Jedi Knight (Plus, Notes on an Expanded Universe)

05 Apr

The years from 1991 to 1998 were special ones in which to be a Star Wars fan. For during these years, more so than during any other time in the franchise’s existence, Star Wars truly belonged to its fans.

The period just before this one is sometimes called the “Dark Period” or the “Dark Ages” by the fans of today. After 1983’s Return of the Jedi, that concluding installment in the original trilogy of films, George Lucas, Star Wars‘s sometimes cantankerous creator, insisted that he was done with his most beloved creation. A few underwhelming television productions aside, he stayed true to his word in the years that followed, whilst also refusing anyone else the right to play in his playground; even Kenner Toys was denied its request to invent some new characters and vehicles with which to freshen up the action-figure line. So, Star Wars gradually faded from the mass-media consciousness, much like the first generation of videogames that so infamously crashed the same year Return of the Jedi dropped. But no Nintendo came along to revive Star Wars‘s fortunes, for the simple reason that Lucas refused to allow it. The action figures that had revolutionized the toy industry gathered dust and then slowly disappeared from store shelves, to be replaced by cynical adjuncts to Saturday-morning cartoons: Transformers, He-Man, G.I. Joe. (Or, perhaps better said, the television shows were adjuncts to the action figures: the old scoffer’s claim that Star Wars had been created strictly to sell toys was actually true in their case.)

The biggest Star Wars project of this period wasn’t any traditional piece of media but rather a theme-park attraction. In a foreshadowing of the franchise’s still-distant future, Disneyland in January of 1987 opened its Star Wars ride, whose final price tag was almost exactly the same as that of the last film. Yet even at that price, something felt vaguely low-rent about it: the ride had been conceived under the banner of The Black Hole, one of the spate of cinematic Star Wars clones from the films’ first blush of popularity, then rebranded when Disney managed to acquire a license for The Black Hole’s inspiration. The ride fit in disarmingly well at a theme park whose guiding ethic was nostalgia for a vanished American past of Main Streets and picket fences. Rather than remaining a living property, Star Wars was being consigned to the same realm of kitschy nostalgia. In these dying days of the Cold War, the name was now heard most commonly as shorthand for President Ronald Reagan’s misconceived, logistically unsustainable idea for a defensive umbrella that would make the United States impervious to Soviet nuclear strikes.

George Lucas’s refusal to make more Star Wars feature films left Lucasfilm, the sprawling House That Star Wars Built, in an awkward situation. To be sure, there were still the Indiana Jones films, but those had at least as much to do with the far more prolific cinematic imagination of Steven Spielberg as they did with Lucas himself. When Lucas tried to strike out in new directions on his own, the results were not terribly impressive. Lucasfilm became as much a technology incubator as a film-production studio, spawning the likes of Pixar, that pioneer of computer-generated 3D animation, and Lucasfilm Games (later LucasArts), an in-house games studio which for many years wasn’t allowed to make Star Wars games. The long-running Star Wars comic book, which is credited with saving Marvel Comics from bankruptcy in the late 1970s, sent out its last issue in May of 1986; the official Star Wars fan club sent out its last newsletter in February of 1987. At this point, what was there left to write about? It seemed that Star Wars was dead and already more than half buried. But, as the cliché says, the night is often darkest just before the dawn.

The seeds of a revival were planted the very same year that the Star Wars fan club closed up shop, when West End Games published Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, a tabletop RPG. Perhaps because it addressed such a niche segment of the overall entertainment marketplace, it was allowed more freedom to expand upon the extant universe of Star Wars than anything that had come before from anyone not named George Lucas. Although its overall commercial profile would indeed remain small in comparison to the blockbuster films and toys, it set a precedent for what was to come.

In the fall of 1988, Lou Aronica, head of Bantam Books’s science-fiction imprint Spectra, sent a proposal to Lucas for a series of new novels set in the Star Wars universe. This was by no means an entirely original idea in the broad strokes. The very first Star Wars novel, Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, had appeared just nine months after the first film, having been born as a script treatment for a potential quickie low-budget sequel if the movie should prove modestly but not extremely successful. After it, a handful of additional paperbacks starring Han Solo and Lando Calrissian had been published. But Aronica envisioned something bigger than those early coattail-riders, a series of true “event” novels. “We can’t do these casually,” he wrote to Lucas. “They have to be as ambitious as the movies were. This body of work is too important to popular culture to end with these three movies.”

He knew it was a shot in the dark. Thus he was disappointed but not overly surprised when he heard nothing back for months; many an earlier proposal for doing something new with Star Wars had fallen on similarly deaf ears. Then, out of the blue, he received a grudging letter expressing interest. “No one is going to buy these,” Lucas groused — but if Bantam Books wanted to throw its money away, Lucasfilm would deign to accept a licensing royalty, predicated on a number of conditions. The most significant of these were that the books could take place between, during, or after the movies but not before; that they would be labeled as artifacts of an “Expanded Universe” which George Lucas could feel free to contradict at any time, if he should ever wish to return to Star Wars himself; and that Lucas and his lieutenants at Lucasfilm would be able to request whatever changes they liked in the manuscripts — or reject them completely — prior to their publication. All of that sounded fine to Lou Aronica.

So, Heir to the Empire, the first of a trilogy of novels telling what happened immediately after Return of the Jedi, was published on May 1, 1991. Its author was Timothy Zahn, an up-and-coming writer whose short stories had been nominated for Hugo awards four times, winning once. Zahn was symbolic of the new group of creators who would be allowed to take the reins of Star Wars for the next seven years. For unlike the workaday writers who had crafted those earlier Star Wars novels to specifications, Zahn was a true-blue fan of the movies, a member of the generation who had first seen them as children or adolescents — Zahn was fifteen when the first film arrived in theaters — and literally had the trajectory of their lives altered by the encounter. Despite the Bantam Spectra imprint on its spine, in other words, Heir to the Empire was a form of fan fiction.

Heir to the Empire helped the cause immensely by being better than anyone might have expected. Even the sniffy mainstream reviewers who took it on had to admit that it did what it set out to do pretty darn effectively. Drawing heavily on the published lore of Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game as well as his own imagination, Zahn found a way to make his novel feel like Star Wars without lapsing into rote regurgitation of George Lucas’s tropes and plot lines. Grand Admiral Thrawn, his replacement for Darth Vader in the role of chief villain, was at least as interesting a character as his predecessor, whilst being interesting in totally different ways. Through him, Zahn was able to articulate an ethical code for the Empire that went beyond being evil and oppressive for the sake of it: a philosophy of political economy by no means unknown to some of the authoritarian nations of our own world, hinging on the belief that too much personal freedom leads only to anarchy and chaos and an endemic civic selfishness, making life worse for everyone. It’s a philosophy with which you can disagree — I certainly do, stridently — but it isn’t a thoughtless or even an entirely heartless one.

This is not to say that Heir to the Empire was some dry political dissertation; Zahn kept the action scenes coming, kept it fun, kept it Star Wars, striking a balance that George Lucas himself would later fail badly to establish in his own return to his science-fiction universe. The hardcover novel topped the New York Times bestseller chart, defying Lucas’s predictions of its failure, proving there was a ready market out there for new Star Wars product.

That said, very few of the Star Wars novels that would follow would match Heir to the Empire and its two sequels in terms of quality. With so much money waiting to be made, Lou Aronica’s vision for a carefully curated and edited series of event novels — perhaps one per year — fell by the wayside all too rapidly. Soon new novels were appearing monthly rather than yearly, alongside a rebooted comic book. Then they were coming even faster than that; 1997 alone saw a staggering 22 new Star Wars novels. And so the Expanded Universe fell victim to that bane of fan fictions everywhere, a lack of quality control. By the time Han Solo and Princess Leia had gotten married and produced three young Jedi of their own, who were all running around having adventures of their own in their own intertwining series of books, it was reasonable to ask whether it was all becoming much, much too much. A drought had become an indiscriminate tsunami; a trilogy of action movies had turned into All My Children.

