Force For Change


Why Star Wars’ great­est gam­ing mo­ments owe their im­pact to a spirit of in­no­va­tion, not rep­e­ti­tion eti­tion

Star Wars’ last­ing im­pact on gam­ing is owed to in­no­va­tion, not rep­e­ti­tion

Arare pri­macy stands at odds with an un­com­fort­able truth: Star Wars is of­ten, and to an un­usual de­gree, aw­ful. None of the fran­chises that match its reach also match its in­con­sis­tency. Three of six (cur­rently ex­tant) films are pro­foundly in­ad­e­quate. The se­ries that gave the world X-Wings also gave it Gun­gans. The uni­verse fea­tur­ing the most iconic masked vil­lain in pop­u­lar cul­ture also con­tains a char­ac­ter whose name is ac­tu­ally and earnestly ‘Gen­eral Griev­ous’.

In games, ex­cite­ment en­dures for Bat­tle­front de­spite, for ex­am­ple, the se­ries’ re­cent di­ver­sion into ris­i­ble mobile tie-ins. Star Wars has sur­vived an ex­tra­or­di­nary run of low ebbs and re­tained its power to draw peo­ple in each time it re­turns. The mark it has left on the videogame industry – which is sig­nif­i­cant – re­mains a broadly pos­i­tive one de­spite this legacy of dross. This is the mys­tery of Star Wars, and in trac­ing the points of com­mon­al­ity be­tween its best mo­ments some­thing is re­vealed about the en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity of the whole.

It’s easy to for­get that 1977’s A New Hope was an in­no­va­tive film: in its sto­ry­telling, the tech­nol­ogy that fa­cil­i­tated its sto­ry­telling, and in the episodic struc­ture im­plied by the de­ci­sion to call it ‘Episode IV’. It is an in­be­tweener of a movie, naive as sci­ence fic­tion but ma­ture in the con­text of the mati­nee fan­tasy cin­ema that in­spired it. An enor­mous ef­fort was made to raise the tech­no­log­i­cal ceil­ing of pop­u­lar film­mak­ing, mov­ing away from Flash Gor­don camp to­wards the be­liev­able hero­ism of The Dam Busters and 633 Squadron. Di­rec­tor Ge­orge Lu­cas sought to bring Kurosawa to the west while also re­fram­ing Camp­bell’s hero’s jour­ney through the same lens that pro­duced Amer­i­can Graf­fiti. As heroic home­lands go, Sky­walker’s Ta­tooine owes just as much to Lu­cas’s own Cal­i­for­nian wilderness as it does to the bar­baric Cim­me­ria of Robert E Howard’s Co­nan sto­ries.

Star Wars was not wholly orig­i­nal, but it was the prod­uct of novel syn­the­sis. It re­quired a set of de­lib­er­ate and in­tel­li­gent imag­i­na­tive leaps to com­bine th­ese el­e­ments in this way, and the re­sult was a fic­tional set­ting that held fan­tasy and be­liev­abil­ity in pre­cise bal­ance. From the alien but know­able and lived-in in­te­ri­ors of Mos Eis­ley to the scratched hulls of the Rebel Al­liance’s war-worn starfight­ers, the Star Wars uni­verse felt – and, at its best, feels – like a place that could be lived in. That is a pow­er­ful imag­i­na­tive draw. The most suc­cess­ful Star Wars games are the ones that take that imag­i­na­tive en­gage­ment with this fic­tive space and make it, one way or an­other, real.

At the be­gin­ning of the 3D age, games gained the power to recre­ate places in de­tail rather than evoke them in ab­stract. The ear­li­est Star Wars games had used the tech­nol­ogy of their time to rep­re­sent mo­ments from the films as best they could, but their am­bi­tions couldn’t stretch fur­ther than that. Su­per Star Wars could re­pro­duce sounds, images and cer­tain set-pieces, but ap­ply­ing th­ese to the 2D side-scrolling for­mat en­sured that it could never feel like a world. 3D changed that. Start­ing in 1993 with

X-Wing, tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment gave de­vel­op­ers the op­por­tu­nity to re­build the Star Wars uni­verse within the con­text of an in­ter­ac­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. Al­though the im­pe­tus to do so may well have been to recre­ate a beloved cin­e­matic im­age (the urge to slap a Star Wars skin over any­thing per­sists among mod­ders to this day), the tech­nol­ogy re­quired had to be built from scratch. 1995’s Dark Forces is some­times de­scribed as a clone of Doom with the Star Wars li­cence, but that is un­der­stat­ing its im­por­tance.

