STAR WARS: DARK FORCES

MY OWN PRIVATE GAME GENRES

Today's established computer game genres — first person shooter, RPG, platformer, and so on — predict nothing about my enjoyment of a game: I like and detest examples of all the above. So like any true freedom fighter, when I buy a computer game, I try to ignore the categories imposed on us by sales and marketing departments. Instead, I consider the only genre distinction that matters to me: is it a Doom game, or is it a Dark Forces game?

Doom games are primarily about their game mechanic and interaction type; and since established game genres are defined along these lines, they sum up these games quite adequately. A Doom-style shooter will be primarily about shooting things, and a Doom-style RPG will be primarily about accumulating stats and loot and experience. Dark Forces games, on the other hand, are more about their game world: their focus is on building an environment that players can care about and invest themselves in. They concentrate on immersion more than interaction; they fit less clearly into the established genres.

A Doom game brings you gratification; a Dark Forces game takes you to a place of gratification. A Doom game is a delivery mechanism for thrills; a Dark Forces game is deliverance.

Every computer game fits into one of these categories. If only game companies would clearly indicate this on their packaging, I would buy a lot more games and do my bit to raise consumer confidence in the industry. As it is, half the the games I end up buying are things I don't want to play at all. I'm fed up with Doom games; all I want is more Dark Forces.

STAR WARS DOOM (LUCASARTS, 1995)

Dark Forces might seem an unlikely genre archetype: a relatively unheralded 3D shooter from 1995, which often gets overlooked even in "best 3D shooters from 1995" lists. It's not even universally popular among LucasArts fans, who lament it as one of the titles that marked the company's sad transformation from a developer of superior Sierra clones (like Monkey Island and Indy 4) to a publisher of derivative Star Wars merchandise (like Dark Forces, X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter or the awful Rebel Assault). This also troubled me at the time — not least because I hate Star Wars — but in hindsight it was not such a tragedy. While LucasArts' Sierra-style adventures had built a deserved reputation for fairness, robustness, storytelling and non-unfunny jokes, the sad truth is that not one of them stands up today: their gameplay is dated and unacceptable in dozens of ways. And this has been true since December 1993, when a game came along and made them all obsolete.

Doom was a killer app in more ways than one: it didn't just shift PCs for its own sake, it also struck a death blow to its older gaming competition. (1) It has a vital, immediate, gripping quality that makes earlier computer entertainments look moribund in comparison. In Doom, you're swooning in sound and image, immersed in a wondrous and terrible and dangerous environment, which you experience through a transparent UI that's as responsive as a second skin. When you play Doom, you are there, in that place, lost, vulnerable. The old LucasArts adventures, by contrast, have a UI that feels like a stuffy Victorian overcoat. You interact by assembling sentences from a clickable list of verbs; you solve contrived, abstract puzzles rather than immediate practical problems; you're several layers removed from what little action that happens.

It's partly because of their obvious UI deficiencies that games like Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle (and the inferior games they imitated, like King's Quest and Zork) are so consciously self-parodic, drawing frequent attention to their own absurdities and limitations. But there's also a spectre of Puritanism lurking in the background of these games — they look back to an era when gaming was a guilty pleasure on your office machine — and a consequent insistence on reassuring the player of his moral and intellectual chastity. Not only are you smart enough to solve these puzzles, they seem to say, you're also too smart to believe in our stories for a second, and too conscientious to care about such trifles anyway. Implicitly, they mocked the idea that a computer game could be immersive or compelling or anything other than a frivolous experience. Doom was an instant refutation to this way of thinking. In one shotgun blast, it blew away the old adventure games and their older prejudices. And you know what? Good riddance to them.

Game studios saw that Doom was the way of the future, and a rush of cash-in clones followed its release. Most of the early Doom clones were uninspired retreads that latched on to what was least interesting about the original game: monsters and gore and big guns. Dark Forces, despite its lack of gore, is often lumped in with them, written off as "Star Wars Doom" by game journalists who only played the demo. Which only goes to show that then as now, game journalists are some of the laziest hacks in their profession.

Mind you, back in 1995 I would have been happy enough with Star Wars Doom. Doom was one of my favourite things to do on a PC, and in Dark Forces I looked forward to more of the same, with a bit of John Williams on the MIDI soundtrack. But LucasArts, at the time, were not content to do a simple retread. They had a deserved reputation for quality and story, and a less deserved one for gameplay; they wanted a game that lived up to that reputation. Like their competitors, they saw Doom as a challenge, but unlike their competitors, they rose to the challenge — and how.

