Always A Bigger Fish is David McNeill’s column about Star Wars, fascism, and describing the monsters that devour us.
Early on in Jedi Survivor Cal Kestis reunites with Greez, long time friend and gruff father figure. Cal is eager to gear up and get back into the mix with The Empire, but Greez forces him to slow down. Rest.
Cal reclines in the basement of Greez’s saloon. He sleeps for a time, woken by Greez. And for the first time I notice how worn Cal is. Threadbare, travel stained jacket. Beard growing out of control. He sits up. A powerful warrior, but a thin imitation of the bubbly, enthusiastic kid I remember. Greez sits next to him, and asks if he’s okay. Cal shrugs him off. And then in a moment of pure vulnerability, Greez prods further: have you thought about what to do after this war on The Empire? Have you thought about, well, finding a home? Trapped so fully by his role in the revolution Cal can only stare at this possibly with numb detachment. In large part because Greez is right. Cal is, unknowingly, at a crossroads. His friends have all left. His allies die around him. If he doesn’t consider what’s after, he will only be what is in-between. He will become nothing but a weapon, pointed at the oppressors. He will burn his life, watch as the ground vanishes underfoot bloody engagement after bloody engagement, until he discovers there’s nothing left but the war and the tools of the enemy he wields.
If the question of Fallen Order was can Cal find himself as a warrior in the battle against the fascistic Empire, Jedi Survivor asks if that is all he is capable of.
Cal speaks constantly in the game. As he moves through spaces infected by The Empire’s industry or landscapes overwhelmed by nature, he delivers asides to his companions when present, or more often than not, to his droid companion BD-1. BD will bleep bloop back in binary. These barks range from context specific in quests to generic asides like “oh man that was a close one” and they are endless. Cameron Monaghan laid down what must be a hundred hours of audio for Cal in the game, but as the plot unravels, he’s never allowed to really say anything. Nowhere is this better illustrated than a conversation with the rogue sharp-shooter of the story, Bode.
Cal and Bode are on an Indiana Jones adventure through a reclaimed Separatist Battleship. They work through the bones of the burned out vessel. As they go, they speak about the strangeness of being in the place. Of how the reprogrammed droids never shut the hell up. Cal even calls them clankers, a cute Clone Wars reference. While breaking through a door, Bode hesitates. Turns to face Cal.
“So you seem happy now that Merrin’s on board?” Bode asks.
“I guess,” Cal says. Cal looks away, visibly uncomfortable.
“If she makes you happy, then you have to explore that. There’s more than just fighting in life.”
And Cal inertly shrugs.
“I have a duty,” he replies.
“Jedi forsake attachment, right?” Bode points out.
For the next five hours of story this is the most Cal has to say about this, the central conflict of his character. And this is where the genre of the game and the story run into friction. Cal and Merrin are clearly into each other. Hell, they kiss during a complicated quest mid-way through the story and my jaw literally dropped. The story is interested in what their potential future means for Cal. Everyone else has compelling, dynamic opinions on the subject. Should he retain the monastic ways of the Jedi? Should he seek out a life with Merrin? Should he devote his life to carry out The Empire's sentence: a slow death by a thousand cuts?
The story asks if Cal can find peace, but he’s never allowed to articulate what that means for him. I found myself wishing that he’d sit down with his friends and talk about his feelings. As they go about their business I longed for their incidental conversations to drift to Merrin. Cal watched his entire order slaughtered, and the trauma of staying the path has effectively cursed him to remain in this never ending fight. A just cause, The Rebellion, and a necessary one: the fight against the cruelty and oppression is crucial. But Merrin represents a potential life after the fight. A reason to live.
The two share an intimate conversation by the campfire early on. They catch up on each other’s lives. Share their mutual sense of relief being back together. Merrin brushes up against Cal, and he puts an arm around her. They lay together in a moment of simple intimacy and warmth. In these beats the game is at its best. The bombastic action and massive stakes are contrasted by these small interactions. These intimacies in Cal’s life reveal the beauty that can be found among the tragedy. Simple story telling executed with ease and flare.
