The Last Jedi: Themes Critique

***Yar! Here Be Spoilers!***

 

 

It’s too bad that JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson got into an argument about what Star Wars is about, because it makes for a somewhat jarring viewing experience. At least, it did for me, and I get the impression it did for a significant number of other fans as well. JJ did his stupid “mystery box” thing, and then Rian Johnson came and said “Fuck you and your mystery boxes,” basically. There are at least a half dozen huge questions that The Force Awakens asks, some explicitly but all quite clearly, which Rian Johnson just has no interest in answering. He had another agenda entirely, which was fine, but I wish they had worked more closely with one another.

The Last Jedi was in many ways a repudiation of what came before it: Episode 8 versus Episodes 1-7. It is an iconoclastic film in the Star Wars legendarium, and it only had two and a half hours during which to smash expectations and tropes. As a result, I think there were a number of themes touched upon that I would have liked to have seen explored more fully.

Unmasking

Early in the film, we have Kylo smashing his faux-Vader mask in another fit of rage. We get to see a bit of Gwendolyn Christie’s blue eye through the smashed chrome helmet at the end of her fight with Fin. We have a bit of unmasking on Casino Planet (Canto Bight), when Fin realizes the ugly nature of the beautiful place he sees. Supreme Leader Snoke himself could have been unmasked. This theme of unmasking could have been explored more deeply, and could have provided a bit of connective thread in a movie that was very busy severing connective threads with not only The Force Awakens but also every previous Star Wars film. If someone sets out to tell a story that defies strongly-established tropes, one also needs to offer something in place of those tropes, like a strong, consistent theme explored from multiple angles.

Hidden Origins

The Force Awakens asked a lot of pretty explicit questions: who were Rey’s parents? What happened between Luke and Ben Solo? Where did those other students of Luke’s go? How did Ben Solo become Kylo Ren? Who is Supreme Leader Snoke? How is the First Order related to the Empire? How is the Resistance related to the Rebellion? Why did Luke go into hiding?

The Last Jedi clearly did not care about most of these questions. Of course, a few answers are offered. Luke had a moment when he thought he might murder Ben Solo and put an end to the growing influence of darkness in him (which just made no sense, I’m sorry), and subsequently returned to the birthplace of the Jedi to die of old age. Rey’s parents are (allegedly) nobodies who died in a pauper’s grave on Jakku. Those are unsatisfying answers, though at least the answer about Rey’s parentage ties directly into one of the core themes of the film, which we’ll talk about below.

I think this lack of thematic development around hidden origins would have been less of a problem if the directors had worked together more closely, or at least had not been at cross purposes. Those are a lot of huge questions, and only the question of Rey’s parentage is answered in a way that makes sense. Otherwise, there is just a cosmic shrug. Who cares who Snoke was, he’s dead. Who cares where the First Order came from, they’re here and inexplicably threatening, despite being led by a man who throws tantrums and an incompetent Hux. The Resistance is just the Rebellion with a new name for no good reason. Who cares where Luke’s other students are, they’ll show up in a video game or something.

Light and Dark End to become Balance

My impression of the progress of the story isn’t so much that Light and Dark must end, but rather light and dark changing shape somewhat but moving ahead, still in direct opposition. Kylo Ren might want to end the Sith, but he did the archetypal Sith thing, which is to betray and kill his master. He’s Sith through and through, whatever he might say. And Rey similarly does the archetypal Light-side thing, as we’ve seen with Obi-wan Kenobi and Luke, in that she ignores the instruction of her master and goes off half-cocked to save the world.

I was honestly expecting more nuance between Kylo and Rey. I expected Kylo to reveal more layers, and I expected Rey to be more tempted by what she was presented with. I could see Rey, disillusioned entirely by Luke, being more willing to hear a more-reasonable Snoke out. Maybe more actively consider joining Kylo to kill Snoke.

Luke and Rey said a lot of eloquent things about balance, but Kylo and Rey basically lived out the old pattern – a little Return of the Jedi and then a little Empire Strikes Back. But the whole second half of the film would have been even more interesting if Kylo and Rey had been a bit more grey.

Skywalkers with Power become Tyrants

Luke almost deciding to murder the only child of his sister and best friend just makes no damn sense. I’m sorry. No work was put in to explain why that would suddenly be in his character. It was there for the shock, and the iconoclasm, and to add some “See, Kylo has a point” to the story. But the filmmakers didn’t do the work to earn that moment.

