Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Heroic Attempt to Define Iconic Star Warsy-ness

Star Warsy. Heroic. Iconic. Oh my.

There are numerous terms thrown about to describe the aspects of a Star Wars video game; vague concepts that are meant to encapsulate the desired level of immersion. But just what is the specific criteria? What features can appeal to the broadest possible audience in terms of evoking the feeling of the Star Wars genre? Is it the power of the Force or the gritty criminal underworld? Perhaps it is the epic struggle between good and evil, or is it the personal struggles and turmoil ? It is starships or moisture vaporators? Blasters or axes? Giant monsters or tiny droids?

Simply put: yes.

Star Wars is many things to many people. Beyond the movies, there are novels, comic books, toys, console games, PC games, cartoons, live action T.V. specials, tabletop roleplaying games, and maybe a lunchbox or two. The canon is spread quite thin and is even categorized by the Lucas conglomerate; a tidbit that means little to fans, especially the casual ones.

So step one would be: Identify the source material from the plethora of that which is available. That's easy. It's academic that one should select the movies to be the bible for what is and is not appropriate content.

But it doesn't stop there since we all know there are six movies from which to draw from; each with their own "era". Star Wars Galaxies is evidently set in the time just after Episode IV. So why don't we all reach for our favorite incarnation of "A New Hope". You know: the one where Han shoots first?

Let's break it down. We'll extract the major points of the story to use towards creating a template that identifies the expected level of Star Wars immersion needed for any game based on this particular movie. Got it? Good. And May the Force Be With You. Also "Good luck". We're gonna need it."

And for some reason "You came here in THAT thing?" seems somehow appropriate to what we're trying to do.

Episode IV opens up with a tail-kicking. The Empire is bigger, stronger, more persistent, and dresses way better. But they're inefficient. The Rebels may have lost many troops, and had one of their leaders captured, but they managed to send off the intel they were delivering. This will be a recurring theme.

Let's start a list before we forget, shall we?

1. The Empire is a polished, methodical, yet flawed war machine.

Quickly, we come to learn that heroes aren't born, they're made. The "good guys" are either in hiding or are ignorant of the larger picture, deluding themselves by enjoying an easier lifestyle or career. Each needs a reason to become inspired to fight, be it money or revenge. Fortunately, the bad guys give them reasons.

2. Heroes aren't born, they're made, often by the very thing they are destined to fight.

We find that the galaxy isn't all about good versus evil. Seedy beings find their way, picking fights, avoiding death sentences, brokering information, posting or hunting bounties, or running smuggling operations. The Empire seems to not have an absolute reach nor influence. Is that noteworthy? Methinks yes.

3. The Galaxy has a seedy underworld of which seems beyond the scope of the Empire's reach.

Meanwhile, the Empire shows how totally badass it is. They fly around in crazy big ships and build giant space stations. ("That's no moon! That's our tax credits at work!") During interrogations, they blow up planets. Because that seems reasonable.

But they're old and stodgy, perhaps too set in their ways. Very few will entertain the idea that the Rebellion is growing stronger. They have an undying faith in the war machine they've crafted. This sentiment not only echoes their failure from the opening scene, but foreshadows their ultimate failure in the final frames.

This is important stuff! Are we writing this down? Well, in fact, we are...

4. The Rebellion is foolishly disregarded by the ever-posturing Imperials.

But here's the hook. There's more to the galaxy then just technology and physical weapons. While we know little of the Emperor at this point, (besides that he doesn't like Senates and prefers skeletal leaders with the ability to really roll those Rs), it's clear that Darth Vader is something else; something older and more mystical. He's part of something that the galaxy chooses to ignore, belittle, and/or forget: Force users.

Just as this mystical power can be used for personal gain (or for choking insubordinates), it can also be a power for benevolence (or affecting the weak-minded, naturally!). It seems that personal and moral decisions can affect the path taken toward using the Force; of which the ability to blow up planets is insignificant against. So in short, we've got these Force users on both sides of the fence.

