Fighting on the dark side

  • Fighting on the dark side
  • Go on, be evil. LucasArts can put you in control of an ambitious criminal genius named Tyber Zann, whose goal is to spread corruption through the galaxy and generally stir things up.
Date:5 July 2006 Tags:

Forget film. Games do sci-fi best

AH, THE SUBTLE pleasures of intergalactic fascism. My flotilla of TIE fighters swarmed through space like locusts, picking off rebel troops at will. My mammoth Star Destroyers had reduced a rebel base to a smouldering hulk, and Darth Vader had personally blown up Millennium Falcon and killed that jackass Han Solo – twice.

As you might have guessed, I was playing , the latest strategy title from Lucas Games. And something quite rare was happening: even though I was deep inside a George Lucas creation, I was having a total blast.

Normally, I cringe whenever Lucas launches another movie. Ever since the Ewoks appeared in 1983’s , his films have steadily tobogganed downwards into a vale of unwatchability. It’s hard to figure out what Lucas has done worse: is it his increasingly Disneyfied characters? His wooden scripts? Or the plots that, having been carefully denuded of action sequences, instead focus on, y’know, trade disputes?

Which brings me to my point: in the last 20 years, Lucas’s vision has arguably been far better expressed in video games than in movies. For me, this epiphany began back in 1998, when came out on the Nintendo 64 – a note-perfect evocation of in-flight combat.

I played it non-stop for four months. Then every year or so, another superb Star Wars title came along to get me addicted, from to to . Each time, Lucas did a much better job of recapturing the original spirit of his universe: a mix of campy voice-acting, moral dread, and – most of all – pell-mell action.

Why were the games so comparatively good? A cynic would say it’s because Lucas probably isn’t as closely involved in the games, so his young designers aren’t hampered by his inane creative decisions. But I actually suspect it’s deeper than that. I think it’s because games are beginning to rival film – and even eclipse it – as the prime vehicle for sci-fi and fantasy.

After all, there have been vanishingly few original, mass-market, sci-fi or fantasy movies in recent years. We had and then… what? (I said “original” movies. Stuff like and were all based – however loosely – on pre-existing books. The shining exception is Joss Whedon’s superb Serenity, a movie that, sadly, bombed at the box office.)

In contrast, the game industry has produced dozens of worlds as lovingly rendered and lush in detail as a Bruegel painting. Think of the weird, vaulting steampunk buildings of , the operatic scope of the series, or the calm beauty of .

Perhaps this shift is taking place because games have an inherent affinity with sci-fi and fantasy. Those genres are based on what-if premises; they’re the literary version of the Sim, the author as world-builder. Part of the fun of watching a sci-fi movie is mentally inhabiting a new world and imagining what it feels like to be inside. But now there’s a medium that actually puts you in. It’s why I reacted to with such a jolt of dj vu: as a kid, I’d fantasised about flying my own X-wing fighter – and suddenly, bang, there I was.

So if you were a creator wandering around Los Angeles and hankering to forge a new universe, why do a movie? Why not try for a game? For today’s youth, the go-anywhere, exploratory feel of immersive worlds is where the cultural mojo resides. Even the few popular fantasy stories in the mainstream today borrow from this vibe.

When JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof were writing , they explicitly modelled it on a video-game world: an overarching mythology and a cohesive world-picture, slowly revealed through creepy exploration by the main characters.

Of course, assuming I’m right about this trend, it’s not all good. There’s arguably something lost when games become the central site for flights of fancy. Even the best “narrative” games can’t replicate the emotional undertow of a good film. When I wander through – or even the old series – I’m filled with a sense of awe.

It’s like visiting a breathtaking Renaissance church; I’m struck by the beauty and the neoclassical detail. But it doesn’t drag my heart along a path the way a plain ol’ linear movie does. Then again, when’s the last time Lucas did that on the silver screen?

So I take what solace I can. I boot up again, join the dark side, summon Emperor Palpatine, send another couple hundred TIE fighters off on howling suicide missions. Plenty more where they came from, m’lord. My training is complete.

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