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.