In case it had escaped your attention, a thing called “Star Wars” is pretty hot right now. Confounding doomsayers who predicted that Disney’s buyout of Lucasfilm in 2012 would be the death knell of the venerable franchise, it’s fair to say that excitement about the space opera saga is higher now than it’s been since the days before The Phantom Menace poisoned the well. In all this excitement about the shiny new Star Wars, though, it’s easy to forget about the good old Star Wars – not helped by the fact that Disney and the reorganised Lucasfilm Story Group are in many ways weirdly keen for you to forget about the good old Star Wars.
Indeed, a key part of new Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy’s reinvigoration of the series has been the jettisoning of the old “Expanded Universe”, the ancillary collection of novels, comics, games and assorted other fiction telling thousands of years of stories surrounding the main six movies.Though erasing the so-called ‘canonicity’ of the Expanded Universe was probably sensible from the perspective of telling new stories unencumbered, it has resulted in genuine gems being swept under the rug. I’m not enough of an aficionado to passionately advocate for many of these works, but I’ll make an exception for the videogame Star Wars: TIE Fighter. That’s one you’re going to have to pry from my cold, dead hands, Kathleen.
Originally released for PC in 1994, TIE Fighter is a somewhat atypical Star Wars project for a number of reasons. I’ll always argue that to define and refashion Star Wars as a “sci-fi” property is to misunderstand and mischaracterise it; Lucas’ vision for the series was always much more in line with the space opera/future fantasy approach, prioritising pulp thrills and soaring adventure over the fussy technical detail of hardcore SF. TIE Fighter challenges that ingrained understanding of Star Wars’ essence by building its foundations on tangible, meticulous and scientifically credible attention to technical detail.
Spearheaded by veteran flight sim designer Lawrence Holland and his team at Totally Games, the LucasArts-published game was the second in the X-Wing series, which also consisted of its more simplistic predecessor X-Wing, the multiplayer-focused sequel X-Wing vs TIE Fighter and the finale X-Wing Alliance. Each game eschewed the more arcadey point-and-shoot feel of most other Star Wars space combat games, such as the console-based Rogue Squadron franchise, in favour of a more complex simulation style that gave you what felt like a believable level of control over the inner workings of an interstellar fighter craft. These are games that were never – and could never be – ported to console, so dependent were they on an intricate system of keyboard controls and information readouts that functioned alongside the basic joystick movements to provide a fully immersive and involved space combat experience, even at the potential expense of immediate accessibility.
If this sounds contrary to the Star Wars way, it’s because it sort of is, and that contradiction feeds into why it’s TIE Fighter, as opposed to its predecessor and successors, that stands out today as the definitive and essential representative of its series. Committing technical details to memory and getting to grips with the mechanical protocols of space flight doesn’t exactly chime with the swashbuckling, devil-may-care spirit of the Rebel Alliance; it is, however, a perfect fit for the cut-glass English-accented militarism of the Galactic Empire, turning the game’s fussy, precision-oriented play style into an ideal medium through which to explore a largely neglected storytelling perspective within the Star Wars universe.
As you get to grips with the meticulous and demanding requirements of piloting, coordinating your wingmen and managing your ship’s energy allocation, you are afforded a rare opportunity to see the Empire from the inside out, beginning as a rookie flight cadet and progressing from training simulations to live missions of increasing difficulty and importance, until eventually you find yourself fighting for the very future of the Empire itself, with the lives of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader at stake.
Telling the story from the perspective of an organisation notable in popular culture entirely for its monolithic, irredeemable evilness could very easily have been played as a misanthropic joke in lesser hands, but TIE Fighter opts for a more restrained and engaging approach, tweaking the parameters and subverting the iconography of the existing canon to create an alternate perspective of military heroism that quite quickly becomes disconcertingly convincing. From the modified Imperial March-scored opening crawl onwards, the game does an admirable job of selling you an interpretation of Star Wars in which the Empire are the guardians of order and peace, the Rebels are a cowardly band of terrorists, smugglers and pirate-sympathisers, and that it’s only a matter of time before the last vestiges of their toxic insurgency are swept away.
You rapidly come to feel at home within the comfortingly intractable Imperial war machine, treasuring the lives of your trusty wingmen and craving the small smile of approval your Gordon Burns-looking commanding officer gives you when you blow up a lot of ships; conversely, it’s hard not to grow to fear and despise the sight of iconically heroic Rebel vessels when you’ve just seen a squadron of heavily-armoured Y-Wings unleashing torpedoes on a freighter you’re sworn to protect, or watched lightning-fast A-Wings wipe out your whole squadron with missiles and then tear away like the goddamn Road Runner. Perhaps the most ingenious aspect of this subtle mental conditioning is the shadowy presence of an unnamed cloaked figure in the background of many of your mission briefings, who can be consulted for top secret objectives of special importance to the Emperor; completion of these objectives reveals hidden backstory, earns you entry into the Secret Order of the Emperor (complete with mysterious initiation rites and increasingly rad tattoos), and generally provides you with that special feeling of being an accepted part of a wider community, while also being the greatest and most celebrated individual among them. All in all, it’s enough to make you revisit the denouement of Return of the Jedi with a wistful air and wonder what might have been if Luke Skywalker had only known the true Palpatine, the Palpatine you loved, the Palpatine you knew, the Palpatine with a song in his heart.
The richness of this symbiosis between design principles and narrative intent, combined with its unique storytelling perspective, help mark TIE Fighter as an unquestionable standout even within the glorious heritage of LucasArts games of the mid-1990s, as well as putting it a class above 99 per cent of licensed spin-off games, few of which would ever dare aspire to this level of genuine thematic subversion and off-kilter insight into its source material. Given that LucasArts shuttered its internal development studios in 2013 – making it the most clearcut and tragic victim of the Disney takeover – it also stands as a genuine artefact of a different era, both in terms of game development and in Star Wars storytelling. Now, a new generation of Star Wars is creeping inexorably closer, with a greater focus than ever before on exploring individual takes and different voices within the established universe; I sincerely hope they keep the example of TIE Fighter in mind, because there are few better examples I can think of to demonstrate the value of simply taking a different perspective.
* – A note for those interested in playing TIE Fighter – the games industry has a spotty track record in terms of curation, meaning many genuinely important and influential works end up lost in the mists of time as hardware and software compatibility issues render them unplayable. For many years, TIE Fighter and its X-Wing series siblings suffered this fate, but happily they have recently been rescued, updated for compatibility with modern machines and made available for sale once again via Steam and GOG.com.
A word to the wise, though: be aware that there are three distinct versions of this game – the original 1994 release, the updated 1995 Collector’s CD edition and a more extensively overhauled 1998 special edition that imports the fancier graphic engine used in the sequel X-Wing vs TIE Fighter. The version you should be playing is the 1995 edition – the original release features a downgraded presentation and omits mission content from later add-on packs, while the 1998 version sacrifices too much of its visual identity and unforgivably removes the dynamic original MIDI soundtrack, with its distinct “heroic Empire” themes and adaptive iMUSE instrumentation, for less suitable music taken straight from the movies. Boooooo. Currently, the bundle sold on Steam only contains the oldest and newest versions of the game; the definitive Collector’s CD version is solely available in the (also slightly cheaper) GOG.com bundle. Which should make your choice extremely easy!