Early on in The Rise of Skywalker, Rey does something I’ve wanted to see in a Star Wars film for ages. For at least the seventh time in nine episodes, our heroes are confronted not by a villain, but by a wild animal. We’re not privy to its exact emotional state, but context suggests it’s protecting its territory, or traumatized, or just plain hungry. It’s also, to one degree or another, scary-looking: this isn’t just an animal, we’re expected to understand, it’s a monster.
And in six of the nine episodes, the heroes fight the monster, either killing it or distracting it or driving it off. This type of scene is just one of those things Star Wars does—like Threepio telling you the odds or someone having a bad feeling about this, a monster fight is how the screenplay lets you know this is a Star Wars movie. Old adventure serials loved that shit: the dianoga and the wampa and the rancor were George Lucas emulating the spirit of a guy in a lizard costume wrestling with Flash Gordon, and while few would call those scenes the films’ best material, they’ve never demanded any deeper consideration than that.1
But then, in this episode, the hero has a different idea. She passes her already-ignited lightsaber to Finn, walks slowly to the big snake-worm-thing, and uses the Force to heal a wound in its side. Not just the Force, but the Force of her own life—instead of killing an injured creature, the quick and easy path, she gives a little of herself to it, and in so doing saves all involved.
This is who Rey is, who she’s always been. To my mind it’s why she can get angry in a fight, more visibly angry than Luke ever got, and never let it consume her. Empathy isn’t something she has to stop and center herself to achieve, or have rubbed in her face by her father’s robot arm, it’s her baseline. Like so much in Rise, I go back and forth on whether the filmmakers intended this reading or just stumbled onto it while setting up some things that happen later in the movie, but hell if it doesn’t work. And what made it especially satisfying for me personally was its timely, if coincidental, refutation of Jedi: Fallen Order.
Before I go on, I should briefly address Fallen Order as a whole: it’s not bad, but nor is it really my kind of game. I’ve never played Dark Souls and I outright gave up on the one Metroid I tried to play, so clearly retreading the same gigantic areas multiple times looking for the one room you couldn’t access yesterday just isn’t for me. The combat system does seem very well designed, but having to not just retrace the same levels but re-fight the same enemies over and over—combined with some fringe mechanical issues that are well-known by this point—resulted in a weeks-long game experience that I found immensely frustrating, if mostly rewarding in the end. I’m not here now to review the game in any holistic sense (though FYI, I do get into big spoilers later), but if my ambivalence toward what it’s trying to do dulls your interest in my other conclusions, well, now you know.
My real problem with Fallen Order is the fact that you spend at least half of it killing animals. Not just big, lumbering rancor analogues (though those are numerous), but crab analogues, and goat analogues, and rats, and bats, and on and on. There’s one particular gopher-esque species on Bogano that means you no harm, yet I was so conditioned to see every living thing as a threat that I reflexively swung my lightsaber at them once or twice when they caught me off guard. Later in the game you can even befriend one as a plot point, which by then was so incongruous that I laughed out loud.
I recognize that having stuff to fight in an action game is a feature, not a bug, but it’s honestly kind of amazing how far the game goes to ensure that you kill everything you come across: as expansive as the levels are there’s almost never a way to sneak around a given enemy, and while it’s possible to sprint past them a lot of the time, that option at best undermines the game’s exploratory elements and at worst means not progressing at all because it turns out the goat is standing in front of a button you need to press. While opportunities to explore and learn about your surroundings are indeed plentiful, most of your XP comes from combat—and in what might be the least Jedi-like game mechanic one could possibly imagine, Fallen Order actually incentivizes revenge by giving the thing that kills you all of the XP you had at the time so you effectively have no choice but to kill it right back as soon as possible.
Again, I get it, it’s an action game. If the enemies were all stormtroopers and Nightbrothers I doubt I’d have written this piece—if only because the game never pretended to be anything else and we addressed that months ago. There are lots of ways for good writing to justify, or at least lampshade, the mass murder required of action games. But I wasn’t prepared for the animals. Literally hundreds of them, over and over, without so much as a “this isn’t what I wanted” out of the player character.
