Thursday, October 31, 2013

RANT: Starwarsiness


While doing a bit of research for my Edge of Empire game last week, I came across an announcement from Disney/Lucasfilm about the new TV series they are working on, Star Wars Rebels. You can read the article and watch the video here.

"Fans attending Lucasfilm's Star Wars Rebels panel today at New York Comic Con got the world's first look at the Inquisitor, a black-clad, intimidating figure who will play a prominent role in the upcoming animated series. In a special video (available below) screened at the end of the panel, Star Wars Rebels executive producer Dave Filoni officially revealed the character, showing a sculpted maquette, design sketches, and disclosing that the Inquisitor is "tasked by Darth Vader to hunt down the remaining Jedi Knights."

An Inquisitor as the villain? Excellent, sign me up! Let's see what he looks like:

You dropped your lightsaber into my Identity Disk.

Producer: "We need a good nefarious villain for the series."
Writer: "Well, there's Darth Vader - why not use him?
Producer: "No, lets go with something new; people already own Vader action figures, we need a new one to sell."
Writer: "Hmm, OK. How about a ruthless crime-boss, extorting the heroes?"
Producer: "No, too complicated."
Writer: "Oh! Lets do a charismatic female pirate - a twist on Leia maybe! She is gathering pirate groups to her side to rise against the New Republic!"
Producer: "The film will track better if the villain is a man; also, my wife already thinks I'm a misogynist. And I'm totally not."
Writer: "Sure."
Producer: "No, seriously: that was a frivolous lawsuit, at best. Women, am I right?"
Writer: "I hear ya buddy.... Wait, I got it! How about an Imperial Inquisitor? They hunt Jedi, could always be one step behind the heroes..."
Producer: "I like it! So, are you thinking like standard Imperial space-nazi, or...?"
Writer: "Wait, I thought we weren't doing Vader."
Producer: "That's the genius of it! Make him look and act like Darth Vader - just file the edges off! I'd love to talk more, but I have a 2:00 appointment with my hot psychic massage therapist."

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This is Starwarsiness in action. Starwarsienss is a term co-opted from Stephen Colbert's truthiness, which he defines this way:

Darth Ursus, your days are numbered!
"It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love the President because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?…

Truthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.' It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality."

Starwarsiness then, is taking some element and making it seem like Star Wars enough that the public will swallow it. Starwarsiness is about choosing something safe, something familiar instead of something new. 

Speaking of new, Starwarsiness certainly isn't. In the first film, we see Obi Wan wearing Bedouin-esque desert robes. This makes sense, as he lives in a desert. In Return of the Jedi, Luke shows up at Jabba's palace in a black outfit with high black boots, dressed as a Jedi Knight. We come to the prequels, and Lucas has all the Jedi dressed as if they live in a desert. If I were a Jedi, I'd much rather wear a fitted outfit like Luke's then try and do acrobatic Jedi shit in layers of heavy robes. Lucas, I guess, felt all Jedi should dress that way, because Starwarsiness.

The Extended Universe has done this for decades, starting soon after the original trilogy aired.

A prime example of this is Darth Vader's name. As you recall, in A New Hope, Obi Wan refers to his former pupil by his first name, which he states is Darth. At no point in the original trilogy is it stated as anything other than his first name, and it was the EU that changed it to a title and ran with it. Now the formula, fully embraced by Lucas in the prequels, seems to be Darth + [ominous-sounding word] = Sith Lord. For example, we have Darth Stryfe (bro, that y makes it so metal), Darth Ramage (certainly a porn star), Darth Zhorrid (does he have a lisp?), and Darth Kruhl (*sigh*). At this rate, we're soon to have Darth Dysentry and Darth Pollutus twisting their evil mustaches. Its like these Sith Lords are taking new names to fight in Wrestlemania IV. Lucas took this even further by adding now-default visual components to new Sith Lords with the introduction Darth Maul.

Let's have a look at a few of these Starwarsy villains:






As you can see, the Lucasfim Create-A-Sith-Omatic uses these steps:

1) Darth [whatever]
2) Choose one or more:
     a) Black armor
     b) Tattoos
     c) Breath mask
     d) Red Skin
     e) Weird red lightsaber
How does this woman NOT cut herself in half?

Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. These Sith Lords have interesting names and appearances:

Exar Kun

Naga Sadow

Karness Muur

Darth Cheney

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The video games are by no means exempt. The latest Star Wars game is The Old Republic, set 3500 years or so before the films. To put that in perspective, around 3500 years ago, Stonehenge was being built, bronze was being smelted for the first time, and social stratification develops. All in all, a very different society than the one we live in. In the Star Wars universe, modern bad guys look like this:


3500 years prior to the cutting-edge technological foot soldier seen above, our Sumerian-analog legionaries dressed quite differently:


I get it. When Bioware and Lucasarts set down to make a game in which thousands could log in and play in a Star Wars universe, they wanted the players to feel like they were playing in the Star Wars universe. Couldnt they come up with something more original though? Starwarsiness like this is just plain lazy. 

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The potential to avoid Starwarsiness is one of the reasons I was looking forward to Star Wars 1313. This was a first person shooter/RPG video game to be set in the seedy underbelly of Coruscant. Your avatar was an anti-hero, dealing with crime lords and bounty hunters. As is often said about Star Wars, Its a large galaxy out there, and for once, we were to be able to explore something a bit different. Most RPG Star Wars games focus on some kind of force user, which is only a small, narrow slice of what there is to explore in Star Wars. Rumor has it that late in the development process, Lucas jumped in and had Lucasarts start to rewrite the game so that you would now play Boba Fett.

This gets to what is undoubtedly the ultimate reason for this dynamic. I have no doubt that the various writers, producers, graphics designers and other creative types working with Star Wars media have lots of great, unique ideas. They are, after all, professionals in the creation business, and no doubt the vast majority of them are doing what they do on merit. Thus, the only constant throughout is Lucas. I had high hopes for Disney's new ownership of the property, but once again, Lucas seems to have his fingers in the dianoga pie.

Back to our inquisitor above, we don't need him to look like every other Sith character in existence for him to be a menacing, terrifying figure. Literature abounds with villains that don't scream 'I'm a bad guy' in design. Professor Moriarty, Norman Bates and Verbal Kint didn't need to have scars, eye patches and dress all in black to be suitably nefarious. And for an inquisitor, you'd think he'd look like someone unassuming, someone who could coerce or sweet-talk to get the information he needs. That grey-faced, armor wearing guy at the top is no where near as unsettling or intriguing as this inquisitor:


With new blood helming the Star Wars franchise I have a bit of hope for ideas that avoid Starwarsiness in place of capturing the true essence of Star Wars in its myriad of forms (that's a different article altogether). For now though, it just looks like more of the same.

</rant>