The Immersion of Star Wars Computer Games: A Personal View

Star Wars The Old Republic
I remember over two decades ago reading an interesting interview with old Etonian British actor, Leslie Philips (he was promoting a PlayStation One title he voiced the main character for); when asked if he played video games, he replied that he did, and gave his reason as it was the closest he would get to ‘becoming’ an F1 racing driver.

Just as the Jurassic Park movies are as close as we’ll probably ever get to seeing a real dinosaur, to an ageing thespian, flight simulators, for example, are as close as they’re going to get to becoming a fighter pilot, unless there is an RAF pensioner conscription crisis in the near future.

We needn’t delve into the psychology of it all here, we know this is why we play games, the keyword being ‘immersion’, or ‘to escape the mundane’, and this also goes some way to explain my hypothesis of why there aren’t many ‘housework’ simulators or epic shoot ’em ups that involve questing for low car insurance and reasonably priced kitchens. Video games embrace fantasy and being something, someone or somewhere else we, in our day-to-day lives, wouldn’t normally get the chance to experience.

We’ve all experienced the correlations: watch Gladiator on DVD, ‘Shadow of Rome’ goes on the PlayStation shortly after; Saving Private Ryan on TV, fire up ‘Call Of Duty’ on the PC (or Medal Of Honour, if you’re oldskool), have a Lord Of The Rings box set marathon, followed by a big four-hour dollop of breathtaking fantasy gaming excellence, Skyrim.

Star Wars clapped everyone’s imagination in irons with no hope of parole from the moment it hit the cinemas in the late 70s, myself included. When interest in video gaming began to snowball in popularity and become more affordable, some of the first games titles to hit the shelves and arcades were, naturally, Star Wars-related. The very first SW game I played in the early 1980s was The Empire Strikes Back on the teak antique game-cartridge system, the Atari 2600 – incidentally, I found this game cartridge entirely by accident while ‘investigating’ an old, abandoned mill as a child. Honestly. Your Honour.

Star Wars Empire Strikes Back game

Star Wars Empire Strikes Back game graphics

The game was based, of course, round the plot of TESB, and handed the controls of a Snow-Speeder to the player; though the above screenshot may seem at best ‘basic’, at the time to a 9 (or perhaps) 10 year old it was breathtaking!

The second SW game I played was also on the Atari 2600, ‘Jedi Arena’, which provided a birds-eye view of lightsaber duals. You could BE a Jedi! On the ‘cool scale’, this was cooler than a polar bear’s packed lunch.

Star Wars Jedi Arena game

Star Wars Jedi Arena graphics

These games allowed you to become part of the Star Wars universe in the various roles of the films’ protagonists. My mind had the wonderful ability to gloss over the less-than-adequate visuals and simplistic graphics for the ‘meat’ – the game play, the immersion; like being ‘blind’ to the dire monster costumes in the earlier Dr Who episodes in sacrifice for the excellent and imaginative storylines. As computer technology advanced (and continues to do so), so too did the graphic complexity, playing intensity and immersive experience the Star Wars games had to offer.

The SW title that, for me, most captures the feel of being ‘in’ Star Wars above all others is the 2010 incredible third-person game ‘Force Unleashed II’; this, for my money, is the most immersive SW title to date. Utterly fluid game play, colossal Jedi skills, gorgeous scenery, customisable lightsaber colour schemes, authentic sounds, incredible physics. This game really nails what it means to be absorbed into the SW world.

Star Wars Force Unleashed

Star Wars Force Unleashed game

The Star Wars gaming franchise has covered nearly every genre of videogame (FPS, flight sim, racing, strategy, MMORPG, third-person) and appeared on perhaps more platforms than any other franchise (Sinclair Spectrum, SNES, PS, DS, PSP, Atari, PC, Xbox, Wii, iPhone to name but a few). Heck, Star Wars has even been immortalised in Lego, surely the hands-in-cement Hall Of Fame confirmation for any film-to-game conversion.

Incidentally, my second choice, if I were to be asked, would be the phenomenal Battlefront; all the freedom in the world to commandeer an AT-ST, liberate a Speeder Bike or ice some Ewoks…in retrospect, it’s perhaps a blessing that Jar Jar Binks wasn’t in this game, I’m 89% sure I’d have spent the entire time tracking him down and putting him to the sabre, running him over in one of the many SW vehicles scattered around or just plain murdering him with a plethora of imaginative and high-tech weapons.

At the time of writing, the second online Star Wars MMORPG game, The Old Republic, is due for release sometime in December (but, bizarrely, the EU release being December 2012, according to Wikipedia). From the info I’ve gathered on the net, this looks set to ‘right the wrong’ that was bugfest “Star Wars Galaxies”, fingers, tendrils and tentacles crossed.

Incidentally, for those of you curious enough in a lil retro Star Wars gaming, check out the links below to play the above-mentioned games:

Star Wars-Jedi Arena
Star Wars- The Empire Strikes Back