Ah, Star Wars. For some, the original Star Wars in 1977 signaled the end of serious movies and the birth of the blockbuster, with the recent movie prequels as the definitive sign that the emperor has no clothes. But the movies and the related merchandise have made many truckloads of money, so someone out there is enjoying the stuff.
Two items right here on Strange Horizons reflect my own thoughts on the subject. The first is the recent piece by Athena Andreadis about the disturbing reasons that Lucas posits for the downfall of Anakin Skywalker. Andreadis points out many flaws in the movie prequels; I agree, and I've argued elsewhere that the movies got progressively less artful and more disagreeable (see my reviews of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones at Challenging Destiny, and Revenge of the Sith at The Cultural Gutter).
By contrast, another recent piece on Star Wars by Tim Phipps gives an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the video game Lego Star Wars. I couldn't agree more—the game is fun in a way that Lucas's movies have lost.
So what's going on here? Is it only because I despise the recent movie prequels so thoroughly that a video game would be of higher quality in my estimation?
And what about the 30 or so other video games based on Star Wars? Are any of them worth playing?
The Glory Days of Lucasarts
Lucasarts the game company was created in 1982 as a way of expanding the Lucas brand (see the Wikipedia entry for more detail than I will go into here). It's one of the original computer game companies, and there aren't many of those left. Over the course of its first 15 years, Lucasarts was at the pinnacle of artistic and commercial success. Lucasarts games were original, funny, and fresh, and even the Star Wars and Indiana Jones brand games were well-regarded.
In the first few years, Lucasarts was best at adventure games, otherwise known as graphic adventures or puzzle games. The Monkey Island series is a good example of the games from this era: hilarious, with head-scratching puzzles, and the welcome innovation that your character couldn't die no matter what crazy/silly things you did. But the genre of adventure games died off, for reasons that are not necessarily related to the quality of the Lucasarts titles (this disappearance is the subject of much discussion among game fans).
Lucasarts moved more obviously into Star Wars-related games with a run of space combat simulations that were quite successful, starting in 1993 with X-Wing, and followed by TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs TIE-Fighter, and the later X-Wing Alliance. You could fly your X-wing around space, take on missions, dodge through asteroid fields, and adjust your shields and power your lasers and tinker to your heart's content. TIE Fighter let you play as an Imperial, and the "vs" in the third title meant multiplayer.
These space combat games came out back in my university days and a lot of my friends were playing the games. As a reviewer, though, I have to admit that these popular games are a blank spot in my coverage.
Why might that be? For the simple reason that I suck as a space pilot. If I was Luke Skywalker and everyone was depending on me to blow up the Death Star, it would be bye-bye rebellion, hello Imperial control of everything. I can't fly a spaceship in a 3D representation of space if my life depended on it—as it does in every mission in these types of games. After a long time of constantly dying, I would just give up.
I mention my ineptitude, not because it's a pleasant topic for me, but because this is something that is rarely mentioned in video game coverage. All of the specialty gaming press is written by people who like playing video games so much they want to do it all the time. By self-selection, they are proficient gamers. But the majority of the market is now made up of casual gamers, and this is not something that video game triumphalists talk about: if games are the future (as I debated last month), then what about those people who have a slow twitch reflex? Adventure games depended on wit more than a fast trigger finger, but those games are few and far between now.
Jedi Knight is the other classic era Lucasarts title that I need to talk about. It's a first-person shooter (FPS) along the lines of Doom or Halo, and when it came out in 1997, it was the first game to let the player experience, in first person, life as a Jedi. The game was complete with lightsaber and force powers, and it was a blast to play. It's true that the player's representation in virtual space is stereotypically much more powerful than the player, and this game was no different. What I remember about the game, after all these years, is actually the architecture. Jedi Knight had huge environments, bigger than the movies, and these spaces felt like the setting for a cool science fiction story. Most of what passes for SF in the FPS genre takes place in one generic corridor after another, and that trend has continued to this day, leaving Jedi Knight unmatched in my experience.
To my mind, Jedi Knight marks the end of Lucasarts as a gaming powerhouse. They made a fun add-on pack called Mysteries of the Sith in 1998, and then quite a few years passed before another sequel came out. The gap was because the company was crumbling; the official sequel, the passable Jedi Knight II, was actually made by another company, Raven, in 2002.
Lucasarts licensed out the making of most Star Wars games after this point, and when the movie prequels came along, they kept the licensing machine cranked at full capacity, with results that ranged from forgettable to disastrous. When The Phantom Menace came out, many reviewers mentioned that the podrace sequence felt like a video game. Well, there ya go, the game Podracer was on the shelves. And it's pretty much like the movie . . . you race the pods. Not much exciting going on.
Technical Aspects of Pulp Storytelling
The main exception to the "licensed Star Wars game = crap" rule is what happened when a smart company called Bioware made the role-playing game (RPG) Knights of the Old Republic in 2003. Bioware set their game thousands of years before the movies, which gave them the popularity of the Star Wars name while simultaneously giving them the freedom to not use George Lucas's lame prequel characters. In other words, the freedom to innovate. Bioware created compelling new characters, put them in a satisfying story, and polished up the gameplay until it sparkled. It's an addictive game that has a surprising amount of substance to it.
Strangely enough, one of the best parts of Knights of the Old Republic, to my inner SF nerd, was the way it addressed a key problem in the typical science fiction narrative. These kinds of juvenile wish fulfillment fantasies almost always have an uber-powerful person as the main character, and the explanations for such characters consume a lot of narrative space, especially in comic books but in movies and books too. In The Phantom Menace, Lucas abused his audience with a ragtag mix of a virgin birth and microscopic beings called midichlorians to explain Anakin Skywalker's strength in the Force.
