Game Design Lessons in Star Wars: Fallen Order

After thoroughly enjoying Hades during the pandemic and breaking up with Hearthstone earlier this summer, I had some space in my life for a new game. Star Wars: Fallen Order intrigued me for obvious reasons – it’s Star Wars and the buzz about the game seemed to be positive after it came out. I recall people speculating that the main character, Cal, might appear in the second season of The Mandalorian (hold this thought) so it seemed like folks overall enjoyed the content. I envisioned the game as an action-adventure that allows you to mow through Stormtroopers and other foes with a lightsaber and some Force powers, so I purchased the game and leapt in!

I finished the playthrough this week, and the following are some lessons I took from the experience regarding game design and my preferences.

Gaming Expectations

I learned there is SOME action and adventure in Fallen Order though much of the time is spent navigating to the next destination on the map through a variety of special abilities, most of which are not available to you until later in the game. The introduction to the game features Cal jumping, climbing, and searching for a way forward interspersed with some elaborate cinematic set pieces. Fallen Order provides a tutorial on how combat and navigation controls function by introducing new obstacles and offering the solution to those obstacles. As Fallen Order moves past the introductory mission and gets to “the meat” of the experience, the controls for navigation become more necessary than combat skills.

Cal looking confused. I’m right there with ya, buddy!

After some trial and error I read some articles about the game and was smacked in the face with sentences like, “….you’ll spend the majority of your time in Fallen Order solving puzzles, platforming, and exploring. We didn’t know that going in, and it made the first couple of hours confusing.”

Yes, it WAS confusing!

The other tip from the Polygon article above that turned out to be essential was, “Your map is a three-dimensional hologram, which is helpful because so many levels and paths have a lot of verticality to them. It feels like navigating like a bowl of spaghetti sometimes. You’ve got a great map. Use it.” This is the best description of playing Fallen Order that I can now imagine. Each planet you visit has multiple levels that twist and turn and stack on top of each other. I would be hopelessly lost in those levels if not for the map, which also has a bit of a learning curve in terms of how to comprehend and manipulate it effectively.

Perhaps a good thing for me to do in the future is to read more about a game before I commit to it. That sounds rather simple and easy though it has not been my practice too often. I played Horizon Zero Dawn on the recommendation of friends and loved it; same with Battle Chef Brigade and other games like Golf Story. I had in my mind that Fallen Order would be one experience and it offers something else; it’s more Tomb Raider than Dark Forces, which is fine once I settled into it.

Gated Progression

The player is tasked with navigating Cal around multiple points of interest on each plant. Before I knew how to properly use the map I wasted a good chunk of time attempting to access places that I could see on screen though I did not have the capability to reach. At first, I was not sure why I could not access a location – was it lack of skill on my part or perhaps I had not solved a puzzle yet. The map displays paths that are accessible (green), unexplored (yellow) and inaccessible for now (red) and is useful if the player knows how to use it! What became frustrating before I figured out the map was I could see locations while playing that were out of reach and I tried various strategies to access them.

I wonder how Fallen Order would play if Cal had access to all his powers from the start. It would likely be a shorter experience though I feel like it would be more enjoyable. Cal’s Force Powers include:

  • Force Slow
  • Wall-Run
  • Force Push
  • Force Pull
  • Jedi Leap (Double Jump)

The only Force power Cal starts the game with is Force Slow, and the others must be unlocked through gameplay. Each planet has areas that can only be accessed with specific powers, so it becomes commonplace to encounter a path that cannot be taken the first or second time it is seen. I find this type of design a bit infuriating!

The most-recent game I have played that abused this style of gated progression was God of War. Kratos rows around (way too much) to various places and there are paths blocked off because he does not have the proper weapon or power. At least Fallen Order alerts you to the fact that certain paths are not an option. I don’t believe God of War provided the information as clearly, which certainly wasted my time.

I am quite aware that gated progression in videogames has existed for a loooong time. Yes, I played The Legend of Zelda as well and enjoyed the thrill of getting a new item or ability that opened up other places where I previously felt stuck or lost. And I know Castlevania and Metroid took that design mentality further. Awesome, it does not need to be in every game and it feels quite out of place in Fallen Order.

The lone story purpose it serves is to allow the player to relive moments from Cal’s training with his Jedi mentor, Jaro Tapal. Whenever Cal is about to learn a new Force power, the player is greeted with a flashback to his training, which ultimately culminates in how Jaro sacrificed himself so Cal could survive Order 66. The background gives more depth to the experience though staggering the backstory and Force Powers artificially prolongs the game. I had hours or days to roam around Hyrule and figure things out decades ago; now my kid is asleep and I have about 60-90 minutes to play a game before I need to catch some sleep.

Please don’t make me retrace my steps MULTIPLE times!

An interesting thing about the barriers in Fallen Order is that you can only activate the new Force powers by reaching specific locations. Some abilities can be purchased with Experience Points (XP) though those abilities only enhance powers you already possess. While the player can elect to go to planets in any order after the introductory sequence, the suggested (Main Objective) order is:

  1. Bogano <unlock Wall Run>
  2. Zeffo <unlock Force Push>
  3. Kashyyyk <unlock Force Pull>
  4. Zeffo (again)
  5. Kashyyyk (again) <unlock Jedi Leap>
  6. Dathomir <unlock Double-bladed lightsaber>
  7. Ilum
  8. Dathomir (again)
  9. Bogano (again)
  10. Nur

The player will have to visit each planet (except Ilum and Nur) at least twice to complete the game. This would be less of a task if navigating the planets was relatively simple though that “bowl of spaghetti” comment is frighteningly accurate! The maps have twists, turns, and multiple elevation changes – and there is sadly no way to fast travel between Meditation/Save spots. One of the most frustrating elements of the game was achieving success at the heart of a planet, and then spending many minutes navigating back to my ship at the very beginning of the map.