Playing Dark Forces, it slowly dawned on me that this was no mere Doom clone: this game was doing something new and different and altogether more exciting. Dark Forces was presenting and realising gameplay possibilities, inherent in the Doom format, that were unanticipated in the earlier game. (2) You could play Doom casually, just to blow off steam, but Dark Forces wouldn't let you: it forced you into a much deeper form of engagement. Once I thought Doom was immersive, but after the intense experience of Dark Forces, I simply couldn't get back into it. Next to the new game, Doom looked like a proof-of-concept demo by three guys in Louisiana.

FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

For the first twenty minutes or so of each game, the gulf in quality is not so evident. If anything, Doom begins more strongly; its early levels are far more atmospheric and coherent than those that follow. You start off in something that looks like a military installation overrun by creatures from Hell; your dead buddies litter the floor; ominous groans haunt the distance; you have to survive, somehow, and get out of here. But as the levels go by, all atmosphere and sense of purpose seep away. The settings degenerate into meaningless mazes of corridors, the decor into an over-busy chaos of wallpapers and textures (Hell, it transpires, is much like a 70s interior), and the gameplay into kill, kill, kill. Doom reveals itself to be a game about nothing more than shooting whatever gets in your way. It's a short game by today's standards, but finishing it is still a slog. Long before the end, it's hard to find a reason to continue.

Doom puts its best foot forward; Dark Forces, by contrast, begins with a stumble. The first level (which was also unfortunately the demo) is Star Wars Doom -- a straightforward key-hunt in meaningless and forgettable surroundings. But even then, it does some little things right — enemy "wake-up" sounds, for example. When Doom enemies notice you, they emit inarticulate grunts and screams; when Dark Forces enemies notice you, they speak in complete sentences:

"There he is, stop him!"
"You're in violation of Imperial law!"
"Stop, Rebel scum!"

These Imperial troopers are deliberately hunting you down; there's nothing random about their behaviour, they're invested in your death or capture. From the beginning, Dark Forces presents a world populated by purposeful agents. Just the appearance of purpose makes them more interesting than the vast majority of video game foes; it doesn't matter that they have no AI to speak of, it doesn't matter that they stand in line to be mown down by your blaster fire.

After this modest opening, each successive level of Dark Forces is a major step up in ambition, atmosphere, and immersiveness. Each level has a purpose: it's there for a reason, and you're there for a reason. Each level is a distinct world, with its own colour palette and its own ambient sounds. Each level brings something new and special and gives you another reason to keep playing — and remarkably, the designers keep this up almost until the end.

Level 2, a mysteriously bombed-out city, is interesting enough, but Level 3, the sewers, marks the beginning of something special -- an ingeniously designed level in a memorable location, with a cinematic sense of pacing. Levels 4 and 5 continue to expand the sense of scale and spectacle. On my first playthrough, I was wowed by the whistling wind in the Imperial mountain base, and the heat haze of the Gromas mines. And then I played level 6 and was blown away.

LEVEL 6

Level 6 of Dark Forces — The Imperial Detention Facility — encapsulates everything that is good about the game, and almost everything I like about gaming in general. It's a perfect example of the use of a game world to drive action, and the use of action to build a game world; and irresistible feedback loop that sucks you in and takes you to a better place. It's one of the best game levels ever; let me count its many strengths.

1. A Sense of Purpose

Every level of Dark Forces begins with a mission briefing that explains what you have to do and brings the story up to date. Despite what fans of the game might tell you, the story of Dark Forces is pure garbage. But story is unimportant for games like this; what's important is plot, and Dark Forces has lots of it. At every point in the game, the plot gives us a reason we got there, a reason we're going somewhere else, and a reason enemies are trying to stop us from doing that. Plot drives purpose, and it's an element of the game world that keeps us playing, quite apart from the pleasure of the game mechanics.

