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Star Wars Gaming in the Outer Rim

B: There’s a term Doctor Who fans use to describe the period from 1990 to 2003 when, with the exception of the US-made 1996 TV movie, there were no new “official” installments of the series: the Wilderness Years. The reason they have a specific name, as opposed to simply referring to this time as “when the show was off the air” or simply a lack of new episodes, is that the Wilderness Years were anything but devoid of new Who material. Entire series of novels, comics, audio plays, and even “serial numbers filed off” fan movies starring the original actors proliferated during this period - many of which were made by people who would be involved in resuscitating the “official” franchise in 2004. One thing that characterized  Wilderness Years years works was a willingness to expand far beyond what had been seen in the original series, both thematically and tonally, taking the franchise in wildly different directions. Without having to worry about tying things back to the status quo of an ongoing central series (something that comic writers have to grapple with, even to the point of giving up on mainstream work altogether), creators could go anywhere they wanted.

That’s an approach that describes a lot of the ostensible “spin-off” works I find most interesting, particularly when there was much less “canon” material to work from, like the period between the end of the original Star Trek in 1969 and the release of The Motion Picture a full decade later. The Star Wars universe, which will be discussing on this most blessed May the 4th, had several eras like this: when little was agreed upon as far as what “Star Wars” even was (the run of the entire original trilogy, really, but especially the period between the releases of  Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back), and the times it looked like the era of mainline Star Wars films had passed (from the release of Return of the Jedi up to the Special Editions, and following the end of the prequel films). It’s something we’ve talked about before, but never really named... until now. Since “Wilderness Years” is already taken, let’s give these eras a name appropriate for Star Wars: the “Outer Rim.” And, as with the aforementioned other franchises, the Outer Rim periods had their share of comics, novels, and (naturally for us) games.

A: One of the better things to come out of the “Outer Rim '' would West End Games D6-based Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game. While there's a “Wild Space” in many maps of the Star Wars universe, "Outer Rim" feels right. Not completely uncharted worlds, but places rarely visited by the Star Wars franchise. The D6 roleplaying game might have a special place in my heart due to it being my first tabletop roleplaying experience, and one that I still revisit from time to time. It's more than that, though. Sure, there have been different sets of game rules for Star Wars since then, multiple versions of the D20 system, for instance, but the West End D6 had the timing right. The system released the Star Wars entry at a time when nearly anything was possible in the expansion of the Star Wars universe. If you look at the later game versions, you’ll see things hemmed in through divisions if  what era you’re going to be playing in. While anything is still certainly possible, we’re further hemmed in by specific sets of details with each new officially-released Star Wars RPG. That isn’t to say there's something wrong or bad about these newer games, but the original D6 was absolutely more of a wild west (or “Outer Rim”) take on Star Wars. While we can still decide our own canon, even today, there wasn’t as much you have to consciously ignore in the process of doing so.

B: I have quite a bit of fondness for era of DOS/VGA era of PC gaming, and that period's Star Wars games play no small role in that. Part of it is the way we imprint on the first impressive demonstrations we see of "next generation" technology, part of it is the down to the way these games looked, with gradients of bright colors and still-cartoony (in the best way) character designs, not quite slipping into realism… but mostly it’s the variety you got with the games. PC gaming at the time was pulling from a variety of traditions, including the genres that had traditionally been its mainstay (RPGs, adventure games) but also far better ports of console and arcade titles than the platform had been able to just a few years prior. (You don't know sorrow until you've seen a game like Contra or Operation Wolf in "glorious" CGA.) Not to mention the appearance of totally new genres only made possible by recent advancements in graphics, sound, and processing power - such as the first-person shooter. And it all coincided with the rebirth of Star Wars thanks to a bestselling trilogy of novels by Timothy Zahn (which themselves drew from the worldbuilding in West End Games's previously-mentioned RPG).

The first Star Wars game of this era also happened to be (for me) one of those defining mind-blowing technological experiences I mentioned above - Star Wars:X-Wing (1993). The release timing was perfect, with LucasArts finally getting the Star Wars license back from Broderbund the same year Heir to the Empire (the first of Zahn’s trilogy) came out. The only thing Broderbund had done with the exclusive license while they had it was publish ports home computer ports of the 1983 wireframe arcade game. (Full disclosure: I adored the Commodore 64 version.) But that was also the darkest period of the first Outer Rim era, when Star Wars was considered a “has-been” property audiences were burnt out on - the very reason West End Games was able to acquire the RPG rights in the first place.

