Blog 699: The Force Unleashed

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's a spectacular game at the best of times, but then you spend all the spectacles focused on quick-time event prompts and not paying attention to the action.

It’s a spectacular game at the best of times, but then you spend all the spectacles focused on quick-time event prompts and not paying attention to the action.

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.

If in doubt, Force Lightning.

If in doubt, Force Lightning.

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”!

These are disappointingly not labelled Flametroopers.

These are disappointingly not labelled Flametroopers.

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.

Purge Troopers are monstrous arseholes. If they'd used these in the original trilogy, all ground ops would have been over much sooner (actually this still works because there weren't that many ground-based ops in the films for their absence to be inconsistent).

Purge Troopers are monstrous arseholes. If they’d used these in the original trilogy, all ground ops would have been over much sooner (actually this still works because there weren’t that many ground-based ops in the films for their absence to be inconsistent).

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?

Maybe singlehandedly battling a Star Destroyer is taking it a little too far.

Maybe singlehandedly battling a Star Destroyer is taking it a little too far.

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).

Though as in Revenge of the Sith, the fight against the Emperor is hideous and makes him into a caricature.

Though as in Revenge of the Sith, the fight against the Emperor is hideous and makes him into a caricature.

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.

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8 thoughts on “Blog 699: The Force Unleashed

  1. I never got used to the quick-time events. I have no idea why anyone decided these would be a good game mechanic. Pressing specific buttons in a specific order at a specific speed kinda took me out of the game, out of the story. It’s like an old FMV scene from a 90’s game, but with a half-assed attempt at making it interactive. I got to the point where I just didn’t feel it was worth continuing.

    As far as the Anakin/Vader’s apprentice idea (and the formation of the rebellion) goes, I kinda like the way Clone Wars and Rebels did it – I find the character of Ahsoka to be more compelling than Starkiller, ending up being neither a Jedi nor Sith.

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    • The quick-time events are murderous, but they’re not as bad as some other games because at least here your failures just flow back to the start of the sequence rather than killing you (I’m thinking of The Witcher 2’s Kayran fight, where if you miss one QTE you die and have to go all the way back to the start of the entire boss). But yes, kind of pointless and annoying — and half the time Starkiller’s actions don’t even match what you pressed (e.g. it asks for lightning but he also does a double back-flip first).

      I haven’t watched any Clone Wars or Rebels, I wonder which one is now canon? Neither?

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      • ‘Clone Wars’ and ‘Rebels’ are canon (a character from ‘Clone Wars’ and the ships from ‘Rebels’ have cameo appearances in ‘Rogue One’)
        – but ‘Force Unleashed’ is now part of “the legends” (ie non-canon, but it’s still pretty cool).

        A lot of “legends” material is being re-made into canon again, with different backstories (such as Admiral Thrawn from the books, or planet Malachor from the ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ games)…

        Having said that I can’t see Starkiller ever being made canon; it’s Anakin’s apprentice Ahsoka who establishes the rebellion (having had previous experience of doing this in the Clone Wars… with the character played by Forrest Whittaker in ‘Rogue One’). So we do still have Vader’s apprentice establishing the rebels (kinda), just not the way this game does it.

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      • It’s probably for the best. Much as I’ll appreciate this for what it is, it’s still far too fanfictiony and I think we’d all rather something a bit more chunky.

        Besides, they only establish the ‘Rebel Alliance’ with about three people in The Force Unleashed — I’d imagine it would work better with… a few more than that.

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      • Rebels shows it’s established by people connecting disparate cells together, providing support and information when possible.
        It also shows how Imperial strategy shifts to deal with it – from local civilian governors to a more amped-up military response. (In turn producing moles and defectors who didn’t sign up for that sort of thing.)

        It’s slow-burn, and more juvenile than Clone Wars, but at least it’s not three or four people getting together, high-fiving, and suddenly a rebellion happens. It’s more about things getting worse and worse until people reach breaking point.

        (I tend to regard all the EU/Legends stuff as professional fan fiction, even the good stuff!)

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      • Yeah, that sounds way better… almost the way a rebellion might form under a tyrannous government in the real world. :O

        I should probably get the box set of these things at some point. I haven’t managed to play the KoTORs yet either. 😦

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      • KoTOR 1 is still bloody great, regardless of its age!
        KoTOR 2 was rushed out and suffered for it – but fan mods have restored the cut material.
        And instead of a third game, we were give the MMORPG The Old Republic, which I’d rather just be able to play offline, single-player (online, it’s a grind and the free play means the connection kept kicking me out of the game…)

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      • Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of really good things about The Old Republic’s narrative and whatnot, but absolutely nothing of interest about the game. “You can solo it” they say, but stuff that, I want my offline solo to be offline solo thank you very much. I think I was waiting for the original KoTORs to appear on gog.com because I missed boxed GOTYE copies at the time…

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