Commentary by Clive Thompson
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 smoldering 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 Star Wars: Empire at War, 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 Return of the Jedi, 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’ vision has arguably been far better expressed in video games than in movies.
For me, this epiphany began back in 1998, when Rogue Squadron came out on the Nintendo 64 — a note-perfect evocation of in-flight combat. I played it nonstop for four months. Then every year or so, another superb Star Wars title came along to get me addicted, from Knights of the Old Republic to Jedi Starfighter to Battlefront. 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 The Matrix and then … what? (I said “original” movies. Stuff like The Lord of the Rings, I, Robot and Minority Report were all based — however loosely — on pre-existing books. The shining exception is Joss Whedon’s superb Serenity, a movie that, sadly, tanked 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 Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, the operatic scope of the Final Fantasy series, or the calm beauty of Ico.
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 Rogue Squadron with such a jolt of déjà vu: As a kid, I’d fantasized 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 J. J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof were writing Lost, they explicitly modeled 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 Shadow of the Colossus — or even the old Myst 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 Empire at War 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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