The first narrative-focused Star Wars game in nearly a decade, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, puts players in control of a former Jedi Padawan named Cal Kestis who, as a child, survived Order 66, the command that turned the Clone Troopers against their allies and led to the near-total destruction of the Jedi. The focus of this game is mostly on over the top action, but I found that certain beats of the story were incredibly impactful, especially because being in control of the character led me to be inexorably involved with their experience.
The game picks up several years after Order 66, with Cal working an honest labor job while hiding both his Jedi past and abilities until tragedy leads him to reveal himself. It doesn’t take long at all for him to embrace his Jedi abilities and dive back in to the fight between the forces of Light and Darkness.
As the game progresses, the player gains access to few new Force abilities for Cal to master. Each time, it’s framed that Cal is remembering these skills from his former training, with the sudden remembrance built into the narrative by having the player guide Cal through a flashback to his childhood training with his master, Jaro Tapal.
These sequences are a great way to introduce the new Force abilities to the player in a way that makes sense to the narrative, but since each flashback is basically just Jaro and young Cal in a training room practicing, there’s not a whole lot of narrative development within the flashbacks.
Eventually, you finish unlocking new abilities with Cal saying something like, “That’s it, I now know how to do everything I could back then.” Imagine my surprise, then, when a bit further into the game the familiar transition to a flashback sequence started up again.
Right away, I could tell something was different this time. Instead of the familiar training room, young Cal was standing in a dormitory. For a few seconds, I was confused, until I realized there was only one reason the game would bring me back to this more innocent time in Cal’s life after I’d finished unlocking abilities this way: I was about to experience Order 66 first hand.
Cal was being summoned by Jora Tapal to the training room, so I cautiously walked out of the dormitory and along clean sterile hallways to that destination. Along the way, I passed several Clone Troopers, and brief snippets of conversation with them made it clear that these weren’t just comrades in arms to Cal, they were his friends.
In the training room, Jora Tapal and a Clone Commander waited in a booth for me to complete a final test in my training. Cal was ecstatic at this point, excited to leave the training environment and see real action in the war. I just watched the Clone Trooper with dread, knowing what was coming.
While Jora Tapal congratulated Cal, the Trooper received a message. The Emperor commanding “Execute Order 66” was barely audible in the background. I tensed up, knowing that, while Cal would be fine, Jora Tapal would not survive the next few minutes and… the Master sensed the betrayal just in time to cut the Clone down and start planning an escape.
For the next few minutes of the game, I had to guide Young Cal through narrow passageways to try to reach an escape pod, all while Jora Tapal barked orders at me while battling Clone Troopers in more open environments.
Cal was scared, and because I knew how this had to end, so was I. Cal was hesitant because of his fear, and I was hesitant because I knew that pushing the narrative forward was only going to lead this boy to losing the most important figure in his life.
I’ve seen looming tragedy like this in plenty of narratives, from books to tv shows and movies. Knowing that something terrible is coming builds up tension in the audience, and is a great way to help them connect their emotions to those of the characters in the story.
In this, though, being not just able to relate to Cal but in control of him, I was more connected with his experience than with characters in non-interactive media. All Cal wanted to do was hide, even though he knew that he had to reach that escape pod to survive, and for just a moment I stopped moving him forward and let myself hide from the tragedy I knew was coming, even though I knew that Reaching that escape pod was the only way to progress the story.
I love narratives in all forms, but moments like this are why the stories in video games will always have a higher potential for emotional impact than any other media. The best examples of watching a character’s experience will never, ever be able to reach the heights of having to push them through that experience yourself, even if it is just with the push of a button.