Even when it was no better than it ought to have been, however, there was a freewheeling joy to the early Expanded Universe which is poignant to look back upon from the perspective of these latter days of Star Wars, when everything about the franchise is meticulously managed from the top down. The Expanded Universe, by contrast, was a case of by the fans, for the fans. With new movies the stuff of dreams only, they painted every corner of the universe in vivid colors of their own. The Expanded Universe could be cheesy, but it was never cynical. One could argue that it felt more like Star Wars — the original Star Wars of simple summertime fun, the one that didn’t take itself so gosh-darn seriously — than anything that has appeared under the name since 1998.

By a happy accident, a contract between Lucasfilm and Kenner Toys, giving the latter an exclusive monopoly on Star Wars “toys and games,” was allowed to lapse the same year that Heir to the Empire appeared in bookstores. Thus LucasArts, Lucasfilm’s own games division, could get in on the Expanded Universe fun. What had been a bizarre dearth of Star Wars games during the 1980s turned into a 1990s deluge almost comparable to the one taking place in novels. LucasArts released a dozen or so Star Wars games in a broad range of gameplay genres between 1993 and 1998, drawing indiscriminately both from the original movies and from the new tropes and characters of the literary Expanded Universe. Like the books, these games weren’t always or even usually masterpieces, but their unconstrained sense of possibility makes them feel charmingly anomalous in comparison to the corporate-managed, risk-averse, Disneyfied Star Wars of today.

And then, too, LucasArts did produce two games that deserve to be ranked alongside Timothy Zahn’s first trilogy of Star Wars novels as genuine classics in their field. We’ve met one of these already in an earlier article: the “space simulator” TIE Fighter, whose plot had you flying and fighting for Zahn’s more philosophically coherent version of the Empire, with both Darth Vader and Admiral Thrawn featuring in prominent roles. The other, the first-person shooter Jedi Knight, will be our subject for today.

Among other things, Jedi Knight heralded a dawning era of improbably tortured names in games. Its official full name is Star Wars: Jedi Knight — Dark Forces II, a word salad that you can arrange however you like and still have it make just about the same amount of sense. It’s trying to tell us in its roundabout way that Jedi Knight is a sequel to Dark Forces, the first Star Wars-themed shooter released by LucasArts. Just as TIE Fighter and its slightly less refined space-simulator predecessor X-Wing were responses to the Wing Commander phenomenon, Jedi Knight and before it Dark Forces put a Star Wars spin on the first-person-shooter (FPS) craze that was inaugurated by DOOM. So, it’s with Dark Forces that any Jedi Knight story has to begin.

Dark Forces was born in the immediate aftermath of DOOM, when half or more of the studios in the games industry seemed suddenly to be working on a “DOOM clone,” as the nascent FPS genre was known before that acronym was invented. It was in fact one of the first of the breed to be finished, shipping already in February of 1995, barely a year after its inspiration. And yet it was also one of the few to not just match but clearly improve upon id Software’s DOOM engine. Whereas DOOM couldn’t handle sloping surfaces, didn’t even allow you to look up or down, LucasArts’s “Jedi” engine could play host to vertiginous environments full of perches and ledges and passages that snaked over and under as well as around one another.

Dark Forces stood out as well for its interest in storytelling, despite inhabiting a genre in which, according to a famous claim once advanced by id’s John Carmack, story was no more important than it was in a porn movie. This game’s plot could easily have been that of an Expanded Universe novel.

Dark Forces begins concurrent to the events of the first Star Wars movie. Its star is Kyle Katarn, a charming rogue of the Han Solo stripe, a mercenary who once worked for the Empire but is now peddling his services to the Rebel Alliance alongside his friend Jan Ors, a space jockey with a knack for swooping in in the nick of time to save him from the various predicaments he gets himself into. The two are hired to steal the blueprints of the Death Star, the same ones that will allow the Rebels to identify the massive battle station’s one vulnerability and destroy it in the film’s bravura climax. Once their role in the run-up to that event has been duly fulfilled, Kyle and Jan then go on to foil an Imperial plot to create a new legion of super soldiers known as Dark Troopers. (This whole plot line can be read as an extended inside joke about how remarkably incompetent the Empire’s everyday Stormtroopers are, throughout this game just as in the movies. If ever there was a gang who couldn’t shoot straight…)

Told through sparsely animated between-mission cut scenes, it’s not a great story by any means, but it serves its purpose of justifying the many changes of scenery and providing some motivation to traverse each succeeding level. Staying true to the Han Solo archetype, Kyle Katarn is even showing signs of developing a conscience by the time it’s over. All of which is to say that, in plot as in its audiovisual aesthetics, Dark Forces feels very much like Star Wars. It provided for its contemporary players an immersive rush that no novel could match; this and the other games of LucasArts were the only places where you could see new Star Wars content on a screen during the mid-1990s.

Unfortunately, Dark Forces is more of its time than timeless.[1]A reworked and remastered version of Dark Forces has recently been released as of this writing; it undoubtedly eases some of the issues I’m about to describe. These comments apply only to the original version of the game. I concur with Wes Fenlon of PC Gamer, who wrote in a retrospective review in 2016 that “I spent more of my Dark Forces playthrough appreciating what it pulled off in 1995 than I did really having fun.” Coming so early in the lifespan of the FPS as it did, its controls are nonstandard and, from the perspective of the modern player at least, rather awkward, lacking even such niceties as mouse-look. In lieu of a save-anywhere system or even save checkpoints, it gives you a limited number of lives with which to complete each level, like one of the arcade quarter-eaters of yore.

Its worst issues, however, are connected to level design, which was still a bit of a black art at this point in time. It’s absurdly easy to get completely lost in its enormous levels, which have no obvious geographical through-line to follow, but are rather built around a tangled collection of lock-and-key puzzles that require lots and lots of criss-crossing and backtracking. Although there is an auto-map, there’s no easy way to project a three-dimensional space like these levels onto its two-dimensional plane; all those ladders and rising and falling passageways quickly turn into an incomprehensible mess on the map. Dark Forces is an ironic case of a game being undone by the very technological affordances that made it stand out; playing it, one gets the sense that the developers have rather outsmarted themselves. When I think back on it now, my main memory is of running around like a rat in a maze, circling back into the same areas again and again, trying to figure out what the hell the game wants me to do next.

Good luck making sense of this bowl of spaghetti…

Nevertheless, Dark Forces was very well-received in its day as the first game to not just copy DOOM‘s technology but to push it forward — and with a Star Wars twist at that. Just two complaints cut through the din of praise, neither of them having anything to do with the level design that so frustrated me. One was the lack of a multiplayer mode, an equivalent to DOOM‘s famed deathmatches. And the other was the fact that Dark Forces never let you fight with a lightsaber, rather giving the lie to the name of the Jedi engine that powered it. The game barely even mentioned Jedi and The Force and all the rest; like Han Solo, Kyle Katarn was strictly a blaster sort of guy at this juncture. LucasArts resolved to remedy both of these complaints in the sequel.

Jedi Knight actually straddles two trends in 1990s gaming, one of which has remained an evergreen staple of the hobby to this day, the other of which has long since been consigned to the realm of retro kitsch. The former is of course the FPS genre; the later is the craze for “full-motion video,” the insertion of video clips featuring real human actors into games. This “interactive movie” fad was already fast becoming passé when Jedi Knight was released in October of 1997. It was one of the last relatively big-budget, mainstream releases to embrace it.

