Back to Star Wars, Hard

The true Star Wars faithful gathered for Celebration in Chicago over this weekend. I was not one of them. Yet the trailer for The Rise of Skywalker was enough to light the fire in my heart once more. It never really goes it. Sometimes, it settles to embers, but there’s always been something to reignite it.

So while I was not in Chicago, I still had a weekend that was overly devoted to Star Wars. After seeing the trailer at work on Friday, I struggled to stay focused on anything other than Star Wars, and I watched Return of the Jedi when I got home (between the second Death Star and Palpatine, it was Episode VI that the new trailer most put into my mind). I’d already been reading the Ahsoka novel, so I read some more of that. I dived back into Battlefront II and Empire at War. And now I’m writing a post about Star Wars again.

That trailer looks so good to me! There are so many mysteries, and I’m eager to see it. Experience has shown that I’m more excited for new saga films over anything else in the franchise, and the trailers for these movies are always great. Each time, it takes at least the first teaser to get me to finally acknowledge how excited I am. I’d actually been saying last week or so that I felt like The Last Jedi felt like a fair conclusion to the sequel trilogy and would have been an acceptable place to end the saga, so while I was curious to see what they’d do, I didn’t feel like anything was missing or unjustifiably incomplete. Now, though, there are so many tantalizing details, and I’m really eager to see what kind of story is being told here!

The other Star Wars announcements mattered less to me, as usual. I’ll probably get to much, though not all, of the new stuff eventually. The Jedi: Fallen Order game looks disappointing to me. I think there are already enough stories about Jedi on the run during the Dark Times, and the trailer felt very much so like a Light Side version of The Force Unleashed, a game I didn’t really get into at the time. And the protagonist appears to be another bland white dude. That all said, I’m sort of starved for a narrative-focused Star Wars game, and while I’d prefer an RPG, I’ll take this! Which means…maybe I’ll be looking into another console sooner than I thought? I love the Switch and Switch games, but it’d be nice to play more of the Star Wars games coming out. If I do get another console, it’ll probably be a PS4. I’m more interested in the exclusive titles available there versus the Xbox One.

Oh, speaking of Star Wars RPGs, VG247 had an article about Obsidian Entertainment’s planned plot for Knights of the Old Republic III. I really wish that game had happened. The Old Republic was reasonably fun, but I’ve never cared for MMOs and have always preferred single-player experiences. A mark in Fallen Order‘s favor is that Chris Avellone, formerly Obsidian writer for games like KOTOR II, is one of the writers for this new game.

Last thing I want to get to: I played a shocking amount of Empire at War this weekend and finally beat the Rebellion campaign. Yes, it was on Easy, but now I can mark both of the main campaign modes on my list of completed adventures (it was years ago, but I’m pretty sure I won the Empire campaign on Easy too). I mostly had fun, and I just pushed through the point I normally get burnt out. The gameplay just doesn’t mesh with the Rebellion-on-the-run feel that the setting, and the game’s story, establishes. But I’ve complained about that before. (Although I could complain now about some story issues I had, mostly related to the larger continuity. Just for instance, this came out after Revenge of the Sith and benefited from the expanded lore and setting of that film, but it didn’t include Bail Organa in the formative rebellion in any substantial way, and it had Captain Antilles affiliated with Mon Mothma instead of Bail for some reason, switching over to the Tantive IV only towards the end of the game.)

There is, however, something very interesting thing that the game did: after Alderaan’s destruction, the Death Star immediately set course for Yavin IV. I barely got Mon Mothma out in time. I defeated the Death Star’s support fleet, but with no Red Squadron, I still lost the moon. The Death Star then destroyed Wayland (a planet I’d conquered after the early story mission, because why not, and which I successfully defended from a later invasion attempt). Finally, Han showed back up with Luke and the droids, and I could send a sizable fleet to win the battle and leave the Death Star’s destruction to Luke. That final fight played out in the stellar wreckage of Wayland. There are three reasons why I like those developments:

  1. Everything happening is so sudden, shocking, and unpredictable. It puts you in the mindset of the fledgling Rebel Alliance as it faces potential devastation, with no obvious way out. I expected Luke to show up, I expected a warning before the Alderaan destruction cinematic, I expected the game to be predictable and give me time like it had at every other stage. I couldn’t rely on convention or the film’s narrative. It made me feel a little anxious and desperate, then really relieved when Luke finally showed up.
  2. It clearly established this narrative as an Alternate Universe. Sure, this was before the canon reset, but the implication up until that point is that we might have been playing a game that was supposed to be telling a definitive story of the Rebellion. Even if we had to ignore the gameplay and the narrative-defying conquest of the galaxy in the name of the Rebels, the core story being told could be seen as “truth.” The ending relaxes those rules and says, no, this is just a fun story, hope you enjoyed playing with the toys. Any galactic conquest mode to follow is more playing in the sandbox, no more or less “true.”
  3. It actually disrupted the conquest-focused gameplay and returned the emphasis to Rebels barely staying a step ahead of an over-powerful Empire. Too bad the rest of the game isn’t like that…

That’s more than enough about that game, but before I drop the subject entirely, let me quickly show you a story in four images:

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Now, will I ever play the Forces of Corruption campaign? Maybe. More unlikely things have happened (like finishing the Rebellion campaign), and my Star Wars appetite is currently insatiable and probably will remain so through December!