In or­der to achieve their goal of plac­ing the player in­side the Star Wars uni­verse, Dark Forces’ de­vel­op­ers cre­ated the Jedi En­gine. The re­sult was the first FPS in which the player could jump and swim, the first to re­quire the player to reg­u­larly look up and down, and the first where two rooms could be placed one above the other. It was also an early pioneer of the use of at­mos­phere-en­hanc­ing scripted se­quences. Rather than use this tech­nol­ogy to retell the story of the movies, Dark Forces opted for an orig­i­nal nar­ra­tive with new char­ac­ters and voice act­ing. Taken in com­bi­na­tion, th­ese in­no­va­tions set an im­por­tant land­mark in the

jour­ney of the FPS from ar­cade-de­rived blaster to nar­ra­tive de­liv­ery mech­a­nism.

In the case of Dark Forces, Star Wars in­spired the cre­ation of tech­nolo­gies and ideas that videogames as a whole would im­i­tate. It was a suc­cess­ful Star Wars game not sim­ply be­cause it was fun and evoca­tive, but also be­cause it shared the same im­pe­tus to cre­ate new tech­nol­ogy to of­fer a new ex­pe­ri­ence.

The suc­ces­sor to X-Wing, TIE Fighter, was re­leased in 1994, and by 1999 the se­ries’ run of ex­pan­sions and se­quels had come to an end with the re­lease of X-Wing

Al­liance. XWA was re­leased on the eve of Star Wars’ cin­e­matic re­turn, pre­dat­ing The Phan­tom Menace by only a cou­ple of months. In hind­sight, early 1999 rep­re­sents a cru­cial turn­ing point for Star Wars – and the X-Wing se­ries, which gained so­phis­ti­ca­tion cu­mu­la­tively over its six-year run, is em­blem­atic of a par­tic­u­lar era and a par­tic­u­lar at­ti­tude.

Th­ese games were sim­u­la­tors of fic­tional space­craft, as in­flu­en­tial within their own genre as

Dark Forces was for the FPS. The drive here was, again, to use gam­ing tech­nol­ogy to re­alise the fan­tasy of oc­cu­py­ing a place of your own in the Star Wars uni­verse. The sto­ries they told ran along­side the films, their lead char­ac­ters ci­phers for the player. They were de­signed to fa­cil­i­tate the telling of new Star Wars sto­ries by the player, tales of dog­fights gone awry and heroic as­saults on kilo­me­tre-long Im­pe­rial cruis­ers.

The de­vel­op­ment process that led to this was in­no­va­tive and it­er­a­tive at ev­ery stage. First came the ‘sim­u­la­tion’ of the work­ing of the space­ships them­selves: the re­la­tion­ships be­tween sub­sys­tems, the ex­act way that shields func­tion, the ca­pa­bil­i­ties and weak­nesses of each craft. This is an ex­am­ple of game de­sign in­ter­act­ing with sto­ry­telling at a fun­da­men­tal level, the drive to cre­ate an en­ter­tain­ing game bal­anced against the need to rep­re­sent fic­tional de­vices at their high­est ever level of fidelity. Play­ers of the X-Wing se­ries not only re­ceive an ex­pe­ri­ence evoca­tive of se­quences from the films, but they gain a sys­temic un­der­stand­ing of the tech­nol­ogy of the Star Wars uni­verse that en­hances their un­der­stand­ing of those se­quences.

Next came ad­vances in AI, mul­ti­player, and en­gine-level changes needed to fa­cil­i­tate the largest Im­pe­rial ships and mid-mis­sion hy­per­space jumps. Mis­sion cre­ation tools were a late and nat­u­ral ad­di­tion, for­mal ac­knowl­edge­ment that th­ese games had al­ways been about, in some way, the cre­ative en­gage­ment of the player.

Re­leased in 2003, Star Wars Gal­ax­ies rep­re­sented – in its ini­tial form – the cul­mi­na­tion of those ideas. In this in­stance, the genre be­ing ad­vanced un­der Star Wars’ aus­pices was the per­sis­tent world: the shared-uni­verse on­line game pi­o­neered by Ul­tima On­line and rep­re­sented to­day al­most solely by EVE On­line. In the fi­nal years be­fore World Of War­craft es­tab­lished the pre­cise mean­ing of the term ‘MMOG’, Star Wars Gal­ax­ies sug­gested an al­ter­na­tive path for the genre – one where play­ers built their own towns, ci­ties and economies, where they set their own goals. Lu­casArts’ sub­stan­tial in­vest­ment in this grow­ing area re­sulted in an MMOG that likely couldn’t have ex­isted with­out the Star Wars li­cence, touched the fringes of great­ness with it, and was ul­ti­mately pulled apart by it.

