[10 August 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
It’s difficult to watch the Star Wars trilogy today without noticing some uncomfortable parallels to America after 9/11. The prequel films helped create this connection with their depiction of the Emperor’s rise to power by preying on the fears of an inhuman enemy and by installing his own privatized military. Nowhere does this interpretation of America as the Empire and the terrorists as the Rebels become more apparent than in the game TIE Fighter, where you play a fighter pilot serving in the Imperial Navy. The opening yellow text describes the destruction of the Death Star as an act by cowardly “Rebel terrorists.” In a grand speech to his people, the Emperor explains that they will bring peace and order to the galaxy. TIE Fighter was a brilliant game at the time of its release, but now its themes and gameplay have taken on a new meaning in the wake of 9/11. The game reveals how easy it is to slip into a mindset of blind loyalty, nationalism, and unquestioning service to a greater authority.
Abandoning Newtonian physics for a kind of simplified space flight, TIE Fighter’s game design mainly focuses on managing a ship’s resources and watching how battles play out. Your engines produce a set amount of energy that is divided up between powering guns, shields, and engine speed. You are constantly adjusting how much energy goes where or dumping accumulated power into these various systems. Cut all power to lasers, and you get a huge boost in speed. Dump all power into shields, and they recharge faster. Ships only vary by how powerful their engines are and what gear is mounted on them. There is no superior type of gun or extra strong armor. Some ships just have more than others, making them more suitable for a specific task.
TIE Fighter is only a slight variation on the original X-Wing except for one key difference: you are flying Imperial ships. The ships of the Rebel insurgents are multi-purpose craft. An X-Wing can be sent on a bombing raid or used to fend off enemy star fighters. An A-Wing can dog fight, scout enemy craft, and jump to hyperspace to move quickly from location to location. As a consequence, the Rebel ships often make sacrifices in terms of power for the sake of diversity. Missions in the original game often involved using ships outside their intended purpose, like dog fighting in the slow and underpowered Y-Wing or taking on capital ships in an A-Wing. You are almost always retreating or engaging in the quick strikes that are the norm in guerilla warfare. The chief skill that you develop is making use of whatever slight resources you have and developing strategies to defeat a technically superior enemy.
The thing about the Rebels in this series is that their tactics are the same as any insurgent group. A collection of cutscenes from X-Wing shows them planting a bomb in a cargo shipment by using fake imperial codes. This is similar to how the insurgents have operated in Iraq. An article for TIME interviewing insurgent leaders explains that they often use fake papers, IDs, and government sanctioned vehicles to sneak weapons and explosives past checkpoints. Flying suicidally into conflicts is also a common strategy in the X-Wing games. A standard tactic for taking down heavier ships is to drive a Corellian Corvette straight through the bridge of such ships. Although not quite the same as suicide bombings (the pilots usually eject before impact), both cutscenes show the Rebel’s willingness to destroy capital ships by flying their craft into them. This tactic is even employed in the films, such as the memorable scene in Return of the Jedi when an A-Wing crashes into the bridge of a Super Star Destroyer. Noticing the connections between these two groups is not much of a stretch since many insurgencies work like this but only becomes harrowing after one examines the game’s depiction of these groups in contrast to real world politics. After all, the Rebels are the heroes in Star Wars.
However, Tie Fighter has you working for a technically superior force trying to establish defenses and maintain order against an insurgency. The Empire builds their ships for one combat purpose unlike the Rebel’s multi-tasking ships. The TIE Fighter and TIE Interceptor are for dogfighting. The Bomber and GUN Boat are useful for raiding larger ships. They are very good at these single functions. Imperial fighter craft abandon shields for the sake of speed, which almost always gives you the advantage in the game. Far from being a handicap, not having shields mostly teaches you to avoid getting shot at by always approaching a ship from behind. The basic maneuver of a TIE is to roar past the target ship, flip around, and match speed while you light up their tail pipe. The thing that gets you killed the most often is not enemy fire but just getting too close to ships that you engage allowing debris smash into you. Although some missions force you to work with ships outside their intended role, flying for the Empire for the most part means only engaging with ships that you have an advantage over. When flying a TIE you don’t go near a capital ship because you won’t last a minute against their turrets. When flying a Bomber you call in a Wingman to handle the faster A-Wings. Unlike in X-Wing, the game design teaches you to only engage with opponents you have an advantage over.