A Tarisian Ronin

It’s no secret that Akira Kurosawa’s films had a massive impact on international cinema. Spaghetti westerns and Star Wars especially have pulled heavily from the Japanese film master’s work. Nothing new there. And they’re also great movies, so it’s always fun and engaging to watch one.

I’ve only very slowly started watching Kurosawa’s films. It’s not something that I really have much of a drive to do; it just happens occasionally. I saw Rashomon in college. I saw Seven Samurai in the past year. And I just watched Yojimbo this week.

I wouldn’t even mention it, but it was funny to realize not only how it influenced the original Star Wars film, but how its plot was basically transplanted into the Taris portion of Knights of the Old Republic.

Yojimbo‘s plot in a nutshell: a masterless samurai enters a town torn apart by conflict between two gangs fighting over turf. One gang is led by a father and son; the other is led by the former right-hand man of the father, who split off when the son was chosen as the heir. The samurai plays the two sides against each other until they destroy each other.

The Tarisian section in a nutshell: a masterless soon-to-be Jedi enters a portion of the city-planet that is torn apart by conflict between two gangs fighting over turf. One gang is led by an old man; the other is led by his former right-hand man, after the elder gang leader refused to appoint him as heir. While the older man’s gang is depicted as fundamentally good and the younger man’s gang is depicted as degenerate and thuggish, there is still the option to play both off each other (even though the Light Side, presumably EU-canon version is that the eventual Jedi helped the “good” gang). Plus, since Taris ultimately gets wiped out via Sith bombardment, the hero’s meddling does destroy both gangs–from a certain point of view.

Oh, and there’s a subplot in film and game involving the capture of a woman by one of the gang leaders as a negotiating tool to gain power; said woman is freed at least in part by the efforts of the protagonist in both versions.

That’s all I’ve got. Funny to realize years later that a story I enjoyed is so indebted to an older source. It actually makes the Taris section, as mundane as it can be on replay as a bloated sort of prologue, rather interesting once more.

TCW Re-watch: Failings of the Jedi

Star Wars: The Clone Wars offered such a rich variety of stories that there are an endless array of lenses to approach the themes within the series, both those unique to it and those that elaborate on the subject matter of George Lucas’s six-film saga. I’ve gone into this re-watch with a few particular themes and contradictions on my mind, and the most current reviewed episode, “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” (1.18), touches on most of them.

Most interesting to me is the tension between the apparent necessity of the war in the moment in contrast to the audience’s foreknowledge that the Jedi’s mere entry into the war was the trap that doomed them. This narrative emerges clearly enough in the films with the end of Attack of the Clones, with Yoda’s admonition that “the shroud of the Dark Side has fallen.” Perhaps more subtly, that theme is present in the decision on the part of the Jedi and the Republic to assault a Separatist planet in the midst of heightened political tensions to rescue two Jedi and a Senator who had infiltrated that independent system to perform acts of political espionage, sabotage, and murder, and who were being punished under the laws of that system. While leaving the trio to execution would have been an unacceptable ending to audiences and would have seemed too merciless, and while viewers know that the Separatists were preparing their own attack on the Republic, interfering with the laws of another government via open invasion is a shockingly imperialistic act for a group of alleged peacekeepers. And, of course, that theme of loss merely through engagement sees fruition in the collapse of the Jedi and the Republic in Revenge of the Sith.

The Clone Wars readily acknowledges this burden. Yoda does a lot of wrangling with this moral crisis and imminent loss throughout the series. While that’s perhaps most emphasized in the final season’s episodes, the theme is present in moments with Yoda–and in merely observing what the war does to Jedi and clones alike–throughout the show. As Yoda says in “Lair of Grievous” (1.10), “To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is of losing who we are.”

And this theme manifests in at least small ways in almost every episode. Returning to “Mystery of a Thousand Moons,” we see the Jedi once again putting innocents in harm’s way in an attempt to win a battle. In this case, Ahsoka, Padme, and several clone troopers are infected with a super-virus and almost die before Anakin and Obi-Wan can provide a cure. Padme’s a senator. Ahsoka is literally a child who is nonetheless invested with the powers of a military commander. And the clones have been manufactured to fight and–as Rex notes in the episode–to die, yet the Jedi were perfectly willing to enlist them and use them as though they lacked in personhood or choice (a damning decision no matter how many Jedi befriended them between battles).