There are people for whom a game mechanic is itself enough reason to keep playing. Given a toy, they'll play with it; given a gun, they'll shoot it; given a puzzle, they'll tackle it; given a job, they'll do it; given some orders, they'll follow them. These people are the rulers of the world. They are the inner-directed types who have the natural drive and work ethic to achieve success. They're not bogged down by thoughts of history, they respond to their immediate situations, they respond in a logical way, they never suffer the consequences of their actions, they just "recreate themselves every second by their interactions with the world." Me, I'm not one of these people. I need a whole lot more persuasion to get up off my arse. And once I'm up, I need a lot of convincing to stay there.

Admittedly, the plot of Dark Forces does not give us hugely convincing reasons to keep playing, but at least it keeps them coming thick and fast. The mission briefing for Level 6 outlines the key plot points: we're on the trail of a mystery weapon used by the Evil Empire to destroy a city, we're breaking into an Imperial prison, we're trying to free the imprisoned defector Crix Nadine (who has some information about the weapon), and the Imperials will be trying to stop us because they don't like people freeing their prisoners. In addition, we're given a symbol to look for, which identifies the location of Nadine's cell. This encourages us to look at clues in our environment; it's another little reason to keep playing.

2. A Sense of Location

At the start of the mission proper, we're dropped off in a narrow mountain pass. We walk along, and eventually a canyon opens out to our left. A hovering droid attacks us from that direction, forcing us to look across the canyon — and there we see our first sight of the Imperial Detention Facility, a dark edifice set against the white rock, stretching down to the canyon floor.

Level 6 of Dark Forces is all about the Imperial Detention Facility: we have to break into it, we have to search it thoroughly, we have to free someone from it. And before we enter the Imperial Detention Facility, we'll have seen it from far away, from different angles (as we round the canyon), and from close up. Before we set foot in the building, we have an idea of its dimensions and its proportions.

This is the 3D game equivalent of the classic exterior establishing shot, a familiar construct of cinematic language: before we see the action in a studio set, we're shown a shot of the building that's supposed to be its exterior. This is a simple and somewhat hoary technique, but it's still very effective in establishing a sense of location, and a notional link between an artificial space (like a studio set) and the real space outside our window.

In Doom, on the rare occasions we see the exteriors of level locations (such as the Unholy Cathedral), we're too close to them and see them from only one angle. There's never enough relief; they look a bit like stage backdrops. The levels in Doom never seem grounded in space; they start to feel like cheap studio sets, illusions made from chipboard and canvas. Admittedly, the Doom engine on its target platforms was not able to handle large outdoor scenes; but there's no such excuse for games like Quake and Bioshock, which suffer from the same problems.

Like most exterior establishing shots, the view of the Detention Facility in Dark Forces is something of a cheat — the interior space we end up exploring is mostly embedded in far wall of the canyon has little relation to the exterior we see. But it does hint at the importance of verticality in the game level. We can see that the building goes a long way down; and we'll end up fighting all the way down and up again; as it happens, more than once.

3. Empty Space

Look at all the empty space in this screenshot! Isn't it magnificent? That's one big empty canyon. There's a wide gulf between us and the Detention Facility, and a huge and fatal drop when we look down. (3)

One of the most admirable things about the design of Dark Forces is its fearless use of empty space to create spectacle, relief, and visual tension. Just as a key aspect of music and oratory is the judicious use of silence, equally crucial to visual forms — most pertinently, architecture — is the use of empty space. In cathedral domes and flying buttresses and suspension bridges and glass-and-steel skyscrapers, architects throughout history have employed empty space to dizzying effect. Emptiness, they realised, is more than just the absence of material. Emptiness is awesome, terrifying, sublime, an end in itself.

In contrast to Dark Forces, Doom belongs to the school of game design that suffers from Horror Vacui, an aesthetic aversion to empty space. According to these designers, "It's better to simulate an enclosed environment in more detail rather than a larger environment with less fidelity." The result is that every place in their games looks like a Victorian drawing-room. A Doom-style game forever consigns us to dark, cramped corridors, and tight environments cluttered with junk.

There are of course lots of good reasons to depict such confined or cluttered spaces in games; at the right moments, they can help create a sense of claustrophobia or oppression or desperation. Indeed, later on in level 6, Dark Forces itself uses claustrophobic spaces to great effect; they are a valuable weapon in the game designer's armoury. But when a game gives us nothing but restriction, and nothing but clutter, I fear we're only getting an insight into the designers' minds.

