Let’s face it: Star Wars is a simple story. The first movie, I mean—though where the franchise as a whole is concerned, “simple” is probably charitable compared to the words some people would use. The Empire Strikes Back and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Return of the Jedi worked as well as they did by upping the stakes not just practically, but also philosophically; they took an age-old story with the thematic complexity of Super Mario Bros and made it About Things. Not huge things, granted, but the simple act of making Luke Darth Vader’s son took the OT from a black and white story of pure hearts and wicked ones and introduced a universe of ambiguity, calling into question fans’ assumptions about how bad Vader was, and how good Obi-Wan was, and just what exactly they all wanted to happen at the end of the story.
One of my favorite things about Star Wars is how well it supports these abrupt shifts—changeovers, as Fight Club might call them—where suddenly there’s more going on in the story than you’d realized, thanks in part to that superficial simplicity. At its best, Star Wars is simply a broad, brightly-colored palette with which a writer can paint some surprisingly complicated stories; and while I’d be lying if I said it was common, you never know when someone’s going to really tap into some next-level shit. Allow me to highlight some examples.
Knights of the Old Republic
I don’t mean to suggest that “next-level” moments are by definition plot twists; quite the opposite, in fact. But KOTOR has the distinction not only of providing the only twist in the entire Expanded Universe on the level of “I am your father”, but of also, in my opinion, taking the thematic underpinnings of that moment and elevating them even further. Darth Revan, you are told at the game’s outset, is the Big Bad of this story—you barely escaped your last confrontation with him, alongside your Jedi companion Bastila Shan, and lost many of your memories in the process.
Anyone who’s played role-playing games (most video games, really) is very familiar with that kind of conceit—there’s always a learning curve at the start of a game, so the story will account for that by making the player character either a rookie learning the ropes, or an old veteran who’s taken some time off and needs a refresher course. Lost memories are just par for the course.
Being an RPG, the game goes one further and allows you to design your character pretty much from the ground up, all the way to providing a custom name. Going forward, nearly every interaction and confrontation hinges on which of several decisions you make, shaping your character’s personality as you go and affecting how others react to him or her.
This especially is standard operating procedure in RPGs—as run-of-the-mill as, say, rescuing a princess and blowing up a Death Star. So when your party finally confronts Darth Malak, Revan’s apprentice, and he reveals that you…are…Revan…well, you’re not quite playing the same game all of a sudden.
I often tell people that if I had a time machine, the first thing I would want to do is go back to 1980 and see ESB in a theater on opening night without knowing what was coming. Which isn’t really how time machines work, but you get my point—I saw the movies relatively late in my life, and I knew about “I am your father” before I knew who Luke Skywalker even was (literally: I distinctly remember a time when I thought that was who Harrison Ford was playing), so I never got to really experience one of the greatest moments in this franchise.
I did, however, get to play KOTOR fresh—and I’m willing to say that the Revan reveal did for me what ESB did for those people. Even better, for an RPG, it was one of the ballsiest storytelling decisions they could’ve made, because the entire hook of a game like that is “You can be anyone!! Bald, bearded, good, evil, whatever!!” Well, no, sucker, you already were evil before you started. Whatever awesome backstory you’d imagined for Kickass Johnson III up to that point, too damn bad. And the beard? Yeah, sure, keep the beard if it makes you feel better—doesn’t change all those people you killed.
Again, I didn’t include this moment because it was a surprise; I included it because it’s one of the best utilizations of interactivity I’ve ever seen. They didn’t just copy and paste Luke’s story and have you go through the motions. If anything, they ignored “I am your father” entirely and just focused on Luke’s vision in the cave, substituting your face—almost literally—for Mark Hamill’s. They took choice, the core selling point of an RPG, and twisted it ninety degrees in order to drive home the same point that the films were making, but in a way that no other medium could have done. In short? They made the dark side ending of Jedi Knight their bitch.
Republic Commando: Hard Contact
And now I get to lose some of you.
I had a superb continuity minder at LucasArts called Ryan Kaufman, who was on call 24/7 to answer my queries and clear up points like how the armor codpieces fitted on the commandos. No detail was too small, and he never lost patience with my endless questions.
“Let me get this clear,” I said. “Somebody creates a secret clone army; Then they maneuver the Jedi into using them to fight the Separatists.”
“That’s right,” said Ryan.
“So….” My journalist brain was whirring. I had no preconceived happy notions about Jedi. I was new in town. “This is a slave army. They’re bred to age at double the rate and die young. They have no choice. And the Jedi just take them and use them as cannon fodder? No questions asked? No big moral debate?”
“You got it,” said Ryan.
I was outraged. “And these are the good guys?”
That was the exact moment at which Star Wars moved from being a nice little earner into something I really, really wanted to write.
That’s Karen Traviss in the book Star Wars on Trial, having been called as a “Witness for the Defense” by co-editor Matthew Stover, describing the kind of experience this article is all about.
