I’d Rather Play a “Star Wars Story” Than Watch One
I didn’t hate SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY, which is certainly more than I can say about the other “Star Wars Story” that Disney has fed us so far. It really helped that that the rogues in this movie were actually puckish and charming, rather than brooding, self-righteous scumbags. (Note to screenwriters: don’t introduce one of your movie’s central heroes with him shooting his buddy in the back.) Even if the action never surpasses “competent,” or the characters beyond “existent,” SOLO manages to remain entertaining throughout. Leaving the theater, however, all I could think about was how much better the film would be as a video game.
The entire concept of the Star Wars Story isn’t so much Disney blazing a new trail for the franchise as much as it is filling the void they created by obliterating the Expanded Universe. It’s a shame, since this largely defunct wealth of lore is responsible for some of the best material in Star Wars. ROGUE ONE was praised by fans for its gritty, military-focused take on the universe, but REPUBLIC COMMANDO was already doing a much better job of that over a decade prior. Critics lauded THE LAST JEDI’s unprecedentedly nuanced take on the light and dark sides of the Force, but both of the KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC titles had staked this claim much earlier as well. Even SOLO, ostensibly the first Star Wars movie to star one of the universes’ criminal elements, was beaten to the punch before a large chunk of its audience was even born by Kyle Katarn of the Jedi Knight series and SHADOWS OF THE EMPIRE’s Dash Rendar.
Concept art from STAR WARS 1313. The game would have been spent exploring the underworld of Coruscant between Episodes III and IV, during Boba Fett’s early years as a bounty hunter. The project was cancelled after Disney acquired the Star Wars IP and laid off most of the LucasArts staff.
Each of these post-Disney Star Wars movies proved to be divisive among different sections of the community, but generally for the same reasons: dabbling in subjects ill-suited for cinematic treatment. The games I listed caught none of this flak. As existing outside the central film series, they were granted leniency in their experimentations with the established formula.
Of course, this isn’t to say that Disney should put the kibosh on all Star Wars movies, but rather reevaluate what they want to achieve with them. If the prequels taught us anything, it’s that Star Wars movies have historically done better with fewer moving parts, but the “Stories” in particular change tracks so often that they’re barely coherent. It’s games, not movies, that excel most at juggling these disparate threads, so while the big battles are best suited for the big screen, big narratives would be better served with a controller in hand.
A chief aspect of any Star Wars adventure is in the world(s) that serves as its venue. If I am going to dive into the world of the enigmatic smuggler, I’d rather it be on my own terms, at my own pace. SOLO is filled with superficially interesting characters and some exotic locales, but never takes the time to really explore them. The movie begins on Corellia, a pivotal world that crops up plenty of times in Star Wars lore, but had previously never before been captured on screen. Corellia is the shipbuilding hub of the galaxy—nearly all of those iconic battleships and starfighters you know and love rolled off an assembly line from that planet. But you wouldn’t get that from just watching the movie. Sure, SOLO’s opening shot shows an Imperial Star Destroyer under construction, but it’s nothing we haven’t already seen on a much grander scale on the likes of Coruscant or Geonosis.
Artwork from STAR WARS: EDGE OF THE EMPIRE, one of three standalone modules for Fantasy Flight Games’ STAR WARS ROLEPLAYING GAME. This particular module focuses on smugglers and pirates operating in the Outer Rim during the Galactic Civil War.
If Star Wars Stories are truly meant to open up the less-traveled sectors of the galaxy to a wider audience, then they’re doing a pretty poor job of it so far. Outside of a hideously lit sewer system, SOLO doesn’t explore Corellia or its significance, despite devoting a fair amount of screentime to it. Like ROGUE ONE, SOLO is littered with all sorts of callbacks to both previous films and works that Disney has classified as “non-canon,” but to say they only scratch the surface would be an understatement. It’s little more than watching Ron Howard and Gareth Edwards play with pre-existing action figures, opting out of the sandbox malleability that has made Star Wars so popular.
Corellia is just one of many offhand references to the greater Star Wars universe that only “true fans” will get. Regardless of whether your interest in the franchise is casual or vested, you are unlikely to glean a deeper appreciation of the universe from a film that treats an entire planet as flippantly as yet another Holochess cameo. It’s a lose/lose situation: it’s bad filmmaking to bog your movie down with so many nostalgic shoutouts that they act to the plot’s detriment, and it’s bad fanservice not to do anything meaningful with said references.
Prototype build of Visceral’s untitled Star Wars game. Helmed by Amy Hennig, the creative director of the Uncharted series, it would have focused on “scoundrels in space” between Episodes IV and V. The project was reportedly canned by EA for not incorporating enough recognizable Star Wars elements.