The Empire’s reliance on sheer power is a theme present throughout the Star Wars canon. Enormous ships such as the Death Star are emblematic of the solution that the Empire employs: overpower your opponent. The game’s cutscenes explore this theme in a variety of ways: after the repairs on an Imperial stronghold have been completed, the Empire discusses new weapons, Thrawn’s promotion to Grand Admiral, or the constant tension of defecting officers selling or destroying technology. What is constantly at stake in each scene is power, whether it be represented by rank or technology.
In order to keep the game challenging, missions often have you performing special operations instead of simply flying support for the larger ships. Unlike in the movies, your home base is often a Frigate or a weak Victory Star Destroyer rather than a more powerful Star Destroyer. Your flight groups are often small and sometimes make due with few resources. This is done mostly for the sake of making the game challenging: a regular Star Destroyer is far more powerful and would make the game too easy if you flew into combat alongside one. By contrast, X-Wing and the third game in the series X-Wing Alliance often have you dealing with overwhelming odds without any such aid. You often have to fend off dozens of fighters with no support. In TIE Fighter, things only become tense when you are waiting for reinforcements.
Zaarin talks to his subordinates
While your commanding officer speaks with a stern British accent and rarely betrays any emotion, most of the game’s strange parallels to a government besieged by terrorism comes from the instructions of the Secret Order. Prior to missions, a robed figure can be approached to explain your secondary mission objectives. One example of such secondary concerns is when you are assigned the task of inspecting a ship. Like an elaborate version of tag, you must fly extremely close to a ship to scan its contents often in the middle of heavy fire fights or simply by racing to catch the ship. It’s a weird experience because it creates what EDGE Magazine describes as a sort of “bureaucratic joy.” It’s fun and thrilling to tag ships, yet the narrative defines this as the most mundane of activities. You will be inspecting ships all the time, sometimes without any real cause, and it remains engaging as another mission objective to be ticked off in service of the Empire.
What’s disturbing about this task is how much it involves eavesdropping on fellow officers. In the second battle (the game consists of several battles each of which contain five or so missions), the Secret Order commands you to inspect cargo ships whenever you can. Essentially, you are tasked with spying on people for the Emperor. It’s hard to not be reminded of the Patriot Act and warrantless wire tapping while doing this. Just as evidence emerged that Bush had been tapping phone calls since 2004 and possibly even before 9/11 without a warrant, the game’s snooping missions become an awkward reminder of post-9/11 politics. Often your commanding officer will ask why you’re deviating from the flight path for an inspection. In the Fourth battle, there are several instances where your spying turns up nothing. The representative of the Secret Order simply shrugs and says that it’s always a good idea to check.
Another example of the results of these secondary goals is how capturing prisoners for the Empire becomes an exercise in careful phrasing and tiptoeing around the consequences. The very first mission of the game involves inspecting cargo ships and discovering Rebels fleeing from Hoth. In this mission and subsequent battles, you are always instructed to disable the craft and defend the boarding parties. When your commanding officer or the Secret Order explain what will happen to these people, they use phrases such as “interrogation” or imply that they will be sending them to prison. Yet at the end of the fifth battle when a defecting Admiral is captured, we see what really happens. Vader uses the Force to lift the screaming Admiral into the air and then all we see is a closing fist and the sound of bones crushing. As more and more documents are disclosed about the US waterboarding suspected terrorists, it’s hard to not remember similar wordplay being employed in the media.
Easily the most poignant battle in the game involves settling a civil war between two alien races. The Dimok and Ripoblus are technologically inferior to the Empire and even the Rebellion. Their chief starcraft are the slow Y-Wings and weak Z-95 Headhunters. The Empire orders an attack on both sides of the war to show that they are not partial. When asked how they were handling ethnic conflicts in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno explained in his report, “Changing our approach also meant introducing more balance in our targeting by going after both Sunni and Shia extremists.” The ships you fly in are vastly superior to either groups’ vessels, making the battles noticeably one-sided. For example, one mission has you only destroying a certain percentage of their ships and letting the others run away.