Whatever you want to say about the Star Wars career of Karen Traviss, there’s no denying that Hard Contact was one of the most successful debut SW novels ever. Everything that came afterward—four more Commando books, two The Clone Wars tie-ins, and even her contributions to the Legacy of the Force series—launched forward on the momentum of that first story.
And the story itself? Decent. Not amazing. Certainly great by the standards of video game spinoffs, but no great revolution where commando stories are concerned. No, the revolution that Hard Contact spawned was one of perspective. Maybe this is due to the inherent complexities of the prequel era, but before Karen Traviss, no one had ever written a Star Wars story upon a foundation of the Jedi being anything less than total sweethearts. Maybe we’d lose a couple to the dark side, and maybe they’d even do a story where an Imperial pilot is the protagonist, but those stories still operated within a cosmology where the Empire was fundamentally bad and the Jedi were fundamentally good.
In retrospect, when you really think about the implications of the Clone Wars, I think it was kind of inevitable that the worldview Traviss became infamous for was going to come up; it’s certainly foreshadowed in Stover’s Shatterpoint, and in the Republic comics, and in the origin of Count Dooku himself, but she was the first one to really run with it, and the excitement she describes in the above excerpt is palpable.
Like I said, the story of Hard Contact isn’t really anything to write home about, but the one part I’ll always remember is Etain and Darman’s first meeting: the young Jedi senses a presence ahead in the forest, but wait, this can’t be right—it’s the presence of a child! What would a child be doing in a warzone? And sure enough, who comes out of the darkness but a fully-grown clone soldier; fully-grown on the outside, at least, but on the inside, as naïve and vulnerable as any other ten-year-old. And these are the “men” she, guardian of justice that she is, has been ordered to lead into combat.
Early Clone Wars stories, even the aforementioned Shatterpoint and Republic, tended to portray the clones as your typical gruff, by-the-books, soldier types. Maybe a little kooky, but they’ll do their job well, as Jango said, so why care about anything else? Then Karen Traviss came along, and simply by caring, changed things forever.
Yoda: Dark Rendezvous
If there’s one person since Traviss whose debut Star Wars novel has hit the scene with as many megatons as HC, it’s Sean Stewart. Sadly, he has not yet chosen to follow Dark Rendezvous with any more SW work, but here’s hoping they keep asking.
Dark Rendezvous, or YDR as the kids are calling it, was even more unassuming than HC at its time of release; it was, in fact, the last-second replacement for a cancelled Shaak Ti novel by William C. Dietz of Dark Forces fame. It had all the hallmarks of filler, and jaded fans like myself, some of whom weren’t crazy about Prequel Yoda to begin with, weren’t exactly thrilled—or even convinced Yoda could support a novel himself.
Well, little did we know. For starters, much of the story weight was taken off Yoda by some of the finest supporting Jedi characters of the prequel era. And when Yoda was involved, he was every bit the peculiar, confounding, kind of icky Yoda of ESB, rather than the “everything I say makes the situation worse” Yoda of the prequels.
But this isn’t a book review—let’s get to the point. Personality variations notwithstanding, Yoda is a fixed point in the Star Wars cosmology. You can’t really change him. But Dooku! Count Dooku is a totally different guy from story to story, and YDR, in its stealthy way, served as a character study of Dooku through the lens of Yoda—and ultimately, a study of the Old Jedi Order as a whole, and all those stupid contradictions and bad decisions I mentioned above.
The book is punctuated with flashbacks to Dooku’s adolescence at the Jedi Temple, revealing him to be complicated, introspective and impetuous even at a young age; very much the kind of person who might grow disillusioned with the Order as he grew older. These flashbacks also mirror the story of Scout, a temple youngling that accompanies Yoda in the “modern” part of the narrative. Scout is resourceful, and clever beyond her years much like Dooku was, but perhaps without quite so much natural Force potential. She nicely picks up on another thread shaken loose by Etain, Karen Traviss’ pet Jedi—what happens when a Force-sensitive baby gets older and doesn’t amount to much?
The same way that Darman, through Traviss’ lens, highlights the horror of the clone army, Sean Stewart uses Scout as a surrogate not just for Dooku, but for the entire Order. Your heart goes out to her, and through her struggles, Stewart demonstrates why, perhaps, the Jedi were doomed to fall.
The student looks down at the shell in his hand. “I found this on the bank. Abandoned by a freshwater hermit crab. They don’t have homes of their own, you know. They keep outgrowing them. I was thinking about that, how the Jedi found me on Serenno. With my mother and father, I suppose. I can’t remember them now. Do you ever stop to think how strange that is? Every Jedi is a child his parents decided they could live without.” Yoda stirs, but does not speak. “I wonder, sometimes, if that is what drives us, that first abandonment. We have a lot to prove.”
I’d like to leave you with that thought: the Clone Wars were fought almost entirely by droids, clones, and Jedi. Next time you watch Attack of the Clones or TCW or Revenge of the Sith, stop and think about how almost none of these characters have parents. Shouldn’t that mean something?