I don’t like to talk about Star Wars.
Not because I wasn’t obsessed with it throughout my childhood. I was, but it’s one of the few relics from that time I’m afraid to look at critically. I haven’t even seen the original trilogy in nearly 20 years out of anxiety that it wouldn’t be as shiny or special to me as it was when I was a child sitting too close to a television with a vice-like grip on his plastic lightsaber, watching Luke and Vader square off in the bowels of Cloud City. That it would fall short in some way, that I’d grimace at the amount of film grain or Mark Hamill wouldn’t be the paragon of acting my small mind made him out to be, is actually kind of terrifying (in an admittedly ridiculous way). I’m convinced there are things as a kid—shows, novels, movies—you know play a role in shaping who you are that you’re better off not revisiting as an adult. Star Wars is one of those for me, a pure artifact from my youth I carry around in my mind that I’m scared to taint with repeat viewings or even critical conversation with friends. The only person I ever talk about it with is my dad, the man who made sure I grew up with it.
My childhood was a busy one. My father worked 9 to 5 doing the books for a medical company. My mother was going through graduate school, trying to become a nurse. My brother and I spent most of our time at a daycare when we weren’t in school. Dad took care of us during the weekends while she worked the graveyard shift at a hospital, scrounging up the necessary credits to earn her degree. While she was away the three of us would go out and eat Pizza Hut on Friday and then come home and spend Saturday and Sunday watching sci-fi flicks on LaserDisc. Sometimes it was The Terminator. Often it was Dune. Most of the time, though, it was Star Wars.
Dad could never get enough of it and by extension we couldn’t either. His love for the glow of lightsabers swishing about in dark, metallic hallways and the sound of starships zooming across the surface of alien planets soon become ours as well. I burned with envy whenever he told me about seeing A New Hope in theaters when it was originally released, packed in a room of people awestruck just like him. The golden opening scrawl for those movies was the only thing I ever saw his eyes light up with unrestrained enthusiasm about, the sole signal that this towering figure I called my father might have ever been a child.
I’m 27 now, just a year younger than dad when he married mom. I spend my days writing about the delights and failures of videogames and often go back and forth between being crushed by imposter syndrome or buoyed by an overinflated ego. Dad and I chat on the phone every other week or so, just checking in and shooting the shit. Last time we talked about whether either of us had seen that new Bobby Fischer movie with the weird name. We hadn’t. I told him I’d go see it and let him know if it was worth his time since I’m two minutes from the closest theaters and he’s two hours from one. I didn’t. I should try to be better at these kinds of things, I guess.
A couple of nights ago I was sitting on the floor and frowning at my new copy of Star Wars: Battlefront. It’s a mediocre game. I know it, I played the beta. It’s pretty but shallow. Worse, its progression system is pointlessly aggressive toward new players, forcing them to unlock essentially every item in the game, which means that newcomers are often at the mercy of an overpowered majority. It’s hardly the worst tie-in game ever made but still somewhat of a disappointment, falling square in the middle of a spectrum that has Atari’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial on one end and Goldeneye at the other.
I spent sixty real world dollars on this shit for what? It’s not like I don’t have Fallout 4 to work through or my current campaign of Dungeon Keeper 2 to conquer. I didn’t even want to play the stupid thing. But it was midnight and I had to get up at 4:00 AM for a trip and I had already bought it so I decided I might as well give it a spin instead of trying to catch an insufficient amount of sleep. I also thought that maybe the stuff that Dice held off implementing in the beta was what kept it from being an enjoyable time.
It wasn’t. Star Wars: Battlefront is still a mediocre game at best, even if it’s not without its charms. The stunning visuals and fantastic audio are nearly as faithful to the original trilogy as Alien: Isolation is to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece of a film. The hum of the lightsaber, the farty brett brett sound of the X-wing’s lasers, the detailed character models and the splendor of Endor’s forests—all of it feels authentic and is, in that regard, rather impressive. In spite of all that I just wasn’t having fun. After a few hours of playing I had even gotten quite good at it, racking up many kills each match, but I was still bored trying to deal with the awkward flight handling and shooting people with a massive arsenal of weapons that somehow all felt the same. That said: there were flashes of something. Not of genius but instead moments where I’d have a Proustian jolt and be transported back for the briefest moment to those weekends where the three of us sat on the couch, eating leftover pizza as we watched C-3PO suggest to R2D2 that the droid let the Wookie win the chess match. The emotions attached to that recollection were drudged up too: contentedness, confusion, yearning for a sick ass laser sword to intimidate my brother with.
It was a surprisingly constant stream of memories, too. When I got to control an X-wing for the first time, zooming over all these little ants scuttling across Tatooine, I remembered dad and I never being able to make it past the opening stage of Star Wars: Rebel Assault because we couldn’t turn the ship fast enough to avoid avalanches and rock formations. Playing as Darth Vader taking down a squad of rebels with a saber throw brought back a brief memory of me in a Toys R Us, hoping I could somehow convince my parents to get me the entire set of poseable action figures released alongside Return to the Jedi’s return to theaters in 1997.
On and on for hours, little temporal trips like these.
The constant barrage of those memories, each one an injection of nostalgia to distract me from the confusion of my life, is valuable to me. It’s not value that stems from clever design, but maybe that doesn’t really matter in the long run. I’ve played plenty of terrible games that have had enjoyable or interesting bits to them, their victories sadly short-lived when you look at said game as a whole, but I’ve never really played a game, good or bad, that acted as Proust’s madeleine in the way that Battlefront has. It’s a game that, like most tie-ins, at least functions partially as a marketing tool (this one clearly meant to get you pumped for The Force Awakens) but unlike most tie-ins this one has an ungodly amount of emotional leverage thanks to Star Wars’ position as a cultural behemoth.
It’s the sort of name that means something to everyone, whether you love it and have read all the expanded universe novels and have firey opinions about every single detail that eeks out about the new movies, or if you just wish everyone would shut the hell up about all this nerdy bullshit. This majority of tie-in games do not have this cultural foundation to hold them up. Captain America: Super Soldier, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, Bad Boys Miami Takedown and about nearly every other tie-in game in existence are, like the latest Battlefront, uninspired but mechanically sound at their best and just infuriatingly awful and broken at their worse. However, Battlefront is fascinating to me because the legacy of what it’s adapting into videogame form is strong enough that it almost completely bypasses how dull the game actually is. I could sit down all day and play matches and be bored out of my mind but also still get a series of emotional highs off the memories it feeds me. In a way, it’s the ultimate tie-in game, totally forgettable from a mechanical standpoint, but rich in nostalgia for those who grew up watching the series and becoming invested in the Lucas’ fantasy. It’s able to completely get by on its legacy alone, which is frustrating because the core game is creatively bankrupt. I despise how dull it is and how much fun I don’t have when I play it and yet I’ll probably keep playing for weeks. Hell, I may even drop money on a season pass so I can fuel those trips down memory lane a little longer. Or maybe not—perhaps I’ll be far gone, a traveler too deep in the vaults of the Commonwealth Wasteland to pay attention to EA Dice’s inevitable trickle of post-release content.
Either way, I’m looking forward to going home for the holidays and watching as my old man, controller in hand, laughs as he rushes down a field of snow, pointlessly blasting red beams at a TIE Fighter soaring overhead, but having a gas nonetheless. And then maybe over coffee or cold breadsticks we’ll talk about Luke Skywalker taking down an AT-AT with just his lightsaber in The Empire Strikes Back or how the Ewoks were actually badass soldiers.
For old times’ sake.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.