Incidentally, another cultural icon afflicted with Horror Vacui is George Lucas, who filled every spare inch of his Star Wars reissues with over-busy CGI squiggles. Lucas would do well to follow the lead of some of his old game designers, who weren't afraid of empty space, and were skilled enough to reap its benefits.

4. A Meaningful Space

Dark Forces endeavours to make its Detention Facility a meaningful space in the context of the game world; it's not simply a contrivance stuffed with enemies. The different floors of the facility, each marked with its own symbol, have a distinct identity, and seem to be for prisoners of different security levels. The prisoners are kept in cells which have coded locks, the codes for which are kept by the officers on the same floor. The floors are accessible via two elevators, one which goes down through the low-security levels, and another which goes back up through the high-security levels. The elevators have an indicator to show which floor they are currently on, which can be seen from other floors. Outside the areas where prisoners are kept, there are areas that look like mess halls, locker rooms, and infamously, even a smoking room.

I've made a distinction already between players who provide their own purpose, and players who need to be convinced of one. A similar distinction can be drawn between syntactic and semantic players. Every game to some extent involves the manipulation of symbols according to rules. Syntactic players are happy to see the game only in this way, but semantic players are not interested unless those symbols and rules also have some meaning in the context of the game world. Syntactic players are happy to run around an abstractly considered maze of corridors and doors and keys, shooting abstractly-considered enemies with abstractly-considered guns. Semantic players want all of this stuff to mean something. They want it to be part of a game world.

Dark Forces caters to semantic players; Doom stops caring about them long before it's over. After a while, its game levels cease to mean anything. The Halls of the Damned, Pandemonium, the House of Pain — I'm not one to second-guess the Lord Beelzebub, but even in Hell, these levels could have no possible purpose other than as game spaces.

5. An Inhabited Space

As a weekend tourist in a city, you might wander aimlessly, or look at a map, or follow a guide. Either way, you're essentially watching a slideshow of disparate city views. Mentally, you never leave home; in truth, you might as well have stayed there. You don't begin to inhabit a city until you absorb the layout of its streets and buildings; you don't inhabit a place until you know its ways and landmarks, and their relative positions.

You can wander around most games like a weekend tourist: follow the arrow, follow the map, follow the only available path, and you're bound to reach your goal. Doom could present you with a randomised sequence of corridors and battle arenas, and the experience wouldn't be a whole lot different. In fact, Doom-style games might as well not present a coherent space at all. Play Doom, and you might as well be climbing up Escher steps.

The brilliance of Dark Forces, and the brilliance of level 6 in particular, is that it doesn't let you wander around like a tourist. You can still progress up to a point in such a manner — you can methodically shoot your way through the building from the first floor to the last, the floor marked with the symbol you're looking for, the floor on which Nadine is kept. But you'll find your way blocked by a large, impassable door. There is no key for this door. You can wander around a bit more, retrace your steps if you like, shoot a few more things, but you'll still find no way through.

In fact, you don't need to open the door at all. The answer lies in the level's two adjacent elevators — and realising they are adjacent is itself a discovery, since the only floor on which you can enter both is designed to obscure that fact. There is an easily-missed maintenance area behind the elevator on the top floor, which lets you enter the elevator shaft itself when the carriage is on another floor; and there are glimpses of inaccessible ventilation shafts between the elevators. The solution is to move the carriages to such a position that you can access the blocked floor via the elevator and ventilation shafts. To know the right position, you must visualise where the elevator carriages need to be in relation to the floor you want to access.

In other words, the only way to get past the level is to inhabit the game world. It's not sufficient to let the game engine render it for you; you too must conceptualise it as a three-dimensional space. You must think about what you've seen, think about the structure of the building you've been exploring, and understand how the different parts relate to each other in space.

When I first played the game, this astonished me. It wasn't simply that I had encountered a cool puzzle; it was that I had to reevaluate my notions of what was possible in gaming. Before Dark Forces, immersion was something I brought to the table, a personal choice, an attitude to play; I could entertain the thought of the game world as a real place, or I could say it was all a pack of cards. In Dark Forces, the game brings the immersion, and it's non-negotiable: it pulls you in deeper, or it rejects you. The game won't let you treat it like a slideshow of holiday snaps. It insists that you embrace the game world as a coherent reality, as geometrically cogent as your house or your hometown. And if you refuse, you'll be stuck forever in the Imperial Detention Facility.

