Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy is an action game exploring the growth of jedi and jedi power. The player creates their own avatar and becomes an apprentice to the jedi academy. A friend, rival, and co-apprentice is Rosh Penin, a competitive dork who gets in the way of training and missions. The protagonist is often passive aggressive toward Rosh, as a written character instead of being a cipher, and is less forgiving than I wanted. Rosh in his brash arrogance begins to be mystified by the power of the dark side. As a friend, it comes down to the apprentice to fight and try to stop him from joining the antagonists. Rosh is saved by the dark jedi, so the matter is yet to be resolved.
A distress signal comes through as Rosh is supposedly being held captive. When found he’s sorry, scared, and reaches out for help. The apprentice leaps to a different conclusion, wary of Rosh, all existing tensions between the two coming to an ugly point. It feels like he’s setting up a trap. While he begs for life, the story splits into two. The latent anger and unforgiving ways can be overcome, Rosh can be forgiven and accepted again. Or become blind with rage.
Rosh: “No! Let go of your anger!”
Apprentice: “Why should I? You yourself said how powerful the dark side was.”
Rosh: “I was wrong!”
Apprentice: “No. you were weak” – as they fatally stab Rosh through the stomach.
At this point, we reject the antagonist’s alliance, driven only by a lust for power. The final level is riddled with dark jedi and other apprentice graduates from the academy. Here there are no allies, all is cut down, even old friends, in this quest for power.
In one choice, the apprentice is cemented as a comically exaggerated evil or a flawed good that overcomes temptation. The extremes are humorous, but still affecting. The action game structure with little narrative endears a perception of a uniform experience. Raised by light-side jedi and nudged to a lighter alignment, the apprentice seems to be fulfilling their role as an infallible, super heroic, morally good, videogame protagonist. Any inklings towards the dark side are barely recognized in the narrative’s conceit. Only in this one moment does the game recognize the teetering presence of the light and the dark, and the story, in potentiality, flips on its head.
Having an ending wrapped in a choice with broad, plot-wide implications like this isn’t unique, dozens of games utilize this trope. It allows a respite of player agency, but it’s so little and so late I don’t think that’s the point of it. It’s brutish and neat in how it completely retextures the story. One simple choice redefines all of the previous acts, actions, and interactions. To comply with new development of our character, every detail takes on new meaning, and different motivations manifest.
In Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, the protagonist chases down a target over their lifetime, killing all in their way, and he does find his target. But now what? Have they forgiven and forgotten? Are they ready to finally take revenge? Has their life of searching truly been an undying lust for revenge? Has time given him perspective? Has the bloody path there shown that violence isn’t the answer? In a moment the dynamics of the character change completely, as we choose the final dressing for the story.
While the momentous changes can be captivating, it really isn’t as compelling as a traditional story, without canned choices. These stories are more intimate because the character’s intentions aren’t portrayed vaguely to give room for that final dressing. A narrative concerned with the final choice ends up being about events instead of characters. Without the choice, texture can be displayed throughout the story, rather than in retrospect at the end.
I still think Jedi Academy does just fine with the vague suggestion of character. The game never was about the protagonist, which is why I found it so effective in the first place. There is some important characterization, but the focus is macro, it’s on events, and what’s being done. When the choice is breached, everything is repurposed as the apprentice finds definite resolve, and the events near a close. It’s not a deeply affecting story of personal struggles, resolve, and triumph. It’s the mere suggestion that holds power.