So we moved house recently, and while we were packing we had Star Wars on in the background. And I was thinking – you know, it’s obviously been difficult to talk meaningfully about Star Wars over the past few years. There’s so much outrage and manufactured discontent that it feels like swimming through soup just getting to the texts themselves. It’s a little easier with the few titles that are well-received – Jedi: Fallen Order, for instance. This 2019 action adventure takes gameplay influences from Dark Souls and the recent Tomb Raider games, rolling them together under that immediately identifiable Disney Star Wars aesthetic. A lot of people dislike that aesthetic, zeroing in on its instances of Marvel-style comedic banter (“They fly now!“). But I think there’s much more to say, beyond this sort of low-hanging fruit. For instance, Fallen Order has a really clear, deliberate use of light. The colour scheme is one thing – we know that the Rebellion are consistently associated with natural woodland colours, with greens and browns, while the Empire takes on the fascist combination of red, white, and black – a colour scheme most famously associated with the Nazi flag. But Fallen Order also has a standing fixation with mist, and with the play of light through clouds. These visual features are prominent in the introduction of major locations, such as the Abandoned Village on Zeffo (below), and the River of Origin on Kashyyyk. They loom over one of the first major vistas on the tutorial world of Bracca, where you watch scrapper ships cut the wings off a grounded Venator cruiser. Both mist and cloud are constants throughout the game, which feels like it’s emerged from primordial waters. It plays like a memory, like something remembered rather than directly experienced. The visual language of mist and cloud evokes the concepts of nostalgia and hazy half-memories even as it links these locations with quite specific visual referents from the original Star Wars trilogy – Dagobah with Kashyyyk, and Zeffo with Yavin IV.
In a broader lens, the mist and cloud also have their place in the classic Star Wars dichotomy of industry and nature – a hallmark of the franchise since it began. All the way back in A New Hope, you had the super long Star Destroyer contrasted against the sweeping landscapes of Tatooine’s deserts, or the dull gray metal of the Death Star set against the jungle temples of Yavin IV. It’s always been a key part of the visual language of Star Wars, although different instalments have obviously deployed that dichotomy in different ways. Fallen Order uses it to talk about environmentalism – most directly in the Kashyyyk levels, which frame Imperial industry as invasive and damaging to the world’s natural beauty (as seen below). It’s not a sophisticated critique, per se – it feels most directly reminiscent of James Cameron’s Avatar, right down to the white saviour who defeats the industrialists on behalf of an otherwise ineffectual indigenous population. Honestly, Kashyyyk for my money is probably the weakest portion of the game. It does that uncomfortable Disney Star Wars thing where progressive messaging is presented not for its own sake but because of its favourable ROI. It’s moral value made mercenary, hollowed out and judged primarily in terms of financial return. This behaviour isn’t limited to Disney Star Wars, of course – see, for instance, the response to Taylor Swift’s ‘You Need to Calm Down’, a pro-gay rights anthem thundering into the arena a whole four years after Obergefell v. Hodges. We are increasingly aware that brands and public figures articulate progressive positions because of how those positions affect our purchasing choices. Each instance of progressive messaging in Fallen Order (and in Disney Star Wars more generally) is attended by an equal and opposite specter, a dark shadow of corporate hypocrisy and calculated, cynical self-interest. In Fallen Order, Kashyyyk is where the environmental message is laid on the thickest. It’s therefore also where that specter is most apparent. Other areas, while communicating the same basic idea, are a little more subtle about it. Their message is counter-intuitively more palatable because it’s less overt. When Fallen Order presents you with breathtaking landscapes, it’s beautiful. The game doesn’t have to tell you that logging the Amazon is a tragedy – it just shows you beautiful, lush environments and lets you draw your own conclusions. The mist and cloud are component parts of that overall effect: they give a soft, ethereal beauty to the landscapes. They evoke this sense of myth and legend, of what the land meant before time began – before the crush of modern life, before the intrusion of cars and roads and mortgages. They bring to mind a psychic pre-history, something that we’ve lost somewhere along the way.
Part of the response to this loss of Eden, as Fallen Order has it, lies in how we celebrate our differing identities and individuality. Where the colour schemes of the Rebellion are green and brown, it’s partly because those colours evoke the local, the homespun – whereas the Empire’s colours of black, red and white evoke the machine-made, the mass-produced, items identical and undifferentiated. It’s the uniformity of stormtroopers against the motley communion of Rebellion troops. Their approaches to the world are materially different. Imperial troops all assume the uniforms that are given to them. The Rebellion curate their belongings. They take ownership of their experience of the world, and each part of their apparel carries some history, some story. Fallen Order‘s main character, Cal Kestis, can customise his outfit and lightsaber with collectibles found throughout the game. Each custom option says something about the places he’s been. They aren’t just bestowed upon him, straight out of the Imperial armory – they’re collectibles, obtained by solving puzzles and exploring the world. They feel earned. Their titles often refer back to specific locations or events – Bogano Dawn, Bracca Scrapper, Free Kashyyyk. They are given meaning by their relationship to Cal’s history and experiences.
Here, I think, Fallen Order‘s mythmaking around self and land come together. The player, through Cal, develops their self-expression by collecting mementos of the places they explore. The land in turn is given to us as this mythical, mysterious thing because it is the thing that makes us who we are. We become heroes by taking these places into ourselves, by taking ownership of our experiences. That act of acceptance differentiates us from the machine-printed Empire – from an army of the identical, with no sense of place or groundedness, no sense of connection or history. The heroes of Star Wars are heroes because of how they take the world into themselves. Fallen Order invites us to take ownership in the same way.
This past week we’ve moved back into a suburb we love. It’s good to be back. We love it here. It’s a place that shaped us, and we’re ready to begin that shaping again.