While the gameplay and mission design stuck to a few basic formulae (and many.... "borrowings" from the Wing Commander franchise and LucasArts' own WWII aerial combat series that started with 1988's Battlehawks 1942), X-Wing's significance can’t be understated: it was the first Star Wars video game to tell a new story within the established universe. Keeping with the standards of the time, even surreal adaptations like the Namco's 1987 Star Wars for the Famicom are retellings of the movie narrative, and no matter how much I want Scorpion Scorpian Vader to be canon, it will always be a microcosm alternate version of the 1977 film. Not so with X-Wing, though: with the exception of the final three missions (the new technology must have made it impossible to resist recreating the attack on the original Death Star yet again), this was a new story taking place alongside the established Star Wars canon, with tons of references to the "expanded universe" created through other tie-in media, and (especially) the backstory created by West End Games for their RPG. Video game or not, X-Wing fit right in with the other officially-sanctioned media... and it didn't end there: the follow-up game, Star Wars: Tie Fighter even featured a cameo from the Zahn series' central villian. Vice Admiral Thrawn (he is promoted to Grand Admiral over the course of the game, the title he holds in the novels).

Over the next few years, LucasArts would continue to produce "Outer Rim" games in some of the hot new genres of the 90s: first-person shooters, with 1995's Dark Forces (which would produce a number of successful sequels over the years), and full-motion video with the two Rebel Assault games. To be fair, only Star Wars: Rebel Assault II: The Hidden Empire (1995) could be considered a true "Outer Rim" game like the others - the original Star Wars: Rebel Assault once again recreates the story of the movies with the substitution of a few characters and scenarios. Dedicated fans could squint and insert this into the existing Star Wars canon by imagining similar events happening to different people alongside the established canon à la Monty Python's Life of Brian, but I lean more towards this simply serving as yet another re-telling. After all, LucasArts had plenty of those going on alongside these Outer Rim games, with the release of the  Super Star Wars series for Super Nintendo coinciding with the aforementioned titles.

With any Outer Rim or Wilderness Years period, there's always the mixed blessing of a franchise getting restarted - mixed because, while fans finally get to see media come back to its original form with resources and availability far beyond that of even the most ambitious tie-in project, but those  projects (if they even continue) now have to co-exist with the "real thing," which sets a standard for tone and narrative. Sometimes they'll get to continue doing their own thing (as with Big Finish's series of Doctor Who audio dramas), but generally they become something more akin to marketing material, promoting the franchise's return to screens. Such was the case with Star Wars - while there was some freedom in the games that came out during the Special Edition rereleases, even these tended to part of larger marketing pushes: Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (1996), for instance, was just one part of a larger multimedia campaign whose main goal was to build up hype for the special editions. The release of The Phantom Menace in 1989, the game landscape was completely subsumed, with every new narrative game either retelling the film plot or structuring the story around the events of the film, as with Star Wars: Starfighter (2001). That game's sequel, Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter (2002) was even promoted as a "sneak peak" of the upcoming Attack of the Clones. While the prequels were coming out, each year saw scores of new games in their service, many obvious cash grabs. Even in their better moments, Star Wars games had been pulled from the Outer Rim back to the Core Worlds. The deluge died off following the release of Revenge of the Sith in 2005, with Star Wars burnout again setting in and games taking the form of the ongoing LEGO series or the MMORPG Star Wars Galaxies. It seemed like the era of standalone stories was done.

But without the framework of an ongoing media juggernaut, Outer Rim gaming could begin again, and it did spectacularly in the form of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (2008). This was an Outer Rim game if there ever was one, only possible when the franchise's cinematic years were past. The clean lines (both aesthetic and moral) of the prequel trilogy were gone, leaving a messy, largely character-driven disassembly of everything built up over the previous decade as the game connected the original trilogy with the prequels while commenting on both from the shadows. Intended as a standalone release, naturally there was an unnecessary sequel (having the player take on the role of a literal clone of the first game's protagonist might have been a little on-the-nose), but that didn't undo the statement of the original: Star Wars, finally, was something to play with again.
Or so it seemed. Today, we're once again in the midst of a multi-media juggernaut, with new television series, games, and comics coming out at an unprecedented clip. An Outer Rim era may never come again. But that doesn't mean we can't gain something from the experience of playing and discussing them. As Andy alluded to above, it's as much about a relationship with the source material as it is when media comes out. Even if the rules aren't being enforced by Lucasfilm or Marvel or Disney, they can be enforced by us through unthinking adherence to expectations - the expectations they set. This is particularly insidious in the era of remakes and low-effort sequels made for quick turnaround by fewer and fewer companies. Now, more than ever, we need to push the limits of what our favorite stories can do, what our favorite genres are capable of, and the shades of meaning they can carry. In the end, we're all in the Outer Rim... and that's where we make our home.

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