Yet that super-virus is another example of the seeming necessity of the war. The recreation of the Blue Shadow Virus for biological war in “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” and in the virus’s eponymous episode (1.17) is a shocking atrocity, intended to quickly wipe out whole ecosystems on hundreds of planets. In the same arc, the Separatists have blockaded a planet with a force field that kills anyone who tries to leave orbit, seemingly with the intent of preventing the export of the one raw material that can be used to produce a cure to the virus. Similarly, in “Defenders of Peace” (1.14), the Separatists intend to test a weapon that wipes out all organic life in its blast radius but leaves droids behind–and their intended target is a village of pacifists. Messaging consistently reinforces a pro-war mentality, at least in the moment. “Defenders of Peace” and its companion “Jedi Crash” (1.13) have no room for pacifists; the ideology is portrayed as too naive to actually survive without outside intervention by occupying defenders. Certainly there are historical precedents where passive resistance or acquiescence have not halted or appeased a bloodthirsty oppressor. Yet, to complicate things further, the “Jedi Crash” arc is immediately followed by “Trespass” (1.15), which actually provides for a scenario in which peaceful diplomacy is the ideal solution in contrast to aggressive interventionism.

If nothing else, the show highlights how messy war and conflict are. Moral solutions are not always apparent. The Jedi, even early on in the show, frequently cross the line of acceptable behavior, but that line-crossing often achieves results. For specific examples, contrast “Cloak of Darkness” (1.9), in which Ahsoka brushes off Master Luminara Unduli’s warning that “terror is not a weapon the Jedi use” because her threat, which does (momentarily) convince an imprisoned Nute Gunray to cooperate, “wasn’t serious,” with Anakin’s threat in “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” to kill mad scientist Nuvo Vindi completely failing to produce results (and actually giving Vindi another opportunity to gloat).

Lastly, one little item of head canon that I’ve been toying with for a while is that some version of the Mandalorian Wars and the subsequent Jedi Civil War of Knights of the Old Republic actually happened, and that this resulted in a radical shift in Jedi dogma. We at least have confirmation of a Mandalorian-Jedi War, but it’s the latter war that’s more significant to me. Revan and Malak rushed off to join the Republic in defeating the Mandalorians, in opposition to the Jedi Order’s mandate to stay out of the war, but their experiences turned them to the Dark Side. Revan’s later redemption was the only thing that could stop Malak, and he went on to pursue a larger threat outside of the galaxy. Other Jedi who went to war did not necessarily fall to the Dark Side. The Jedi Exile, for instance, chose a life of nomadic wandering following her actions at the Battle of Malachor (a battle that has been partially introduced to the canon, as well). Her eventual return to the major events of the galaxy stopped another festering Sith threat, and it is implied that she and her disciples helped rebuild a decimated Jedi Order. (Light Side decisions and their resultant outcomes in video games were typically perceived to be closer to canon during the run of the EU, and even in this canon-reboot era, that assumption seems to me a valid starting point for discussing the state of the old EU lore.)

The implications of the first two games are cast to the wind to enable the direction of The Old Republic and its companion novels, like Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan, which conveniently wiped Revan and the Jedi Exile off the board. I’m not so impressed by the idea of Jedi and Sith joining together to combat a larger threat; it happened surprisingly often in the old EU, it seems counter to the core messaging of Lucas’s films, and it seems like something that exists in Star Wars: The Old Republic largely as a justification for players to join the Sith faction without necessarily being pure evil. So let’s set aside the implications of everything post-KOTOR II.

With that division of the franchise in place, I rather like the idea that Revan, the Jedi Exile, and their followers would have forced a radical rethink in Jedi philosophy. Perhaps the Jedi, over time, would have felt that earlier official involvement by the Jedi Order in curbing the Mandalorian expansion would have stopped a lot of cruelty and death–and would have prevented the rise of the Sith Lords that followed. The Jedi Exile, in particular, would have been a model for a more interventionist Jedi Knight. This change in doctrinal thinking could have resulted in an over-correction that could have made the Jedi all too willing to hop into aggressive pursuit of peacekeeping operations. The reform spirit of the Jedi Exile would have faded into institutional tradition over the centuries, such that the shift in Jedi mindset would have only served as another pillar of dogmatic thought for later generations of Jedi leaders. Such a mindset would have primed them to hop straight into the Clone Wars, before cooler heads (mostly a more reflective Yoda) could prevail, and with the assumption that they were fully in the right. I think The Clone Wars and its depiction of the last years of the Jedi Order provide some ammo for that theory.

