“Almost there,” I tease, as I set my sights on another X-Wing fighter. I use the onboard computers, a marvel of modern technology, to match my speed to his and ease in behind him.
“Just a few more seconds.” The effect is startling. It’s as if I’ve glued my craft to his, and no matter how much he squirms, no matter how he tries to evade, I’m on him. I now begin the long dance of jockeying into just the right position for a clear firing solution.
“‘I can’t shake him,'” I imagine him saying in my best impression of a whiney-ass farm boy turned would-be Jedi.
‘”Luke, pull out!” Warns his advisor at headquarters (again, voiced by me), but he doesn’t. He’s cocky and arrogant. Sure that he’ll be the “Hero of the Rebellion,” the fool.
I switch from missiles to guns and fire off a shot.
In the fall of 1994, I was about as far down on the roster of cool as one could get without hitting the disabled list.
I’d taken a break from my less-than-stellar undergraduate work and had moved back in with the folks, ostensibly to save money while I worked a lousy retail job and tried to “find myself.” But what had seemed like the perfect solution to life’s problems while stoned out of my gourd in my best friend’s dorm room, had turned out to be an existential cul-de-sac.
I hadn’t written anything worth reading in over a year, my retail gig was just as boring as algebra class and my fledgling acting career had rapidly stalled due to a paralyzing fear of going to auditions. About the only thing I had going for me was my girlfriend of several years, until she eventually decided to dump me to spend more time watching football.
After only a few weeks, it seemed I’d been set adrift on the sea of life. I was no longer a student, a writer, an actor or a boyfriend. My confidence was in freefall; my identity gone. I was precariously balanced on the knife’s edge of complete irrelevance, and like every teenager-turned-adult who’d come before me, and all who’d come after, I was sure that my problems carried weight far beyond their significance. So I did what any sane, barely-post-adolescent person would do: For the good of all mankind, I used the money I’d been saving to buy a life raft in the form of a personal computer.
Enter: the Packard-Bell 486 DX2. The thinking was that I’d finally have an actual word processor on which to write, rather than relying on the finicky electronic typewriter I’d had since I was 13, or the hit-or-miss method of writing manuscripts by hand, using a fountain pen on legal pads. (My handwriting was so horrible I often couldn’t read it myself.) But of course, once I had the thing out of the box and had plugged in all of the plugs, connected all of the connectors and pressed the switch, the first thing I did was play games.
I’d come home from Circuit City with three boxes that day. The first contained the computer and monitor. The second and third: a copy of LucasArts’ space sim, TIE Fighter, and a CH Flightstick Pro.
I’d been a gamer off and on since I’d been able to hold a controller, had played on most consoles made to that date and had even monkeyed around with Commodore 64s and Apple machines belonging to friends, but that Packard-Bell was my first true foray into the exciting and terrible world of PC gaming. I foolishly expected to be flying through space, blasting Rebel Scum, mere minutes after arriving home, but this, as you probably already know, was not to be.
DOS games of that era often required a “clean boot” in order to run on a Windows machine like my 486 DX2. In spite of the “2,” it just didn’t have the muscle to run TIE Fighter in a window. This meant that I had to make a “boot disk,” a floppy disk which would program the computer to circumvent the Windows operating system and instead allow the machine to boot up in DOS. Problem: I didn’t have any floppy disks.
An hour later, I was back to try again, and a few hours after that, after tapping the limit of my sparse understanding of BASIC programming, I’d “optimized” the configuration files so that my boot disk would actually work and the damn game would actually play.
I’d gotten up at the crack of noon that day to celebrate my victory over the creeping tendrils of mediocrity by purchasing a top-of-the-middle-of-the-road PC and the year’s hottest game. It was well after dark by the time I actually fired it up, but as soon as I did, I knew all of the trouble had been worth it.
The LucasArts logo appeared on the screen, followed immediately by music I’d have known anywhere and the slow crawl of yellow text up the screen. Instantly, my own world faded away; my fears, my disappointments and my unrealized dreams detached from my mind and fell about 10 feet behind me. I was no longer Russ Pitts, live-at-home, retail working, failed student and breakup victim. I was TK421, TIE Fighter pilot, Imperial Naval Officer and generally evil badass.
There’s something liberating about being a bad guy. You’re not restrained by the same morality, the same rules of behavior as we are in our normal lives. And let’s face it: The bad guys always have the best-laid plans. I often find myself rooting for the bad guys in films, in spite of the horrendous agony and emotional distress they inevitably cause. Because seriously, an underwater volcano base complete with space shuttle launching pad? No amount of patriotic, save-the-world mumbo-jumbo tops that. And no amount of living-by-the-rules, saving money, studying and “taking me to football games” “satisfaction of doing the right thing” on that particular day could top being the bad guy in my favorite movie universe of all time.
On that day I learned two things about myself that have remained true to this day. The first was that I am irrevocably a gamer. The second: When given a choice in the matter, I will always choose the dark side.
Sorry, Universe, their side goes to 11.
I’ve blown away his shields, but his wingmen are coming on strong. I break off to thin them out a little.
They go down easy, their pathetic training shooting womp rats in Beggar’s Canyon back home is no match for the extensive training regimen of the Imperial Navy. I gleefully imagine their muffled http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_scream” title=”Wilhelm Scream” target=”_blank”>Wilhelm screams as they die horribly, exposed to the vacuum of space as they eject from their crippled craft.
“Stay on target,” I say, laughing, as I re-engage the leader.
With his escort gone, he’s lost a bit of his cool. He’s jinking wildly and varying his speed. He’s harder to lock onto but still no match for the power of my evilness. With a few easy twitches of the Flightstick’s HAT control, I redirect power from my shields to my blasters and blow him out of the sky.
His X-Wing incinerates around him, pieces of it twirling away into space as I go to full throttle, fly straight through the fireball and start scanning the blackness for more rebel scum to kill. There are none; I am victorious.
John Williams’s haunting, martial music surges, and I feel a twinge of pride. I grip my joystick tightly, stare out through my cockpit at the blackness of space and prepare to reclaim this sector in the name of the emperor to the accompaniment of a stuttering, triumphant horn section.
I’m a TIE fighter pilot. And to steal from Roddy Piper, I’ve come to kick rebel ass and chew bubblegum. But I’m all out of bubble gum.
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He has written and produced for television, theatre and film, has been writing on the web since it was invented and claims to have played every console ever made.