You might remember that last time our hero Cal Kestis had just gotten into a fight with Malicos. Cal didn’t want to join a Jedi cult run by Darth Manson and Malicos didn’t want Cal to not join.
Earlier in this series I praised how gracefully it created an unwinnable fight without running into the obnoxious problem of “Failure is Forbidden until it Becomes Mandatory“. This fight isn’t nearly as successful at doing that.
In a story sense, it makes sense that Cal can’t win this duel. If Jedi powers were academia, then Cal is in middle school and Malicos has a couple of PhDs. It would feel juvenile and fanfiction-ish if Cal went around casually besting Sith Lords and Jedi Masters. This is what made me dislike Galen Starkiller from the Force Unleashed series. He was so ludicrously powerful that he broke the universeIt doesn’t help that he had the personality of a wooden plank with a frowny face painted on it.. As a writer, It’s incredibly dangerous to create a character who is both far more powerful than Luke Skywalker while at the same time being far less interesting. So I’m glad that Cal doesn’t go down that same road by winning this fight.
On the other hand, this is a video game and you can get good at it. On my second playthrough it was sort of hilarious / annoying to have the fight stop for a cutscene interlude where the writer pretended like Cal was struggling.
It seems silly, but I think this dissonance is inherent to the design for this game. If Ornstein & Smough kill you twelve times in a row and then you just barely scrape by on attempt #13, then that’s what happens. No cutscenes jump in to make sure you kill Ornstein first so that Smough can deliver a few lines of reaction dialog. You don’t get Smough’s HP bar down to zero to have him escape in a cutscene. You don’t get a mid-battle cutscene where Ornstein summons a mook brigade or jumps into a mecha suit with a fresh HP bar while your character stands around doing nothing. In Dark Souls, the Gameplay is the Story.
EDIT: It has been pointed out in the comments that the Ornstein & Smough fight actually has a mid-fight cutscene. When you kill one of them, the other gets a free heal while your character does nothing.
I have no idea what to say. This goes against everything DS fans have said to me over the years, and it strikes me as a betrayal of one of the foundational elements of the design. I just watched the fight on YouTube and it actually made me angry. I really thought Dark Souls didn’t do this sort of thing.
On the other hand, games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted run on movie logic, and your actions are visibly constrained by the machinations of the author. Your foes perish when the story says so, regardless of what buttons you press outside of cutscenes.
The game designer of Fallen Order has married these two disparate design styles in a shotgun wedding, and this conflict is inescapable. It’s mildly annoying when a cutscene overwrites the events of shallow empowerment gameplay for a little movie that shows what “really” happened. But when a game presents a system where deep mastery is possible and makes the player work for it, then the player is naturally going to resent this intrusion.
I don’t know how you can fix this. I’m willing to bet you can’t. Sure, the Shadow of Mordor games have the nemesis system that allows your gameplay to stand. But sooner or later that player-controlled story needs to surrender to the will of the writer so our expensively produced cutscenes can happen. People praise the open-ended interpretation of Dark Souls lore and how the “story” is just your gameplay with a sprinkling of cryptic notes and conversations with half-crazy people to provide some loose semblance of context. That makes the world more interesting to explore and encourages player participation through careful inspection and speculation.
People talk about what a genius design this is, but I wonder if this is less a brilliant idea on the part of the designer and more a case where they took the only road open to them. I strongly suspect this is the only way you can tell a coherent story in the context of a game with such an emphasis on the mechanics. If the story said more, it could only do so at the expense of gameplay.
In any case, that sort of interpretive story is completely at odds with a Star Wars game. People come to these things for that “Star Wars feel”. I know there’s a tremendous amount of disagreement on what the “feel” of Star Wars even is. We don’t need to beat that dead horse again, but I think the SW feel is inextricably bound to the art and craft of cinemaWhich includes television. These days the difference between the two is down to budget more than anything else.. You can produce fantastic story-lite games using the Star Wars setting, but they’re not going to tickle the sentimental parts of your brain the way that Han Solo saying, “I know” does. A lot of people are looking for another dose of that space magic, and you can’t get it without having vibrant characters with compelling arcs.
I think this dissonance between the will of the author and the actions of the player is irreconcilable. Given how much Dark Souls is focused on mechanics, and how much Star Wars is focused on story and characters, it’s a miracle this game turned out as well as it did.
Merrin Saves the Day
Merrin jumps into the fight at a couple of points and saves Cals’ life. In the end, she stops the fight and uses her Force powers / witchcraft to encase Malicos in stone, entombing him in this place where he once ruled her people.