Having written about so many of these vintage FMV productions in recent years, I’ve developed an odd fascination with the people who starred in them. These were generally either recognizable faces with careers past their prime or, more commonly, fresh-faced strivers looking for their big break, the sort of aspirants who have been waiting tables and dressing up in superhero costumes for the tourists strolling the Hollywood Walk of Fame for time immemorial, waiting for that call from their agent that means their ship has finally come in. Needless to say, for the vast majority of the strivers, a role in a CD-ROM game was as close as they ever came to stardom. Most of them gave up their acting dream at some point, went back home, and embarked on some more sensible career. I don’t see their histories as tragic at all; they rather speak to me of the infinite adaptability of our species, our adroitness at getting on with a Plan B when Plan A doesn’t work out, leaving us only with some amusing stories to share at dinner parties. Such stories certainly aren’t nothing. For what are any of our lives in the end but the sum total of the stories we can share, the experiences we’ve accumulated? All that stuff about “if you can dream it, you can do it” is nonsense; success in any field depends on circumstance and happenstance as much as effort or desire. Nonetheless, “it’s better to try and fail than never to try at all” is a cliché I can get behind.

But I digress. In Jedi Knight, Kyle Katarn is played by a fellow named Jason Court, whose résumé at the time consisted of a few minor television guest appearances, who would “retire” from acting by the end of the decade to become a Napa Valley winemaker. Court isn’t terrible here — a little wooden perhaps, but who wouldn’t be in a situation like this, acting on an empty sound stage whose background will later be painted in on the computer, intoning a script like this one?

Kyle Katarn, right, with his sidekick Jan Ors. It was surely no accident that Jason Court bears a passing resemblance to Mark Hamill — who was ironically himself starring in the Wing Commander games at this time.

Ah, yes… the script. Do you remember me telling you how Timothy Zahn’s early Star Wars novels succeeded by not slavishly echoing the tropes and character beats from the films? Well, this script is the opposite of that. The first words out of any character’s mouth are those of a Light Jedi promising a Dark Jedi that “striking me down” will have unforeseen consequences, just as Obi-Wan Kenobi once said to Darth Vader. What follows is a series of reenactments of beats and entire scenes from the movies in slightly altered contexts, on a budget of about one percent the size. Kyle Katarn, now yanked out of Han Solo’s shoes and thrust into those of Luke Skywalker, turns out to have grown up on a planet bizarrely similar to Tatooine and to have some serious daddy issues to go along with an inherited lightsaber and undreamt-of potential in The Force. The word “derivative” hardly begins to convey the scale of this game’s debt to its cinematic betters.

For all that, though, it’s hard to really hate the cut scenes. Their saving grace is that of the Expanded Universe as a whole (into whose welcoming canon Kyle Katarn was duly written, appearing in the comics, the novels, even as an action figure of his own): the lack of cynicism, the sense that everything being done is being done out of love even when it’s being done badly. When the Jedi ignited their lightsabers during the opening cut scene, it was the first time that distinctive swoosh and buzz had been seen and heard since Return of the Jedi. Even in our jaded present age, we can still sense the makers’ excitement at being allowed to do this, can imagine the audience’s excitement at being witness to it. There are worse things in this world than a community-theater re-creation of Star Wars.

The cut scenes are weirdly divorced from everything else in Jedi Knight. Many FMV productions have this same disjointed quality to them, a sense that the movie clips we watch and the game we play have little to do with one another. Yet seldom is that sense of a right hand that doesn’t know what the left is doing more pronounced than here. The Kyle of the video clips doesn’t even look like the Kyle of the rest of the game; the former has a beard, the latter does not. The divide is made that much more jarring by the aesthetic masterfulness of the game whenever the actors aren’t onscreen. Beginning with that iconic three-dimensional text crawl and John Williams’s equally iconic score, this game looks, sounds, and plays like an interactive Star Wars movie — whenever, that is, it’s not literally trying to be a Star Wars movie.

Certainly the environments you explore here are pure Star Wars. The action starts in a bar that looks like the Mos Eisley cantina, then sends you scampering off through one of those sprawling indoor complexes that seem to be everywhere in the Star Wars universe, all huge halls with improbably high ceilings and miles of corridors and air shafts connecting them, full of yawning gaps and precarious lifts, gun-metal grays and glittering blacks. Later, you’ll visit the streets and rooftops of a desert town with a vaguely Middle Eastern feel, the halls and courts of a fascistic palace lifted straight out of Triumph of the Will, the crawl-ways and garbage bins of a rattletrap spaceship… all very, very Star Wars, all pulsing with that unmistakable Star Wars soundtrack.

Just as Dark Forces was a direct response to DOOM, in technological terms Jedi Knight was LucasArts’s reply to id’s Quake, which was released about fifteen months before it. DOOM and Dark Forces are what is sometimes called “2.5D games” — superficially 3D, but relying on a lot of cheats and shortcuts, such as pre-rendered sprites standing in for properly 3D-modelled characters and monsters in the world. The Quake engine and the “Sith” engine that powers Jedi Knight are, by contrast, 3D-rendered from top to bottom, taking advantage not only of the faster processors and more expansive memories of the computers of their era but the new hardware-accelerated 3D graphics cards. Not only do they look better for it, but they play better as well; the vertical dimension which LucasArts so consistently emphasized benefits especially. There’s a lot of death-defying leaping and controlled falling in Jedi Knight, just as in Dark Forces, but it feels more natural and satisfying here. Indeed, Jedi Knight in general feels so much more modern than Dark Forces that it’s hard to believe the two games were separated in time by only two and a half years. Gone, for example, are the arcade-like limited lives of Dark Forces, replaced by the ability to save wherever you want whenever you want, a godsend for working adults like yours truly whose bedtime won’t wait for them to finish a level.

If you ask me, though, the area where Jedi Knight improves most upon its predecessor has nothing to do with algorithms or resolutions or frame rates, nor even convenience features like the save system. More than anything, it’s the level design here that is just so, so much better. Jedi Knight’s levels are as enormous as ever, whilst being if anything even more vertiginous than the ones of Dark Forces. And yet they manage to be far less confusing, having the intuitive through-line that the levels of Dark Forces lacked. Very rarely was I more than momentarily stumped about where to go next in Jedi Knight; in Dark Forces, on the other hand, I was confused more or less constantly.

Maybe I should clarify something at this point: when I play an FPS or a Star Wars game, and especially when I play a Star Wars FPS, I’m not looking to labor too hard for my fun. I want a romp; “Easy” mode suits me just fine. You know how in the movies, when Luke and Leia and the gang are running around getting shot at by all those Stormtroopers who can’t seem to hit the broadside of a barn, things just kind of work out for them? A bridge conveniently collapses just after they run across, a rope is hanging conveniently to hand just when they need it, etc. Well, this game does that for you. You go charging through the maelstrom, laser blasts ricocheting every which way, and, lo and behold, there’s the elevator platform you need to climb onto to get away, the closing door you need to dive under, the maintenance tunnel you need to leap into. It’s frantic and nerve-wracking and then suddenly awesome, over and over and over again. It’s incredibly hard in any creative field, whether it happens to be writing or action-game level design, to make the final product feel effortless. In fact, I can promise you that, the more effortless something feels, the more hard work went into it to make it feel that way. My kudos, then, to project leader Justin Chin and the many other hands who contributed to Jedi Knight, for being willing to put in the long, hard hours to make it look easy.

Of those two pieces of fan service that were deemed essential in this sequel — a multiplayer mode and lightsabers — I can only speak of the second from direct experience. By their own admission, the developers struggled for some time to find a way of implementing lightsabers in a way that felt both authentic and playable. In the end, they opted to zoom back to a Tomb Raider-like third-person, behind-the-back perspective whenever you pull out your trusty laser sword. This approach generated some controversy, first within LucasArts and later among FPS purists in the general public, but it works pretty well in my opinion. Still, I must admit that when I played the game I stuck mostly with guns and other ranged weapons, which run the gamut from blasters to grenades, bazookas to Chewbacca’s crossbow.

