Sunday, 21 April 2019

Why Star Wars: Fallen Order is a Step Back for the Franchise

The Star Wars franchise has a long relationship with video games. The sheer number of video games based on the Star Wars universe over the years is too long to list. They have filled any number of genres from shooters to strategy games to RPGs. Heck, quite a few major game developers have at some point or another worked on a Star Wars title at least once. So strong was the interest in Star Wars games that there was even an entire company, fittingly titled LucasArts, that mainly released Star Wars games (though not exclusively, they did have releases also based on Indiana Jones and occasionally licensed original content).

Star Wars video games have also had a polarizing range of reception. Critical reactions have varied from games turning out to be the worst of the worst to beloved classics that end up being a huge influence on later games and even create their own fandoms. Probably the most famous example of the latter is the Knights of the Old Republic series of role-playing games, elements of which can be seen in many subsequent RPGs, including the later Mass Effect series by the same developers.

While Disney's purchasing of Star Wars did lead to some positive developments, this is one area in which it unfortunately had a negative impact. LucasArts was more or less completely shut down, and the video game rights to Star Wars went to Electronic Arts (EA). So far the only major releases by EA have been Battlefront I and II (which was a reboot of an older series by LucasArts), and a few mobile games. Hardly the output that LucasArts was once known for.

Adding to the frustration was EA becoming embroiled in a series of scandals, mostly involving their use of microtransactions. To make a long story short, EA had been using strategies designed to extort money out of players. This had happened in several of their major franchises, but it understandably shook confidence in their role in making Star Wars video games. Not helping were statements from EA saying that they were planning to stick to multiplayer games and ditch single-player storylines, even going as far as to shut down production on another game that was being made.

So admittedly many of us were surprised by the reveal of a new game- Star Wars: Fallen Order, which promised a single-player campaign which EA proudly boasted would be free of micro-transactions. Unfortunately, even if they are sincere about this part, their efforts to improve somehow only took them backwards in a different direction. According to the information that has been released, the game takes place between the prequel and original trilogies, following a former padawan trying to survive in the aftermath of the Jedi Purge in Revenge of the Sith. Could be some interesting opportunities here, not that the trailer said much beyond introducing our new hero.

Unfortunately, it is upon seeing the new hero (who is about the only thing the trailer bothered to tell us anything about), it quickly becomes clear that we have a new problem in effect. One of the more positive aspects of Disney buying Star Wars is a much greater effort at diversity than the original films. We saw this on multiple occasions. In The Force Awakens the two main characters are a woman and a black man (who also show no romantic interest in each other).

We also got the female protagonist Jyn Erso for Rogue One: A Star Wars story. Jyn was a complex anti-hero who eventually became a committed rebel who indirectly set Luke's entire journey into motion. We also can't forget that in the same film she was accompanied by a diverse group of partners from various backgrounds. This is obviously a huge step up from the six films overseen by George Lucas, in which the majority of focus was on white men (Leia and Padme being exceptions).

We can also see this going further in some of the material outside the films. Star Wars Rebels made a firm point of introducing a diverse group of characters for its main cast. Its supporting cast also included a variety of both male and female characters of different ethnicity on both sides of the force. Ezra may have been the entry point to the series, but as it went on it turned more into an ensemble cast that often shifted the focus between different characters. As as a result, it's female characters of Hera and Sabine had their share of moments in the spotlight. If anything, those two were probably the best part of the show.

So imagine our disappointment when the trailer for Star Wars: Fallen Order was revealed and we learn that our protagonist is... yet another white man. Seriously, of all the choices they could have made, they went with this. They could have taken the opportunity to introduce a strong female lead, or a non-white protagonist, maybe a non-caucasian female, or at the very least make use of the numerous aliens that populate the Star Wars galaxy. Alternatively, they could have added in a character customization system, allowing the player to create their own character (i.e. a character they feel comfortable playing as)

But no, we get stuck with generic white man Cal Kestis, whose face is put onto every shot the game has to offer. The game barely shows us anything other than this generic mug that we've no doubt seen on a thousand other protagonists. The trailers don't even give us a sense of any other characters besides him, so it's hard to even be completely sure if they at least have a diverse supporting cast. This is absurd.

About ten years ago, it might have been possible to get away with this type of practice, as some games from that era show. But this is not that time. The days of masculine heroes made by developers who assumed they were marketing to guys are over. In this day and age we need a more diverse array of heroes. We've seen it work with other franchises that have traditionally been male-dominated, why not here?