(By the way, in my full version of this head canon, which veers hard into amorphously formed fan fiction, Bultar Swan offers a lot of storytelling possibilities as a potential Jedi who quickly sees the entry of the Jedi into the business of war as detrimental. I tend to imagine her getting the hell out of the Order and the war shortly after Geonosis, after seeing just what it takes to kill and seeing the Jedi leadership all too willing to keep going down that path. But that’s getting way off topic for this post.)

I don’t plan on regularly discussing The Clone Wars over the course of this re-watch, but I do suspect that I’ll have an occasional update as this gradual viewing continues. I’ve only watched the show in full once before, and this new trip through has been quite enjoyable and thought-provoking.

All the Books

I’ve finally allowed myself to learn to love audiobooks. They’re great for providing something for me to focus on when otherwise doing a fairly mindless or boring task. But since my multitasking ability sucks, I’ll only listen to things that I’m okay with missing something in. Listening is just not the best way for me to absorb a story (and I’ll never accept that it’s comparable to reading; they’re just apples to oranges–oral storytelling is great, but it is different than written storytelling, and this is real estate in the general vicinity of a hill I’m willing to die on).

Truly, the credit for my newfound acceptance goes to the Indianapolis Public Library’s collections and the accessibility of the Overdrive and Hoopla websites and apps. I’ve already made it through a couple books despite the recentness of this change of heart.

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The first audiobook I experimented with was William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope, by Ian Doescher. I enjoyed the stageplay feel, with a few different voice actors narrating the book. The sound effects were great. I was tickled by the human pronunciations of R2-D2’s whistles, and his internal monologues were a weird diversion. Nonetheless, the novelty wore off quickly enough for me. It’s hard to suggest that this has much merit on its own, after all–it’s entirely about the gimmick of combining Star Wars and Shakespeare. The saturation in pop culture and melodramatic nature of the two draw comparisons, and Doescher obviously put a lot of effort into emulating Shakespeare’s style, but it’s basically what it says on the tin, good for a bit of amusement and nothing more. Still, the production value of the audiobook was so good that I could listen to another in this series.

Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan was second on my list. My first observation: it has too many subtitles. The audiobook brought life to the story, and it really showcased how good Drew Karpyshyn is at describing action. The narrator’s decisions regarding voices were somewhat disappointing. Revan sounded like bored Batman, even though he was written in the book as a sort of funny guy who was quick to quip and often contemplative. The Sith Lord Scourge sounded like angry Batman. And the female characters–Meetra and Bastila, for instance–typically sounded like man-doing-a-high-pitched-voice (which is, after all, what was happening), so I think the emotional resonance of their characters suffered.

Despite enjoying the action sequences, I don’t like what this book did to Revan and the Jedi Exile. For one thing, it shouldn’t have defined who they were. The KOTOR games were stories set in the distant past, a fable even in the context of the old EU canon. There was no need to have a “canon” series of events–these games thrived on player choice and the consequences of those choices.

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But even accepting a “canon” version of events, it’s icky to have a story where the Jedi Exile acts like a subservient cheerleader of Revan and ultimately dies for him, becoming a Force ghost to keep him alive. Also, these are characters players have a lot of connection to–their tragic ends here are a let-down and seem to exist only to raise the stakes of The Old Republic and make that game seem EVEN BIGGER, LOUDER, AND BETTER THAN THE ORIGINAL (reminds me of the decision to kill off Newt and Hicks in Alien 3). Finally, the game seems to retcon things a little bit, once more in the service of making The Old Republic more important. For instance, and most significantly, the Sith Emperor’s Force-devouring evil is presented as this colossal threat that would even shift Sith to become Jedi allies–but isn’t that reflective of exactly who Darth Nihilus was and what he was up to in KOTOR II?

I liked the similarly over-subtitled Star Wars: The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance (by Sean Williams) when I read it years ago, but in retrospect, I cannot be sure if I was just more into the “edgy” take on Star Wars being offered by the writers of The Old Republic game and media push than I would be now.

The one Star Wars story of the bunch that I really enjoyed was something I read rather than listened to: an ebook version of Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy: A Graphic Novel (yet another work with too many subtitles). The artwork is clean, colorful, and emotive. Best of all, it’s a masterclass in efficient editing. Each of the films is stripped down into a much tighter, action-packed core. Extraneous fight scenes (and the infamous podrace) are cut down considerably or even (as in the case of the starship fight over Geonosis between Obi-Wan and Jango) cut completely. Some quirky bits of dialogue and some genuinely good character moments get left on the cutting room floor, but almost everything felt improved by the omission. Some things I wish they’d been willing to cut even further. They opened late and ended early on a lot of moments, and yet midi-chlorians remain in, and Anakin’s admission that he killed even women and children in the Tusken Raider village stays as well. Still, given the source material that the graphic novel is operating from, this is probably the best format that I’ve seen the prequels in so far. The weird thing is that this collection seems to have been made with a crew big enough for a small film–it’s difficult to attribute to only a few individuals.

