Star Wars started as cinema and ended up as something else – lots of things, from pillow cases to theme park rides. But chief among them, the form that best captures the core of Star Wars now, is games. The last Star Wars I enjoyed watching was released two years after I was born, in 1983, but since then games have given me dozens of dogfights, blaster battles and lightspeed adventures layered with the nostalgia, hope and acceleration that is essentially Star Wars.
In his review of the re-released version of A New Hope, Roger Ebert wrote that to return to Star Wars twenty years on is “to revisit a place in the mind.” George Lucas’ film has, he said, “colonized our imaginations, and it is hard to stand back and see it simply as a motion picture, because it has so completely become part of our memories.”
The things that tumbled from my memory after I’d decided to write about Star Wars include: the precise tension of a top-loading VCR player, whose springs and sprockets are somehow one and the same as the mechanisms of the droids in the film, an evocative list of floppy disk passwords rattling inside the box for TIE Fighter (Ardent, Audacity…), and the confusing revelation of a dog-chewed Obi-Wan figure, retractable lightsaber visible through half an arm. To me, Star Wars means a sort of amniotic emotional warmth from before the dark times. Before adolescence.
Everyone who has any feelings about Star Wars has a similar list. This is Ebert being proved right – to engage with Star Wars is to engage with memory, especially since the first Star Wars games have now become part of the layered sediment of our minds. Ebert wrote that Star Wars “located Hollywood’s centre of gravity at the intellectual and emotional level of a bright teenager” and when we were bright teenagers we leapt into X-Wing, TIE Fighter, Dark Forces, Knights Of The Old Republic – games that both played on our existing yearning for Lucas’ world and planted the seeds of our future sentimentality.
Playing any Star Wars game now means moving through nostalgia, travelling fast through space and backwards into ourselves. Because as well as memory, Star Wars is about motion. As a teenager George Lucas was devoted to motor racing, tearing his Fiat Bianchina around courses in his hometown of Modesto, California. He once remembered the precise joy of racing to the film critic, Tom Shone.
“The engine, the noise… It was the thrill of doing something really well. When you drift around a corner and come up at just the right time, and shift down – there’s something special about it. It’s like running a really good race. You’re all there, and everything is working.”
“And there,” Shone says, “you have Star Wars.” Rewatch A New Hope now and – as well as the Special Edition alterations standing out like cheap, flaking paint on a classic car – it’s so clearly about a boy growing up in a desert farm town and aching for escape, about living slow and wanting to go fast. That’s why Modesto’s motto – “Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health” – could just as well be Tatooine’s, with its moisture vaporators and dead sense of dusty, agricultural nowhere. It’s also why Star Wars is, as Shone says, “a movie consumed with motion blur and escape velocity, forward thrust and back blast.”
This motion did something, both to us and to cinema. It recalibrated the intrinsic tempo of the blockbuster, rejuvinating the very idea of special effects and launching Industrial Light & Magic (a brilliant name which strikes at the soul of both cinema and games). Some mix of its artifice, its speed and its worn futurism made Star Wars the founding stone of a new age of animation – literally, as Pixar was spun from ILM – and, in a deeper sense, of digital imagination. According to David Thomson, the aftermath of Star Wars “altered our scope of seeing and communicating, and with it our contact and contract with reality.”
That’s why the games worked so well. They existed in this newly-oriented reality, and they were about going fast. The games took the speed, the central preoccupation with motion that’s bigger than an idea and must be considered a philosophy, and they gathered up the film’s beautiful design and music – sense-memory splinters lodged in the minds of every generation lucky enough to catch Star Wars in the flickering glow of youth – and they made new adventures.
And to a certain extent that was easy because the films were never really about story, or people, or anything past this idea of speed (“I have a sneaking suspicion that if there were a way to make movies without actors,” Mark Hamill once said, “George would do it”). The games were a way for the car to drive itself. Lucas’ line about drifting a corner – “You’re all there, and everything is working” – that’s as good a description as I’ve ever heard for those transcendent moments that games sometimes give way to: that feeling of reverberating legitimacy I felt when walking into the world of Dark Forces for the first time having subsisted for so long on Doom’s s WAD (Stormtroopers! Real blaster noises!) or the sense of rightness and proficiency I got form from hammering shortcut controls on my keyboard-turned-cockpit in X-Wing, from setting the cannons and deflector shields just so and banking to engage. Everything is working.
Crucially that essence – that mix of memory and motion – has for a long time fit better into games than it has into films, television or animation. For all his speed, the world, and the rest of Hollywood, eventually caught up with George Lucas, who gave us a second trilogy of films empty aside from an occasional burst of acceleration and pleasingly analogue aesthetic twitch. “Can the honest moviegoer detect a director?” asked Thomson, pinpointing both the fact that the significance of Star Wars was always as a collection of images surrounding movement rather than authored experience, and the fact those images and that movement are better served in the interactive space of games and not the flat space of cinema.
This could all change this year, with the release of JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens. But it’s telling that his film is heavy with a sense of trying to recapture something lost – something sleeping – some purity of expression that the first films had and everything since has lacked. Except not quite everything – while everyone else is watching teaser trailers and hoping that Abrams restores balance to the Force, I plan to spend this summer hammering shortcut controls, setting cannons and shields, and banking to engage. “That’s all the Force was, really, once you had stripped it of some of the more mystical mumbo-jumbo in which Lucas wrapped it,” Shone writes. “That feeling you get when you’re driving so fast and well that you feel you’ve merged with your car.” Well it’s not a car, actually, it’s a TIE Avenger. And it goes much faster.