What if the destruction of the Second Death Star, and the death of the Emperor, were not a victory, but a crushing defeat? That's the central concept for Star Wars: Battlefront II, the latest Star Wars game that's due out November 17th. The game invites players to abandon the Rebellion, and instead don the armor of Imperial Commandos: the heroes of the Empire who make Stormtroopers stand and cheer!
Ever since Star Wars first launched in 1977, fans have been fascinated by the idea of the Empire. And yet, I can't help noticing that this undercurrent is now rising to the surface — #StarWarsBattlefront2 just being the most prominent example. Cast your eyes to the Star Wars novels, and Timothy Zahn in particular has been toying with a more positive spin on the Empire since his "Hand of Thrawn" duology. The new Star Wars canon includes a wide range of novels from the Imperial point of view: Tarkin, Lords of the Sith, Thrawn, and the upcoming Phasma and Battlefront II: Inferno Squad novels all explore the dark side in compelling detail.
The idea of the Empire is clearly going through something of a resurgence. What's driving this? And is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Bring On The Bad Guys!
For author Chuck Klosterman, the Star Wars story has changed as he grew up. He writes:
"When you’re very young, the character you love most is Luke Skywalker (who’s entirely good). As you grow older, you gravitate toward Han Solo (who’s ultimately good, but superficially bad). By the time you reach adulthood, and when you hit the point in your life where “Star Wars” starts to seem like what it actually is (a better-than-average space opera containing one iconic idea), you inevitably find yourself relating to Darth Vader. As an adult, Vader is easily the most intriguing character, and seemingly the only essential one."
The best villains hold a certain magnetic attraction for us. Carl Jung would argue that they allow us to confront and understand our "shadow selves," the parts of ourselves that we hide away. As a result, we connect with the villains in a far deeper way than we do with the heroes; their experiences can intersect with our own in ways the heroes' cannot.
At its best, this fascination leads us to a healthy place; we recognize the darker parts of our own identity, acknowledge their existence, and become better and more mature people. At worst, though, it can lead to tragedy. Take the tragic example of James Holmes, who launched a brutal shooting spree in a Colorado theater and told police he was "the Joker."
But the attraction of the Empire runs a little deeper than just this...
The Seductive Messages Of The Empire
It's only a subtext in the Original Trilogy, but the Empire is ultimately all about security and order. When Darth Vader attempts to seduce Luke to the dark side in The Empire Strikes Back, he suggests that together they can end the Rebellion and bring order to the Galaxy. Stability will be achieved by unity, and unity will be achieved as people set aside their differences and vested interests, working instead for the good of the Empire.
The Prequel Trilogy set this ideology against a backdrop of failing democracy, and an Old Republic crippled by the self-interest of its member-states. Diplomacy cannot save Naboo from the Trade Federation; diplomacy cannot prevent the Clone Wars. And the supposed "bad guys" in the Clone Wars are the Separatists — those who have gained from, and would benefit from, continued division.
In the face of division and uncertainty, Palpatine offers the stability of fascism. It's an approach that feels so very attractive to us all; as Dr. Ichak Kalderon Adizes writes in The Huffington Post:
"There is big papa who will take care of everything. Everyone stop worrying, there is a savior to take care of it all...somehow."
Timothy Zahn's novels explore the Imperial ideology as something almost noble. Grand Admiral Thrawn, for example, believes in the ideals of the Empire; he just feels it's a shame someone as corrupt as Palpatine has taken charge. He imagines a day when Palpatine has died, and the Empire can become what he believes it always should have been; a noble, unifying, autocratic force. It's an attractive idea, and it seems to resonate strongly with current cultural changes.
Anyone Can Be A Stormtrooper
Here's an ironic fact: the Stormtroopers are the face of the Empire. Artist Loft817 has created a series of mock Imperial war propaganda posters, inspired by actual American posters from the Second World War. He's fascinated in putting himself in a Stormtrooper's shoes:
"This idea gets me thinking most Stormtroopers are everyday guys, enlisted, or conscripted, maybe with families. They are just trying to stamp out a group of rebel terrorists so they can go home to their families. They could be just doing their jobs as a soldier."
Oddly, the design of Stormtrooper armor actually helps us to identify with them. Whose face is behind the mask? Perhaps it's actually our own.
Computer games have exploited this idea for years. One of the reasons behind Halo's success? You never see the Master Chief's face. You can be the Master Chief, bold and effective, a brutal warrior who tears through Grunts and Elites with ease. You can connect with the character of the Master Chief in a real, visceral way, imagining yourself in his place. The facelessness of the Stormtroopers means you can do the same for them.
EA Games's #Battlefront2 promises to exploit this. The campaign mode promises to star the character of Iden Versio, whose face we see in the trailer, but it will also switch between other members of the Empire's elite Inferno Squad. I seriously doubt we'll see their faces. It's a smart move, balancing the creation of a very personal narrative for Iden Versio with the power of facelessness we see in the Halo franchise. It's no coincidence that the Battlefront II panel at Star Wars Celebration 2017 closed with an appeal to us all: to put on our own armor and take a stand against the Rebellion.
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Forty years after the release of A New Hope, EA Games is changing the world of Star Wars forever. Before, pro-Imperial perspectives had been a secondary part of our beloved Galaxy Far, Far Away, consigned to the Internet or tie-in novels. Now, though, Lucasfilm is moving that interest to the mainstream; one of the most exciting games in years promises to exploit it, and we're seeing a steady stream of novels that explore the Empire's side of the story. Personally, I think this mirrors changes in our own society, with nations withdrawing from the ideals of multilateralism and multiculturalism. It remains to be seen whether or not it's a good thing.