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I also read an ebook version of Dark Horse’s Age of Reptiles Omnibus: Volume I by Ricardo Delgado. The art was gorgeous and dynamic. So much was packed into each panel, and there was such a strong flow from panel to panel. Motion was clearly conveyed. There was a buzzing energy that propels you onward. This comic series appears to have a well-deserved reputation for its entirely visual storytelling. Motivation and emotion are clearly conveyed through dinosaur body language and action. There is no dialogue (obviously–they’re dinosaurs), and there are no descriptive sound effects. All storytelling happens through the art alone. My major criticism would be that the stories are a little too focused on nature red in tooth and claw, but we do see other aspects of the dinosaurs’ lives. The Journey was the most satisfying story (the image here comes from it), epic and yet also somewhat mundane, a slice-of-life story nonetheless replete with death and violence.

That’s it for the books. Next: all the video games.

Review: Aftermath

Aftermath (Star Wars: Aftermath #1)Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A post-Endor Star Wars book trilogy, marking a fairly early publication in the stream of new-canon releases, must surely have called to mind comparisons to Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy. Thankfully, rather than retilling exhausted soil, Chuck Wendig has prepared something quite different.

Most interestingly, Wendig’s style diverges pretty hard from the traditional Star Wars standard. His narrative is a constant present-tense, and while the format could hardly be called experimental outside of this franchise, it’s probably not all-too-common in sci-fi as a whole and reads as a wonderfully fresh breath of air. Action, emotion, and thought all arrive with great immediacy, and there are efforts at something resembling stream-of-consciousness, especially in flashback sequences. Wendig is also quite skillful with metaphor and employs clever turns of phrase regularly and to great effect.

Unfortunately, I think that the dialogue suffers a little bit from that very same experimentation and florid verbiage. Characters sound all too clever for their own good. And when everyone (save one droid, whose staccato, all-caps style is emphasized at every chance) speaks in a similar cadence, they all blur together. Frankly, I think I’d be more forgiving had I first encountered a Chuck Wendig novel out of the Star Wars setting–he’s a great writer, and I’d like to see more, but the voice of the characters just doesn’t sound quite…Star Wars enough. There’s one exception: there is a brief interlude scene involving Han Solo, and I could practically hear Harrison Ford delivering the smuggler captain’s lines. The second novel appears to be positioned more around Han and Leia, and I look forward to seeing more of Wendig’s handling of the characters.

Speaking of the interlude scenes, I’m rather fond of these short chapters disrupting the action of the main narrative to share a vignette about events all throughout the galaxy. They often share thematic connections with the main narrative or imply a building toward a larger plot. And they let everything feel epic even while that main narrative is a rather tight story: a disparate group of rebels and outcasts bands together on the Outer Rim world of Akiva as a result of an Imperial blockade, and that blockade was in turn put in place to allow for a clandestine meeting of Imperial leaders attempting to decide how to lead the Empire following the death of the Emperor and the inspiration of open revolt throughout the galaxy. While it didn’t really dawn on me until the end, this novel was less about anything particularly momentous happening and more about assembling the team (and the primary antagonist) for future adventures. I liked getting to know the characters, and the story actually is self-contained, so I don’t have the usual “it’s just a prologue” gripe that I have about many first-in-a-series books.

The novel works on its own because it tells a simple story with a clear resolution. A bounty hunter is on Akiva to kill or capture several high-value targets on behalf of the New Republic. She needs a team to get them all. She assembles that team. Each of the characters has their own bit of growing to do, and the reunion of Rebel pilot mother and estranged tech-genius/scoundrel son forms a good bit of the emotional heart of the book, but everything makes a lot of sense when framed around that bounty hunter’s quest. In some ways, it’s Seven Samurai, but with a happier ending, in that we don’t see more than half the party wiped out in accomplishing their mission (given the connection, it’s sort of ironic that the bounty hunter is a niece of Sugi, who formed her own team to protect and train farmers in a Clone Wars retelling of the film’s plot).

That narrower focus is another way that this book is so different from the Thrawn trilogy. We aren’t following the Big Three heroes here. The characters of this book are accomplishing important objectives for the New Republic, but it’s the future of a planet and not the galaxy that’s on the line. Perhaps the biggest parallel to the old Thrawn books is the Imperial officer who has arranged the Akivan summit (Sloane), who in turn works for a mysterious strategist, which feels more like homage and is hardly a simple rehashing of the relationship between Thrawn and Pellaeon.

