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What Star Wars Can Learn From The Jupiter Pirates

We’ve got a bit of an interesting case on our hands in that the “What Star Wars Can Learn From . . .” series here at Eleven-Thirty Eight generally tends to focus on other franchises entirely disconnected from Star Wars. The Jupiter Pirates: The Hunt for the Hydra is a brand-new novel by veteran Star Wars writer and esoterica enthusiast Jason Fry, who has written in his own original world but is definitely a player in the Expanded Universe that we all know and love. To that end, this article may well have been named: “Reasons why Jason Fry should be allowed to write a Star Wars novel.”

We shall try to maintain a dignified and discreet air about all this, though, because that suits our style better. But please imagine a subtext running throughout this article that amounts to a wink and a nudge to Lucasfilm and Del Rey to give this man a novel. We – that is, we ourself and not ETE proper – can also give our approving endorsement of this novel and certainly encourage our readers to give it a look.

This novel is kid-friendly in the best way: it’s written for a young adult audience (aged 8 to 12, according to Amazon, though the young adult label on the official website would suggest to us the ages of 13-18) and balances action with thoughtful world-building. It’s set in the future, but influenced by familiar history in a way that leaves the story grounded. That future is still plagued by some of the problems of today, but despite the historical tinge it’s not mired in backwards gender structures. These are all things we could stand to see more of in Star Wars.

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What Star Wars Can Learn From Mass Effect

You can fight like a krogan, run like a leopard, but you'll never be better than Commander Shepard.
You can fight like a krogan, run like a leopard, but you’ll never be better than Commander Shepard.

In the previous incarnations of this series examining what Star Wars could stand to take a few lessons from, Mike Cooper examined the Avatar franchise (no, not that one) and Lucas Jackson took a long look at the exquisitely-executed pseudohistorical freerunning-with-a-side-of-murder simulators that comprise Assassin’s Creed. In today’s article, we’ll be probing another series of popular video games: BioWare’s Mass Effect, unhelpfully defined by Wikipedia as “a series of science fiction action role-playing third person shooter video games.”

For those whose knowledge of the franchise begins and ends with that vague, kitchen sink-esque description, we’ll take a few moments to elaborate on the nature of the games and the overarching story before we move on to the meat of the article. In Mass Effect, players take on the role of Commander [insert name here] Shepard, a highly-trained marine in the military of the Systems Alliance (the interstellar arm of humanity) in the year 2183, serving aboard the SSV Normandy, a state-of-the-art prototype stealth reconnaissance frigate.

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What Star Wars Can Learn From Assassin’s Creed, Part 2

Yesterday, we offered the first lesson and sublessons Star Wars could take from Assassin’s Creed. Today, we conclude with lessons two and three.

Lesson #2: Develop character arcs for every story

You wouldn’t think this would need to be a lesson . . . but can anyone tell me what the character arc of any major hero, besides Ben, has been since The New Jedi Order? The Expanded Universe hasn’t always been very good about making sure that its stories feature heroes going through arcs and receiving character development, rather than just pushing their way through another series of events.

Desmond wasn’t even in the games that much. Didn’t stop him from having an arc.

One of the reasons I have enjoyed the Assassin’s Creed series is that its games have always avoided the temptation to be simple sequences of action setpieces. Storytelling has always mattered. Each of the series’ heroes has received an arc in each game. Desmond’s arc, stretched across his games, was to train as an Assassin, uncover the information he was searching for, and come to accept his place among the Assassins. Every game made sure to push that forward and add some new element, and even though his arc was the weakest of the leads’, the ultimate progression from bartender who had rejected his childhood as an Assassin to unwilling participant in the Assassin-Templar war to committed Assassin who ultimately sacrificed his life to protect the world based on his philosophical understanding of Assassin tenets was satisfying.

Altaïr, meanwhile, had a subtly revealed arc taking him from arrogant and dismissive of Assassin philosophy to philosophically engaged, humble, and respectful of others. He also had a nicely complex journey from dismissive of authority to respect of authority and ultimately to questioning of authority, a more subtle shift that did not move along a binary slider but involved changing his motivations, self-regard, and intellectual depth. Altaïr was later featured in flashbacks in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, which made sure to give his life an arc of duty and sacrifice as he struggled to realize how to lead the Assassins and recover from crippling personal setbacks.

