Everything I know I learned from Star Wars.
Let’s go down the list. Girls are attracted to the bad boy: check. You’ll never get Leia unless you’re Han. Even Luke didn’t stand a chance, really. Too nice.
Next, good always triumphs over evil: check. Sort of. Evil triumphs a lot, but good always wins in the end. If you rejigger the timelines, anyway.
And lastly, no matter how hard you work, how good you are, somebody, from somewhere, will always try to bring you down. Because the universal consciousness abhors an over-achiever. If you’re too good, the bad guys get pissed and go for the jugular. If you switch sides, go with them, not against them, then the good guys get all uppity and put a target on your ass. You can’t win. Mediocrity, therefore, is the safe bet. Right, Luke?
I was 2 when the first film came out, but I saw it in the theater. I have no memory of it, but I was there. I saw the next two films when I was in grade school, comparing action figures with the boys, mocking the poor sap who bought his Return of the Jedi T-shirt too early. His said Revenge of the Jedi. What a tool, we thought. He wished he could return it. We laughed. Oh, if only we’d known about eBay in 1983.
My parents’ generation was informed by great and powerful things. By the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the deaths of John Kennedy, his brother Robert and Martin Luther King. Before them, my grandparents were raised on dirt, suffering through the Great Depression with a grim determination to do it better for their kids. Me? I grew up making six-inch-tall replicas of Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher have sex in the backseat of a toy space ship. Now I write about games for a living. Perhaps a little struggling is good for the soul. If I have children, they’ll eat dirt.
But learning life lessons from Star Wars isn’t all bad. Even the games have all taught me something, most of it valuable. My gaming history is etched across the entirety of my 30-something years, and Star Wars, like Forrest Gump, has been there for all of the important parts.
I’m sure the first videogame I played was something classic like Pong, but Star Wars – the vector graphics game in the big cabinet made up to look like the cockpit of an X-Wing fighter – is the one I remember. We had one in the local bowling alley where I hung out with my brother and his friends. We bowled in leagues. We thought this made us cool. I’m pretty sure it didn’t, but what the hell did we know? It was the ’80s and we played Dungeons & Dragons on Saturday nights. There was a whole world of cool we knew nothing about.
If Saturday night was for D&D, Saturday belonged to the bowling alley. Wake up, watch cartoons, eat a Pop-Tart, get dressed and head to the Bowl-o-Rama. The place was like toyland for nerds. We walked into the joint like we owned the place, ordered a plate of nachos and set to work. We won some, we lost some, but for me, the bowling was just a ruse. I was there for the games. The bowling alley had an arcade, and aside from the machine that washed balls for $1.50, the Star Wars cabinet was the coolest thing there.
“Red Five standing by,” it said, begging you to drop in a couple of quarters. Begging you to become Red Five, run the trench, shoot a torpedo into the thermal exhaust port and blow up the Death Star. It didn’t take much begging. Call it a simulator, a space shooter, whatever. That game was Star Wars, pure and simple.
Sitting down in the Star Wars cabinet felt like sitting in the cockpit of an X-Wing fighter, for real. Or as real as that sort of thing can ever feel. The sound came from behind you, the seat almost shook. Red Leader spoke in your ear, telling you to stay on target, telling you there were fighters on your tail. And then they came. Five minutes or an hour, as long as you had the quarters to feed the meter, the time passed like Kool-Aid through a 5-year-old. It was just one of those games.
Star Wars was the game that taught me the power of the imagination. Don’t believe in game addiction? Then you haven’t played the right games. Either that or you have no soul. Star Wars was nerd crack, there’s no two ways about it. A decade later, I spent all my quarters (this time, a lot of them) on the next generation: a PC, a flight stick and Star Wars: TIE Fighter.
TIE Fighter, because my PC was a piece of crap, taught me the joys of writing DOS boot disks and .BAT files. Without tricking the PC into booting up with only the bare minimum operating system, the damn game wouldn’t even run. So I became a whiz at writing .BAT files. I eventually had .BAT files for all of my games, and sometimes more than one. It became a sort of hobby unto itself. I suppose if I’d ever considered a computer anything other than a machine for playing games, I would have used this hard-won knowledge as a jumping-off point to a career as a computer programmer, but that seemed too much like work. Besides, beyond the games, what was there, really? I didn’t want to make the damn things. Playing them was enough.