They could have, though. What do we know of the Skywalkers? Anakin became the most famous villain in the galaxy. Leia actually seems to remain herself through her story, and would perhaps be the exception that proves the rule. Kylo is a mini-Vader, prone to ultraviolance and temper-tantrums. So what if we presented the theme that, actually, when Skywalkers get power, especially power through the Force, they become tyrants? What if we saw Luke, well-intentioned but without guidance from any other Jedi, slowly become more harsh and unyielding and doctrinaire? What if we saw Kylo eclipse him, winning the students over because he gives into his darker urges more readily than Luke, and this gives him greater power?

Any of these options could have been handled with a five-minute montage, at most. Probably one much shorter. And then when Luke and Kylo come to blows, Kylo wins, thinks he has killed Luke, burns his temple to the ground. Luke, maybe in voiceover, realizes that there is something corrupt about the Skywalker line and its relationship to the Force, and so that’s why he goes into hiding – to quarantine himself. He thinks he might even corrupt Leia, which is why he just ghosts her for years.

That would have been an amazing revelation to put on screen. Yes, this is the story of the Skywalker dynasty, but it is the story of the galaxy defeating the Skywalker dynasty, because they are inclined to become tyrants when they develop Force powers. So now we have the nobodies rising up, with their own power and their own agenda, to bring down the First Order and the Jedi – the last legacy of the Skywalkers themselves.

See? That’s how you earn that moment of shock and revelation.

The Last Jedi: 8 Better Ways to Have Handled Luke and Ben

***Yar! Here There Be Spoilers!***

 

 

 

I enjoyed The Last Jedi, but it is still a movie with problems. Some of those problems are minor, in my opinion – just flaws like every movie has. The slowest chase scene in the galaxy; no need for Phasma; that kind of thing. Others are problems that can be explained away: theorycraft around Holdo weaponizing hyperspace, and why that wouldn’t just become what everyone does in every space battle, for example.

One problem, though, is a core problem to the story. It can’t be explained away, I don’t think, and it does far more damage to the story than any good it might do. That problem is the big reveal of what happened between Luke and Ben Solo. It is, in a word, an utter failure. It is a moment that the film did not earn, or even attempt to explain. It comes at what is supposed to be an emotional climax for the film, and falls utterly flat. It violates what we the audience know, or think we know, in a way that isn’t subversive or iconoclastic but rather hand-wavey in the worst way.

I paused during a recent conversation online about this scene, and easily came up with eight ways this could have been handled much better.

  • All of these are about actually earning the moment where Luke makes his biggest mistake and falls from grace. Here are some ways they could have earned that moment, but kept the iconoclasm and subversion they were clearly going for:

Luke doesn’t wield power well, but is corrupted by it.

We all know power corrupts. Luke has at least a couple of decades during which he is a galactic hero, the only living Jedi, and during which there are no Sith anyone knows about. It doesn’t take a genius storyteller to tell the story of a hero falling from grace through hubris.

The galaxy is better off without Skywalkers.

Maybe go harder with this theme of subversion – the Star Wars saga so far has been explicitly about the Skywalker dynasty, but show that their dynasty is fundamentally corrupt. The whole idea of dynasties is corrupt. People demand heroes and Chosen Ones, and it always turns out awful in the end. Make the Skywalkers the emblematic example of this. Luke realizes that there is something wrong with a dynastic family that dominates the galaxy’s destiny for generations, and goes into hiding in order to end it all.

Snoke deceived Luke.

Snoke is there in the background, manipulating things. Maybe something Luke does, or fails to do, opens him up to Snoke’s influence. We already know that one Sith Lord can manipulate an entire Temple full of fully-trained Jedi. Maybe Snoke is ancient and knows Force secrets that Luke has hardly guessed at. Maybe this is how Snoke developed the Force-connection technique that he used on Kylo and Rey. And if Snoke deceived Luke at the height of Luke’s powers, then it’s really true that Luke can’t save the galaxy. Then who can? Oh, right, our new heroes. Rey has her Wonder Woman moment, is like “You can’t save the galaxy, but I can.” Bam. The baton is passed.

Luke buys into his own hype.

He comes to see himself the way the galaxy sees him – the hero and savior. But then Ben Solo demonstrates even greater power, even greater talent with the Force. He starts to sway Luke’s students away from him, and they start calling themselves the Knights of Ren. Luke can’t teach them, can’t compete with Ben. Ultimately, it comes to a head.