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What Star Wars Can Learn From Assassin’s Creed, Part 1

Lesson number zero: look this good
Lesson number zero: look this good

In our “What Star Wars Can Learn From” series, we’ve been examining lessons the Star Wars franchise can take from other successful series. Cooper kicked off the series with a look at Avatar (the Airbender franchise, not the blue people and special effects franchise). Now I’d like to take a look at the Assassin’s Creed franchise. It is, like most things these days, a multimedia franchise, but I’ll be focusing on the triple-A video games, which are the heart of the series and the only part with which the vast majority of people are familiar.

For the benefit of those not familiar with Assassin’s Creed, it is a series of video games published by Ubisoft in which users play the role of a modern-day man (Desmond Miles in all the games up to now) experiencing the adventures of his various ancestors through advanced technology. The core of the games is in the stories of these ancestors, members of an order of Assassins who fight against Templars who wish to create a “better” and more orderly world without respect to the freedom and rights of ordinary people. These ancestors appear across a range of historical settings, interacting with real historical figures, while living out a sort of “secret history” that plays with the idea, essentially, “What if every conspiracy theory was actually true and all rolled into this one struggle?” There have been five releases up to now, following three Assassin ancestors, and a sixth coming out on current-gen consoles this very day with a new Assassin, plus the PlayStation Vita release Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, which followed an additional Assassin and will receive a full console port next year.
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What Star Wars Can Learn From The Avatar Franchise

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C’mon—for a split second there, you thought I was gonna talk about the movie Avatar, didn’t you?

No, today is all about the other Avatar—the cartoon one, what with all the bending and such—and the lessons it could teach future (and current) Star Wars creators.

The Avatar franchise is primarily composed of two major Nickelodeon animated series—Avatar: The Last Airbender (henceforth ATLA) and The Legend of Korra (henceforth LoK). ATLA told the story of Aang, a long-forgotten magical totemic force who’s been frozen for one hundred years and wakes up to find the world he’s supposed to protect has moved on without him, and is now under the thumb of the expansionist Fire Nation.

“Magic” is a loose term here, because all supernatural abilities in this universe are rooted in one of four natural elements—earth, fire, water, and air. To “bend” an element is a learned skill rooted in one’s natural temperament, but each has been taken up as the banner of a different nation, and the practicing thereof has become strongly segregated. Once the Fire Nation has been, well, let’s just say dealt with, at the end of ATLA, LoK picks up years later, and tells the story of a new, and much different Avatar (the only being capable of mastering all four elements, who is eternally reincarnated much like the Dalai Lama) alongside the remnants of ATLA’s cast.

Of course, this Avatar spawned a movie, as well—but the less said about that, the better.

Lesson #1: White is not the default

When Lando Calrissian showed up in The Empire Strikes Back, people no doubt marveled at George Lucas’ bold storytelling choice—a black man, old friends with a white main character? And his race never even comes up? Such a thing was scarcely done in those days. Even still, if you go back and read the Marvel Star Wars comic series of the time, you’ll notice that while the authors just loved using Lando, very few of them bothered to make even one other human character, Rebel, Imperial, or scoundrel, a person of color. I mean, Lando was enough, right?

Things have certainly improved in the thirty years hence, but as followers of my ongoing diversity conversation at TheForce.net can tell you, not nearly as much as you’d think—for example, in the New Jedi Order novel series, a sprawling nineteen-book saga that rivals the Original Trilogy itself in scope, about one out of every three main characters is a straight, white, human man. And that’s in an entire galaxy of species!

Meanwhile, in Avatar, the presence of white people is so muted as to be entirely debatable. Aang himself can easily come across as white to the casual viewer, as can the bulk of the remaining airbenders we see (which, given the title, is not many). The same goes for members of the Fire Nation, including ATLA’s main antagonist Prince Zuko. Where this becomes tricky is in the two series’ heavily anime-inspired character design, and further, in their extremely Asian-inspired cultural design. I’m sure others could put this more elegantly than I can, but in the broadest possible strokes, airbenders are inspired by Tibetans, and firebenders are inspired by the Japanese—both groups whose skin tones could be mistaken for white in the absence of distinguishing features.

In any event, all this is to say that the extent to which the light-skinned characters are “white” or “Asian” is open to the interpretation of the viewer. And meanwhile, the Earth and Water Kingdoms are largely (though not exclusively) composed of darker-skinned characters—the former inspired by “mainland” Chinese heritage and the latter by the Inuit and Eskimo peoples. As such, there’s something for everybody; not only are people of almost all colors accounted for (though I have to admit, you’d be hard-pressed to find a character who could pass for, say, Nigerian), but the world of Avatar is distinctly everybody’s—since each nation is a hodgepodge culture to some extent, it’s impossible to graft any larger statements about one real-life nation or another onto the narrative, and best of all, several of the protagonists—notably water tribe members Katara and Sokka, and later Korra herself—are such an ambiguous shade of brown that pretty much any race could claim them if they really wanted to.