What made this stand out even more was the stark contrast with Fallen Order’s closest canon counterpart: Star Wars Rebels. While arguably aimed at younger children than the game, Rebels had no compunctions whatsoever—like, ridiculously so—about its heroes killing as many stormtroopers as necessary to fill twenty-two minutes of running time. But since the Empire itself couldn’t be beaten or reasoned with, the show smartly used Ezra Bridger’s instinctive connection with animals to dramatize his flirtations with, and eventual rejection of, the dark side. A show about two Jedi during the dark times could only accomplish so much where the Empire was concerned, so the macro story it eventually proved to be telling was a more allegorical one, about how the Jedi came to this point, and how they would eventually win: not through power but through empathy. By recognizing that the hero and the “monster” are on the same team.
But while the very same parameters of canon apply to Cal Kestis, choosing how to fight is not an option in his story. The closest Fallen Order gets to this message is Cal’s final decision not to train the Force-sensitives listed on the holocron, to instead leave their destinies to the Force. With the game’s mission having been marketed as the restoration of the Jedi Order, this conclusion came with a certain degree of relief—not because I was worried about canon, but because it was a stupid mission and I wanted to see Cal realize that. But I’m not totally certain I did.
Only once, through a vision, does the story appear to question Cal’s course of action, and while his mind is indeed changed, I don’t really know why. He sees his potential students slaughtered by the Empire, and himself as an Inquisitor, but the lesson is unclear: training new Jedi leads inevitably to the dark side, or just don’t get caught? His actions as a Jedi, his masters’ teachings, are never called into question, or blamed for what he sees in the vision. There’s a reason the remnants of the old Jedi Order can’t defeat the Empire that’s bigger than it contradicts canon, and I’m not convinced the game gets that.
All this isn’t to say that I’m opposed to the game on sheer principle: The Force Unleashed actually did a respectable job of telling a “Jedi during the dark times” story by having its protagonist overtly toe the line between dark and light for most of the game, and forcing him to consciously change his ways. Or rather than reframe the entire story, they could have introduced a stealth component like the Uncharted games they were clearly inspired by, and rewarded players for, quite literally, choosing another path. Hell, even just adding a “mind trick” Force power, while not morally immaculate, could have given you the option to bypass enemies once in a while.2 But it seems that the notion of Cal not eventually killing something never even crossed anyone’s mind.
And that’s what this is really about: I went into Fallen Order realistic about what the game was. I’ve been killing stormtroopers since I was a teenager; I’m happy to do so. I’m willing to kill the occasional ogre, because Flash Gordon and all that. Even antagonistic flora and fauna aren’t totally out of the question—the Shadowlands of Kashyyyk are a good example of where it both makes canon sense and results in some thrilling gameplay—but I wanted to know that someone on the team cared about this. That they understood why Luke couldn’t just mow down stormtroopers in Battlefront II without at least an expression of disappointment, and intended to frame Cal’s journey in recognition of that knowledge. But they didn’t, and the story—despite its mostly solid exploration of trauma and survivor’s guilt, another ideal component of dark times Jedi content—is weaker for it.
I certainly have my share of idiosyncratic desires where Star Wars is concerned, but I don’t think this is just a “me” thing; I think this matters to what the franchise is as a whole, and how fans interact with it. I think it’s why far too many people think Luke went out like a wimp in The Last Jedi: what death could be more noble, more just, than one in the midst of open battle? And it’s why Rey choosing not to kill a snake means more to me than who her parents were. Star Wars is an action franchise, but Jedi are not supposed to be action heroes—killing something, especially a nonsentient acting on instinct, should be a solemn act, a last resort, not a means of leveling up. That message can’t be underlined enough, and for all its flaws, I think The Rise of Skywalker understands that. Fallen Order never even considers it.