Chris McPhail and I have been working through the Star Wars fanchise in its cinematic chronological order in our audio/video podcast Close, But No Biscuit of late. During one clip that didn’t make the cut, I was raving about The Force Awakens (as I am wont to do) but accidentally said The Force Unleashed instead. Twice.
Obviously it got me to thinking about that game. I accused it of being hideous fanfiction the first (and only) time I played it, but in the light of the even more hideous fanfiction of The Force Awakens… Maybe it’s not so bad? Maybe its story, crass as its foundations might be, actually… kind of works?
We are on full spoiler alert today, but The Force Unleashed is from 2009 so it should be safe by now.
The Force Unleashed
It does not introduce itself well; the phrase “Darth Vader’s secret apprentice” is one that rings all the wrong alarm-bells. It speaks of filling in holes that don’t need to be filled, in the most overblown and cheap way possible. “My sith apprentice is better than yours, nyah nyah!”
And yet… The dynamics it sets up as it goes are quite interesting.
It begins with Darth Vader acquiring a child to be this secret apprentice. Why would he do this? Because he knew Padmé was preggers before it all went wrong, and he always wanted kids.
Why would he keep him secret from, and plot to kill, the Emperor? We know from The Empire Strikes Back that he wanted to get one-up on the Emperor, though even at that point he knew he wasn’t quite powerful enough to win against the Emperor alone. He also uses the phrase “I must obey my master“, suggesting he’s bound to the Emperor not entirely by choice. Training an apprentice would seem to be exploiting a loophole — even if he is bound, others won’t be.
Or maybe he’s secretly a coward, who couldn’t bring himself to act alone (as he could never bring himself to kill Luke). Either way, the more I look at it, the concept of Darth Vader having a “secret apprentice” is starting to make rather a lot of sense.
Things go awry almost as soon as the game begins. Although he’s been named Starkiller and he’s been raised by Darth Vader himself, the first sight of his new pilot — a woman who wears a standard imperial officer uniform but with the top draped open — turns him weak at the knees and reveals him to be not such a bad Sith assassin after all.
When Kylo Ren whines about feeling “the call of the light”, it comes out of nowhere; his actions during The Force Awakens up to that point do not illustrate any conflict with happy thoughts. Furthermore, the whole point of “the light” is that it’s not seductive — that’s what the dark side is like! The light takes effort, takes work, but is ultimately more rewarding; you don’t just “feel the pull”.
So Starkiller’s leaning towards the light, despite his upbringing, is actually set up in how he interacts with other people. He might obey his master unquestioningly as he hunts down runaway Jedi, but all his bottled-up niceness comes back out at what may well be his first ever sight of a woman. Which in itself is a nice parallel to the fall of Anakin Skywalker — while Anakin turned to the dark side because of love, Starkiller falls the other way for the same reason. Nice parallels, not “retreads but shittier”!
The Force Unleashed is not particularly explicit about its timeline, though to be fair that’s true for most entries in the Star Wars mythos (at least until the really hard-core canoneers get in gear). It’s set before A New Hope, far enough before that the Rebel Alliance doesn’t exist yet, but close enough that the Death Star is well under construction.
Darth Vader has his apprentice out of sight of the Emperor, killing off Jedi in training for his coup. About half-way through the game, the Emperor finds out, and Vader has to put on a big show of murdering Starkiller but, of course, he has plot armour.
Darth Vader’s coup plan from there is to have his now double-secret apprentice gather the enemies of the Emperor and thus distract him, so that they can strike without warning. Darth Vader’s coup plan is to form the rebel alliance.
Yes, The Force Unleashed goes right there. This is another element I’d accuse of being a bit crass — “my secret apprentice isn’t just better than Darth Vader, he’s the leader of the rebel alliance!!!” (Compare with “my Sith apprentice can freeze a blaster bolt and he’s the son of Han Solo!!!”)
However, when we look at the prequel trilogy and realise that Emperor Palpatine orchestrated both sides of a massive war to bring himself into absolute power, these layers of bluff are actually quite consistent. The rebel alliance had to come together somehow — so wouldn’t it just be sooo poetic if the Empire, in trying to crush resistance, actually ended up crystallising it?
Yes, the even further twist in the tale is that Darth Vader was double-bluffing his apprentice all along. This plan to find and kill dissidents is actually the Emperor‘s plan, with Darth Vader’s pretence of secrecy merely another charade. He betrayed Starkiller to give him the perfect cover to be set loose to ingratiate himself with the would-be rebels, and gather them together for the slaughter.
Now this second twist does slightly undermine Vader’s turmoil, because it means that his earlier talk of killing the Emperor wasn’t honest after all… Or, well, we can read it either way I suppose. The best deceptions always grow around a grain of truth, don’t they?
So after betrayal number two (the real betrayal), Starkiller swoops into the half-built Death Star to rescue the rebellion leaders, who didn’t know each other before but definitely do now. Starkiller dies in the (canon) end, sadly without fulfilling his romantic destiny with his pilot — this is one unambiguously ballsy move, to not deliver on the obligatory awkward video-game sex scene, even though it hurts me deep inside to see an unfulfilled romance sub-plot. Everybody skips into the sunset to begin the rebellion and live happily ever after.
The canonicity of The Force Unleashed is of course in question now. I believe it was an official “hypermedia event” at the time, to be one of many comics and books and who knows what else; but then again, George Lucas himself had no creative input to the game and, when asked for some, famously suggested that Starkiller be dubbed “Darth Insanius” or “Darth Icky” (not that Starkiller is a great name either, but he’s never actually named in the game at all). There was even a Lego model of Starkiller’s ship the Rogue Shadow, and I have to admit, it was a toss up between that and General Grievous’ Starfighter for crimbo that year (the Lego version of the Rogue Shadow is waaay cooler than the in-game one).
I suppose my take-away thought is that, occasional bouts of crassness aside, the story of The Force Unleashed is one that fills a hole that perhaps did suggest the need for filling. The formation of the rebel alliance, much like the fall of the Republic expounded in the prequel trilogy, is a tale that naturally lends itself to expression. It fits.
Game’s not bad either, but also not great. Plays a million miles better with a controller than mouse and keyboard though, that’s for sure.