Other big Avatar fans might disagree with me on this, but I don’t think the strength of the franchise’s inclusivity is its overwhelming Asian-ness, but rather its overwhelming everything-ness.

Lesson #2: Everybody can contribute

Of course, just because one is born into, say, the Water Tribe, doesn’t mean they’re a waterbender. My personal favorite character in the entire franchise is Sokka, brother to waterbender Katara and practitioner of the ancient and deadly art of…boomerang.

It’s never made totally clear why some people aren’t benders—this subject actually gets way more interesting in LoK, by which point the Fire and Earth Kingdoms have founded the wholly-integrated Republic City; where a firebender and an earthbender can and will have children of both types, or even nonbenders altogether.

In Star Wars, two Jedi—or even one Jedi and a muggle—will almost always, like 98% of the time, give birth to Jedi children. Not only does this diminish the franchise’s “everybody can make a difference” message more and more with every birth, but it turns Force-users into some kind of bland, amorphous super-race.

Sokka, meanwhile, is with every breath the Han Solo of ATLA. No destiny is so epic, so spiritual relevation so profound, that Sokka won’t roll his eyes at it and wonder aloud when they’re getting something to eat.

But just like Han Solo, he’ll still buckle up in the end and launch himself into the cause of the week alongside his magical friends—and often he’ll even be the brains of the operation, as he’s only too happy to tell you. At first, LoK seemed poised to sidestep the nonbender type with its already-noteworthy introduction of Bolin and Mako, two brothers of two different bending types, but by the end of the first season they had given us Asami, Mako’s nonbending girlfriend, who held her own in battle thanks to another innovation of the LoK era—technological know-how.

Star Wars shouldn’t need to learn how to use the Han Solo character type; Star Wars invented it. But all too often—both in the prequels and in far more of the Expanded Universe than is excusable, it has proven itself willing to ignore the valuable lesson of the crafty smuggler.

Lesson #3: Don’t be afraid to move on

And speaking of Korra, if there’s one truly critical thing ATLA has over Star Wars, it’s that it knew when to quit. The original series knew the exact bounds of the story it wanted to tell from day one, and mercifully, the creators got the chance to complete that story without compromise or dilution. But once that story was over…the series ended.

And time passed.

And for a few years, there was nothing. But when ATLA’s popularity finally gave them a chance to continue the story, they didn’t give us a half-hearted Continuing Adventures of Aang and Friends—they jumped seventy years ahead.

republiccity

Given that the Avatar, the magical pivot around which this universe turns, has to die for a new one to appear, they wisely realized that Aang’s story was done. And while he no doubt had many years of continuing adventures ahead of him, they were beside the point; to squeeze another conflict anywhere near ATLA’s level of import into Aang’s life would at best be a retread with an older and wearier cast of characters, and at worst, would be downright mean.

So they jumped, and jumped far. Aang has grandchildren now, and only a few of his generation remain. But not only does that give us a new Avatar in the kickass waterbending woman of color Korra, but it also provides a totally new context in which to tell a story—while still far-flung, the nations have begun to merge, and that merging has given way to astounding leaps in technology. While the world of ATLA could have been plucked wholesale from the middle ages, by LoK things have jumped straight through to the Industrial Revolution—which also carries with it a handy message about integration, if you ask me.

Story-wise, Korra’s problems are out of Aang’s wildest dreams—major-league sports competitions, killer mechs (no, really), and an antagonist leading an anti-bender revolution (remember #2?). The second season premieres in a couple weeks, and while the first season was pretty self-contained by design and largely resolved its story, I have no doubt that where they’re going from here will be totally unheard-of.

As for Star Wars, well…we’ve got Episode VII. People may roll their eyes at EU fans once we find out that Force lightning made Luke sterile and Han and Leia’s kids are named Steve and Linda, but the fact is, when it comes to the time period following Return of the Jedi, we’ve seen it all—reborn Palpatine, rogue warlords, Sith armies, extragalactic invaders? Done, done, done and done. As excited as I am at the prospect of spinoff movies about Rogue Squadron and young Han Solo and the Knights of the Old Republic, I have a hard time meeting Episode VII with anything more than muted apprehension—not because it’ll erase the EU, but because I’ve seen it all before.

But then, maybe they’ll take a page from Avatar and surprise me.

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