5. The Force has many aspects which are achieved through moral decisions.

Speaking of which, yes, there is a clearly defined fence. The Empire blows up planets. They slaughter Jawas and moisture farmers. They shoot first, then shoot some more. Pehaps it's to make up for their rather textbook, unimaginative approach to everything not related to combat. ("The door is locked, let's assume what we're looking for will be easier to find elsewhere.")

Oh, and they capture Princesses and subject them to interrogation and possible termination. Make no mistake about it: the Empire are the bad guys. There's no shades of grey to be had with the Empire. The Imperials' ruthless approach to locating the stolen Death Star plans ironically compels the protagonists to work harder at using those plans to successful ends.

Seriously, go back and watch the scene where Luke finds the remains of his dead aunt and uncle. You will see the very moment where the Empire is doomed for failure when the innocent farmboy turns his grief into something else. Something that cannot be denied. Remember, heroes are not born, but are made; and revenge is a potent aspect to the crucible.

6. The Empire is evil. And they like to remind you. 'Nuff said.

So where were we? Oh yes. An aged hero comes out of hiding to pull together a bunch of reluctant heroes, though a couple are still in it for the money. They set out on a noble quest to help topple the evil Empire in order to achieve the absolution, revenge, or monetary gains that each are after.

I was remiss not to mention the droids up until this point. One part comedic relief, one part reminder that this isn't your universe. It's important to note that they're not just non-organics, but that they have clearly defined roles that they've been built for. It's obvious that there are other droids in this galaxy that have their own roles. Where we have iPhones, laptops and a GPS, folks in Star Wars have droids. This is a point that needs to be remembered.

In fact, the various alien races also act as a reminder that we're not in Kansas... err... here any more. The cantina scene is a classic in American sci-fi cinema; a statement which can be debated but really shouldn't be.

7. Droids and aliens should be prevalent.

And so with the plot now clearly presented and the players introduced, the storyline unfolds. As it turns out, it is faith and teamwork that prove to be better qualities then the methodical war machine of the Empire. Ad lib tactics confound the systematic tactics of the Empire, but moreso it is the unwillingness of the Empire to recognize and accept their weakness and make the necessary adjustments. ("Evacuate? What is this word?")

8. The Empire confidently follows protocol. The Rebellion desperately ad libs.

In the end the arrogance and incompetence of the Empire spells their doom, while the determination and sacrifice of the Rebellion seals their victory. The Empire takes it up the exhaust port not because of a targeting computer, but because of faith and friendship.

But the "big bad" gets away, spinning off into space, and the losses on the "good guy" side makes the victory bittersweet despite the grandiose celebration. And while the final frame shows jubilation, it's clear that it will be short-lived and that more effort will soon be required.

9. Victory is achieved through sacrifice.

The music builds to a crescendo, the credits roll, and movies are changed forever. We're left humming the main theme far longer then we realize.

Which brings me to the final point learned from Episode IV: Music and effects. Laser bolts, lightsabers, screaming TIE fighters, planet-shattering lasers, trundling droids, and blazing hyperspace jumps are just a small part of the feast of auditory and visual treats.

10. Star Wars looks and sounds awesome.

And so there we have it. Ten takeaway points from Episode IV that academically describe and define the Star Wars experience. I should hope this is an exhaustive list and that any additional points are merely extrapolations of those tidbits already raised. (Could one argue that lightsaber duels should be added to the list, and could it just be countered that such duels are merely embodiments of the struggle between the two sides of the Force as identified by point #5?)

Do - or maybe "can" - these points translate over into a video game? How does one program "moral decisions" in an MMO? Or implement evil? Sacrifice?

Well that's the real trick, isn't it? But if one is going to have a game based around Star Wars, then it's a requirement that these elements are integrated.

Or else why bother?

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