Everyone’s got pieces of media—probably several, really—that they have to drag out every once in a while and binge on, despite already knowing them backwards and forwards. Firefly, West Wing, Harry Potter, that kind of thing. Despite having read well over a hundred books and playing maybe twenty games in the Star Wars franchise, the one thing I have to relive every so often is X-Wing Alliance.
The culmination (some might say apotheosis) of the X-Wing flight simulation game series of the 90s, XWA is now almost fifteen years old, and barely even functional on a modern computer, but it remains an essential part of my fandom and a periodic touchstone to my seventeen-year-old self, who had only discovered Star Wars a couple years earlier and was still learning the difference between a Skipray Blastboat and a CloakShape fighter. Indeed, the more I look back, the more I’ve come to appreciate why this particular game sits at the core of my decade-and-a-half obsession with Star Wars. In this piece, I’d like to explore some of those reasons in the hopes that they’ll be no less true of the dawning Disney era.
Characters before settings
If you’ve paid even the smallest bit of attention to Star Wars gaming over the years, you’ve likely noticed what has become the ultimate running joke among hardcore fans—the near-constant revisiting of the Battle of Hoth. While mercifully avoiding the battle itself, the plot of X-Wing Alliance hangs like a hammock between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, opening with the evacuation of Echo Base and ending at the Battle of Endor—another film moment that’s seen its fair share of play-throughs.
Endor was definitely billed as the big payoff of the game’s long and winding narrative, but unlike many other games, it’s not just there to be there, and while you’re technically piloting the Millennium Falcon, you’re not just plopped randomly into the role of Lando Calrissian.
Instead, you are Ace Azzameen, the youngest member of an influential family of traders. XWA tells the story of Ace joining the Rebellion and eventually finding himself in the Falcon’s flight crew at Endor, but intermingled with your military missions are a series of missions involving the rest of the Azzameen family, as they deal with competitors, pirates, and eventually, betrayal from within.
All this is to say that for a featureless player character with no lines of his own, Ace was by no means a “Rookie One”-style cypher. He goes through absolute hell in this story, and while the plot only unfolds one way, you nevertheless find yourself exploring all manner of tough decisions in an environment that could not be further afield from the typical light side/dark side dichotomy of games like Jedi Knight and Knights of the Old Republic.
XWA is a story in the style of A New Hope-–characters caught up by circumstance in momentous events beyond their control. And that, I think, is what Star Wars does best; certainly in terms of the film saga. I don’t want the narrative focus of the sequel trilogy to be SkySolo brats who grew up living the good life on Coruscant (Jedi Temple or otherwise); that’s basically what we got in the prequels and they were worse for it. Certainly the SkySolos will and should be there, but the new films need a character like Ace Azzameen (or like Han Solo, for that matter)—someone from the fringes thrust into the story against their will. That’s what brought everybody to the table with Luke in ANH, and that’s what Episode VII needs to do all over again.
People before politics
This kind of goes along with the last one, but another thing that was great about XWA was that there wasn’t really a main villain on the Imperial side; the closest thing to a main villain at all was Ace’s uncle Antan, whose personal politics of not getting involved in the Galactic Civil War drive a wedge between him and the rest of his family until he finally breaks with them entirely.
Rather than a distant, unrelatable moustache-twirler, Antan is first introduced as One Of Us, and circumstances make him the villain. Another key element of a good Star Wars story is that it’s never just about what’s happening on the surface, and XWA follows the film saga beat-for-beat when it comes to exploring how political differences can pull even family and friends apart when things come to a head as they do in the GCW. But the politics themselves are the window dressing, not the story itself—a lesson often forgotten in this franchise.
The X-Wing series as a whole did a great job of offering up plenty of bang for your buck in terms of content, but the vastness of the Galaxy Far, Far Away really shines in XWA. Because the narrative is split between Rebel Alliance missions and family missions, the game was able to supplement the usual range of military operations with things like pirate raids, supply runs, corporate espionage, and even a jail break or two. Fittingly for the first simulator to put you in the cockpit of the Falcon, XWA was also the first to really give players a feel for what Han Solo’s life must have been like.
And even that kind of “fringer” activity is just the tip of the iceberg—the GFFA can be, and has been, the backdrop for just about every possible kind of story (as my cohort Lucas Jackson has been exploring in his excellent Star Wars and Genre series), and it would be a shame if every Star Wars film going forward (and the tie-in material, for that matter) fell into the rut of trying to out-Hero’s Journey ANH. Let VII-IX deal with galactic destiny, but the “spinoff” films are a never-before-seen opportunity to really think outside of the box in terms of what a Star Wars movie has to be. Don’t just do a Han Solo story, do Seven Samurai with Han Solo. Don’t just do an Old Republic story, do 300 with Jedi. Indeed, this kind of thing has been happening in the Expanded Universe for years, up to and including zombies, but to see Star Wars’ multi-genre potential fully realized on the big screen, involving the kind of current talent I’m sure would be champing at the bit to do it, would justify the loss of the EU in my eyes.
Having said that, of course, one of the main things that first drew me to Star Wars was the idea that this insane mountain of story material all took place in a single, consistent universe. Given the span of time covered in X-Wing Alliance, I’m sure it was an easy decision to include in the story the Rebels’ capture of the plans for the second Death Star. Problem was, that story had already been told a few years earlier in the novel Shadows of the Empire.
But rather than just ignore that and do its own version of the story (something that has happened many, many times before with other movie tie-in moments—just ask Kyle Katarn about Death Star plans sometime), XWA went so far as to perfectly re-create the scene from the novel, right down to the dialogue—and even carry the mission forward beyond the book.
For people who had read the novel, this was an awesome and unexpected discovery, but for people who hadn’t, their understanding of the story was in no way impeded—and many were probably even spurred by the sudden appearance of some guy named “Dash Rendar” to go check out the book for themselves.
I’m under no illusions that the sequel films will preserve the abundance of existing material, or even that they necessarily should, but if Disney is to usher in a new timeline, D-canon if you will, then for god’s sake, keep it tight. Once Episode VII is out, either resist the urge to follow it up in other media, or make damned sure that said media is properly leading into Episode VIII. If you want to do a comic series, or a video game, showing the origin of Episode VII‘s new Skywalker daughter (or whatever), run that shit by Michael Arndt and stick to it. While always dimly aware of what the EU was up to, George Lucas was never big on this kind of thing, but now that he’s out of the picture there is no one person imposing absolute tyranny over your continuity, so there is simply no excuse for contradictions anymore.
When the original Marvel Star Wars comic series was coming out after ANH, one story actually told of a mission undertaken during the Clone Wars by Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Darth Vader. I understand how that could’ve happened back then, but this is a new era. I don’t want to spend money in 2016 to read about Layla Skywalker’s upbringing in the Jedi Temple only to find out she’s a shapeshifting robot in 2019…though that would be awesome.
Learn from the past 35 years, Disney; burn it to the ground if you must, but I beg you—build something stronger on the ashes.