The Call of Duty franchise, for instance, has had a long history of stories centered on male bonding. The first few games took place during World War II, and generally revolved on male soldiers (with the exception of Tanya Pavelovna in Finest Hour), and there were next to no female characters across the Modern Warfare games. Black Ops didn't have much either, and Black Ops II only had a female civilian who has to be protected by men. Advanced Warfare actually had a female soldier as one of the players' allies. Black Ops III on the other hand allowed the player to choose their character's sex (though there was a somewhat confusing plot about how they actually died at the beginning of the game but had their consciousness uploaded into another guy's brain), as well as multiple female supporting characters. This pattern has generally continued through subsequent games.

Far Cry is another great example. One of the many ways Far Cry 2 has aged poorly (aside from its weak attempt at a twist ending) is the fact that the player is given nine different playable characters to choose from, all of whom can be encountered in the game as so-called "buddies," and all of whom are male. The thing is, in addition to those characters, there are three female "buddies" that function more or less the same as the males, and yet they are excluded from the players' selection.

This is especially frustrating when one realizes that it could easily have been done. The entire game is experienced in the first person, and whichever character the player chooses remains silent throughout. This literally means that the only animation that would have to change would be the two arms in front of the camera. They might have to have to record some alternate lines of dialogue where gender-specific pronouns are used, but it would have been entirely feasible.

Why did they not choose to make the female characters playable? I don't know if there's a specific reason, but my guess is such a possibility didn't cross the minds of the developers. They were working in a different time when they were probably more accustomed to seeing male heroes and assumed that the majority of players of their game would be men who would want to play as a man.

The good news for the Far Cry series is that the developers actually learned from their mistakes and began working to improve. Contrast the absurdly masculine tone of Far Cry 2 with the more open-minded structure of Far Cry 5, released ten years later. This time around, the developers had started to realize that they needed to better represent a diverse fanbase. Not only did they include a diverse group of supporting characters, they also added full customization so the player could create the character they felt comfortable with, including options to be female and/or non-caucasian.

Dishonored managed it in record time. The first game took place in a patriarchal society inspired by the Industrial Revolution, but once the developers heard requests for more diversity they quickly got on top of it. In the two downloadable campaigns featuring Daud, the developers made a firm investment in trying to add a mix of both male and female characters of different ethnicities (including Billie Lurke, who was later revealed to be bisexual). Dishonored 2 did one better, letting the player choose between two different characters, either once again playing as Corvo (the male protagonist of the first game) and his daughter Emily Kaldwin.

While Assassin's Creed has had an extremely diverse cast of NPCs one can't help but notice that the player characters are largely male. It took five games before we got our first female protagonist (and even then, only in the spin-off game Liberation). This is obviously something that had fans annoyed for a while, but the developers listened. After some backlash towards a few remarks about the lack of female assassins in the multiplayer missions for Assassin's Creed: Unity, Ubisoft began working on finding more diversity for players.

In Assassin's Creed: Syndicate the player rotates between the twins Jacob and Evie Frye, and can pretty much choose whichever they want while exploring its world (though specific missions require the player to be one or the other). The bulk of Assassin's Creed: Origins sees the player controlling a black man, the medjay Bayek, with sections in which his wife Aya becomes playable. Odyssey actually lets the player choose between a male and female version of the player character to allow players to choose whichever sex they feel more comfortable playing.

So if these games are any indication, we are living in a changing world in which we need to work on increasing representation of different people. The fact that these franchises began as predominantly masculine is not okay, which is exactly why the developers behind them have been hard at work trying to make them better. It's the same with genres, too. Notice for instance the diversity of a multiplayer shooter like Rainbow Six: Siege and Overwatch, unlike older models such as the Counter Strike series and Team Fortress 2 (both of which lack female playable characters).

And from there we once again find ourselves with this disgusting brown-haired pretty boy Cal Kestis. After all the effort we've seen from the rest of the Star Wars franchise, and from other gaming franchises, we're once again stuck with a generic white male (and probably straight) hero. All this seems to indicate is that EA has learned nothing from other franchises, including its own. One would think they would be willing to consider adding diversity after the popularity of the Fifa series (which actually added women's teams) and Battlefield V (which was promised to make a point of showing the contributions of women in World War II, even placing a woman on the cover). Evidently, that is not the case.

And all we really know about him is that he's just a generic white male who's going to go on some epic journey and do something. We literally know nothing about the character beyond his face. He is bland, dull, and completely unappealing as a hero. Why couldn't we have a strong female lead or, better yet, the option to create our own protagonist for this journey? As it stands, if Star Wars: Fallen Order hopes to prove us all wrong, EA had better get their act together.

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