Dark Forces Changed Star Wars Games Forever

Nearly three decades ago, Dark Forces hit the PC with all the firepower of a fully armed and operational battle station—and in doing so helped revolutionize gaming, Star Wars or otherwise. But even after it changed the genre as we knew it, its legacy has persisted; its view of the galaxy far, far away has continued to shape Star Wars to this very day, even as it returns to PC and consoles today in a new remaster.

Developed by LucasArts—which up to this point had balanced bringing Star Wars to life across games like X-Wing or the console movie adaptations, as well as iconic adventure game series like Monkey Island or Day of the TentacleDark Forces represented a major first for the studio. Although the likes of the aforementioned X-Wing, the Star Wars arcade game, or X-Wing’s incredible follow up TIE Fighter had all given Star Wars fans gaming adventures from the first-person perspective of a starfighter cockpit, Dark Forces was the very first Star Wars game in the booming first-person shooter genre, at the time popularized by the likes of Wolfenstein and Doom.

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Image: Nightdive Studios

It didn’t just bring Star Wars skins to what was familiar to the genre, however. LucasArts pushed FPSes forward in Dark Forces across multiple technological fronts with the Jedi game engine, developed for Dark Forces, bringing everything from the abilities for maps to have multiple layers of buildings with levels stacked on top of each other, to now-given standards like the ability to jump or look up and down while shooting, or even early atmospheric effects effects like smoke and smog. Although not a true 3D engine, Jedi gave Dark Forces some early in-game 3D elements, both in level design and in aesthetic elements like seeing its hero ship, the Moldy Crow, appear in various levels, just over a year before the release of Quake would change the FPS genre even further with a full leap into 3D.

Between all that, and its cinematic layers—Dark Forces had both sprite-based and nascent 3DCG inter-mission cutscenes to tell its story, uncommon for the run-and-gun nature of the FPS genre at the time, as well as interactive music that could tweak and change the soundtrack playing based on player action—Dark Forces represented a turning point in gaming. It set the stage for the evolution of one of its most vital genres over the mid-90s, and one that the galaxy far, far away would revisit time and time again in the generations since. But that aforementioned story was arguably just as influential to Star Wars as what Dark Forces did for video games at large. Although there were notable exceptions, up to this point the vast majority of Star Wars games had put you in the shoes of familiar heroes—Luke, Han, Leia, the movie stars you knew and loved—and more often than not they were retelling those stories you knew and loved, with the occasional extra flourish or alternative imagining. Dark Forces did none of that, casting gamers into the role of a brand new character, for a brand new story set around the time of A New Hope.

Image for article titled Dark Forces Changed Star Wars Games Forever

Image: Nightdive Studios

That character was Kyle Katarn, a mercenary—fleshed out even further in Dark Forces’ manual as a former Imperial Academy graduate who had been deceived by the Empire into believing his parents had been murdered by Rebel operatives, until he met a double agent named Jan Ors that would become his gun-for-hire partner—hired by the Rebel Alliance to undergo a major undertaking: steal the plans to the Death Star. Although the Star Wars Expanded Universe would eventually retcon Kyle’s mission to one small part of many layers to acquiring those plans, the rest of his story, picking back up a year after he was first hired, remains just as important and influential.

Hired once again to investigate a new experimental weapons program being developed by Imperial General Rom Mohc—the titular dark forces in the automated Dark Trooper initiative—Kyle’s secret missions took him not just into the myriad layers of the Imperial Regime, but into the murky side of Star Wars’ galaxy, from the spice trade to the criminal circles of bounty hunters and Hutt syndicates. For every mission in Dark Forces about explicitly infiltrating and striking against Imperial targets, Kyle’s investigation took him to sides of the Star Wars galaxy that had never been in the spotlight before, all under the cover of darkness in a world of spycraft and smuggling, knives in the dark away from the bold heroics the plucky Alliance and its poster heroes accomplished in A New Hope.

Kyle was a hero perfectly suited for that skullduggery, too. He wasn’t exactly cut from the same cloth as Han Solo, even though there were obvious parallels. Han quickly becomes a more traditional swashbuckling hero in the movies, but Kyle was far from the clear-cut Rebel hero, or the scoundrel with a heart of gold. He was a man hurt by the lies told to him by the Empire, and craving to direct his hatred somewhere—he wasn’t necessarily fighting for the Rebels because he believed in there cause, but because he could enact his vengeance against the Empire. He played in the shadows and a dark circles of the galaxy because that was where he was best suited, to violence and interrogation and the dirty work the Rebel Alliance hired people to do to keep their hands cleaner.

Image for article titled Dark Forces Changed Star Wars Games Forever

Image: Nightdive Studios

Kyle would go on to evolve when the game’s huge successes necessitated a sequel in Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, which, as the title implies, would see Kyle explore and embrace his unknown legacy as the descendant of a Jedi, bringing him onto a more traditionally heroic path; he would even eventually go on to serve as a Jedi Master in Luke Skywalker’s New Jedi Order. But even then, for a lot of that journey, Kyle’s struggle between the darkness inside him that first became clear in the original game, and his pull to do good in the galaxy, ran throughout his arc. He may have become a sort of patchwork of Star Wars heroes along the way, but the foibles that made him uniquely Kyle were there from the beginning, and gave Star Wars an uneasy hero unlike few we’d seen up to that point.

Kyle himself is no longer Star Wars canon—both his most famous missions in the original Dark Forces have been picked apart and handed off to other heroes at other points in time to take claim of. But the legacy of Dark Forces, and of its protagonist, are still vital to our exploration of Star Wars to this day. It’s not just in the aesthetic or logistical components contemporary canon has lifted—like The Mandalorian exploring the Dark Troopers in its storyline with Moff Gideon, or the Moldy Crow’s model of ship, the HWK-290 light freighter, appearing across comics and miniatures games—but Star Wars is still fascinated with exploring the shadows of its universe, and the kinds of people who do the work in those shadows its heroes typically don’t. From Din Djarin to Cassian Andor (arguably the modern Kyle, right down to the fact he uses Kyle’s blaster of choice in Andor), Star Wars’ current stories are infused with people who operate outside of the typical circles of its heroes, mercenaries and guerillas who have no qualms about how they enact their personal vendettas, against the Empire or otherwise. Dark Forces presented us the world that underbelly of revolution thrived in that we now see explored at the heart of Star Wars’ current major stories, and as much as Han inspired him, Kyle now acts the inspiration for the figures of those narratives.

Now, for the first time in years, gamers across PC and console can revisit Dark Forces in fresh light with today’s re-release of the game, remastered by Nightdive Studios—with early indications pointing to a remaster that faithfully cleans up and presents the same compelling existence that first arrived 29 years ago, as if we were playing our owned soften recollections of how Dark Forces looked and felt all those years in the past. In giving us this clarity of purpose—to borrow a turn of phrase from another murky revolutionary following in Kyle’s footsteps—to revisit Dark Forces in as faithful a way as possible, we can see even more clearly just how important it and Kyle were to Star Wars at the time, and continue to be today.


Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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