What Makes a Successful Star Wars Video Game Adaptation?

The post below is an excerpt from the recently published paper, The Force Is Strong with This One (but Not That One): What Makes a Successful Star Wars Video Game Adaptation?

To answer this question, the critical response to some of the best-reviewed Star Wars games is analysed, revealing a number of potential factors to consider, including the audio-visual quality of the games, the attendant story, and aspects of the gameplay. The tension between what constitutes a good game and what makes for a good Star Wars adaptation is also discussed. It is concluded that, while many well-received adaptations share certain characteristics—such as John Williams’ iconic score, a high degree of visual fidelity, and certain mythic story elements—the very best Star Wars games are those which advance the state of the art in video games, while simultaneously evoking something of Lucas’ cinematic saga.

So, what does make a Star Wars video game adaptation truly great? There is little doubt that the aesthetic qualities of a Star Wars game are an important consideration: in keeping with the movies on which they are based, the video game adaptations are generally expected to provide audio-visual spectacle. But, more than this, the sounds and images serve to conjure up memories of the films, as so many of the reviews considered here have suggested. Music, in particular, is known to evoke strong emotions, and strong emotional responses are apt to form into powerful memories. Humans also have an innate capacity to mentally encode images and recall memories associated with imagery much more efficiently than those encoded as text. This is unsurprising, since we have used pictures to convey meaning for many millennia longer than we have used the written word to capture our thoughts. The deployment of familiar sounds and imagery, then, is undoubtedly vital to any video game adaptation that seeks to evoke our memories of the movies on which they are based.

However, while there is evidence here to support Brown and Krzywinska’s assertion that critics place the greatest emphasis on games’ audio-visual qualities (2009, p. 92), it is also apparent that many critics consider story to be an important aspect of any Star Wars adaptation. Somewhat unexpectedly, adherence to the plot of the original movies is identified as a positive in several reviews of Angry Birds Star Wars, for example, with the Game Informer review noting that “the biggest surprise in Angry Birds Star Wars is its faithfulness to Star Wars’ story. The game follows A New Hope’s arc surprisingly well” (Reiner 2012). That the story elements of these adaptations should be privileged in this way this should not come as a surprise, however. The original movie’s arc (and, to some degree the overall structure of the original trilogy) was very deliberately modelled on the hero’s journey, as identified by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Campbell 1949). In fact, Lucas has often referred to Campbell’s influence on the development of his space saga, describing the academic’s 1949 book as having a “wonderful life force” (Lucas, quoted in Henderson 1997, p. 7). However, in defining the structure of the journey undertaken by the archetypal hero in myth, Campbell’s work is not only ingrained in Star Wars, but also in how video games tell stories.

Angry Birds Star Wars (

The hero’s journey, or monomyth, is a well-worn template for game writers and, while such a formulaic approach to the creative process has its detractors, some version of Campbell’s monomyth continues to be taught to aspiring game designers. In Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design (Rollings and Adams 2003), for example, the authors distil Campbell’s original 17-step journey down to a more manageable and generalisable nine. There is the call to adventure, the meeting with a mentor, and an assortment of “test, allies and enemies”, culminating in a final ordeal: all of the key elements of Campbell’s journey are present in, and readily applied to, the narrative structure of a game. George Lucas’ galaxy is also populated by archetypes other than the hero. Like Campbell, Lucas has drawn heavily on the works of analytical psychologist Carl Jung, who identified a number of archetypal forms that he claimed were embedded in our collective unconscious. This shared understanding, buried in humans’ unconscious mind, is also where Campbell’s notion of the monomyth is also said to reside. It is possible, then, for the Star Wars movies and their ludic offspring to share a mythical ancestry, where the family resemblances are not merely aesthetic but, instead, relate to the underlying nature of the story being told. This may partially explain how a game such as Knights of the Old Republic, set thousands of years prior or the original film, can feel like Star Wars without slavishly recreating every celluloid story beat. Clearly, not every game that borrows from Campbell’s monomyth is related to Star Wars—far from it. However, a Star Wars adaptation that draws upon the same archetypal themes as the films seems more likely to evoke the essential qualities of the source material.