The exceptions — the places where I had no choice but to swing a lightsaber — were the one-on-one duels with other Jedi. These serve as the game’s bosses, coming along every few levels until the climax arrives in the form of a meeting with the ultimate bad guy, the Dark Jedi Jerec whom you’ve been in a race with all along to locate the game’s McGuffin, a mysterious Valley of the Jedi. (Don’t ask; it’s really not worth worrying about.) Like everything else here, these duels feel very, very Star Wars, complete with lots of villainous speechifying beforehand and lots of testing of Kyle’s willpower: “Give in to the Dark Side, Kyle! Use your hatred!” You know the drill. I enjoyed their derivative enthusiasm just as much as I enjoyed the rest of the game.

A Jedi duel in the offing.

Almost more interesting than the lightsabers, however, is the decision to implement other types of Force powers, and with them a morality tracker that sees you veering toward either the Dark or the Light Side of the Force as you play. If you go Dark by endangering or indiscriminately killing civilians and showing no mercy to your enemies, you gradually gain access to Force powers that let you deal out impressive amounts of damage without having to lay your hand on a physical weapon. If you go Light by protecting the innocent and sparing your defeated foes, your talents veer more toward the protective and healing arts — which, given the staggering amounts of firepower at your disposal in conventional-weapon form, is probably more useful in the long run. Regardless of which path you go down, you’ll learn to pull guns right out of your enemies’ hands from a distance and to “Force Jump” across gaps you could never otherwise hope to clear. Doing so feels predictably amazing.

Kyle can embrace the Dark Side to some extent. But as usually happens with these sorts of nods toward free will in games with mostly linear plot lines, it just ends up meaning that he foils the plans of the other Dark Jedi for his own selfish purposes rather than for selfless reasons. Cue the existentialist debates…

I’m going to couch a confession inside of my praise at this point: Jedi Knight is the first FPS I’ve attempted whilst writing these histories that I’ve enjoyed enough to play right through to the end. It took me about a week and a half of evenings to finish, the perfect length for a game like this in my book. Obviously, the experience I was looking for may not be the one that other people who play this game have in mind; those people can try turning up the difficulty level, ferreting out every single secret area, killing every single enemy, or doing whatever else they need to in order to find the sort of challenge they’d prefer. They might also want to check out the game’s expansion pack, which caters more to the FPS hardcore by eliminating the community-theater cut scenes and making everything in general a little bit harder. I didn’t bother, having gotten everything I was looking for out of the base game.

That said, I do look forward to playing more games like Jedi Knight as we move on into a slightly more evolved era of the FPS genre as a whole. While I’m never likely to join the hardcore blood-and-guts contingent, action-packed fun like this game offers up is hard for even a reflex-challenged, violence-ambivalent old man like me to resist.

Epilogue: The Universe Shrinks

Students of history like to say that every golden age carries within it the seeds of its demise. That rings especially true when it comes to the heyday of the Expanded Universe: the very popularity of the many new Star Wars novels, comics, and games reportedly did much to convince George Lucas that it might be worth returning to Star Wars himself. And because Lucas was one of the entertainment world’s more noted control freaks, such a return could bode no good for this giddy era of fan ownership.

We can pin the beginning of the end down to a precise date: November 1, 1994, the day on which George Lucas sat down to start writing the scripts for what would become the Star Wars prequels, going so far as to bring in a film crew to commemorate the occasion. “I have beautiful pristine yellow tablets,” he told the camera proudly, waving a stack of empty notebooks in front of its lens. “A nice fresh box of pencils. All I need is an idea.” Four and a half years later, The Phantom Menace would reach theaters, inaugurating for better or for worse — mostly for the latter, many fans would come to believe — the next era of Star Wars as a media phenomenon.

Critics and fans have posited many theories as to why the prequel trilogy turned out to be so dreary, drearier even than clichés about lightning in a bottle and not being able to go home again would lead one to expect. One good reason was the absence in the editing box of Marcia Lucas, whose ability to trim the fat from her ex-husband’s bloated, overly verbose story lines was as sorely missed as her deft way with character moments, the ones dismissed by George as the “dying and crying” scenes. Another was the self-serious insecurity of the middle-aged George Lucas, who wanted the populist adulation that comes from making blockbusters simultaneously with the respect of the art-house cognoscenti, who therefore decided to make the prequels a political parable about “what happens to you if you’ve got a dysfunctional government that’s corrupt and doesn’t work” instead of allowing them to be the “straightforward, wholesome, fun adventure” he had described the first Star Wars movie to be back in 1977. Suffice to say that Lucas displayed none of Timothy Zahn’s ability to touch on more complicated ideas without getting bogged down in them.

But whatever the reasons, dreary the prequels were, and their dreariness seeped into the Expanded Universe, whose fannish masterminds saw the breadth of their creative discretion steadily constricted. A financially troubled West End Games lost the license for its Star Wars tabletop RPG, the Big Bang that had gotten the universe expanding in the first place, in 1999. In 2002, the year that the second of the cinematic prequels was released, Alan Dean Foster, the author of the very first Star Wars novel from 1978, agreed to return to write another one. “It was no fun,” he remembers. The guidance he got from Lucasfilm “was guidance in the sense that you’re in a Catholic school and nuns walk by with rulers.”

And then, eventually, came the sale to Disney, which in its quest to own all of our childhoods turned Star Wars into just another tightly controlled corporate property like any of its others. The Expanded Universe was finally put out of its misery once and for all in 2014, a decade and a half past its golden age. It continues to exist today only in the form of a handful of characters, Grand Admiral Thrawn among them, who have been co-opted by Disney and integrated into the official lore.

The corporate Star Wars of these latter days can leave one longing for the moment when the first film and its iconic characters fall out of copyright and go back to the people permanently. But even if Congress is willing and the creek don’t rise, that won’t occur until 2072, a year I and presumably many of you as well may not get to see. In the meantime, we can still use the best artifacts of the early Expanded Universe as our time machines for traveling back to Star Wars‘s last age of innocent, uncalculating fun.

Where did it all go wrong?

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Sources: The books Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Age of First-Person Shooters by David L. Craddock, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor, and The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski. Computer Gaming World of May 1995, October 1996, January 1997, December 1997, and March 1998; PC Zone of May 1997; Retro Gamer 138; Chicago Tribune of May 24 2017.

Online sources include Wes Fenlon’s Dark Forces and Jedi Knight retrospective for PC Gamer. The film George Lucas made to commemorate his first day of writing the Star Wars prequels is available on YouTube.

Jedi Knight is available for digital purchase at Those who want to dive deeper may also find the original and/or remastered version of Dark Forces to be of interest.


1 A reworked and remastered version of Dark Forces has recently been released as of this writing; it undoubtedly eases some of the issues I’m about to describe. These comments apply only to the original version of the game.

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62 Responses to Jedi Knight (Plus, Notes on an Expanded Universe)

  1. rag

    April 5, 2024 at 2:00 pm

    Sir, you seem to have missed a step there – no Star Wars resurrection story can be complete without mentioning WEG’s Star Wars RPG. This was the actual first impulse and was also a literal source for Zahn novels and even huge swaths of later canon. (As described in detail in Bill Slavicsek’s Defining a Galaxy: 30 Years in a Galaxy Far, Far Away”)

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 5, 2024 at 2:40 pm

      Good catch. I added a paragraph and sentence or two elsewhere. ;) Thanks!

      • rag

        April 5, 2024 at 6:15 pm

        Thank you!