The galaxy is also a lot different in this post-Endor world. The destruction of the Empire’s leadership (at this point, twice over) has thinned the ranks, drained morale, depleted resources. More worlds are in open defiance. The Imperial fleet is stretched thin and being torn apart through defections and power grabs. The implosion of the Empire happens here so much quicker, within a year, than it did in the old canon. It’s a new interpretation of events, not necessarily better or worse; it offers different ideas about what the Empire was. I like that things are mixed up here.

Despite offering so much that is new and fresh, Aftermath is also laced with many clever Legends winks and nods (as well as plenty of connections to the burgeoning new canon). Wendig’s love for the Knights of the Old Republic games seems pretty obvious, with references to Czerka, Pazaak, a Dark Side Force- or life- draining power, echani martial arts, the history of Jabba sandcrawlers as stolen old mining vehicles, and of course a psychotic droid who speaks in a strange voice (while it’s supposed to be lilting and dissonant, the constant all-caps shout of Mister Bones reads like it could be the monotone of HK-47). The author must have a spot spot for roleplaying games in general; an ending interlude has a bartender rattling off a list of potential jobs that reads as a local-area map of quest markers and factions.

One of the few obvious flaws seems to be a persistent problem with these Star Wars publications: minor continuity issues. One minor character changes from an Abednedo to a Rodian between scenes. Another character who only appears in one scene has his name change from Cobb Vanth to Cobb Vance over the course of a page. Minor things like this. Things that might just have emerged in the process of printing; things that might have just been missed in editing; things that I can forgive but that are still jarring when I come across them. More generally, there is a tendency to always refer to “one” or the “other” person or side without specifying, which isn’t a flaw so much as a stylistic decision that I don’t like. Really, these are the merest quibbles.

This was a fun adventure and a good start to a trilogy. If the remainder in this arc are at least as good, I’ll be quite satisfied.

View all my reviews

Five Favorites Fast

Finishing Breath of the Wild, I thought to myself that it’s probably one of my top favorite games ever. This, of course, prompted a bit of further reexamination. A favorites list is an inherently subjective and personal artifact, no matter what numbers one assigns to a thing in the attempt to give a more formal rating. It is also fairly mutable; my favorites list–especially if you get out to the fringes of a top ten or top twenty anything–changes relatively frequently.

So if Breath of the Wild is one of my top favorite games now, how do the others shake out?

In no particular order, my five favorite video games are currently…

I. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

A massive game, and densely populated with secrets and surprise encounters. Experimentation and exploration are always rewarded. Most of the time, if you think to combine game systems to try something new, the game seems willing to let you do so. Add the characteristic quirkiness and clever puzzle-solving of a Zelda game, and it’s easy to see how this became an instant classic (and a new favorite of mine).

II. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

The list changes a little bit, but not that much. This permanent ranking at the top of my games pile is part nostalgia and part a reflection on what a wonderful game Bethesda put out back in 2002. It’s buggy and a bit ugly around the edges, and its (unmodded) graphics certainly don’t live up to the test of time–but it was rewarding exploration and wild experimentation almost two decades ago, and it felt like a truly massive game world at the time. Plus, by focusing on a fairly small geographic footprint, a volcanic island in an inland sea, the game tended toward density over sheer openness. There could be a lot of wandering, sure, but over just about every rise and in just about every hollow would be something new and interesting. The realm of Morrowind was a truly weird place, with bizarre plants and animals, fungi towers, and an elaborate set of competing and overlapping cultural and political systems. The tension between a (racist, classist) native culture and (corrupt, domineering) imperial presence blurred the lines of right and wrong. Not that your character was ever bound by doing what was “right” so much as what said character could get away with…

III. Beyond Good and Evil

This was another game with a bizarre world to explore, with humanized animals and strange invasive aliens and bizarre native wildlife. It wasn’t truly “open-world,” I suppose, but there were massive hubs to explore and plenty of secrets to uncover. Like Breath of the Wild, this game employed a photography system, and photographing key objects was often essential to completion of mission objectives. It could also be used to take pictures of native fauna to pick up extra cash cataloging the remaining life forms on the planet. The combat system was typically light and breezy, though some of the boss fights–especially the final boss–tended toward the tedious. I truly appreciated the wonderful sense of empathy expressed by the main characters, as well as the portrayal of a wildly multicultural and welcoming world. That’s in addition to the conspiracy-theorizing, love-letter-to-freedom-of-expression, resistance-to-fascism themes of the game.