In a surprising false-ending, Cal and his friends beat out the big bad of the game, and set off to hunt down Bode to make him pay for betraying them. Bode and his daughter have fled to the hidden planet Cal intends to make available to the Hidden Path, acting as the Star Wars equivalent of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon or The Underground Railroad. On the way, Cal and Merrin speak about what they’re going to do: killing Bode is something they can never take back. Something that will change Bode’s daughter forever. Something that will change them forever. As Cal contemplates killing his best friend, he quietly concludes they’ll offer Bode a way back. It’ll be his choice.
Part of the complication for Cal is that he understands Bode’s motivation. Can so clearly deconstruct the levers that The Empire have implemented and then pulled to pressure Bode into this betrayal. It is at once a result of the individual oppressions implemented by totalitarianism and Bode’s choice. The way Cal’s explanation is brief and almost emotionless speaks volumes. He seems acutely aware Bode will say no. But has to offer nonetheless.
Rolling up to where Bode’s camped out, Cal and Merrin are met with Kata, Bode’s daughter. She’s scared. She tells Merrin she’s very pretty. We go in together, Kata close to Merrin’s, and my heart sinks. I’ve seen this movie before. The small chance these negotiations succeed evaporates the second Bode sees Kata with us. He’s immediately on the defensive. And, despite the inevitable, Cal offers Bode a choice: surrender and join us. Bode looks past Cal, and tells Kata to go outside and things break bad instantly.
Kata begs Bode to listen, and in response he destroys the bridge they’re on, forcing Kata to flee. A final act of no return: almost harming his daughter, the very person The Empire threatened to push him into this betrayal. Ultimately, Cal slays Bode. By blaster bolt, of all things. A deliberate choice to not use the weapon of the Jedi it seems. An uncivilized tool for an uncivilized task. In the resulting silence, Cal and Merrin appear to be positioned as the surrogate parents of Kata. What’s left implicit (and room for a final part to this trilogy) are two questions: will Cal raise Kata as a Jedi like her father before, and will Cal and Merrin pursue their romance? Part of what makes this period of the story interesting is knowing that, no matter what decision he makes about the Jedi Order, it will fail by the time Luke visits Obi-Wan for the first time. And in many ways Cal’s story is defined by these inevitable tragedies.
The loss of his master during The Clone Wars. The death of all the friends and innocents he failed to save on his journey. Most of all the decay of the ideals he learned among the Jedi. We finish the game burning the bodies of those we’ve lost: Cere, Cal’s mentor, Jedi Master Cordova, and of course Bode. These three Jedi Cal has survived, calling into focus the game’s title. This is the story of Cal living through the death of the Jedi - both literally in the three that burn before him, and spiritually, as he gives in to the darkness, abandoning their enforced dichotomy.
The game conveys this second death of the heart via the user-interface during the final battles. On the brink of defeat, the respawn screen fades in, but the “respawn” prompt is replaced by “press X to embrace the darkness” and Cal juices up on rage. These moments range from simple instant kill mechanics that allow you to overpower huge swathes of enemies with a stern look on his face all the way to freezing Bode in place while he growls in agony. While making use of the ludic tools only available in its medium, I can’t help but wish this were buttressed by more detailed conversations.
Rather than orating one’s feelings, coming off the back of Andor it’s clear that Star Wars can have characters conduct dynamic, complex discourse about the nature of The Empire’s oppression, the emergent properties of fascism and the interpersonal consequences of participating or denying rebellion. Cal faces the same dilemma as Luthan but we never have the “what I sacrifice” monologue for Cal. We never have characters dancing around their feelings about his choices while speaking to him. Cal can grow a beard and long hair but still doesn’t have any thoughts on the Jedi faith. He is conflicted, yes, but mute when the story opens up for his commentary. A prospective follow up story will be forced to address these questions head on, and we have to hope the writers are up to the task, especially with Andor so close at hand for comparison.