Star Wars: The Force Unleashed was unexpected. In lieu of another film trilogy, George Lucas greenlit Haden Blackman’s team at LucasArts to create a major, big-budget tie-in game to bridge the original and prequel trilogies. It was to be treated as canonically on par with the films themselves, even featuring some returning cast from more recent projects. It was supposed to be the next big step for the franchise, featuring brand new engine technology built in-house at LucasArts. However, the game would end up being one of the last, most intensely divisive projects in the original canon. The situation isn’t as cut and dry as some may have believed though, for one very simple reason: The story was canon, but the game never was.
Over the years, Lucasfilm developed what can be best described as tiered canon. Most franchises operate under this tiered canon approach, including the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its TV show and Netflix spin-offs, long-running film series such as Fox’s X-Men, expanded novel series like Metro, or even smaller settings like Alien. At the core of every tiered canon is the source material — the meaty center that everyone knows.
For example, let’s consider the original Alien film. Depending on how you look at it, you can treat Alien: Isolation or Aliens as the sequel to it, as they both exist on separate layers. They’re simultaneously in the franchise, but not tied together unless the creators on their respective ends try to make that be the case. At the same time, maybe you really get into the weeds and treat Alien versus Predator versus Terminator as canon. At that point, you’re several layers deep, and other stories might be contradicted, but there is a cohesive storyline there that you can follow. Star Wars’ original continuity was all this on steroids, but they found a solution.
For almost every official Star Wars story taken as in continuity and of priority, there were often sanctioned, more grounded novelizations. In The Force Unleashed, protagonist Galen Marek is powerful, but he’s never Kratos in space — just very powerful due to natural aptitude and intensive training regimes. Stopping a Star Destroyer from crushing him nearly kills him from the effort alone. On the flip side, his lightsaber doesn’t bash enemies like a baseball bat, but instead cleaves through them like it should. The novelization even incorporates elements that aren’t in every version of the game, such as the DS port’s Raxus Prime AI hivemind antagonist and the Wii port’s Rodian mob boss Drexl.
Now, does this invalidate your experience on whatever platform you played it on? Of course not! That’s the beauty of it. The disparate versions actually come across like different retellings of the story, something the game’s tie-in comic went even further with by having both of Starkiller’s companions, PROXY and Juno, recounting events from their perspectives. Legends all stem from a central story, but people see and hear different things. If you want the canonical story, it’s a solid read — but there’s no one ripping a copy of the game out of your hands, informing you that your experience isn’t canonical enough.
This also helps balance things out, allowing for larger-than-life tales within the games as they have to feel awesome regardless of the platform they’re on. Varying mechanics and level design aren’t only a given, but a necessity, and this actually works to everyone’s benefit. No matter if one version or another is your cup of tea, (I’m partial to the PSP port.) you still get the core intended experience of a badass Force user shaking things up and helping kickstart the Rebel Alliance. Is it any less awkwardly grafted in narratively as a book than the game itself? It’s integrated about as much as anything post-prequel trilogy could be.
It should be noted with some irony that instead of being a one-off, The Force Unleashed was almost the Iron Man to a Star Wars game-verse, with Marek’s Jedi Master, Rahm Kota, planned to appear in Free Radical’s Star Wars: Battlefront III. In any case, all this careful work to integrate a “flexible” truth to the story provides quite the contrast to the Disney Star Wars Expanded Universe’s struggles with making everything fit as one continuity.
If you make it so that everything has to be so stringently fact-checked that it delays every piece of content for months or worse, then that’s going to heavily discourage creativity. It’s part of what killed Project Ragtag, and if The Force Unleashed were made today, it would’ve been an absolute nightmare creatively as well. You can’t just micromanage a franchise into a perfect stream of never-conflicting content. There’s already been over four different attempts to rehash Dark Troopers, no one can decided if Dathomir is dead or if another five dozen or so Nightsisters are hiding under a rock, and let’s not even get started with how The Mandalorian is having to bend over backwards to restore Jango Fett’s origins after The Clone Wars effectively dropkicked Jango Fett: Open Seasons into a bin even before the timeline reset.
Did that sound like a bunch of nerdy mumbo jumbo? Congratulations! You’re right! And even as someone entrenched in this fandom enough that I want to instruct Matt Lanter how to properly pronounce “Twi’lek,” at the end of the day, I acknowledge continuity conflicts are just gonna happen. You can’t stop inconsistencies; it’s about whether you embrace them or reject them. Heck, that’s part of why Lego Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures works so well. Just like The Force Unleashed, it can do what serves its medium and story best, while the actual canon storylines are explained off-screen for the people who care about that sort of thing.
Layered canon is of course not a perfect solution then. It results in actual, weird situations like a character from a fighting game showing up in a manga-exclusive story about Vader’s failure at teaching a tween Sith apprentice. However, it also ensured that The Force Unleashed could be an awesome game no matter how you played it, all while offering something fresh for every platform. That’s not even going into all the genuinely meaningful in-universe callbacks, references, cameos, and direct tie-ins that make the story feel like a real part of the journey.
By contrast, the campaign of DICE’s Star Wars Battlefront II isn’t simply dated by how constrained it was to off-hand, in-universe references to things like Czerka that don’t amount to anything, or by how it referenced a canceled mobile game that was still ongoing when it was being written. The biggest direct tie-ins the game was permitted to make were to Aftermath, a trilogy of Disney-era tie-in books that even the new timeline’s most devoted fans don’t typically regard with reverence. Indeed, the writers of Battlefront II were prohibited from exploring anything involving the origins of the First Order because it could potentially spoil something in The Last Jedi.
Fun fact: The Last Jedi never goes into the origins of the First Order! But hey, we avoided a potential continuity dispute that maybe less than five percent of the fanbase would’ve cared about. That’s worth wasting countless man hours on a halfhearted narrative.
In the end, it’s simple: Creative, interesting projects are just more worth everyone’s time than safer but unimaginative fare. Leaning into the latter is how we got The Rise of Skywalker, and if there ever were a time to get some distance from that and get people interested in the greater setting, it’s now. Just loosen those reins and let the creators get weird — you can always explain it away easier later than straining all those talented artists.