IV. Fable II

Another fairly open-world game–huge swaths of territory to explore in open hubs containing either cities or wilderness. The ease of combat and the easier ability to intermix magic, melee, or ranged attacks into a fight improve upon its predecessor, and the additional ability to pick a gender was a nice change (even though you’re still stuck being a pale Briton, despite the inclusion of people of various racial/ethnic backgrounds in the game). The third game offered further improvements to combat and the interplay between the three types of abilities, and its expansion of property acquisition and rise-to-the-throne plot were refreshing. Still, I think the second game represents the peak because of the Hero’s companions. Hammer, for instance, is just a fantastic video game character and always more clearly heroic than the protagonist, even if she is prone to anger and rash action. Once again, experimentation is another thing that can be valued about this game–experimenting with combat styles, experimenting with mercantile tactics, and experimenting with social interaction. Everything feels quite organic at first, a series of player actions and world/NPC reactions, although the simplicity of each of the main systems in the game quickly reduces them to something feeling transparently mechanical. This is probably the most troubled game on my list, and I think the ending in particular was disappointing, rushed, emotionally manipulative, and overly simplistic (why must it be one of those three wishes? I could think of other variants with better outcomes!).

V. Deus Ex

Writing up this list, I thought the fifth entry would be Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Sure, there are other games I like more than that; they’ll come first. But I was sure KOTOR would take the final spot. And then I got here, and I realized, Deus Ex came out three years before, it was in some ways a more experimental game, it certainly gave the player a lot of agency (probably more so than in KOTOR), and it dealt with moral choice in a far more mature way than the other game! Deus Ex may not be the better game, but I think I prefer it, if I’m being honest and not blinded by fanboy nostalgia. I think I talk about that game more–and recommend it to others more, even now. And Deus Ex‘s story was wild, taking the most ridiculous conspiracy theories and rebranding them as a twisted truth, all adding up to an awful dystopian future. The blocky character models and dark environments are definitely dated, but they also fit with the gritty and failing cyberpunk world explored in the game. KOTOR’s characters stuck with me more, but the Dentons’ story is a bizarre one that’s worth remembering too. Plus, there were multiple approaches through any situation; stealth, diplomacy, or a tech-based approach were often not just alternatives but often far superior to a straightforward combat option. The dense, shady urban environments in each level were lurid and rotten and packed with secrets to find. It was a weird game, and it was hard at first for me to get into, but it’s worth taking the time to unpack it. It’s a game that’ll eat at you a while after playing.

Runners Up

It is really hard to contain oneself to five favorite things. Honorable mention goes to the aforementioned Knights of the Old Republic for a worthy Star Wars story with a robust dialogue system, interesting companions, exotic environments, and a turn-based combat system that was simultaneously tactical and cinematic; Stardew Valley, for its seemingly simple farming simulator that also contains a dungeon-delving combat game, a community of quirky personalities, and a deeply rewarding cycle of daily tasks, all set to the most pleasantly peaceful music; Analogue: A Hate Story for being a visual novel with a good story, interesting themes, and a clever collapse of the fourth-wall through the nature of play, making it a visual novel that I actually wanted to play; Life Is Strange, for the emotional (and not just melodramatic) high school drama and weirdness and cool game mechanics; and Halo, for being the first FPS I loved as a youngster and for its derivative-yet-imaginative epic sci-fi setting. Oh, I guess that makes five runners-up, so this is secretly a top ten list, and you’ve just reached the end.

Dark Disciple

Dark Disciple (Star Wars)Dark Disciple by Christie Golden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked Dark Disciple more than I expected, but I’m not sure that I can recommend it to everyone.

Don’t get me wrong. This was a good Star Wars book. It further explored themes from The Clone Wars and wrapped up character arcs that were left dangling with the abrupt end of the television show. Well, I say “arcs,” but this is a book mostly about Asajj Ventress and Quinlan Vos. It further explores Vos in the new canon, but he didn’t really have any dangling thread left from the show. In contrast, Ventress was left disillusioned and seemingly tempted by the Light, living life as a bounty hunter who maybe had loose morals but wasn’t exactly amoral. Here we see a resolution of that story of transformation and personal growth, providing a satisfying conclusion to Asajj’s story, and it’s actually a pretty sweet tragic romance at its core. To briefly summarize the plot: Vos is tasked by the Jedi to assassinate Count Dooku in an attempt to end the war; he must recruit Ventress, who nearly succeeded in killing the count before, to work with him to this end. Vos finds himself tempted by love and by the power of the Dark Side, and by falling to both temptations, he is set down a path that radically alters who he and Ventress are.

If you do not know who Asajj Ventress is, or who Quinlan Vos is, well. You might have made better life decisions than me. I think they’re great characters! (Or at least Asajj is! Her long arc from villain to hero is fascinating, and while I know to some degree new canon is covering old ground from the EU here, I think it’s well-done). But just because I think they’re great characters doesn’t mean that I think that everyone should have to invest in six seasons of a television show peripherally related to the poorly received Star Wars prequel trilogy just to have an adequate basis for understanding this novel.