  2. rag

    April 5, 2024 at 2:02 pm

    Also, you have “George Luca” and “Zahan” in the text.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 5, 2024 at 2:13 pm


  3. Colin R

    April 5, 2024 at 2:32 pm

    I always played with a lightsaber from the moment I got it–just could never bring myself to go back to blasters once I had a lightsaber. I did have the good fortune of having a ‘cybercafe’ or whatever it would have been called back in the 90s, where they had LAN networked computers that you could rent time to play Quake or Jedi Knight with your friends. We liked Jedi Knight of course.

    The “Light Side” powers are definitely more useful in the single-player game than the Dark Side powers are, but the real reason those Dark Side powers exist is so that you can Force Choke or Force Lightning your friends while lightsaber dueling them in a carbonite freezing chamber.

  4. Gordon Cameron

    April 5, 2024 at 3:53 pm

    I love Jedi Knight; probably my favorite FPS after Half-Life and maybe Unreal. The graphics have dated poorly but the vertiginous level design still inspires awe. And yeah, I can’t but love those cheesy cutscenes. As much as I enjoyed Rogue One I feel bad that Kyle is no longer the canonical finder of the Death Star plans…

    “Kyle, where would you be without me?”
    “I’d be a contented old man.”
    “Somehow I don’t see you as contented or an old man.”

    • John

      April 5, 2024 at 9:06 pm

      A wise internet commenter once told me that “all Star Wars lore is fanfiction”. So what if there are multiple contradictory accounts of the theft of the Death Star plans? None of them are actually in the movies. You are free either to pick the one you like best or to ignore all of them as it suits you.

      • Gordon Cameron

        April 5, 2024 at 10:16 pm

        Rogue One is a movie. But, yes, obviously we can all create our own headcanons. And don’t worry, I’m not losing sleep over it.

        • Andrew Nenakhov

          April 22, 2024 at 10:43 am

          One part of the plans was stolen by Kyle, another by Jyn Erso and her ragtag band.

    • StClair

      April 8, 2024 at 2:37 am

      One of my very favorite exchanges, which I still quote to this day.
      And there’s also a line (I don’t recall if it’s in the first game or the expansion) which hangs a lampshade on that quality of the levels: standing on one of the many precipices overlooking a chasm, Kyle complains, “Not *another* thing to fall from!”

  5. Steph

    April 5, 2024 at 3:53 pm

    Once in a while, those latter-day Disney canon novels can still manage something good – I really enjoyed Lost Stars, by Claudia Gray, about two young people who end up on opposite sides of the rebellion. Like the Thrawn novels, it treats the empire as an actual political system that someone might support for rational reasons, and examines why people are loyal to it even with all the evil it does — one of the more interesting villains is an Alderaanian who redoubles his imperial loyalty in the wake of Alderaan’s destruction, because now the Empire HAS to be right, or else it was all for nothing. There’s also a romance that feels more real that just about anything you’ll see in the films. Highly recommended for Star Wars novel fans!

  6. The Wargaming Scribe

    April 5, 2024 at 4:04 pm

    For some of us, the complex, diverse and immersive maps of Dark Forces was a large part of the appeal. I only remember getting lost / stuck once: in an Imperial prison you had to call a lift at one floor and then get into the elevator shaft in another floor.

    Also, I feel that in the classical FPS era, it is one of the 3 games to have aced the “weapon / enemy HP balance” (the other games being Doom of course and Duke Nukem). Two hits to kill a stormtrooper was perfect! I still prefer DF over Doom, though of course the latter has more content. DF was also my introduction to downloading and installing mods, because I wanted more or it. Maybe you had to be there.

    On another topic, someone recently a Quixotic quest to play EVERY Star Wars game. He started with the official titles, and when someone pointed out he missed the unofficial titles he backtracked to quickly play them… and well he is still backtracking. It is in Russian, and I helped for a few games, but did you know there were 5 Star Wars video games in 1977 already ? :)

    • arthurdawg

      April 5, 2024 at 5:01 pm

      It is very hard to beat the old Atari 2600 Star Wars game set on Hoth!

    • CdrJameson

      April 9, 2024 at 6:46 am

      I just played the Dark Forces remake and blasted through it in a few evenings of tremendous fun. Weirdly it was on ‘hard’, which I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do on the original. I even enjoyed the sewer level somehow.

      I like that you have to actually think about where you’re going in the open, true-to-universe environments. There are actual environmental puzzles! The briefing tells you NOT to go places (but doesn’t stop you doing so)!

      What I really liked though is that the guns are inaccurate. Frequently, horribly inaccurate. Which is great! None of this perfect headshot from across the map nonsense, just point in roughly the right direction and blast away.

    • Jeff M. Thomas

      April 30, 2024 at 8:15 pm

      I remember really loving Dark Forces when I first played it. It FELT like being in a Star Wars film and that was heady stuff. I particularly remember marveling at the innovations over the DOOM engine like rooms over rooms and some actual 3D polygons showing off, and the varied environments like Jabba’s ship. And I actually remember the level design being very clever. I distinctly remember the elevator map you’re talking about which was as much a multilevel puzzle as anything. I felt so clever when I figured it out!

      However, I have tried playing it again twice since then and I just don’t have the patience for it anymore! All the running around and backtracking, hunting for switches, it’s just not for me now. I’ll always remember it fondly though. I’ll have to try the remaster.

      I also loved Jedi Knight, some of its levels and areas were just so huge and awe inspiring even by today’s standards! But it just couldn’t duplicate that first feeling of shooting a blaster and facing off against Stormtroopers for the first time. I haven’t tried it in a long time, I’ll have to give it another go. Republic Commando remains my favorite Star Wars FPS, however.

  7. Mateus Fedozzi

    April 5, 2024 at 4:46 pm

    Jedi Knight was actually the first game I played on my own computer, not on someone else’s computer (the way I played Doom and LucasArts adventures). Being already a Star Wars diehard fan, both its movies and gameplay felt magical. No, they didn’t feel like opposite poles of a world, instead the plot built itself throughout both of them simultaneously. And you’re right: being able to hear the lightsaber sound again was an experience I’ll never forget.

    Not even the maps where a hindrance to me. I saw them more as examples of an FPS being made by adventure creators, than them having outright bad design (and I’m talking about both Jedi Knight and its prequel, that I played months after the second game). The somewhat easy difficulty on Jedi Knight, I think, was more of a marketing decision than anything else. It was an FPS, but it was also a Star Wars game, lots of people who couldn’t care less about Quake would be buying it.

    And speaking of fandom, I couldn’t agree more about the way you compare the Star Wars of yore with today’s white-collar driven Star Wars. Gone is the fun, fanservice in the place of the fans’ service. Both your views on the franchise and your views on Jedi Knight touched me. Fine writing, as usually.

  8. Alex Smith

    April 5, 2024 at 5:23 pm

    ” Suddenly everyday people who just really, really loved Star Wars could aspire to contribute something of their own to its lore.”

    I am not sure I would call a Hugo-winning short story writer “everyday people…”

    I do understand that you are going for a theme in this post about the earnestness, fresh-faced exuberance, and laid-back oversight that pervaded this period of Star Wars tie-in products. I also certainly agree that it could almost feel like fan fiction at times, with material ranging from the sublime (anything by Zahn or Stackpole) to the ridiculous (Longtime Star Trek novelist Vonda N. McIntyre’s utter inability to understand what Star Wars even is in The Crystal Star; the editorial staff’s refusal to engage with the crucial question of how many Han/Leia/Han and Leia’s children kidnapping plots are too many). But “everyday people” does not strike me as an accurate depiction of these scribes. Take these examples:

    Timothy Zahn: As already stated, a multi-time Hugo nominee and one-time winner for his short stories.

    Dave Wolverton: Winner of the 1987 Writers of the Future contest.