The prom­ise of Gal­ax­ies was of a life not in one part of the Star Wars uni­verse, but all of it: a seam­less ex­pe­ri­ence that would bring to­gether ground com­bat, cantina life, space­flight, wilderness ex­plo­ration and so on. It was al­most a tri­umphant suc­cess, but was rife with bugs and bal­ance is­sues. Star Wars, mean­while, was chang­ing. Iconic char­ac­ters and ex­pe­ri­ences were the or­der of the day, in the years fol­low­ing the re­lease of At­tack Of The Clones. The de­vel­op­ers of Gal­ax­ies were en­cour­aged to re­cal­i­brate their user­driven world as a de­signer-driven theme park – a philo­soph­i­cal po­si­tion that is com­mon to the weaker Star Wars games.

Star Wars in gen­eral was no longer ex­per­i­men­tal, in­no­va­tive, or the re­sult of syn­the­sis. It had be­come a cre­ative en­ter­prise ded­i­cated to re­pro­duc­ing it­self, both self-ref­er­en­tial and self-rev­er­en­tial. This man­i­fested some­times as deep cre­ative rot – the ‘weak pho­to­copy’ ef­fect of the sec­ond wave of movies – and at oth­ers as a sim­ple and slav­ish ded­i­ca­tion to a set of images. Rep­e­ti­tion eroded Star Wars’ sense of space and time: old movies rewrit­ten and re­mas­tered, pulled out of their con­text and mined for sym­bols and sound­bites.

This shift wasn’t sim­ply ev­i­dent in the games. Star Wars’ tran­si­tion from fic­tional land­scape to col­lec­tion of ap­proved images oc­curred as mer­chan­dis­ing moved from the side­lines to be­come, ar­guably, the fran­chise’s pri­mary form of ex­pres­sion. The T-shirt stand had moved from the foyer to the main stage, and in games this man­i­fested as an en­thu­si­asm for straight­for­ward film adap­ta­tions in well-un­der­stood gen­res, re­sult­ing in games such as the sim­plis­tic ve­hi­cle-ac­tion game Star Wars

Episode I: Bat­tle For Na­boo and a suc­ces­sion of medi­ocre ac­tion plat­form­ers aligned to re­leases in the sec­ond movie tril­ogy. De­spite the cre­ative op­por­tu­ni­ties af­forded by a new gen­er­a­tion of con­soles and more wide­spread ac­cess to on­line mul­ti­player, Star Wars no longer rep­re­sented the po­ten­tial of games to open doors to other worlds: it rep­re­sented the po­ten­tial for games to round out a movie’s mer­chan­dis­ing port­fo­lio.

Ar­guably, Star Wars games have never re­claimed that in­no­va­tive streak – both Star Wars and triple-A game de­vel­op­ment have un­der­gone dra­matic changes in cir­cum­stance in the decade since. This doesn’t mean that there have been no good new Star Wars games since 2003, but it does ad­just the cri­te­ria for suc­cess. With sys­tems-driven, tech­nol­ogy-driv­ing Star Wars games in de­cline, and the se­ries’ frame of ref­er­ence lo­cated squarely within its own bor­ders, it fell to game de­vel­op­ers to build a smarter Star Wars from the in­side out.

In 2003, as Star Wars Gal­ax­ies set out on its doomed jour­ney, BioWare’s Knights Of The Old

Re­pub­lic neatly evaded the same fate. The de­ci­sion to set a Star Wars game in an en­tirely new era, with en­tirely new iconog­ra­phy, was un­prece­dented. Cer­tain nov­els and comic books had ges­tured at the time be­fore the orig­i­nal tril­ogy, but few had ven­tured there for long. The Re­pub­lic era – the pe­riod cov­ered by the pre­quel movies – was off-lim­its, await­ing fu­ture cin­e­matic ex­pres­sion. Turn­ing the clock back thou­sands of years to a time with­out X-Wings, Stormtroop­ers or rebels was a sig­nif­i­cant de­ci­sion for Star Wars in gen­eral. It was this move that granted BioWare cre­ative free­dom that the stu­dio was un­likely to have oth­er­wise en­joyed – free­dom to ig­nore the story of those iconic few char­ac­ters and re­build Star Wars on its own terms. Where de­vel­op­ers had once sought to use games to sim­u­late a set­ting they loved, here BioWare used the RPG for­mat to var­i­ously crit­i­cise, eu­lo­gise and rekin­dle the se­ries’ spirit.