It is possible to make something interesting out of an origin story, although it's not easy. I've always liked the elegance of Frank Herbert's explanation for the messiah-like powers of Dune's main character, Paul Atreides. Paul is the Kwisatz Haderach, the fulfillment of thousands of years of careful breeding by a secretive religious order. As a thinking person, Paul naturally rebels against the plans this cruel and unaccountable group has for him, and the plot flows credibly from Paul's powers and his rebellion against their intended use. It helps that Herbert understood more about the dangerous nature of heroes than Lucas has ever shown.
Knights of the Old Republic also has a beautiful explanation. The main character, the player's avatar, has an astonishing revelation about himself or herself (a spoiler warning here, although this twist happens two-thirds of the way in). Some background first. Two Sith Lords named Revan and Malak rebel against the Old Republic, and they are defeated in a huge battle. Revan is presumed dead, while Malak pops up a while later. You are enlisted to help fight him.
Only to find out that you were Revan yourself! You were captured in battle, and the Jedi decided to wipe your brain and then pretend that you are this new person. You are currently using your powers for good, but you've already been down the dark side, so you have solid reasons to go either way. And you are naturally the center of everyone's attention, since you're not sure who to trust and you can be convinced, never mind that you are a powerful Jedi. The explanation here isn't quite as thorough as Herbert's; for one thing, there's still no rationale for why you were a powerful Sith Lord in the first place. But by shifting the story ahead, and taking that extra background for granted, Bioware left out all the painful stuff that preoccupied Lucas in his interminable examination of the birth of Darth Vader.
As Andreadis points out in her article, Lucas's version of Anakin-to-Vader is weirdly misogynistic. In Knights of the Old Republic, Revan's first trip to the dark side happened due to a lust for a power; upon brain-wipe when the player takes over, you have the rationale of betrayal and distrust of the Jedi. Plus you are powerful enough to take over everything yourself again. I see another advantage that the video game format gives: the player has a choice, whereas Anakin is inevitably going to become Vader. If I were playing as Anakin, just because some random guy who I have every reason to distrust tells me that one day under his dubious tutelage I might be powerful enough to reverse the death of my wife, a death which has only been seen in my dreams, I'd like to have my own choice before I start indiscriminately murdering children and ignoring the very person for whom I'm ostensibly doing this.
I should add a few words about Lego Star Wars. From an alarmist point of view, the convergence of Lego and Star Wars represents the apotheosis of children's play as marketing opportunity. Remember the good old days when Lego came as a set of undifferentiated blocks and you had to build your own invention? Now Lego is thoroughly cross-marketed, and the kids have to get all the items in a set, whether it's Harry Potter, Star Wars, or whatever else is hot. Never mind that the notion of the "good old days" is always an illusion . . . someone think of the children!
The flip side of this kind of attitude is simple: for the people who like Lego and who like Star Wars, a game like Lego Star Wars is heaven. They may have developed that feeling through saturation marketing, but at least the game itself is worth playing, not like other marketing-driven phenomena that I can think of.
Personally, I like the game because it is goofy. I got annoyed with the prequel movies because they were so serious—Star Wars has something to say, damn it, and you'd better not miss it! The developers of Lego Star Wars, a company named Giant, throw all this out. The dramatic moments from the movies are reduced to baffled characters uttering incomprehensible Legospeak, and the plots are hilariously shortened (it brings to mind the Phantom Edit). Sure, it undercuts the believability of the whole enterprise by its silliness but it's a valid approach. And at least it's something different.
The Law of Averages
I've mentioned three Star Wars video games that are worth playing: Jedi Knight, Knights of the Old Republic, and Lego Star Wars. I would also recommend X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter if you have any aptitude for space combat. So that's four topnotch games, with one at least, Knights of the Old Republic, having a better story than the previous four movies.
However, I should put this in context. There have been upwards of 30 video games based on the Star Wars license, and by the law of averages, at least a few of them should be good. It's also true that the vast majority of those games are a pure waste of time, particularly the games that tie in closely to the recent movie prequels.
The situation is not so straightforward of course; if I apply the same reasoning to media tie-in novels, then I would be clearly expecting a false result of a few handfuls of good ones (this is of course based purely on my perception, as I have not read every Star Wars novelization). What sets these four games apart from other licensed properties? As I see it, mainly that they took chances, innovated, stepped outside the box. The developers stood on their own abilities as creative people, and broke out of the hierarchical relationship that is a license. That's the exact opposite of what the powers that be want in a franchised consumer item, but those games are the ones that have lasted.
Interestingly, that's also a testament to another fact: there's nothing about the setting or the material of Episodes I-III that made them inevitably suck. If you take great care with your characters, add some innovative tricks with your story, and generally sit down and think about what you are doing, you can turn pulp into gold. So why not do this? If balancing the franchise with some innovation is what pumps up the sales numbers—Knights of the Old Republic sold in huge quantities—then why not do that?
Because it's hard, just like any artistic endeavor is hard, and it's a lot easier to just toss off some half-considered nonsense. Oh, it's just a popcorn movie. Or, the kids will buy this video game as long as it says Star Wars on the front of the box. In my more cynical moments, I think the percentage attached to Sturgeon's Law should be 99%, not 90%.
One final note. I mentioned earlier that I gave up on space combat games, and I should add that I have another blind spot for massively multiplayer online games, simply because of a lack of time to commit to such things. A few years ago, Lucasarts licensed out a game called Star Wars: Galaxies, in which you can play in the Star Wars universe by way of a persistent online galaxy. I heard mixed things when it came out but have no personal experience. Anyone been playing Galaxies lately?