    Barbara Hambly: Incumbent president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America when she penned her first Star Wars Novel.

    Kevin J. Anderson: Nebula-award nominated author when his first Star Wars book was published.

    Michael Stackpole: Legendary game designer who had already begun a transition to prose author.

    Roger Kube-McDowell: Hugo-nominated author.

    I won’t list the rest, but pretty much all the EU authors have similar resumes. Sure, Bantam not convincing Bradbury, Vance, or Zelazny to write this tie-in stuff, but everyone asked to contribute was an established author, even if sometimes only just, and many of them were rising stars in science fiction with awards nominations or “best new author” wins under their belt. You or I could not submit a manuscript on spec and expect to be invited to join the Star Wars universe, which would be my personal definition of “everyday people.”

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 5, 2024 at 6:00 pm

      While having some short stories published and one or two award nominations is certainly not nothing, I suspect you may be inflating these folks’ status even within the world of genre literature to about the same extent that I was perhaps deflating it. There are certainly no established, bankable novelists on your list, even from the generation after the Golden Agers and New Wavers. (You didn’t see the likes of William Gibson or Neal Stephenson writing Star Wars novels either…) But the sentences that bothered you don’t need to be there, so we can cut them. ;) Thanks!

      It does seem to me these up-and-comers faced a fork in the road: write Star Wars and other tie-in novels and be guaranteed a decent paycheck, or blaze their own trail, where they might win far more literary respect but would be almost guaranteed to sell far fewer copies. It’s an absolutely brutal conundrum for a young writer to face. Everybody needs to eat, but, once you’ve been branded as a tie-in author, it’s virtually impossible to break out of that ghetto again. Even Timothy Zahn had to kiss any hope of winning more Hugos goodbye.

      • Alex Smith

        April 5, 2024 at 6:19 pm

        I think you misunderstand me. Zahn and Stackpole aside (and maybe Anderson, though I don’t understand his appeal) there are no names of note on this list, but none of them are everyday people, which is my only point. I think the best analogy would be the once top baseball prospect hanging on as a AAA regular or Major League role player: they are never going to fulfill their early promise, but they still scaled a height reached by a minuscule portion of the populace based on their natural ability and hard work. Bantam (nor Del Rey, which later won the EU contract) never, to my knowledge, had an open submission policy for Star Wars literature. Authors were asked to join the universe, and the publisher gravitated towards either long-standing tie-in authors or young up-and-comers that were perhaps not upcoming as much as they had hoped. I don’t think your average Star Wars fan felt they had any more opportunity to contribute to Star Wars literature than your average baseball fan felt they could be a backup utility infielder for a last-place ballclub. In short, it’s the “everyday people” label I object to rather than your arguments in this thread. I think it conjures the wrong image of the editorial process at Bantam.

        • Josh K

          April 8, 2024 at 7:01 pm

          Jimmy’s line may about “everyday people” may be literally wrong, but substantively, the novels felt like that. One novel not mentioned thus far is Kathy Tyers’ Truce at Bakura, about the Rebels and Empire teaming up after Endor to combat an invading race of dinosaur-like aliens. The story also has vaguely Christian undertones, with the dinosaurs harnessing the souls of humans. Tyers has a lot of novels under her belt, having written five before this one, but its a wild story that definitely has vibes of an author injecting stuff they think is cool into Star Wars regardless of lore or tonal consistency.

      • Ken Rutsky

        April 6, 2024 at 2:25 am

        While the authors named were not mainstream famous, over half (Zahn, Hambly, Anderson, Stackpole) had more than a little name recognition in SF/F circles, with established series and their own fans. Far more than a few short stories.

        TBH, there are good reasons most of these folks didn’t find mainstream succes. They were for the most part journeyman writers who wrote workable, largely unremarkable prose…and what was remarkable was so because it made you roll your eyes. But quality is beside the point; these authors were known to a fair portion of the genre’s fandom.

      • Andrew Plotkin

        April 7, 2024 at 12:24 am

        As someone who was haunting bookstores regularly at the time, I feel like I should chime in. I’m afraid what I’m chiming in with is a hand-wavy “sorta yes, sorta no…”

        The list of authors here is actually pretty heterogenous. Hambly had a bunch of fantasy novels out — solid midlist writer (*). Zahn had written a whole lot of short stories and was trying to move up to novels on the strength of one unexpected (and unrepeated) Hugo win. Michael Kube-McDowell had written one trilogy and was looking around for something else to do. Kevin J. Anderson was… not really well known in 1994? (Yes, one shared Nebula nomination, but I don’t know if I had heard of anything else he’d done.)

        (* Note that “president of SFWA” isn’t a famous-writer thing. It’s putting in a bunch of volunteer time for a nonprofit organization. Most SF fans never have any idea what SFWA is or who runs it.)

        However, Alex is correct that this was an invitational process and the publisher was selective. At the time, looking down the shelf of Star Wars tie-ins, it felt very *corporate*. It was nothing like the early days of Star Trek tie-ins (the early 1980s), when people were dropping in — often straight out of Trek-zine fandom — and submitting novels out of the sheer fannish joy of it.

        (To be clear, the Star Trek line was *also* turning corporate and well-managed by 1995.)

  9. John

    April 5, 2024 at 7:13 pm

    Apart from a brief flirtation with the Dark Forces demo many years ago, I have never played a Star Wars FPS. I don’t really want to. (The things that first person shooters do well are not what I consider the fun parts of Star Wars.) I am nevertheless very glad that Dark Forces exists, because I have a certain love for Lucas Arts’ second game using the Dark Forces engine, the western-themed Outlaws. While some of Outlaws’ levels suffer from common (and infuriating) level-design problems of the era–these include but are not limited to obtuse puzzles, twisted, maze-like maps, and nigh-invisible doors–others offer a remarkable amount of verisimilitude in the sense that they look like and are sensibly arranged in the manner of the sort of real-world locations they are intended to be. It was the first time I’d ever encountered anything like that in an FPS, and I’ll always appreciate Outlaws for it.

    As for Star Wars of the period more generally, I confess I have no love for the Expanded Universe. I’ve had little direct contact with it apart from Zahn’s novels and I dislike most of the other bits of it that I’ve absorbed through cultural osmosis. If George Lucas sinned in the creation of the prequels, he did not do so when he largely ignored the Expanded Universe. I read the Thrawn trilogy not too long after its release at the urging of a friend who was thrilled to have what he considered an official, Lucas-approved set of Star Wars sequels. I remember liking them, or at least not disliking them, but I don’t remember much else except that I found Thrawn himself a little silly and the evil cloned Jedi at the end of the third book very silly. Seeing Thrawn in Tie Fighter, for which I have a deep and abiding love, did nothing for me. That said, I can respect the Thrawn books for being more than lazy pandering to Star Wars fans.

  10. Sniffnoy

    April 5, 2024 at 7:49 pm

    Typospotting: You have “co-oped” instead of “co-opted”.

    Meanwhile, I’m curious about how the Jedi Knight engine got named the Sith Engine. Like, I don’t think the name “Sith” was commonly known at the time. The Sith appeared in early drafts of Star Wars as the enemy of the Jedi, but they ultimately didn’t make it into the actual movies — until, of course, The Phantom Menace, when the Expanded Universe started closing down.

    In the Expanded Universe days, as I recall, “Jedi” was the term used for any force-user, rather than a specific order, and those who went to the dark side were “dark Jedi” (as mentioned in this article), and IIRC there were even “gray Jedi”. Then when Episode I came out Lucas was, like, no, the Jedi are this specific order, the order opposing them are the Sith, there are no “dark Jedi”.

