was able to create whatever he wanted. This led to the surreal and borderline unwatchable Nothing but Trouble, a film that has several points in common with Lucas’ prequel trilogy:
- Complete tonal incoherence, with the movie swinging recklessly between different and incompatible moodsNothing but Trouble was horror+slapstick comedy+macabre gross-out camp, while Phantom Menace was high adventure+slapstick comedy+procedural political drama..
- Scenes that serve little or no purpose within the story and only exist because they contain elements that amuse the writerExample: The train set in Nothing but Trouble, or the Tribubble bongo scene in Phantom Menace.
- Awkward pacing issues that make the film feel ponderous in some spots and rushed in others.
In a lot of ways, I think of Lucas as an eccentric writer in the style of Aykroyd: Brilliant, inventive, and wildly ambitious. His problem is that he never found a John Landis to collaborate with. Or perhaps he had several, but never realized how much he needed them.
Lucas wrote A New Hope, which was heavily rewritten due to the (often blunt / outraged) input from his colleagues and editorsSome of his colleagues included Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma.. Empire Strikes Back was written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Lucas returned as writer for Return of the Jedi, but he was still collaborating with Lawrence Kasdan. It wasn’t until the prequel trilogy in 1999 that we got to see Lucas completely unfiltered.
There’s no other single writer that can take credit for the style and tone of the original trilogy. The only constant on the project was Lucas himself. But when Lucas was allowed to work alone, a lot of the Star Wars magic vanished. The only conclusion I can draw is that the magic of Star Wars arises when George Lucas collaborates with someone who can restrain his worst instincts and bring out his best.
My suspicion is that if you wanted to create something that felt like the original trilogy, then you should have Lucas devise the overarching plot and character concepts, and then have Lawrence Kasdan build a script from that broad outline. Oh, and you’ll need to use a Tardis to go back and get the 1977 version of George Lucas, because modern Lucas doesn’t seem to care for his early work or even remember it particularly well. Older Lucas wants to do things that are tonally and thematically different, which seems to be at odds with old timers like me who want to keep the original movies under glass.
Sadly, the Tardis doesn’t exist in the Star Wars universe. So I guess we’re stuck with what we have.
Back to That Opening Crawl
So for better or for worse, George gave us the opening crawl. Normally this sort of thing would be an indicator of a weak writer or a merciless editorIf the editor hacks a movie to pieces to get it down to 90 minutes, they often have to resort to text-on-screen to fill in the gaps left by missing scenes., but for Star Wars it’s become something of a calling card.
And fine. It certainly didn’t harm the first movie! It was a good opportunity to let the audience soak in John William’s legendary score, and it transitioned seamlessly into the fantastic opening shot of the movie. Maybe exposition via a literal wall of text is a filmmaking no-no, but the movies managed to make it work.
But then came the video game adaptations, and everyone felt obligated to create their own opening crawl. Like I’ve said before, video games are not movies. In terms of length, they’re closer to a season of a television show or sometimes even a whole book. You’ve got lots of time to deliver exposition. In fact, action games often get monotonous if you don’t give the player the occasional breather between fights. Those quiet moments are a great time for your Radio Buddy to call you up with a bit of “By the way, did I ever tell you about X?” type exposition. AAA games are often a 90 minute movie worth of cutscenes, plus countless in-game dialog exchanges, plus an in-game codex of some sort. In short, video games generally do not need this sort of opening crawl.
Video games have better ways of relaying information. Moreover, they often didn’t have anything pressing that the audience needed to hear. Not only is an opening crawl a poor way to convey information, in the case of games it was often information that the audience could be expected to know or intuit on their own.
So I’m glad the writer of Fallen Order had the courage to skip it. I certainly didn’t miss it.
Okay, enough digressions. Next time we’re going to hit the “New Game” button.
 To encompass Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro.
 Are we referring to the combat, the difficulty, or the setting? Would it still be Soulsborneo if it had the same gameplay but a handsome protagonist, a plucky sidedkick, and a happy ending?
 Different weapon / costume / combat role / whatever.
 I turn 50 next year.
 They’re actually meditation circles in this game.
 I remember frantically asking my Mom to read it to me back in 1977, because I was just six and the text was going too quickly for me to read on my own.
 Spies Like Us isn’t as well remembered as the other two. I think it’s just as clever as Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters, but the plot revolved around Cold War nuclear fears, and it felt dated the moment the wall came down. In contrast, the other two movies have a sort of timeless quality to them.
 Nothing but Trouble was horror+slapstick comedy+macabre gross-out camp, while Phantom Menace was high adventure+slapstick comedy+procedural political drama.
 Example: The train set in Nothing but Trouble, or the Tribubble bongo scene in Phantom Menace.
 Some of his colleagues included Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma.
 If the editor hacks a movie to pieces to get it down to 90 minutes, they often have to resort to text-on-screen to fill in the gaps left by missing scenes.
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