Engaging a shuttle from a TIE cockpit (from Biblio.org)
When the two races attempt to sign a treaty that does not involve the Empire, your job is to attack the shuttles carrying the diplomats. When the two races join together to attack the Empire for the final mission, you crush both sides, resulting in the formation of a government under Imperial control. A clear sense emerges throughout the campaign that the Empire is getting involved with a conflict that it knows nothing about and forcing both sides to conform to its will. The opening battle’s briefing tells us that we are stopping a hostile pirate raid. Yet, within minutes of arriving, the Ripoblus try to explain that they are seizing illegal weapons. Inspecting the cargo ships and subsequent missions reveal that this is true: a greedy Imperial Admiral has been selling weapons on the side and escalating the war. The parallel to recent American policy is the constant confusion of the divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims during the Iraq War. The New York Times reports that, when asked, Silvestre Reyes (Democratic nominee to head the House Intelligence Committee) and even John McCain during the 2008 elections did not know the difference between the two Muslim groups. Nevertheless, both were involved in decisions determining the fate of both groups.
Other battles in the game are about the Empire’s pursuit of power, and this interest of the Empire is expressed through both the gameplay itself and the narrative elements that contextualize it. In one such battle, taking advanced hyperspace technology from one alien race, protecting an advanced model of TIE Fighter, and preventing traitors from escaping with Imperial ships takes up the bulk of your time. The theme of using raw power as an advantage over your opponents comes to its climax with the introduction of two new fighters: the TIE Advanced and the TIE Defender. Both ships are almost game breaking in how powerful they are because they are both fast and armed to the teeth. The introduction of the tractor beam, which lets you freeze a ship’s course, just makes your advantage that much more ridiculous. The final missions (I’m not counting the expansion packs) require the player to face off against another defecting Admiral, meaning that the dogfights become not quite as unbalanced as if you were just flying against Rebel ships, but the point remains. The last mission of X-Wing is a teeth grinding affair as you navigate the trench of the first Death Star dodging lasers and jinking through construction materials. Because of the raw power at my command, this last mission of TIE Fighter took me one try. Just as the Empire pursues power in the narrative by seeking to squash the Rebellion and control the galaxy, the player enjoys the benefits and uses power to take control of the battlefield.
Ten days after 9/11, President Bush announced to the nation, “Freedom itself is under attack…[they] hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to assemble and disagree with each other.” Lynne Cheney chastised Humanities professors who did not teach that society “[was] best exemplified in the West and indeed in America.” A publisher’s ad for Dinesh D’Souza’s What’s So Great About America claimed that anyone who disagreed with him sowed the seeds of terrorism. William Bennett’s book Why We Fight, claimed that everyone that he quoted and argued with “sowed widespread and debilitating confusion” and “weakened the country’s resolve.” Today, politicians still defend or attack a bill because it is an enemy of “freedom.”
The Emperor from Return of the Jedi
In TIE Fighter, the Emperor rallies his followers after the destruction of the Death Star by proclaiming, “The Empire is on the verge of success. Soon, peace and order will be restored throughout the Galaxy. Even now, our capable forces, led by Darth Vader, are striking back at the Rebel insurgents.” As an Imperial pilot, you are constantly assured that you are spreading peace and order with each battle. Rebels, pirates, unruly aliens, all of them are lumped together under the general designation of being the enemies of that noble cause. In America, numerous unfavorable groups were labeled terrorists in the wake of 9/11. Even marijuana growers were referred to as terrorists. Buzzwords like “freedom” or “socialism” are replaced with the need to maintain “peace” and “order” in TIE Fighter. The Imperial government is consistently depicted as a political entity relying on both rhetoric and power.
Comparisons between the United States and the Empire over the past eight years are nothing new. Internet memes, Family Guy gags, and general references to American Imperialism throughout the nation’s history all make it an easy analogy. As the only Star Wars game that has you serving under the Empire without remorse, TIE Fighter is a unique game because it lets you experience being a servant to a massive government just after a terrorist attack. As opposed to the games where your role is to resist power, here you embrace it. Instead of overcoming overwhelming odds, you organize yourself to ensure that your opponent is the one being overpowered. Despite our inherent sympathies for the Rebels that comes with every film, book, and game based on Star Wars, the game’s design draws us into hating them. The game’s experience is chilling because of how smoothly and easily it enables us to adopt this new perspective. By the time you take on your first X-Wing—the same kind Luke Skywalker flies—you don’t even hesitate to pull the trigger.