I’m going to go ahead and broach that touchiest of subjects that’s in the news lately. No, not the fiscal cliff or even the presidential election. I’m talking about something far more huge in scope and possibly dire in consequences: the sale of the Star Wars IP to Disney.
I don’t know whether history will prove this to be the moment that Star Wars got its groove back or the moment that Disney began a marketing feeding frenzy that left few shreds of the greatness of the original trilogy. Only time will tell. Especially for a gamer, this sale offers both a new hope and a phantom menace, so to speak (god, I’m good).
The Star Wars universe has existed over the past thirty-odd years in all media. Having been raised in the late eighties and nineties, I was privy not to the release of the original trilogy, but even so I grew up with Star Wars all around me. When I was a kid sharing a room with my little brother, my dad would put on music to play while we fell asleep, but he learned quickly not to play Star Wars music, because it got us too amped to sleep. I had heavy plastic recreations of various ships – Darth Vader’s special TIE Fighter, Boba Fett’s Slave I – and would stage elaborate action figure fights involving random characters, sometimes even ones that had no reason to fight (“What’s the matter, Kenobi – can’t take a punch? Han Solo is in town and he’s drunk!”).
I remember the video games perhaps best of all. I watched a friend play TIE Fighter on his computer and was shocked you could play as an Imperial soldier. When I got my hands on an N64 and Shadows of the Empire, I was thrilled by a universe that felt both familiar and excitingly new. And when I played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic just a few years ago, long after it was released, I was floored by how much the old series could still engage me. When I heard the strains of John Williams’s Binary Sunset playing along with my character’s journey I got chills.
The Star Wars universe has never been a stranger to electronic gaming. There are Star Wars games of almost every genre: space flight sims, RPGs, FPSs, MMOs, strategy games, action-adventure games, platformers; you name it, Star Wars has made a game of it. But that brings up the question – where will Disney take the beloved series?
Well, the initial natural fear for me is that Disney will go all cutesy on us. While this is honestly based on a bit of a stereotype of Disney’s preference for all things squeaky-clean, it would be like Greedo shooting first times ten. For a company hardly known for its grittiness, there is an understandable fear that instead of taking the franchise the dark and intellectual way of Nolan’s Batman or Daniel Craig’s 007, Disney might bank hard in the other direction.
What could we expect from new Star Wars games if this happens? Well, Disney bigwig Bob Iger has already said that they would like to focus in-house on social media and mobile games, with bigger titles being licensed out. And if they go with a cuddlier Star Wars, expect to see a lot of Facebook banner ads for stuff like Moisture Farmer: Tattooine Edition and Wookiee Trainer.
Of course, this is probably more of a knee-jerk reaction than an actual prediction. Disney doesn’t turn everything it touches into Snow White. In fact, some insight can be gained from looking at the company’s acquisition of another high-profile IP which most fans think it handled admirably – the Marvel Universe.
We all know by now that Disney scored a pretty major triumph with The Avengers. Not only did it make enough money at the box office to build an actual, functioning, real-life Iron Man suit, it was generally hailed by fans as an effective take on their favorite characters that felt both fun and substantial. And with Disney tapping Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine) to write the new Star Wars trilogy, it seems like this shrewd handling of a powerhouse franchise may not have been a fluke. A mature take on the new Star Wars films seems pretty likely given the guy’s track record, and if they put anyone remotely as able as Joss Whedon in the director’s chair, the new Star Wars movies may be legitimate hits. This could mean a new era for Star Wars, with films that are as complex and rich, unlike the prequels, which were hollow and awkward.
That’s the upside. The downside is – look at the games that have come out using Marvel properties while Disney’s been in charge. ( Here’s the list.) Just look at everything from 2010 on, and you’ll see that Disney has a pretty consistent track record of licensing games to coincide with their busy Marvel movie schedule, and almost all of them have middling reviews, nothing A list. It’s pretty clearly a model of video games as marketing apparatuses; the quick buck model. A game comes out that’s merely passable, but since there’s a popular movie that it comes in with, it makes money. For all of Disney’s apparent wisdom in handling new films on existing IPs, I’m not seeing any of the same wisdom in terms of the games they’re pursuing beyond simple, mercenary, cash-in calculus. I don’t see any evidence here that they might give a game studio the go-ahead to make something interesting like Arkham City, let alone something like the original KotOR.
Let’s hope I’m right about the movies and wrong about the games. Because as much as George Lucas can be mocked for stuff like Darth Vader’s Episode III “NOOOOOOOO” and the existence of Jar Jar Binks, he gave us a sprawling universe that is still growing decades later. The product of his imagination was so archetypal, so full of the basic ingredients of adventure and drama, that very rarely has something so suited to gaming come along. I believe Star Wars still has tons of potential – it’s just a question of whether the Mouse is able to tap it.
About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.