I’d told my mother, when I bought the PC, I was going to use it for writing and college and who knows what else. I lied. It was just for games. And for that entire summer, it was just for TIE Fighter. Just for flying in space, living in Star Wars. I had a girlfriend when the summer began. We didn’t make it. She told me I was obsessed with games. She didn’t know the half of it. Neither did I. Later that year, Star Wars taught me the true meaning of obsession when I found out about the next game: Star Wars: Dark Forces.
Dark Forces was more than a Doom clone; it was 3-D Star Wars. Mainline fantasy stuff. I’d read about it somewhere and fell in love with it before it even came out. Dude, you could shoot stormtroopers. Say no more. This is the part where I learned about waiting, and how much it sucks.
I followed the development progress of that game with the rabid intensity of a pitbull on meth. I ticked the days off on the calendar, the release date, months in the future, circled in frantic red marker. And then they changed the date, the bastards. The game slipped. I didn’t know what “slipped” meant in this context, but there it was. Something else I learned from Star Wars. Slipped, meaning to not ship when it was supposed to. I was beyond upset. I was an upset supernova, and the only cure was, again, to wait.
Dateline: the local game store in Austin, TX. I go to pick up the game for which I’ve waited so long. In those days, $50 for a game was an extravagance, but I was willing to pay it for this one. I picked up my copy, turned over the box and screamed. I actually screamed. I’m not kidding. They’d put a sticker over the “system requirements” area, where it had once listed requirements my PC just barely met. The new sticker had new requirements on it, and my machine no longer made the cut. I couldn’t play the game.
This is the part where Star Wars teaches me how to fight a flame war. It was the usual affair, full of righteous indignation, curses and allegations that I was “their biggest fan,” decrying their poor treatment of me by delaying the launch just long enough to justify screwing me over with new system requirements, etc. Believe it or not, I received a reply. Basically it said: “We wanted to make the best game possible, so we did. Upgrade. Sincerely, LucasArts.”
Naturally, I upgraded. It would be another decade before I gave up PC gaming entirely, but the seeds of that revolution were planted right here, in 1995, and Star Wars wielded the trowel. Taught me the shortest distance between me and playing the game was the way to go. And that meant only one thing: buying a console.
In the winter of 2005, after a disastrous evening of trying – and failing – to rekindle the spark of life in one of my hand-built desktop gaming rigs, I decided to throw in the towel. At 2 A.M., drunk and disappointed, I slipped Amazon my credit card number, and a few days later they delivered an Xbox and Knights of the Old Republic. I played that game from beginning to end over the course of a long New England winter, and it was one of the greatest game experiences of my life.
Knights of the Old Republic and that big, ugly Xbox kick-started a love affair with console gaming that’s still going strong. I know it will never be the same as playing on a PC; I haven’t completely lost my mind. But I don’t so much care anymore. It was never about the PCs for me, just like the programming of .BAT files was never about the programming itself, and the bowling alley was never really about the bowling. It has always, always been about the games. Especially the Star Wars games.
A couple of years after I bought my Xbox, Star Wars: Republic Commando taught me to trust people, after a good friend of mine spent weeks talking me into playing it. The year before, another Star Wars game, Rebel Assault, taught me to trust myself. I half-expected it to be bad, and it was. Obi-Wan had whispered to me it was in the bargain bin for a reason, but, like my friend, I ignored him. I should have listened to Ben. I should have let go my feelings and used the force. Lesson learned.
Neither of those games, though, had the impact of Knights of the Old Republic. That one taught me there’s nothing finer than a long winter break and a meaty roleplaying game you can play from the comfort of your couch. Also, it had lightsabers. Total win. It taught me to not be shy about my love for games, and Star Wars. Watching Luke strike his father down on the silver screen may not be as world-bending an event as the civil rights movement, but it spoke to me pretty loudly, and I’ve carried the lessons with me since that day, for better or worse. Mostly better, I hope.
Russ Pitts has been looking forward to playing Star Wars: The Force Unleashed since he saw a demo at last year’s E3. He will not, however, write a letter to LucasArts if he doesn’t like it. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com