Battlefront Embraces the Dark Side

Is this the end of the golden age of Star Wars video games?

Top: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back for Atari 2600. Bottom: Star Wars Battlefront for Xbox One.

Images via DigThatBoxRETRO/YouTube and EA

Like most boys born in the 1970s, I grew up besotted with Star Wars movies, stories, and toys. And among those treasures, just as prized as the Lobot action figure and the piece-of-pie–shaped Death Star with the foam-pit trash compactor, were video games. At first, these games hewed closely, and sometimes clumsily, to the events portrayed in the theatrical films. At a Kansas arcade called the Fun Factory—a name I now love for its evocation of the mechanical reproduction of pleasure—I would grip the controls of an imaginary X-wing fighter and try to blow up a vector-graphics Death Star. The Return of the Jedi arcade game began with a speeder-bike race on the forest moon of Endor. At home, you could play an Atari 2600 game that re-enacted the invasion of Hoth with a primitively animated snowspeeder taking down Imperial AT-AT walkers.

In the interregnum between Jedi and this week’s release of The Force Awakens, however, video games departed from merely adapting (often poorly) scenes that you already loved. Instead, they told new Star Wars stories, some that filled in gaps between the movies and others that were entirely unrelated. During this time—a period that stretched for more than 30 years—video games felt like the true home of Star Wars, the place where fans and creators whose imaginations were fired by George Lucas’ movies commingled in one of the earliest demonstrations of how interactive culture would make all bubble-gum entertainment massively multiplayer and collaborative.

In the first half of this era, when Star Wars seemed unlikely to ever return as a new series of motion pictures, many of the most beloved Star Wars video games emerged, including the space combat simulator TIE Fighter and the Dark Forces and Jedi Knight games for PCs. These games made the Star Wars galaxy “far, far away” feel like a real place that fans could visit and explore, with a rich and complex history that went beyond archetypal sketches.

And when midnight almost struck for Star Wars, when George Lucas, once the chosen one, fell prey to the temptations of the Dark Side of the Force and emerged as the Sith mastermind of the prequels, his folly was redeemed by video games, too. BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic, now available in iOS and Android versions, is a story-driven game that is set thousands of years before the events in the movies. When I played it in 2003, it felt like the third-best narrative Star Wars experience of my lifetime. (I’ve probably softened a little on Return of the Jedi since.) Learning the true identity of KOTOR’s Darth Revan was not quite as momentous as The Empire Strikes Back’s reveal of the Skywalker family tree. But it came close.

The best games of this era are powerful witnesses for the prosecution’s case that people who grew up loving Star Wars understand Star Wars better than Lucas understands the appeal of his own creation. They are also part of the reason why fans are so optimistic about a new Star Wars movie from someone of that same generation. Like you, more than likely, I’m ecstatic about The Force Awakens. Star Wars is back on the big screen. It’s going home.

But that means it’s leaving us, too. The video game player in me worries that a (maybe) great movie means that Star Wars video games will return to their origins. And the most popular Star Wars game out there right now, the one tied to the marketing of this new set of films, is fueling my fears. The smash hit Star Wars Battlefront doesn’t feel like the next step in the Star Wars universe. It feels, as did those plastic toys or Atari 2600 games, like an appetizer to keep you hungry for the next box-office smash.

Star Wars Battlefront is a new video game in the sense that Star Wars Monopoly was once a new board game: You’ve played this before, only not with these logos. Battlefront is a multiplayer shooter like Call of Duty in a Star Wars skin, filled with the usual progression toward new weapons and better abilities—like an orbital strike that you can call from the skies to decimate your foes—that unlock as you play.

In Battlefront, you can go to original-trilogy planets like Hoth and Tatooine, as well as places that are said to be in The Force Awakens, like the volcano planet of Sullust and the desert planet of Jakku, where you can check out the wreckage of a Star Destroyer and AT-ATs in the sands. While you are there, you can die a lot and engage in the typical multiplayer shooter hijinks—sometimes thrilling, sometimes silly. Finally, a game in which the symphonic grandeur of John Williams’ score can be set to a scene of Luke Skywalker getting teabagged.

That’s the contradiction at the heart of the game. It looks and sounds more like the classic movies than any video game I’ve ever played. The visual design and sound design are spectacular. Yet the play experience is as constrained as the vector-graphics trench run in the original Star Wars arcade cabinet. When I say you can “go” to Sullust or Jakku, I mean that you can be dropped into a 10-minute shootout and then be teleported out of it when it ends. Star Wars Battlefront is an heir to the prequels, a technically astounding but narratively hollow work that looks like Star Wars only from a distance.

More promising Star Wars video games are in development. There’s an untitled project led by Amy Hennig, formerly the creative director of Sony’s terrific Uncharted series of video games. The Old Republic, a BioWare game that was regarded as a dud when it came out a few years ago, has been given a new expansion that many people love and that I can’t wait to play.

I’m sure that as these new films take over the world we’ll see more Star Wars video games than ever. My bet, however, is that we’ll also see more and more promotional filler and licensed cash-ins that capitalize on the fervor for the movies, rather than the rich, standalone experiences we got during the desert years for Star Wars. The Dark Side of video game development is quicker, easier, more seductive.

Licensed video games that come out alongside big-budget movies are, with rare exceptions, notoriously shoddy. Star Wars avoided this reputation, surely, because for decades there were no movies with marketing calendars for the video games to serve (or, for one brief period, movies so bad that many video game fans had no interest in their associated games). With projections for an annual Disney release of a Star Wars movie from now until the end of time, it’s hard to imagine that the next developers to be awarded a Star Wars license won’t face a new set of restrictions aimed at protecting the brand. Here’s hoping some of them manage to break out of the movies’ grip, even if—especially if—The Force Awakens is as good as we want it to be.

Read all of Slate’s coverage of Star Wars.