How a 'Star Wars' Video Game Told the 'Rogue One' Story 20 Years Ago

Like Disney's new generation of films, 'Dark Forces' understood that nostalgia is the real Force behind 'Star Wars'

1995's 'Star Wars: Dark Forces' involved stealing the plans for the Death Star Credit: Glixel

Dark Forces works its magic from its very first corridor. Here you are, in first-person, inside Star Wars. You’re holding a blaster, not one you recognize but one that’s ugly and asymmetrical in a way that suggests a worn-future practicality. It looks just right. And there in front of you, standing alert with hands behind backs and facing a row of flashing panels, are Imperial officers, who collapse with a pixelated flourish when you fire on them.

In 1993 Id Software released Doom, an adventure about shotguns and the destructibility of the afterlife that changed gaming forever. Doom was a slick and relentless slice of 3D violence that both popularized the first-person shooter and, thanks to its open-door modular software design, kickstarted a huge wave of fan-built customization. The inevitable result, just months after Doom’s release, was a Star Wars fan-made conversion that brought sound effects, Stormtrooper sprites and Death Star-like level design to id’s blockbuster game. Dark Forces, released in 1995, was LucasArts’ official response – a first-person shooter that looked like Id’s smash hit, but reskinned using the fully loaded, authentic iconography of Star Wars.

LucasArts had already been busy translating the Star Wars universe into games. Dark Forces was the grounded counterpart to X-Wing and TIE Fighter, released in 1993 and 1994 – a pair of orbital dogfighting simulators that were themselves first-person takes on this familiar world. But their sense of immersion was scattered in space, with gameplay founded, very fruitfully, on the films’ obsession with motion. Star Wars is, after all, George Lucas’ own racing car-fixated youth in the desert town of Modesto, California, written across the stars – a movie about speeders, cockpits and Kessel Runs, with a narrative sprinting to keep up.

Dark Forces is deeper and slower. It's the Star Wars galaxy soaked up from ground level, wonders from the big screen surrounding us, not just buzzing the cockpit. Although “wonders” here might not stand up to prolonged scrutiny (there was only so much you could do with the technology at the time) it is remarkable in retrospect just how evocative even a rough approximation of Star Wars managed to be. Or perhaps not that remarkable. In 1997 Roger Ebert, returning to A New Hope for Lucas’ maligned re-release, wrote that to rewatch Star Wars is “to revisit a place in the mind” because it has “colonized our imaginations." This is how Dark Forces functions, too, a game that plays out half on screen and half in this imaginative space, a series of prompts and triggers that recall the cosy wonder of sinking into Lucas’ space epic.

This is the game’s magic, nostalgic even when it was new, and characterized by the deft deployment of Star Wars’ marks and motifs. It might not look like much, but it’s got it where it counts - from the opening crawl, set to a midi-John Williams score and complete with camera-tilt and overflying ship, to the serene face of Rebel leader Mon Mothma hovering ghost-like over your mission briefings. There is an unceasing thrill to gunning down the game’s three main castes of enemy, deep-rooted archetypes that have marched off-screen and out of memory to be here in basic but entirely recognizable form: black-suited Imperial Naval troops with curved plastic helmets, ubiquitous white Stormtroopers, and those stiff-backed officers from the opening corridor, whose caps fly off when blasted, a beautiful detail in a simple, sparing animation.

For all their similarities, this verging-on-clumsy combat is one of the things which sets Dark Forces apart from Doom. There is a haphazardness to the shooting here which is distinctly, allowably Star Wars, and very different from the lubricated precision of Id’s monster. Dark Forces engineers wayward blaster duels over walkways and across chasmic drops, a flickering sense of déjà vu to the configurations of peering Stormtroopers and the two-way traffic of angled red-beamed laser fire. It’s harder to shoot straight than it should be, first with your own blaster, the Dark Forces equivalent of Doom’s starting pistol, and then with the Stormtroopers’ rapid fire rifle. It’s as though the game is saying “You thought the Empire just couldn’t shoot straight? You try.”

For those used to the confines of Doom’s virtually 3D environments, Dark Forces offered smartly simulated geographical freedom – the ability to crouch, jump, and, crucial for posing those cinematic blaster duels, to aim up and down. But the most pronounced design philosophy of Dark Forces – apart from being Star Wars – is a more puzzle-oriented approach to first-person gaming, which makes the most of its surprisingly varied and evocative Imperial interiors, of facilities filled with conduits and snapping blast doors, all gleaming with galactic military polish. This can be tedious, as in a switch-and-gateway sewer level that captures perfectly the joy of swimming in filth in the dark (kudos, of sorts, for making the sewage water brown) but can also trigger further echoes of the films, such as a spiral staircase puzzle clearly based on Obi Wan’s stealthy deactivation of the Death Star’s tractor beam.

And, in a way, triggering further echoes of the films is Dark Forces’ whole reason for being. It is a cannily executed bit of expanded universe fiction, folding itself unobtrusively into known but unseen events with a first mission devoted to retrieving the Death Star plans that lay the foundation for the Rebels’ climactic victory in A New Hope. It’s the same convenient narrative tether grasped at by the imminent Rogue One, although here it’s just an opening gambit. “Too easy” says hero Kyle Katarn as he swipes the data from a secret panel. Katarn, who might have been Luke Skywalker had the development team not wisely decided that the films’ major player came with too much baggage. Better to invent Katarn, a smuggler with a wry smile and no love for the Empire – a shadow Han Solo – who, like the rest of the game, exists to trigger further echoes of the films.

Even an expanded universe was too small for Dark Forces, though. The arrival of Rogue One has officially ejected Katarn from the canon, his campaign against the Empire’s Dark Trooper program jettisoned in favor of another big screen adventure. Fair enough, from the entirely reasonable perspective of wanting to make billions of dollars, although there is a small injustice at work here. Both Rogue One and The Force Awakens are both in the memory game, reliant on our cherished collective recall to tell their new stories.