Congratulations, you were successful on your quest! Now slowly inch your way back to your ship while often consulting the map to ensure you do not get lost along the way.”

The first time on Dathomir the player must escape – without your lightsaber no less – so you are literally running for your life. I learned the hard way that bringing up the map does NOT stop the action in the game. I died once or twice trying to find a way back to the ship. Two things can be true; I have a bad sense of direction and navigating through Fallen Order is a chore.

A takeaway from all of this is that designers need to be thoughtful about how and why they are gating progression for the player. Force powers in Fallen Order are granted when the players reach a designated area, and to my knowledge that information is kept from the player unless they are looking at a strategy guide online. I did not know the Jedi Leap ability even existed until I watched a YouTube video to confirm I couldn’t reach a specific location that seemed just out of reach on Bogano.

Discovering new powers is fun. Leveling up your character is fun. Being teased with loot and locations you cannot yet reach without a clear indication of when or how you can reach them is not fun. Unlocking the Force powers in Fallen Order is a surprise that happens along the way toward the main objectives though the Force powers are also essential for navigating the maps. Fallen Order works once you wrap your head around the gated progression system, though it takes a lot of effort and a willingness to backtrack.

Stunning Conclusions

Outside of all the pathfinding mentioned above, there are some fun moments to be found in Fallen Order. Cal survived Order 66 and has been working in a shipping junkyard. After his identity as a Force user is uncovered he is rescued by a ship, The Mantis, home to a former Jedi, Cere, and a four-armed wiseguy, Greez. Cal learns that Cere had a Padawan, Trilla, at one point who was thought to be killed by the Empire; we all learn later that Trilla is now an Inquisitor for the Empire and has been hunting down remaining Jedi. The relationship between Cal, Cere and Trilla is interesting when it takes center stage – as are the flashback with Cal’s teacher, Jaro Tapal.

There are numerous set pieces that are enjoyable and the combat is engaging enough; it falls somewhere between action games like Batman: Arkham Asylum and precision games like Dark Souls while not landing firmly in either category. Other than the Big Bad on Dathomir, Talon Malicos, I did not need to look up how to defeat any foe in the game. The combat is fun when it happens and rarely too much of a pain to complete.

However, we need to focus on Dathomir and another character found there!

While Cal is exploring through Dathomir, a Nightsister informs him that he should turn away. We learn her name is Merrin and she later decides to intervene to help Cal defeat Talon Malicos on Dathomir. Not only does she assist Cal on Dathomir, she joins the crew and travels around with them the rest of the way. And this all happens nearly 80-90% into the game!?

Merrin joining Cal and the crew was so unexpected in a delightful way. Suddenly we had some elements of romance (maybe?) in the game as Cal – a young Padawan searching for a way to restore the Jedi – and Merrin – a lone Nightsister searching for meaning after a massacre of her people during the Clone Wars – team up for a common cause.

I mean, eat your heart out, Reylos!

I need more Merrin in my life STAT!

And just as unexpected as this union may be, the game gives it no room to breathe. Once Merrin joins the crew, there is a return to Bogano and then the final confrontation with Trilla (and VADER!) on Nur. As far as I could tell, there were no options to have further conversations with Merrin on the ship. She plays a pivotal role at the conclusion though the main thing I took away from the game was, “Damn, what a missed opportunity!”

Perhaps there are plans for Fallen Order 2 and the team will devote a great deal of time to the possibilities of Cal and Merrin combining talents and/or getting romantically entangled. It’s BY FAR the most interesting thing to happen in the game – AND THEY BARELY INCLUDED IT UNTIL YOU’RE ALMOST FINISHED WITH THE EXPERIENCE!

(yes, I’m shouting!)

I am searching for an equivalent to this in a previously game I have played. Perhaps I’m spoiled by Mass Effect and especially Mass Effect 2 because those games allowed the player to dive into story content with anyone that joined the crew. In Fallen Order, Cal teams up with Merrin, there is suddenly this undercurrent of flirtation possible (or maybe I’m just thirsty), and then there is no follow-up. Merrin literally sits on your ship and says she does not have time to talk.

It is such a cool narrative wrinkle that the creepy Nightsister turns out to be a sarcastic jokester that joins the crew, and yet it feels like Fallen Order squanders the setup without sufficient payoff. Perhaps it’ll be like Loki where the first installment is just a precursor of more to come? In the meantime, if you are designing a mind-blowing development in a game, then give the players a good amount of time to process and do something with that information.

(Warning: Season 2 spoilers for The Mandalorian: I absolutely would have preferred to have Cal and Merrin show up to rescue Grogu than Uncanny Valley Luke. Jedi and Sith trying to work together to train students while leaning into and resisting an urge to make out with each other? Now THAT’S a show on Disney+ I want to see. But I digress….)

Game Designs Questions (and Suggested Answers!)

Q: What is the purpose of blocking the player from some of the content a game has to offer?

A: If the answer to this is not abundantly clear or lands near, “It makes the game longer,” do something else.

Q: How can the player unlock the content, and how is that information communicated to the player?

A: When in doubt, beat the player over the head with the information. Then pick the player up, dust them off, and beat them over the head with the information again just to be sure.

Q: When are new characters revealed, and how can the player interact with those characters?

A: Noteworthy and otherwise important characters should be introduced early enough to allow player to get to know them and do something with that relationship. If a new character shows up too late, then it can feel like a missed opportunity for meaningful interaction.

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

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