Another example of why SOLO would work better as a game is in the action. Twice in the movie, we watch Han and Lando go at it in Sabacc, a card game with the stakes of poker, but none of its rules. The audience is never clued in to what the basics are, so when Han triumphantly flashes a piece of green paper, we have to assume from the table’s reaction that it’s a good hand. SOLO fumbles at making these matches compelling to follow, but could it have been any fun to play?
KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC featured a similar, fully-realized card game called Pazaak. A mix of Blackjack and Magic: The Gathering, Pazaak required a bit of explaining to master the basics, but once the player got the hang of it, they could start playing for credits, weapons, and other rewards. Some quests required the player to beat their opponent at Pazaak, usually with their lives on the line, and victory required both a keen understanding of the game and a shrewdly-built deck.
Pazaak featured defined terms that the player could follow, and was fun to boot. It would probably be just as boring to watch in a movie as Sabacc—no film could afford the runtime to offer a tutorial for it—but it’s a hoot and a half in an interactive format. If Han and Lando gambled over the Millenium Falcon in a more universally understood arena like a duel or race, that would translate much better to the big screen. Unfortunately, that would not only be out of character for either smuggler, but also incredibly tired among sci-fi fare in general. It’s a scene that just doesn’t play out on celluloid.
Concept of the Canto Bight Casino from THE LAST JEDI, a setting rife with ideas to develop for a Star Wars video game.
The final issue I have with SOLO as a movie is with the premise itself: we don’t (and shouldn’t) need to see the backstory of the Falcon’s enigmatic pilot. Han Solo is a grifter of the highest caliber, to be trusted only as far as he can be thrown. When he first meets Luke and Obi-Wan, it should be hard to determine just how tall his tales about the Kessel Run are. By fully illuminating his exploits, SOLO diminishes the legend of the man. In other words: I don’t want to know how the sausage is made.
A lot of this is thanks to the permanence of film. You can pause, rewind, and fast-forward SOLO, but the outcome will always be set in stone. Not so with a game. A sandbox title about Han’s early years could afford the player numerous options in how the smuggler made his mark on the galaxy. After all, Han only ever said he made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, not how he was able to accomplish that. Instead of escaping through the Akkadese Maelstrom, the player could try taking the Imperial blockade head-on, sneak by using asteroids and mining vessels as cover, or even hijacking another ship. Even a more linear, cinematic adventure would allow more elasticity in the player’s interpretation than a scripted movie.
No matter how much or little freedom an interactive SOLO would be, it would still grant the player agency that is absent in the movie. In doing so, the developers of such a project could guarantee that there is no “true” story of Solo’s origins—even the most similar playthroughs would have small differences, and would therefore be conflicting accounts. Disney could still have their underworld romp featuring the iconic outlaw, without tarnishing the mystique that surrounds him.
Concept art of the conveyex heist from SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY. I’m just saying, at one point Disney had the director of UNCHARTED 2, a train, and a virtual recreation of the damn thing in order to choreograph it. You do the math.
I’m more than ready to immerse myself once more in the seedy underworld of the Star Wars universe—the bars, cantinas, and criminal dens have consistently been my favorite set pieces of any of the movies—but the theater is not the place to do it. The problem is the ideal avenues for that kind of story have been all but shut down. Star Wars novels, though still being published, have been reclassified as “Star Wars Legends,” negating their position in the lore. Tabletop roleplaying games like the STAR WARS ROLEPLAYING GAME and IMPERIAL ASSAULT are alive and well, but come with the caveat of existing in an esoteric medium. Most significantly, Disney scrapped LucasArts and all projects attached to it soon after they took the reigns, handing the exclusive rights to make Star Wars games over to EA (and we all know how that’s been going). As much as I’d rather play SOLO, the chances of that actually happening are pretty slim.
There’s no doubt that if SOLO or even ROGUE ONE had been conceived a decade ago, they would have been video games, and ones far more memorable than the films we got at that. They’ve got all the makings of competent games: cardboard characters and flat sequences are often sufficient canvases for a player’s imagination, but really don’t hold up with a paying audience. Imagine for a moment a Star Wars-themed adventure game where you could tour the streets and watering holes of each planet at your leisure, actually sit down for a game of Sabacc or Dejarik between blaster fights, and frantically plan your own hyperspace routes while evading bounty hunters and Imperial patrols. It would be unlike any Star Wars game before it, and exactly what any fan of the universe would love to get their hands on. If we play our cards right, maybe one day Disney will listen, and we’ll get the game we want.