In a gameplay sense this is annoying because, “Hey! Butt out lady! I don’t need your help. He’s barely touched my health bar.” On the other hand, this is what needs to happen for the purposes of the story. Malicos has killed and subjugated her people, and manipulated her into helping. Cal is just here for a MacGuffin, but Merrin’s grudge against Malicos is enormous and deeply personal. She needs to be the one to conquer him in order to demonstrate that she’s broken free of his influence. If Cal kills him, then Merrin doesn’t get an arcOr her arc makes her a passive damsel. Either way, not great..
It turns out the Astrum is only a few steps from the platform where Cal fought Malicos. No mazes, no puzzles, no habitrail filled with mooks to chop up. We just walk in and take it. That’s not an incorrect choice, but this is another example of the slightly strange pacing of this game. At the start of the game we had massive hours-long blocks of platforming and puzzling with barely any cutscenes. And now from here to the end of the game, it’s all cutscenes and boss fights. It’s not strictly wrong, but I can’t shake the feeling that maybe some content was cut from the second half of this game. I’ll come back to this idea when we get to the end.
Once again, Cal acts like a proper Jedi. He doesn’t just take the Astrum like he “earned” it. He hands it over to Merrin, acknowledging that it rightfully belongs to her, or her people, or her ancestors, or whatever. I don’t know how property rights work around here, but this gizmo is obviously not his to take. He explains why he needs it and what he’s trying to do.
Merrin listens to his plans, and realizes that the Empire is a threat to her people as well. She grants him the Astrum and decides to join the team.
Nevermind the Mass Murder
I kind of feel like there’s this huge unexamined problem with Cal’s behavior. Yes, he’s stopped being such a dick, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s killed a lot of people around here. When the nightbrothers dropped him to the bottom of the world, the path back to the surface took him through a village. Sure, the village was populated entirely with shirtless bald guys trying to kill him, but these were presumably people that Merrin knew. We don’t actually see any more nightbrothers once we reach the temple, which creates the uncomfortable implication – intended or not – that Cal effectively genocided her tribe.
If a guy wiped out everyone in my neighborhood, I might feel a little odd about joining his crew, even if he was ultimately somehow fighting for a good cause. Even if we want to argue that the nightbrothers picked this fight and Cal was just innocently defending himself through the heart of their society, this is still an awful look.
I realize we need mooks for our protagonist to fight, but I think maybe some additional care was needed to avoid having Cal murder hundreds of Merrin’s people on his quest to obtain a small object that he didn’t have a right to in the first place.
If nothing else, I think it would have helped to make a clear distinction between the nightbrothers and Merrin. Instead of her commanding themWhen you first meet her, she summons a pair of nightbrothers for you to fight, suggesting that she’s in charge of these guys., it would have helped if we discovered they were loyal to Malicos and Merrin was an outcast. Cal would still be a mass murderer, but at least there would be some distance between Merrin and the people Cal had to kill.
Also, Cordova is a massive dick for creating a quest that requires us to steal from indigenous people. #TheJediHaditComing
The More the Merrin
Cal gets back to the ship and introduces Merrin to the crew. I have to say I really love her character. She’s got this slightly creepy mystique mixed with a completely deadpan sense of humor. If this story were in lesser hands, then I think the temptation would have been to slot her into a familiar archetype like plucky sidekick, Flirtatious Bad Girl, disapproving badass ice queen, or fiery tsundere. Instead Merrin is a little off-putting and weird. This suits her background and makes her interesting in a way that (say) Fiery Leia Knockoff #352 wouldn’t. I’m not saying Leia is a bad characterLeia is awesome, although a lot of credit for that goes to the actress rather than the writer. RIP Carrie Fisher, you absolute fucking legend., I’m just saying I like how unique Merrin feels. Not just in Star Wars, but in video games in general.
Next time we’re going to head back to Bogano and pop open this vault. Hopefully Cordova is done jerking us around.
Also: Happy New Year, you gigantic nerds. Here’s hoping 2021 is better than 2020.
 It doesn’t help that he had the personality of a wooden plank with a frowny face painted on it.
 Which includes television. These days the difference between the two is down to budget more than anything else.
 Or her arc makes her a passive damsel. Either way, not great.
 When you first meet her, she summons a pair of nightbrothers for you to fight, suggesting that she’s in charge of these guys.
 Leia is awesome, although a lot of credit for that goes to the actress rather than the writer. RIP Carrie Fisher, you absolute fucking legend.
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