The end result is a collection of hollow characters seen through an extremely limited window into a galaxy far, far away. When it was first introduced in 1977, that galaxy stretched as far as your imagination. With the final Skywalker trilogy, it’s been compressed into a linear, narrow side-scrolling hallway.
The entire plot for “The Rise of Skywalker” is driven by fetch quests. The “fetch quest” is video game parlance for when the player is asked to see a “quest giver.” The giver would tell you to pick up an item of which the details are mostly unimportant to the plot. In games, fetch quests are often used to pad out the length of the game, giving players some illusion of value. Here they define the final installment of the final Skywalker trilogy.
First there’s Kylo Ren looking for a sparkly pyramid object to help him find someone. Our heroes begin their adventure when they receive information from a character telling them to find an object that will further guide their actions. They later realize they need to find yet another object, which is finally required to find the planet where they can ultimately complete their mission.
All of these quests are resolved with little to no tension. It’s as procedural as a game: Fight the mini-boss, fight the bigger boss, then finally vanquish the Big Bad. In “Skywalker,” none of these quests are driven by anything other than the desire to beat the final boss of the game, in this case, the reincarnated Emperor Palpatine.
Early video games relied on dynamics like the fetch quest because they needed to restrict the freedoms of players. While they gave you the illusion of controlling a character, you really were just guiding them through a set of events and settings predetermined by the developer. Outside of that path, nothing existed. Limiting the scope of a world for a player was a requirement. That, however, is the antithesis of what made Star Wars so great. The possibilities of such an expansive and untapped universe presented all kinds of options for storytellers. There was no need to restrict the scope of a tale. And yet that’s just what “Skywalker” does through its linear plot-driven script.
Because these quests are so poorly received by gamers, many game developers are trying to move beyond the antiquated “fetch” model of game design. “The Witcher 3″ is probably the most famous example of a game that offered many quests that provide a heaping amount of context, world building and character development.
In that game’s most famous quest, “The Bloody Baron,” players are asked to find someone’s wife. It’s a simple enough quest, not unlike Mario rescuing a princess. When you solve the mystery, you discover a heartbreaking tale of a man tortured by his ignorance, uncontrollable anger, alcoholism and depression. It involves visiting the scene of disturbing domestic violence, and absorbing information about the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy. In “The Bloody Baron,” the quest’s goal wasn’t the point, and the protagonist’s decisions will dictate not only the outcome, but the emotional impact on the audience.
“While creating a story, we always think about how to make it as close to real life as possible, how to make it believable," said Pawel Sasko, the quest’s lead designer, in a Kotaku interview. "And let’s be honest, in real life, nobody is only good and no one is simply evil. And that’s a good thing, because a black and white world would be plain boring — as would a black and white game.”
“Skywalker” appears to take great comfort in that stark contrast though, ultimately relegating its characters to the light or the dark based on plot-driven outcomes rather than character-driven choices. Almost every action by every character is dictated by a Macguffin. The rest of the universe — outside of the heroes, Kylo Ren and the series of quests — barely exists, which diminishes the tension of what’s supposed to be an impending, galaxy-scale catastrophe. And the film even breaks the rules of good quest design by nullifying the point of all the other quests. After chasing the coordinates of the planet all movie, Rey simply gets them handed to her.
This was the exact reason the casino sequence in “The Last Jedi” was so pilloried, because it was ultimately pointless.
“Skywalker” viewers are unwittingly being subjected to the kind of content most gamers already despise, all inside a universe that still refuses to engage beyond the black and white morality Sasko called boring.
The Macguffin chasing/fetch quests aren’t the only problem associated with bad gaming practices. There are also the “microtransactions” and DLC-like elements required to fully appreciate the main property. The modern day Star Wars moviegoer is now required to read the comic books and watch the old “Clone Wars” cartoon (now available on Disney+!) to fully appreciate the import of items and characters making sudden appearances in this universe.
Again, gamers are long familiar with this nickel-and-dime tactic. Square Enix’s Final Fantasy 15 famously launched with a mostly incomprehensible story. The game’s plot only became clearer once you consumed the awful “Kingsglaive” full-length feature film, starring “Breaking Bad” star Aaron Paul, as well as a five-part anime series. Bungie’s Destiny series asks players to comb through its lore on a website, rather than absorb that information by playing the game.
Sure, the experience of investing this much time and money can be satisfying and sometimes pays off. But it isn’t enough to have seen all eight movies before seeing this one. “The Rise of Skywalker” is overstuffed with references to the past, and also to future potential franchises and brand opportunities. It’s glaringly more obvious that these new films are not meant to be definitive, tell-all works, but rather a jumping-off point for other properties.
Who the heck is Zorii Bliss and why is she in this Star Wars movie? What’s her past with Poe Dameron? She has a smaller presence in the film than she does in a Vanity Fair article, which calls her a “dramatic new character." She’s less “dramatic,” and more a waste of time.
The film even references lines spoken by Palpatine from the Star Wars event within Fortnite, which add a bit more context to his actions in the film. It’s worth mentioning that Disney is an investor in Fortnite’s developer Epic Games.
If this is how it’s going to be, the least Hollywood could do is study up on best practices in game design. Disney already understands this, with the popular and loved “The Mandalorian,” which has drawn many favorable comparisons to video games. They could also knock on Respawn Entertainment’s door and ask how they wrote such a clean, character-rich and easy-to-follow script for Jedi: Fallen Order.
In that game, Cal Kestis also visits several planets chasing after silly magic items. But in between, the game finds space to breathe and let characters develop. There’s a moment in the game when Cal sits down to play a lute. He plays a tune he’s never heard, but somehow the notes leap from his fingers. The lute’s owner, Cere Junda, listens nearby. The two had just met.
“That song ... I wrote it years ago,” says Cere, played by Debra Wilson. “You touch an object and witness events connected to it. You feel its history. ... Not many Jedi have that skill.”
In that exchange, we learn several things about the world and its characters. We know that Cere was once a musician, and she’s very familiar with the ways of the Jedi. We know that Cal is exceptionally in tune with the Force, and in ways that are unlike other Jedi we’ve met in the Star Wars universe. And we know that certain Force-attuned people can see the memories of objects.
Seeing memories within inanimate objects is a rule of the Star Wars universe shown, but not explained in J.J. Abrams’s “The Force Awakens,” when Rey touched Luke’s lightsaber. It happens again, or appears to, when she receives Leia’s lightsaber. But there are simply too many characters, too many other stories to tell, too many toys to sell, for Abrams to take a breath to explain this and develop Rey’s character.
Video games often have a bad rep of catering to people with short to nonexistent attention spans. They have changed, asking more of players but providing a richer experience in return. Oh, that “Skywalker” did the same.
When video games began their ascent in the wake of Star Wars Episode IV, it was but the learner. Now, if we’re going to be stuck with this level of mass market multimedia corporate storytelling, Hollywood should at least take some time to learn from the Jedi masters of video game storytelling.