I'm playing Star Wars: Battlefront with a friend, and I become the Emperor. Cue me doing my rather good Palpatine impression, calling everyone "Rebel scum." Yet the only thing I can think about is the enormous grin I'm sporting. Is it nostalgia? Is it the fun of the game? Yes and yes, partly, but there's something deeper at work here, too. I'm remembering how much I used to like being a part of this evil Empire.
Being evil in games is very different from just being a bad person in games. One of my favorite YouTubers is a guy called GenerikB, who plays his games a like a grumpy jerk hermit. It doesn't make him evil that he's sarcastic to everyone in Fallout 4, or that he does all the naughty things in Fable, it just makes him a cantankerous git, and it's funny. That's role-play, and it's something we all do from Grand Theft Auto V to Minecraft. But to actually be a part of something you know is evil and villainous, to partake in that gaming occupation and to want to succeed in it, is something completely unique. And it's only happened to me with one game.
Back in 1994, I had a 386mHZ PC with a 3.5" floppy disk drive. I wasn't anywhere near a CD drive and SVGA fidelity, or the heady heights of 32bit Sound Blaster music. The games I was playing didn't even have Windows support. I had DOS, a lovely, easy to use operating system that taught me a rudimentary computer language that I've long since lost. Seriously, most things beyond C:/dir/w are gone. It's very sad.
The command that I remember most fondly though is TIE.exe. I'd played 1993's X-Wing, of course, and I enjoyed flying around in the B-Wing from a later add-on pack. That was a ship that looked so bizarre that I was always paranoid about colliding with things, like I'd just passed my driving test but hadn't done any bay parking yet. But it was that game's sequel, the still-celebrated TIE Fighter, that really hit a sweet spot during a formative time in my life.
LucasArts' second dogfighting Star Wars game was the first that allowed you to play as the bad guys, and it was excellent, but for a much deeper reason than just being on the other side. It helped show me the duality of evil.
You start the game with the same traditional Star Wars scrolling text followed by the game's logo coming into view. But, unlike X-Wing, which used practically the same intro music and even thematic visual cues of Star Destroyers bearing in on rebel ships like the first movie, TIE Fighter immediately moved away from the familiar and gleeful suite, to something more foreboding.
As a slightly adapted Imperial March plays, text tells you of the cowardly blow the Rebels have dealt in destroying the Death Star. The Emperor declares that peace and order will be restored throughout the galaxy—cut to Darth Vader and Admiral Thrawn attacking some smaller pockets of Rebel resistance and, for the first time in Star Wars history (discounting Alderaan, I suppose), you see the Empire win.
The gaming set up was just like X-Wing. You begin as a cadet and embark on a few training simulator missions, just to get acquainted with the systems (more on that later). You then get into the space battles, and as you progress, so the story unfolds.
Now, I know Darth and company weren't good guys, but I was quickly and easily drawn into the capturing of those who dared to betray the Empire. I reveled in the challenge, and loved the rewards that came my way, from medals to joining the inner circle of the Emperor's secret order. While the methods might not have been too civil, I was bringing order to chaos, something both sides in Star Wars are trying to do, via different means. TIE Fighter presented a kind of Dark Side indoctrination that fans of the franchise couldn't resist.
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Not that you're anything more than cannon fodder to start with, just another rookie ready to be shot down like the shieldless World War II planes that George Lucas used to indicate the first movie's dogfights when screening pre-special effect rushes for studio executives. Later, you get an Advanced TIE, but even that has no protection beyond its metal shell. Seems a bit of an oversight on the Empire's part, given all the Rebel craft carry shields.
Survive and persevere and eventually you get a shield—and more besides, naturally, but the granting of the shield feels like a validation that you finally matter to the Empire. And they matter to you by this point, too. Yes, the Empire is evil, and will one day subdue the universe; but you've risked so much, beaten all the odds, and now being in the Emperor's grasp is the only place you want to be.
Evil deeds are commonplace in video games. You can go on a killing spree in GTAV—the game lets you do that. But it never really forces you to unload on unsuspecting members of the public, and most of the time you're role-playing "being bad" as an aside to following a more righteous path. Also: there are jokes in the GTA games, which helps balance what might otherwise be a pretty bleakly toned series.
But with TIE Fighter you don't have any choice: Evil is your life, or your death will come quickly. You have no option other than to do the Empire's bidding, and it's this linear plot line that actually made me enjoy the evil I was doing committing, because I didn't see it as evil. These missions were challenges to my skill, and any Rebels in my path simply obstacles to overcome.
I should like the Rebels. They're the good guys. How can anyone not adore Admiral Akbar? He's the best. But TIE Fighter has always stayed with me, keeping me close to the Empire, despite the evil it can stir in the weak and the cloned.
So here I am, sat playing Battlefront, a game that recreates the intensity and atmosphere of the movies I grew up with and the worlds they were set in. I'm the Emperor, and that's a little weird—my affinity for this character comes from spending a great deal of my young gaming life proving myself to him, becoming something greater than I was meant to be, and making a name for myself in the ultimate goal of peace. The Empire's version of it, at least.
I never chose to be evil—I was just looking out for myself, and pushing my career forward by survival. Maybe that'll be a focus of The Force Awakens, with John Boyega's Finn a former Stormtrooper who appears to defect to the Rebel cause, if the trailers are any indication, perhaps to follow a greater calling. He is someone who is breaking from the linear mindset of a crumbling Galactic Empire to learn more about their life and force themselves away from a (likely short) lifetime of servitude. And playing Battlefront has been a bit like that for me, as I've nostalgically relived the fun I had with TIE Fighter but also realized how the Empire worked and, arguably, how evil can prevail with those closest to it remaining blind.
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