    So it’s surprising to see the name “Sith” being used — admittedly purely internally — during this intermediate period, in a game that had no Sith but did have dark Jedi! I mean, I guess those early Star Wars draft scripts were out there so some people would have known that term, knowing it as referring to the enemies of the Jedi in early drafts of Star Wars, but, huh…

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 5, 2024 at 8:00 pm


      I’m afraid it would take someone much more versed in the ins and outs of Star Wars lore to explore the etymology here… maybe someone will turn up. ;)

      • Alex Smith

        April 5, 2024 at 8:49 pm

        The term Sith was incredibly well known at the time. It first appeared in Alan Dean Foster’s adaptation of the original move (the book was published well before the movie was completed as part of a plan to entice studios to make the bloody thing and is therefore more of a reinterpretation than an adaptation, with many cut scenes and much scrapped lore in evidence). From that adaptation, it was understood that Darth Vader was a “Sith Lord.”

        While the the early EU others like Zahn did not use the term, it saw heavy usage in the Dark Horse Comics in the various “Tales of the Jedi” series that began publication in late 1993 and took place thousands of years before the movies. While their interpretation of the Sith is no longer canon, these comics were already delving deep into Sith lore by the time LucasArts named its Sith engine and long before George Lucas decided to elaborate on his idea of what the Sith were in the Prequels.

        • Sniffnoy

          April 6, 2024 at 5:34 pm

          Oh, I see, thanks! Yeah I missed a lot of this at the time and was just writing based on my own impression. Looks like I missed a lot!

    • Vince

      April 8, 2024 at 10:15 am

      Also, the expansion to JK is called “Mysteries of the Sith” and while I have not played it I have an inkling that Sith might be involved :)

  11. Gordon Cameron

    April 5, 2024 at 9:11 pm

    These articles are obviously focused on PC gaming, but have you considered the SNES Super Star Wars game in the context of this ’90s renaissance? I never played it myself, but it seems to have sparked its share of affection.

    Also, in retrospect it seems curious that Lucasarts didn’t use the license to make any adventure games. Considering the success of e.g. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, it would seem to be a natural fit.

    • John

      April 6, 2024 at 2:18 am

      The Star Wars movies are not strictly speaking action movies, but problems in the Star Wars movies do tend to get resolved in action sequences. That’s not really adventure game material. I don’t think it’s impossible to make a Star Wars adventure game but I do think it would be hard to make one with characters from the original trilogy and with a plot that the resembles the original trilogy. Of course it’s also true that problems in the Indiana Jones movies are resolved in action sequences and that well-regarded Indiana Jones adventure games exist, so what do I know? I can only guess that the Indiana Jones films translate to adventure games as well as they do because they also include a certain amount of puzzle solving.

    • Vince

      April 8, 2024 at 11:02 am

      Fun fact, there is a DOS port of Super Star Wars with completely redrawn pixel art that was commissioned to a Danish studio, but by the time it was done (1995) Lucasarts likely thought there was no market for that kind of game on PC and never released it; it was leaked a few years ago.

      It is perfectly playable and can be found with a simple google search.

  12. Xurdones

    April 5, 2024 at 9:52 pm

    Not remotely the point of this article, but perhaps worth noting that the old Expanded Universe persists in one other form: Star Wars: The Old Republic, the MMORPG originally released in 2011 by BioWare as something of a sequel to the acclaimed Knights of the Old Republic series.

    I don’t exactly know how they’re allowed to keep doing this, and (just like the EU itself) the quality of the storytelling fluctuates wildly, but the SWTOR team are still putting out new EU story content as recently as last month, with no signs of stopping (despite development transitioning to much-smaller studio Broadsword in 2023)

  13. Alex

    April 6, 2024 at 6:13 am

    I bought Jedi Knight a few years after as a budget title and really enjoyed it´s gameplay. It definitely stood out among its peers. I haven´t played it since, but I gave the sequel a try not too long ago (which is the same gameplay). I enjoyed it as much as the original. In my point of view, there is just something special to it´s combination between maze-running and shooting that other shooters are missing. Being stuck in an mostly empty building for five minutes or more and not getting frustrated or bored is really quite an achievement for a designer. You really need some serious chops to make these games work.

  14. Ivan

    April 6, 2024 at 8:27 am

    I think the word “Jedi” is both singular and plural so “Jedis” is incorrect.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 6, 2024 at 9:00 am

      My instinct is always to write “Jedis.” I thought I’d caught it everywhere, but I missed that one. ;) Thanks!

      • StClair

        April 8, 2024 at 2:41 am

        You and a certain Chiss bartender who appears in the third game of the series. ; )

  15. Chris D

    April 6, 2024 at 2:40 pm

    One thing that struck me about Jedi Knight when I replayed it last year was the third level, where Kyle revisits his father’s abandoned farmhouse, and how well it integrated the narrative elements into the actual level design. Dark Forces was notable for the way the levels resembled actual places, like Imperial bases and ruined villages, rather than the abstract death-spaces you got in Doom, and I was really impressed with the way that they built on that in Jedi Knight.

    Like, the Doom approach was the one that most games took at the time, and even Jedi Knight’s first two levels didn’t really have much in the way of architectural credibility. But this one was really well designed, and genuinely felt like you were exploring a decaying farmstead. It was really unusual for the time, in that the level design and the narrative complemented each other, in that Kyle was exploring his own backstory and memories while physically exploring the house.

    It’s not a particularly sophisticated example by modern standards, but I thought it was an interesting precursor of stuff like Gone Home, where navigating a 3D space is used for narrative purposes, rather than just being a skill-based exercise. It’s not surprising that Lucasarts were putting more narrative into their games than their competitors, but I did think that this aspect of the game had been lost a bit in the context of Half-Life coming out the following year, and being credited for basically inventing layering a story into the actual gameplay of an FPS.

    And yeah, it’s a great game to revisit. The lightsaber battles are pretty chaotic affairs, but the level design is very solid, and the sheer scale of the levels is impressive even by modern standards. The structures you explore feel genuinely vast. Mysteries of the Sith was a bit by the numbers – it had the feel of being made of levels that weren’t good enough to include in the main game, and it gets ludicrously difficult by the end – but Jedi Knight is a classic. If anything, it feels like the quality of the level design is overshadowed a bit by the Star Wars aspects.

  16. SilentStorm

    April 6, 2024 at 9:25 pm

    I think the next big Star Wars games for this blog would be Knights Of The Old Republic and Republic Commando.

    One for being a RPG set in the setting’s past that a lot of people loved, and the other a FPS…that a lot of people loved but forgot about nowadays which was partly popular for it’s characters…which makes the lack of a sequel frustrating, for a 2005 game, one of it’s characters somehow appeared in a recent Star Wars cartoon series.

    It also had to get a sequel novel because of…well, it not getting a sequel and there were plans for 3 games and the plot was written…i think before they even released Republic Commando, they wanted this Star Wars FPS to be a bit more but…life got in the way.

    Of course, it will take ages for both games to appear here.

    • Nate O.

      April 9, 2024 at 6:09 am

      I suspect he will also cover Jedi Outcast from 2002, when that moment comes. I revisited that one last year as well and found myself somewhat underwhelmed. Its level design is not as evident, though it’s generally regarded as the far superior lightsaber game.

      • Wade

        April 9, 2024 at 11:43 am

        Yeah, I wonder if Jimmy will cover Outcast at any length. I’ve seen a lot of comments from players over time to the effect that it’s the best Star Wars game ever made in terms of feeling like being in the general action of a Star Wars movie. And with or without that qualification, I also think it’s the best Star Wars game overall. But compared to the event of Jedi Knight, it may seem too much like more-of-the-same-but-better, plus some new stuff.

  17. Jaina

    April 7, 2024 at 12:11 am

    “that require lots and and lots of criss-crossing ” either needs another lots, or one less and. Based on my memories of the game, I vote for adding the lots… :D

    Ahhhh, the EU. What an adventure, what terrible glories we asked for, and got…

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 7, 2024 at 10:00 am

      Sorry to disappoint, but I took away an “and.” ;) Thanks!

