I’ve got more games than I need, but I still find myself checking the Humble Bundles. Every now and then I see something that is worth a few bucks just to have the (very theoretical) ability to play an old favorite of mine that I sold in some long forgotten garage sale.
And this week I saw it was a Star Wars pack that included TIE Fighter, a game that now regularly makes virtually every “Best Games of All Time” list. A game that I read about with as much attention as possible back in the days when you could only get news on dead trees. A game I excitedly bought brand new, rushed home to play, and then repeatedly failed to get myself to like.
It was so odd to me that there would be a LucasArts game I didn’t like. Some people geek out over genres. Some people go into full on nerd-mode over certain universes. But I was the only kid I ever knew who freaked out over a game company.
As an adult I know I’ll never experience that type of adulation again. They were a company, a good one, but why did I pore over every issue of The Adventurer like it might have the secret to the Holy Grail inside? Why did I hang a Monkey Island poster up in my garage? Why did I have this great idea to set up a VCR to my computer and just record myself playing The Day of the Tentacle?
Why did my love for the company transcend genres? I beat Dr. Tongue (Shooter Action-Adventure). I got a 100% Indy Quotient (adventure games). I built a hell that scared the Powers that Be (Sim). These were radically different games, but I was excited for each of them solely because they came from LucasArts.
And then there was Star Wars.
I’m still a huge enough fan to know that Star Wars takes place in the future and not the past (The Journal of the Whills, the story of the Star Wars, is a recount of the past by R2D2 as an ancient robot long after all the events in episodes 1-9 have already taken place, hence “A long time ago”), but my current fondness for the original trilogy is but a pale shadow of the – obsessive is the right word – level of attachment I had for it as a kid. Surely a LucasArts Star Wars game would thrill my 15-year old self to the bones.
But no. It didn’t. It was, in fact, the biggest disappoint of my gaming life.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
I’m looking at the box, a box that represents the only new game I’ll play for the next three months, with a hope that rings more than a little hollow. I want to like it, but I’m pretty sure I won’t.
I know, I know, I know. It’s got awesome graphics! It’s got Grand Admiral Thrawn! It’s got secret missions from the Emperor! And it takes place in a morally ambiguous version of the trilogy!
Those things all sound super awesome. I can picture myself swooping my TIE Fighter around and blowing up the “rebel scum” with a wink and a smirk. I can picture being the bad guy and going on the path to the Dark Side. It’s just that I don’t think it’ll happen, because I felt excited about X-Wing too, and I could never get into that game. It asked too much and didn’t give enough back in return. I tell myself that was an entire year ago and that I’m a lot more mature now. Maybe I’ll like it. Maybe.
I turn on my computer and begin feeding 1.44MB HDs into the drive, one after the other. When I’m finally done I still have to fiddle around with the DOS prompts and settings until I get it to work. My SNES is much easier, but I understand: Computer games just take time.
I get it up and running. The first place I find myself is in front of a registration desk with a gruff, no-nonsense lieutenant who asks for my name. "FLT. CADET RALLS, sir!" Yea. That sounds pretty badass.
The game tells me I’ve got 0 Laser Hits, 0 Warhead Hits, 0 Total Kills, 0 Total captures, and 0 Craft Lost. Hmmm. So it’s going to track everything I do? That’s new. Maybe I will like this after all.
I’m inside of a huge space hangar. The harsh metallic architecture lets me know I’m not with the Rebels anymore. In the hangar I get to choose which door to go through. One leads to the Film Room – where I can watch replays of my epic flights, one to the Training Simulator – where I’ll go through an obstacle course to learn the ropes, one to the Tech Room – where I can examine all of the Empire’s ships in glorious 3D polygons that spin and twist, and one to the combat chamber – the place where I’ll actually play the game.
I could go to the Training Simulator, but doing some sort of lesson to play a game sounds like school, and I get enough of that. I don’t have to train to play any other LucasArts games, so I’m not going to do it now. I’ll figure things out as I go. Time to play.
Except it’s not time to play. It’s time to get a briefing, apparently. Another stern officer begins to tell me that my objective is to inspect cargo. What? I just wanted to blast the Millennium Falcon! Why is this game not giving me instant action? I make myself relax. I knew that this game was a flight simulator when I bought it, not a constant adrenaline rush like the action games I’m used to. It will take some time and effort.