Knights Of The Old Re­pub­lic al­lowed play­ers to re-en­counter ideas that had been worn down to the point of fric­tion­less­ness. The rev­e­la­tion of Luke and Darth Vader’s re­la­tion­ship – once, be­lieve it or not, a twist – was recre­ated in the shock­ing mo­ment where Darth Re­van’s mask fi­nally came off. A dif­fer­ent sort of Han-Chewie re­la­tion­ship is seen through Mis­sion Vao and Zaal­baar, more pre­co­cious sis­ter and pro­tec­tive older brother than bick­er­ing buddy-cops. Through Bastila Shan, the Jedi are rein­tro­duced in a way that stresses their dig­nity, aus­ter­ity, and to some ex­tent their hypocrisy – a so­phis­ti­cated pre­sen­ta­tion that the pre­quel movies failed to achieve.

Ob­sid­ian’s 2004 se­quel,

Knights Of The Old Re­pub­lic II, turned re­con­struc­tion into de­con­struc­tion. Re­leased too soon and too un­fin­ished to have the im­pact it per­haps should, it told a far more thought­ful story than, as a li­censed game, it per­haps had any right to. This is a game en­tirely about the glar­ing prob­lems with the se­ries’ cen­tral light/dark di­chotomy. Star Wars’ es­sen­tial naivety is skew­ered by Kreia, an el­derly Jedi who fills the Obi-Wan Kenobi role from a po­si­tion of with­er­ing cyn­i­cism.

The Knights Of The Old Re­pub­lic se­ries also saw the suc­cess­ful trans­la­tion of PC RPG de­sign to con­sole. BioWare es­tab­lished a for­mula that took the com­bat, con­ver­sa­tions and sto­ry­telling of Bal­dur’s Gate and ap­plied it to some­thing with the bear­ing of a cin­e­matic ac­tion game. That this par­tic­u­lar treat­ment also had to be made to work on Xbox was the im­pe­tus be­hind de­sign prin­ci­ples that led to Mass Ef­fect and the hy­brid RPG-ac­tion game in gen­eral.

The orig­i­nal Bat­tle­front, re­leased in 2004, was a suc­cess be­cause it man­aged to make large-scale joint-arms on­line war­fare work on con­soles. It sur­vived ropey gun­play and lack­lus­tre AI be­cause Star Wars ground war­fare had rarely been made to work at this scale, and be­cause its sand­box modes pro­vided play­ers with a de­gree of imag­i­na­tive in­put into the types of sce­nario they en­coun­tered. Ga­lac­tic Con­quest mode added a freeform strat­egy layer, thread­ing to­gether in­di­vid­ual matches into a bat­tle for supremacy across mul­ti­ple plan­ets. On PC, mod­ding tools en­cour­aged a pas­sion­ate

com­mu­nity of cre­ators to form around the game.

2005’s Bat­tle­front II patched up the orig­i­nal’s weak­nesses while bi­lat­er­ally ex­pand­ing its of­fer­ing. The ro­bust sin­gle­player cam­paign, which spanned bat­tles from At­tack Of The Clones to The Em­pire Strikes Back, ap­plied Bat­tle­front’s shooter sand­box to the reen­act­ment of well-known mo­ments. On the other hand, a re­turn­ing Ga­lac­tic Con­quest mode was en­hanced by space com­bat and deeper tac­ti­cal op­tions on the strat­egy map. Cutscenes were cre­ated that played the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of vic­tory for your cho­sen fac­tion – Bat­tle­front II is a rare ex­am­ple of a main­stream Star Wars game mak­ing a con­certed ef­fort to pro­vide play­ers with the tools they needed to tell their own sto­ries.

In that re­gard, the orig­i­nal Bat­tle­front se­ries rep­re­sents a suc­cess­ful at­tempt to serve Star Wars’ long­stand­ing fan­base along­side its much younger tar­get de­mo­graphic. Ar­guably, how­ever, the most sig­nif­i­cantly in­no­va­tive Star Wars game of the noughties was aimed squarely at the lat­ter. The first Lego Star Wars game was not tech­no­log­i­cally in­no­va­tive in the way that Star Wars games had been in the past, and it didn’t seek to evoke the world sug­gested by the films – quite the op­po­site. It was, how­ever, tonally rev­o­lu­tion­ary, well re­garded as a chil­dren’s game, and vastly in­flu­en­tial. Given the preva­lence of Lego games to­day, it is easy to for­get that they be­gan life as Star Wars tie-ins.