The question then arises of whether direct adaptations (including Angry Birds and portions of the Rogue Squadron games) or titles that merely take inspiration from the films (such as Knights of the Old Republic)fare best. Brown and Krzywinska, for example, confidently stated that “the best movie-games are able to communicate something new about their parent texts on a thematic level, rather than simply parroting the events of the film” Brown and Krzywinska (2009, p. 93). And yet, with so many well-received Star Wars games featuring a recreation of the famous Death Star trench sequence from the original movie, including the 1983 arcade cabinet, Super Star Wars, and Rogue Squadron II, one could be forgiven for thinking that this scene alone was essential to the Star Wars video game experience. Indeed, Morton (2018) used the many ludic recreations of the trench run scene to examine the possibilities for transmedia play in Star Wars adaptations, arguing that “transcribing the Death Star trench run from A New Hope to one of the many video games it appears in changes its meaning: the importance of the event is gleaned from one’s knowledge of the film” Morton (2018, p. 106). Thus, even this most direct adaptation of one of the most recognizable scenes from the movie is altered in its translation to video games form. To wit, as Sommerfeld (2012) noted, many of the “direct” adaptations—such as the Super Star Wars titles that corresponded to each of the original trilogy films—take serious liberties with the source material. Can a title in which Luke single-handedly takes down a Sarlacc pit monster even be considered a direct adaptation of the original film?

Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II (

Meanwhile, Angry Birds Star Wars arguably hews closer to the source material, at least in terms of story structure, than many other adaptations—but is it adherence to the template Lucas laid down in the 1977 movie that sets this small screen blockbuster apart? Probably not, given critics’ insistence that the Star Wars license alone is no guarantee of quality. Certainly, games that aim to recreate specific films—the much-maligned movie tie-ins—are amongst the worst reviewed titles of all. Meanwhile, the very best Star Wars games appear to be those that advance the state of the art, be it in redefining the Western RPG, as in the case of KOTOR, or elevating a previously successful genre to new heights, as with Angry Birds Star Wars. Perhaps this is why a game like Fallen Order fails to make the critical cut: with gameplay borrowed directly from other game franchises (Uncharted, Dark Souls), maybe Electronic Arts’ most recent adaptation is simply too derivative to be distinctively Star Wars. But this is where the delineation between an excellent game and a superior adaptation becomes problematic: is a faithful reproduction of the Star Wars universe more important than engaging gameplay or novel game mechanics?

Perhaps, given the critical failure of the final entry in the cinematic Skywalker saga, it is fitting that now, at the very end, we return to the dismally received Game Boy Advance adaptation of Attack of the Clones. What this game demonstrates—perhaps more so than any other in the Star Wars (ion) canon—is that the ability to use the license is insignificant next to the power of good gameplay when it comes to adapting Star Wars. The truth is, the qualities of a great Star Wars game are largely the same as those of any great video game.

Barr, M. (2020). The Force Is Strong with This One (but Not That One): What Makes a Successful Star Wars Video Game Adaptation? Arts, 9(4), 131.

Works cited

Brown, D., & Krzywinska, T. (2009). Movie-games and Game-movies: Towards an Aesthetics of Transmediality. In W. Buckland (Ed.), Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies. Routledge.

Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books.

Henderson, M. (1997). Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. Bantam Books.

Morton, D. (2018). ‘You must feel the Force around you!’: Transmedia Play and the Death Star Trench Run in Star Wars Video Games. In S. Guynes & D. Hassler-Forest (Eds.), Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling (pp. 101–114). Amsterdam University Press.

Reiner, A. (2012, November 13). Angry Birds Star Wars Review – A New Hope For Angry Birds. Game Informer.

Rollings, A., & Adams, E. (2003). Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design. New Riders.

Sommerfeld, S. (2012). Gaming in a Galaxy Far, Far Away: The History of the Expanded Worlds, Canon Conflicts, and Simplified Morality of Star Wars Video Games. In D. Brode & L. Deyneka (Eds.), Myth, Media, and Culture in Star Wars: An Anthology (pp. 124–134). Scarecrow Press.

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