Luke is telling the truth, but Rey doesn’t believe him.

She feels she has this deep connection with Kylo, and that she can be the one to redeem him. Hell, it’s what Luke himself did with Vader! But “This won’t turn out the way you think!” She confronts Luke, they have their fight, and she leaves to go rescue Kylo. Later, Kylo reveals that it was actually worse than Luke thought. Luke was leaving things out, but it was to save Rey from the full horror of what happened. And damn, Kylo can play the long game, and isn’t just a tantrum-throwing dweeb. He manipulated Rey to get here right where he needed her for his coup. And Rey has learned that she can make big mistakes too, just like Luke. Character growth.

Any deep misunderstanding between Luke and Ben that isn’t stupid.

Delve more deeply into the lore and philosophy of the Jedi. Luke and Ben have very different experiences, very different takes on it. Ben doesn’t understand the danger of the Dark Side, perhaps, because he grew up in an era of the New Republic. He’s like a Baby Boomer, basically, born to affluence and taking it for granted. Kylo tries to stage a coup against Luke, but is defeated, because Luke is more of a baddass than we’d thought. This would also foreshadow his later coup against Snoke, and echo the tradition of Sith betraying their masters. Luke decides that it is the philosophy itself that is incomplete, or fatally flawed.

Luke is too dogmatic.

Luke tries to rebuild the Jedi temple and religion as it was before Palpatine’s purge. He works from ancient Jedi texts that he barely understands. And remember that Luke himself was barely trained at all. He was basically a very skilled, too-old padawan who had the advantage of being Darth Vader’s son and the galaxy’s literal only hope left. But he wasn’t a master in the way that Obi-Wan was, or Yoda was. He could come to embody everything bad about a college sophomore – overconfident about his shallow understanding. Maybe he realizes, too late, that the Jedi philosophy is fundamentally flawed. The Light gives rise to the Dark (as Snoke intimated in TLJ) inevitably. But his realization comes too late to save poor Ben Solo. Because Luke holds back in their inevitable fight, he ends up buried under rubble and utterly dejected. And that explains why he decides to go to the first Jedi temple to ensure that no one makes his mistake ever again.

Han and Leia are not good parents.

This would be more iconoclasm, and was already strongly implied by The Force Awakens. Han is back to scoundrel-ing, and Leia is a Big Damn Leader now, and maybe neither had time for little Ben. They sent him off to study with Uncle Luke when all he wanted was love and attention. Maybe Luke sticks up for Ben’s parents, is offended by Ben’s bitterness, and Ben has his first Force-powered tantrum, burning down the temple. This explains a lot of how Kylo is presented – desperate for Snoke to be the father he never had. Easily manipulated. Unable to control his emotions or deal with frustration and setbacks. And it ends up being precisely what Luke manipulates in their climactic showdown. It explains why Kylo had no idea Luke was an illusion the whole time.

All of these are better than what we got in The Last Jedi, and I’m not even that good of a writer. I think these ideas pull in the core themes of TLJ better, and connects this core moment to other parts of the film. I think when I re-watch, in the back of my mind I’ll just think about these and other alternatives when this scene comes up, and imagine the better moment that could have been.

What are preferable ways to handle this falling out that you’ve come up with?

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #3

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Still drawing from that idea document that I maintain, these are further game mechanic ideas that I like. Feel free to take these, use them, adapt them or hack them for your own games.

Advantage and Disadvantage with Fate Dice

As written, Fate Core allows you to use Aspects to add a +2 bonus to rolls after the fact, or to re-roll. I thought of another way to represent an advantage in a Fate roll, this time before the fact. In some of my Fate-based designs, I have a player set aside one of their four dice, and set it to a “+” or “-” ahead of time. This not only grants a bonus that is approximately equivalent to the +2 from an Aspect, it also reduces the amount of swing that is possible in the roll. With only three dice, the worst that can happen with the advantage is that three dice come up “-“, or a total of just -2. I also like how visible the bonus (or penalty) is on the table, and I think of it as similar to D&D 5th Edition’s advantage/disadvantage mechanic.

Using the Force or Magic Skill

One of the things I like about skill systems in RPGs is when you have to make a limited number of selections from a list, all of which are desirable options. (No dump stats or skills in our designs, please) One of the things I’d like to see more explicitly is treating magic, or whatever your equivalent is, as a skill, meaning that you have to commit time and practice to magic, and that time and practice does not go elsewhere. You have the super-skill, so you lack the other skills a mundane person would have.