  18. Buck

    April 7, 2024 at 8:39 am

    I think I only played a demo of this, not having a particular interest in either shooters or Star Wars. What I remembered most was the laser gun shots reflecting off certain walls, allowing for some kind of tactical shooting. Or was that a different game?

    The Star Wars game I remember/played the most was the Master of Orion style Star Wars Rebellion. Not a particularly good game, but still fun and it gave you some feeling of being tied to the movies, without fixing the plot in any way.

    • Nate O.

      April 9, 2024 at 6:08 am

      I believe it was the Wookiee bowcaster’s alternate fire that would bounce off of walls. You could pull off some fun trick shots with that gun! Its primary fire also allowed you to hold down the fire to launch a spread of projectiles.

  19. Nate O.

    April 9, 2024 at 6:05 am

    I was 14 when this game came out, and it was my most formational PC game experience. More than Doom, Starcraft, or Command & Conquer, Jedi Knight was MY game. I actually replayed it last year using the OpenJK source port, and I was really surprised to see how well it had held up. You are right that the levels are really well-done. Every now and then they present you with a bit of a puzzle, but the solutions are all manageable, and they rarely require extensive backtracking to get them to work. And they do a great job at feeling like actual places. That is something that already was being done by this time (Duke Nukem 3D for example), but when those “real places” were Star Wars locations, well…that’s a big treat for any teenager in the 90s.

    The lightsaber works okay, but it’s far from perfect. There are a couple of places where you are required to use it to advance, by say cutting a grating. Those places are not obvious, especially not early in the game when you don’t know what to look for. But the biggest problem with the lightsaber is all the battles, most of which just don’t feel great to me. Pulled out to the third-person view they have a weird floaty quality, and it’s never clear when you are making contact with your foe. I actually went through the whole game without any major hangups until I got to the last two lightsaber duels, both of which were giving me no end of trouble. I just entered in the cheat code to finish the game up and called it a day.

    I have mostly made my peace with the post-1998 Star Wars world. Even the parts I don’t like aren’t really a problem to me. I think it’s partially because I’ve lost a lot of interest in all the sort of fan-fiction, extended universe stuff in all its iterations. It’s also because having my own kids has helped me understand that the newer movies are every bit the part of the experience as the originals were to me. That said, I have procured a version of the original trilogy without any of the additions post-1997, and those are my preferred way to interact with them now.

    However, I will pour one out for a particular piece of Star Wars EU publishing that resonated with me. It was a book that explained all of the different vehicles from the original trilogy and EU, with their design specifications, significance to the story, and history. A friend of mine owned that and I really loved it.

  20. RavenWorks

    April 9, 2024 at 2:10 pm

    “this and the other games of LucasArts were the only places where you could actually see Star Wars on a screen during the mid-1990s.”

    The movies had been on VHS since the 80s! Do you mean *new* star wars content, maybe?

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 9, 2024 at 3:19 pm

      Yes. Thanks!

  21. Aodhán

    April 11, 2024 at 9:30 am

    Is writing “light saber” as two separate words rather than the more commonly seen “lightsaber” an intentional choice as part of the house style?

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 11, 2024 at 9:43 am

      Nope, just ignorance. ;) Thanks!

  22. Leo Vellés

    April 12, 2024 at 8:53 pm

    Seeing that you have fun at last with a FPS, I am eagerly waiting when you reach the timeline of Half Life, and who knows, this blog get in a few years to cover 2004’s Half Life 2, that masterpiece that is an incredible experience to play twenty years after it was released. I was a player of almost exclusively point & clicks adventure games for almost all my gaming years, but the Half Life series opened a new world for me.

  23. AdventureMaterials

    April 13, 2024 at 5:32 pm

    Doom and Dark Forces were big impacts on my childhood, although both were too hard to beat when they were new. Dark Forces was just so FUN for a young fan of the star wars movies. Jedi Knight never had the same magic for me.

    As an aside, though, I think this is wrong: “Whereas DOOM existed on a single plane, didn’t even allow you to look or aim up or down…”

    It’s true you couldn’t look up or down, but foes definitely existed at different elevations, and there were staircases and elevators throughout the levels. Your Doom Guy just was assumed to be aiming at his foes–so if they were up on a ledge, you shot up, etc.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 13, 2024 at 6:49 pm

      Thanks! I can never seem to remember what those early FPS engines can and can’t do, which is a problem given that I’ve made a bad habit of working from memory on that subject…

      • Busca

        April 13, 2024 at 10:15 pm

        Next time you could check out this interesting blog some guy calling himself “The Digital Antiquarian” put up. About Doom he wrote: “No longer must everything and everyone exist on the same flat horizontal plane; you could now climb stairs and walk onto desks and daises.” and “But the introduction of varying height was most important for what it meant in terms of the game’s tactical possibilities. Now monsters could stand on balconies and shoot fireballs down at you, or you could do the same to them.” ;-)

        • Jimmy Maher

          April 14, 2024 at 9:05 am

          As a matter of fact, that’s what I did when read the comment in question. ;)

  24. Thomas Brissette

    April 15, 2024 at 2:39 pm

    I gave up on Dark Forces not too long after I started it, I dont think I even finished the first level. The reasons were exactly the flaws you cited here; it was so far from the simplicity of Doom that it really pissed me off, technical merits notwithstanding.

    I also was never a real Star wars fanboy, so I just didn’t care enough about the lore the game introduced to want to bother continuing with it. I loved the original trilogy as a kid, and I still find them to be quite fun, but my greater sci-fi influence were Stewart Cowley’s Terran Trade Authority books, published in the Star Wars to Empire Strikes Back period. I did get the Zahn trilogy in hardcover from the Science Fiction Book Club, but have never read them. I had zero interest in the rest of the Expanded Universe; I found the Star Wars universe to be too silly to be taken seriously. In the ’90s Babylon 5 was my most favorite live-action sci-fi show, and it fit my interests far more than Star Warss did.

    I did get Jedi Knight, I think at a clearance discount, but never even started it up. I still have both boxed copies of DF and JK in my large collection of boxed PC games from the late ’80s to the 2000s.

  25. salty-horse

    April 22, 2024 at 7:41 am

    Typo: “John William’s equally iconic score” – should be ” Williams’ “.

    Jedi Knight’s demo was the first time I experienced multiplayer. Used to play it with a friend over modem.

    The expansion is worth a mention, as it leans more into the Expanded Universe, featuring Mara Jade (shown on the cover), and a cameo by Luke Skywalker, who is in the demo. The FMV’s are replaced with in-engine cutscenes.

    • salty-horse

      April 22, 2024 at 7:47 am

      Sorry, I think the cutscenes are pre-recorded in the engine, not technically in-engine.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 24, 2024 at 4:51 pm


  26. Sion Fiction

    April 29, 2024 at 6:30 am

    Typing ” Is George Lucas cantankerous? ” into google reveals that No, he really isn’t.

  27. Osmodious

    April 29, 2024 at 1:41 pm

    I think one of the things that people forget about the Prequels is that they had to, essentially, tell a story with an unhappy ending. We know where the galaxy stands in “A New Hope”…essentially enslaved under a tyrant government with a small rebellion trying to make things ‘right’. If you want to tell the story about how it all got to that point, it HAS to be filled with loss and misery and unfairness and all that…so I think the tone was kind of set in stone by the endgame. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been done better than it was, just making that point!

  28. Lance Adams

    May 16, 2024 at 7:02 pm

    I need a discussion on Star wars Galaxies 2003-04 and Jedi Knight II: Jedi outcast,

    Those two games along with KOTOR were the the of SW gaming


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