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