In fact, it would have been better if the novel could have just been part of the series. After all, that was its original intent; the plot here is adapted from a whopping eight planned episodes from the show. I mean, what with the show being cancelled, I’m glad we got the story at all, and Christie Golden layers on mature themes (including torture and sexuality) and mature subject matter (like heavy alcohol drinking, including as a coping mechanism for grief) that probably would have been cut back more in the show. But it still feels more or less like a string of episodes tied together by an overarching plot, rather than a single story unit. I hope that makes sense, because that’s about as close to a description as I’m going to get. It’s disjointed. Some sections feel rushed. There are time skips. Thinking about how these episodes would have been broken out, the self-contained stories make sense, but Golden doesn’t quite manage to weave them all back together into a single narrative. I think she does a great job with what she has to work with, though; I imagine it’s difficult to shift media formats like that, and the prose itself is top-notch.

In fact, that prose is often quite moving and effective. Golden gets into the psychology of Ventress and Vos. She sells a slowly building, but fundamentally doomed, romance between the two. If you are a Star Wars fan, this book’s worth a read as a love letter to Ventress and to The Clone Wars, a lovely swan song for the series. If you are not a Star Wars fan, though, I think you’ll miss too much context. And references to other parts of The Clone Wars and Star Wars at large come pretty hot and heavy. Admittedly, most of the references are minor and should not disrupt enjoyment of the novel, and for character-important moments Golden typically provides light exposition in the form of in-character reflections. Still, I think what all those references indicate to me is that this book is part of a larger tapestry that loses some of its meaning when examined in isolation. I love that element of a lot of Star Wars, but I worry about the potential for insularity and opacity wherein every work loses something when not appreciated within the light of the preexisting corpus. Even the films are veering more and more down this route…but that’s really outside the scope of this specific review.

If you are a fan of the show, though, I feel safe in recommending this book. And honestly, Dark Disciple was a very interesting read in light of The Last Jedi! (The book was first published in 2015.) There are some pretty deep and interesting examinations of the nature of the Force and of the Jedi. Ventress believes that she has managed to find a balance straddling between Dark and Light, though the book leaves ambiguity here–Vos is not able to maintain that balance, and Ventress finds something special in the Light once she devotes herself to it in a moment of sacrifice at the end. But something beyond the Good/Evil binary of the pre-Last Jedi films is certainly suggested, a continuation out of what the Dathomiri witches had become. Also, the Dark Side is shown as a spectrum, ranging from cruelty, anger, passion–the normal human emotions–to a consumptive, possessive, wrathful sort of poison that dominates one’s soul and turns one against even those they love. I am very fascinated by the new canon’s use of the Dark Side as a representation of mental and spiritual imbalance and illness, and this book further explores that. And boy, the Jedi are at their absolute worst, beginning the book by agreeing to attempt to assassinate Count Dooku for the greater good. Willing to condone, in fact to order, murder sets the Order and Vos in particular down a very dark path. Obi-Wan, being pure and good, is opposed, and Yoda is reluctant and eventually course-corrects away from this. But Mace Windu is very insistent on following through with this. He is presented as the Jedi at their most cruel and arrogant, and I was surprised to see how much this version of Mace can be found in the Jedi Master of Revenge of the Sith. Much like how The Clone Wars deepened the characterizations of Anakin, Obi-Wan, Yoda, Padme, and even Jar Jar, this final chapter retroactively informs Mace Windu in very interesting ways.

Relatedly, the arrogance and aggression of the Jedi directly plays into Luke’s character in The Last Jedi. And, for that matter, it draws on the Knights of the Old Republic games (I think) (maybe not intentionally). The Clone Wars had some fun incorporating elements from those games, and no surprise there when Bioware’s title had such a great twist and Obsidian’s sequel explored elements of the Force and the Jedi that the new canon’s now grappling with. I think that Vos’s treatment at the hands of Dooku in the middle of the book echoes Malak’s turning of Bastila (down to the use of torture, confinement, and manipulation), and Vos’s redemption through love is (a) OF COURSE a subversion of Anakin’s own eventual fall to the Dark and (b) a pretty parallel to Bastila’s own (potential) redemption through love of Revan.

The book is pretty juicy in this sense. There are a lot of references to explore. There is a lot of content about the franchise’s core mythology to interpret. It’s a great book to launch a thousand conversations. But it’s definitely a book aimed at the hardcore fan–particularly a fan of The Clone Wars. If I am honest and divorce myself from my fandom, I suspect that a non-fan might find this book lacking, although I can always hope that I’d be wrong!

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