6. A Sense of Pace

Earlier I praised the "cinematic pacing" of Dark Forces level 3, and I could say that same about level 6. It and other levels in the game create a sense of pace through the tried-and-tested three-act structure; another hoary but effective dramatic device.

Level 6 divides neatly into three acts. In the first act, we break into the Detention Facility; we find a way over the canyon, and fight past the entrance area. This act ends when we come to the symbol next to the elevator on the first floor — the symbol that's not quite like the one we're looking for. This is the second-act game-changer. From this point on we've shifted gears to actively searching for our quarry, paying attention to the clues on each floor. And of course we fail to find him, because he's stuck behind an impassable door. But as all Lucas disciples know, failure is part of a hero's journey!

The third act begins with our breakthrough, when we conquer our failure and find a way past the door. If this level were in a lesser game — Doom, for example — it would end right at this point, or worse, out would come a tedious level boss, and you'd spend the next fifteen minutes peppering him with rocket blasts until the fucker finally went down. But Dark Forces gives a more satisfying level finale. After getting past the elevator shafts, a whole new area opens, and the action ramps up: we still have to run a gauntlet of traps and difficult jumps, survive an encounter with a trash compactor, and fight some tough but not invincible prison guards, before finding and freeing the prisoner. And then there's even a little coda at the end when we can search through the cells at our leisure and bask in our success.

And reflect on one of the finest gaming experiences ever created.

IN CONCLUSION

The excellence of Dark Forces doesn't end with level 6; the next few levels keep up the high standard, and level 11 (The Imperial City) does all the same things arguably even better. As with almost every game I've played, Dark Forces runs out of steam just before the end: the second-last level is a bit of fanservice set in a Star Destroyer, and the very last level drags on a bit. But by then it has already delivered so many moments of genre-defining greatness that I can't complain.

On the subject of genre defining, I've assembled the key features of the Dark Forces and Doom genres into this handy cut-out-and-keep table.

Dark Forces Games Doom Games
Emphasis on world-buildingEmphasis on genre mechanics
Main challenge comes from understanding the environment Main challenge comes from battle tactics and ammo management
Shooting enemies is mostly just something to occupy you while exploring the space The space is mostly just something you occupy while shooting enemies
Wide open spaces, spectacular vistasCramped, claustrophobic rooms and corridors
Generally brightGenerally dark
EmptinessClutter
All 3 dimensions matter. Vertical levels with plenty of motion in the Z Axis. Motion mostly in 2 dimensions, pretty flat level design. If engine permits, sometimes you look up or down to shoot things.
Convincing, purposeful spacesMeaningless spaces
Plot-drivenPlot of little presence or interest
Pacing through dramatic devicesPacing, where present, through level bosses and toughness of enemies
Time and commitmentImmediate gratification

And here I've categorised some well-known games according to the genres. Few games are a perfect fit for all the criteria, but I think this is roughly how they line up.

Dark Forces GamesDoom Games
Half-Life 2Gears of War
Deus ExBioshock
Mass EffectMass Effect 2/3
Assassin's Creed 2Assassin's Creed
Deus Ex 3Halo 3
PortalQuake
Jedi KnightOblivion
Dragon Age: OriginsDragon Age 2

I plan to write about some of these games in the future, but for now I think I'll just leave it at that.

(Comments)

1. In fairness, Myst should share the credit for killing off the old games, and for much the same reasons. But Myst, with its still images, was always going to be a transitional technology; Doom set the standard for modern gaming.

2. But why not use System Shock as my anti-Doom genre archetype, that massively overrated underrated game that no one played when it was released but since has acquired legendary status? To answer your unasked question: I don't like it. Doom itself is far superior. System Shock belongs to the older gaming world; it was a parallel development to Doom, using the clunky old Ultima Underworld engine and a horribly antiquated UI. By the time it was released, it was already obsolete. Sure, it has a story and world-building and stuff, but it hard to care when you're struggling to move around tiny, junk-cluttered corridors tinted in lurid turquoise.

3. I'll have to ask modern gamers to indulge the ancient graphics of these screenshots. By today's standards, playing Dark Forces is like walking into a thick blizzard of chunky pixels. For someone weaned on 3D games of the last decade, I'm not even sure the game is still worth playing. My intention here is not to plead for the game's continued relevance, but for its archetypal awesomeness.

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