I click the button and finally I’m in space. I move my joystick to the left and the spaceship moves left. But it’s not just any spaceship; it’s a TIE Fighter. I always pictured myself in an X-Wing, but I’m still playing inside of a universe that I sometimes literally dream of.
I should love this. But I don’t.
I veer too far to the left. I veer too far to the right. I never move smoothly; it’s all hard dives and barrel rolls. Maybe I should get a Flightstick Pro … .
No. I’m not 10 years old anymore. I’m not going to blame my lack of videogame skills on my controller. My joystick is perfectly fine; it’s me that is the problem. I’ve got to learn to take it slow. Calm down, JR. Learn to take your time.
And I do. For a little while. I even manage to pass the first couple of missions, which allow me to talk to a cloaked figure. He’s a special envoy of the Emperor and will give me secret assignments, real cloak and dagger stuff. So cool.
Maybe I will like this game after all.
And I do. Kinda. A little. At least until the first missions are done and the game grows into what it is: a flight SIMULATOR, a piece of software that is supposed to simulate what it is like to be a pilot. And unlike the other action games I play, this one wants me to learn skills, not just collect power-ups. This one wants me to grow and develop my talents. This one is not going to hold my hand for every second of the game. It’s going to demand that I work and use patience if I want to play it.
And that’s the problem. I don’t want to PLAY it. I’m drawn into the story. I love hearing the secret missions and I badly need to find out how this tale ends. I love the graphics, I love the visuals, I love the tone. Simply put, I love everything about the game except the part I have to play.
I love the idea of this game, but I don’t like the game itself. The act of flying a TIE Fighter and being barely able to find enemy ships, let alone shoot them down – that’s what I don’t like. I don’t like the level of skill it requires or the sheer amount of time this game wants from me. I don’t like working for my fun. And if this isn’t fun, then ... .
Simple logic dictates how I should end that sentence. I just don’t like the idea of it. I want to become the Emperor’s loyal pilot. I want to get a perfect score on each mission. I want to see if I can crush the Rebellion. But there is no way to accomplish those tasks other than to play the game. And flying a TIE Fighter has become just the price I have to pay to unlock the story. And as much as I like Star Wars stories, I can’t think of a reason not to just read The Courtship of Princess Leia instead.
I tell myself it’s only a game. It’s OK to not like a game. I should be fine with that, but I’m not. I feel like I let myself down.
But that’s silly. Not liking a toy isn't a personal failure. I've just got to accept that there are some games I don't like and focus on the ones that I do. At least for now.
So I pack up the box and put it away and think, "Maybe I'll try it again someday." People do change, and maybe someday my tastes will change too.
What the heck? The Humble Bundle's only a couple of bucks, and the wife and kids will be out for at least another hour. So I click the Humble Button, put the key into Steam, and start the game with far less effort than it took me back in 1994.
I smile at the intro. I smile at the old graphics. I smile at the cheesy music and hokey dialogue. But I don’t smile when I play the game. So I turn it off after about five minutes.
Same problems. I still don’t like flight simulators. But now I’m OK with that.
15-year-old me wanted to experience everything. He was disappointed and saddened when he didn’t like TIE Fighter because that meant that he would never get to experience the joy of a good flight game. But 37-year old me knows that there are joys that are reserved for some people, that no one person can experience every joy.
I will never experience the joy of reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, because I find it to fail at the basic task of literature: communicating meaning. I will never experience the joy of a good grapefruit, because I hate that foul-tasting fruit. And I’m OK with being denied those joys for the same reason I’m now OK with being denied the joy of TIE Fighter.
Because I know there are other joys out there for me. I can have the joy of mangoes and pineapples or the joy of A Passage to India or I, Claudius. And I can even have the joy of the quick and easy LEGO games.
This world, even the small tiny virtual world we often play in, is too big, too wide, too expansive, to experience all of its joys in one lifetime. So I will look at TIE Fighter in my Steam library, think briefly of my youth, smile, and click on LEGO Star Wars instead. It’s a game I know I’ll like. And these days that is a good enough reason for me.