Specifically, I have in mind Jedi in the Star Wars universe, who tend to be better than everyone at everything, and to also have magic powers. Rey is an example of this, but so is Luke, and Anakin or Obi-wan before him. They are fantastic at every action-hero thing they try, and also have the Force on top of that. I much prefer Force-users, or magic-users, as specialists who have an arcane, occult, rare specialty, and I think that games should reflect this by making the choice to have magic powers a choice with a cost.

Elvish Skills

I have an idea for a game from the point of view of elves, or of other beings who have very long lives compared to humans. In this game, there will only be three levels of skill to reflect the kind of mastery an elf might achieve (assuming D&D elvish lifespans): one year of skill, ten years of skill, and a hundred years of skill. I like there being a level of mastery that is simply unattainable for shorter-lived beings, and also reflecting the idea of some diminishing return in gaining skills. The differences in skill become very small at the highest level in any field, it seems. But I like the idea of a setting where these very long lives matter, and where the most highly skilled elves could simply clown the most highly skilled humans or others. It’s a challenge to build a game around this fundamental unbalance, but is fun to think about.

My Princess

Derrick says it better than I can, so I’ll just let him say it here too:

derricklweston

This year seems to be unprecedented for celebrity deaths. It started, as I recall with David Bowie right around my birthday and continued on with the likes of Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, and of course, Prince. All of these deaths have touched me on some level as I have been moved by the art of these people in some form or fashion. The arts touch our lives at a deep primal level and we rightfully esteem those who can move us to laugh, cry sing, dance, and contemplate. I have had a level of appreciation for many artists that has brought me to a place of mourning on more than one occasion.

Today is different. Today Carrie Fisher passed away. She had a massive heart attack on a plane coming from the UK to Los Angeles a couple of days ago. Yesterday it was said that…

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Stealing from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Star Wars: Edge of the Empire

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I just had an interesting idea that I thought I would put out there. Both WFRP and Edge of the Empire, by Fantasy Flight Games, use a custom dice mechanic that allows for an interesting result on top of fail/succeed. Each has a mechanic that governs fate – a special type of die that gives an overall “this goes well” or “this goes badly” result. What this means is that you can succeed on the die-roll, but then get the “this goes badly” result on top of that, so you succeed but in another way things escalate. On the other hand, you can fail, but get the “this goes well” result on the additional die-roll, meaning that you fail but you ‘fail forward’, or your failure opens up some new possibility.

The interpretation of both is up to the GM running the game, but I really like this idea. It also allows for something like “critical success” or “critical failure”. When you succeed and get the “this goes well” result, it goes REALLY well. If you fail and get the “this goes badly”…well, you get the picture.

This mechanic struck me as a great way to tie story more deeply into die-results, or as a prompt for less-experienced GMs perhaps. It gives you a cue as to when you move the story forward – in a beneficial or challenging way, either of which is interesting. I like this mechanic a lot, but I don’t want to have to have custom dice for every game I play.

What occurred to me is that there are a number of ways to solve this problem, and to add this overall ‘fate’ mechanic to any dice-driven game. One option is to roll a FUDGE die with every roll, where a + is beneficial, a – is a new difficulty, and the blank side is just blank. To make the benefit or difficulty less likely, you might roll two dFs, and require a ++ or — result.

This could really be done with any die, though. You could roll a d8, and if it is a 1 you get the difficulty, and if it is the 8 you get the benefit. And so on.

(I’m currently poking around with a rough system for Dragonblade, and it uses a 2d8 mechanic. In the system, if you roll two 4s, that is ‘bad luck’, because in various dialects of Chinese, the number 4 sounds like the word “death”, and as a result the number 4 is widely considered unlucky. If you roll two 8s, that’s lucky, because 8 is a prominent number in Chinese philosophy, coming up in places like the I-Ching and the Eightfold Path. 8 is a lucky number in the way that 4 is unlucky. 6 is also a lucky number in Chinese culture, generally speaking, but I liked the parity between 4 and 8. Anyway, the two 4s vs two 8s mechanic is in part inspired by the cool mechanics I see in WFRP and Edge of the Empire.)

What I like about this is that it ports a mechanic that I think adds a lot to a game, which most games do not have, into any game in which you want to use it. Most games that come to mind could potentially benefit from this mechanic, especially ‘traditional’ task-resolution style games where you only roll to hit/miss, succeed/fail.