Lego Star Wars’ will­ing­ness to treat Star Wars iconog­ra­phy with ir­rev­er­ence, as a mal­leable jum­ble of toys, is what al­lows it to by­pass the con­flict be­tween for­mu­laic re­con­struc­tion and earnest world-build­ing. Its me­chan­ics and struc­tures are not spe­cific to Star Wars – hence why they have been suc­cess­fully ap­plied to so many other fran­chises – but they are hon­est to how chil­dren en­counter the se­ries in its lat­ter years, with its vast and lay­ered slate of char­ac­ters, plot­lines, de­vices, places and so on. Here, that moun­tain of mer­chan­dise is wel­comed onto cen­tre stage and made fun of. Af­ter years of U-turns and jar­ring tonal shifts (see ‘Ex­ces­sive Force’), Lego

Star Wars demon­strated that the most ma­ture thing Star Wars could do was not take it­self so se­ri­ously. Quiet years fol­lowed the re­lease of Lego Star Wars:

The Clone Wars in 2011. The drive to spin out the pre­quel era lost mo­men­tum, while Dis­ney’s switch in fo­cus to the mobile mar­ket killed games that might have oc­cu­pied the long gap, such as the promis­ing-look­ing Star Wars 1313. The sev­enth movie ap­proaches, bring­ing with it a re­newed en­thu­si­asm for the orig­i­nal tril­ogy on the part of Lu­cas Arts – an ac­knowl­edge­ment, pos­si­bly cyn­i­cal, of the need to re­turn to those char­ac­ters, that time and those ideas. The re­launched Bat­tle­front is the first of what will al­most cer­tainly be a wave of new Star Wars games.

The na­ture of this new uni­verse is, how­ever, un­known. The old Ex­panded Uni­verse is gone; X-Wings and Stormtroop­ers have, one way or an­other, re­turned. This could of­fer a sim­i­lar op­por­tu­nity to game de­vel­op­ers to the one en­coun­tered in the 1990s – the chance to use games to spark a deeper un­der­stand­ing of the Star Wars uni­verse, to of­fer con­text and mean­ing to well-loved images in a man­ner that suits in­ter­ac­tive me­dia par­tic­u­larly well. This, how­ever, will re­quire a re­turn to an old-school at­ti­tude along­side the old-school nar­ra­tive.

The icons of Star Wars’ past are back but they are, no­tably, be­ing treated as icons. This an­swers one con­cern about the post-pre­quel era, but not its un­der­ly­ing struc­tural prob­lems. The next gen­er­a­tion of Star Wars games needs to do more than rear­range well-loved images with bet­ter tech: it needs to rekin­dle the spark of in­no­va­tion that cre­ated those images in the first place. Any­thing less amounts to a theme park – and Star Wars, when it has worked, when it has won over its most ded­i­cated fans, has al­ways been a place you live in, not a place you visit.

DarkForces (right) was a far cry from the scor­pion-dodg­ing days of Su­per Star­Wars. For the first time, a Star Wars ac­tion game suc­cess­fully placed you in­side a be­liev­able world

Star Wars Gal­ax­ies play­ers could choose to be­come Stormtroop­ers, traders or dancers, but the lure of Jedi pow­ers cre­ated a bal­ance is­sue that ul­ti­mately frac­tured the com­mu­nity of SOE’s game

TIE Fighter (left) made a con­certed efort to sim­u­late the life of an Im­pe­rial pi­lot. The RogueLeader se­ries (right) fo­cused on graph­i­cal fidelity and grat­i­fy­ing, ar­cade-like re­cre­ations of clas­sic bat­tles

KO­TOR’s new gal­axy (top) was a ma­jor de­par­ture for Star Wars in gen­eral. Tra­di­tional set­tings re­mained the norm, how­ever, as in the first Bat­tle­front (above)

Ir­rev­er­ence and thought­ful de­sign helped Le­goS­tarWars be­come more than just a cash-in. Gen­er­ous with char­ac­ters and things to do, it’s a great ex­am­ple of de­sign for kids that also ap­peals to older play­ers, its fam­ily-friendly na­ture at the heart of the se­ries’ suc­cess

De­spite the mod­ern tech­nol­ogy it em­ploys, Bandai Namco’s StarWarsBat­tlePod coin-op is un­apolo­get­i­cally retro. Like the very first Star­Wars ar­cade game from 1983, it de­liv­ers a whis­tle-stop tour of fa­mous cin­e­matic mo­ments

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