ne advantage of the primitive (or, more generously, blossoming) state of video game design is that it’s easy to contextualize pretty much any given game. When we talk about a first-person shooter, we can easily identify its place among Wolfenstein, Doom, Halo, etc. The pillars of this genre are so prominent and such indisputable landmarks that all of those other games slip neatly in between.
Star Wars: Dark Forces fits in that genesis period of FPSes between Doom and Half-Life. Released in 1995, a time when FPSes were still called Doom clones, Dark Forces was a runaway hit. It builds heavily off of the Doom formula and exemplifies the elements of old-school FPSes. While modern shooters emphasize set pieces and deliberately paced levels, old-school FPSes ask you to slog through steady streams of enemies while managing resources over the long term instead of short. The hero of Dark Forces, Kyle Katarn, moves with a speed that would seem stupidly fast in a modern game, but in an old-school FPS, that’s your main strategy. There is no cover, no regenerating health; you speed through hallways, constantly dodging blaster fire and thermal detonators, while relying on twitch aiming skills to blast a stormtrooper at your 60 miles per hour running speed. The following video showcases just how fast Kyle Katarn can blow through levels. Even having just played the game, this still feels artificially sped up.
While Dark Forces can fairly be called a Doom clone, it still represents an important progression away from arbitrary gothic-industrial level design and towards a more coherent sense of story and place – in other words, away from the old-school formula. It’s important to remember that in 1995, FPSes were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are now. Wolfenstein 3D, the first real example of an FPS, came out only in 1992, and was a linear shooter with little to offer besides a simple point-and-click experience. Doom and Doom II (93 and 94) were slick, polished action games that still play beautifully, but steadfastly refuse to take themselves seriously. Other early FPSes include games like Blake Stone (unfortunately forgettable) and Rise of the Triad (awful, but completely bizarre – try to make sense of this screenshot). It would be years before more thoughtful and inventive first-person titles would be released, like System Shock 2, GoldenEye, Thief, and, of course, Half-Life, or even Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight. (Oh, and Chex Quest.)
Where Doom asked us to murder demons, well, just because they were bad and in our way, Dark Forces gave us objectives and purpose. Instead of moving from A to B, or picking up the blue key because there’s a blue door in front of you, you have to set detonator charges to sabotage the Empire’s production of dark troopers, or rescue a Rebel spy from an Imperial detention center. These story elements are presented through cutscenes and pre-mission briefings, presented in character by your pilot Jan Ors. The briefings have a charm of their own, as they’re used to set the tone of each level. In some levels, Jan will emphasize how dangerous the mission is, or warn you of this or that threat. In one level, you have to rescue Jan, and the lack of a mission briefing altogether is a grim reminder of the stakes.
Cynically, we might say these objectives are basically the same, since you’re still moving from A to B even if “B” is replaced with “a Rebel spy,” and you’re still mowing down tons of enemies either way; but this narrative context is more than just window dressing. Dark Forces presents varied and inventive obstacles and more intuitive level design, since all of the obstacles and level design stem from the narrative premise of the game. Dark Forces is perhaps most notable for its platforming elements – largely unprecedented in FPSes, partly due to technological restrictions – but credit should also be given for framing those sections well. In one area, for instance, Kyle Katarn is stuck in a sewer, and must escape by leaping on top of the garbage compactors that grind up and down. That context matters. If instead we were playing as Doom Marine, and found ourselves stuck in a room of arbitrarily rising brown blocks, would this section be as intuitive? I doubt it, and contemporary reviews also noted the game’s more flavorful setting, saying it’s “more than just another 3-D killfest.” Compared to contemporary games, Dark Forces‘ diversity of levels – ranging from military bases to smuggler cities to icy fortresses – definitely feel like part of a story and less like an excuse to murder bad guys.
I don’t mean to press the Doom comparisons too much, but again, what can you do in 1995? In some ways, it’s unfortunate that Dark Forces was released when it was. No doubt the game was an achievement both in presentation and technology. (The game was lauded for the player’s ability to look up and down, which seems charmingly quaint today, but at the time was a big deal; and even minor touches, like moving the guns to the side of the screen rather than the center, stand out.) But Dark Forces is saddled too heavily with the Doom legacy, and within only a few years, the FPS genre would leave Doom by the wayside and explore previously unexplored terrain. Dark Forces helped open the door for those games, but you can tell the game wished it could have walked out that door too. It’s interesting to think how the entire Dark Forces franchise might have developed had it been moved forward a few years, as both Jedi Knight (1997) and Jedi Knight II (2002) were also released only shortly before many other major FPSes, and so lacked the benefit of their influence.
Dark Forces is available on Steam for a paltry sum and, though it’s a bit clunkier and a bit smaller than I remember it being when I was 10 (what games aren’t?), it’s still a polished old-school FPS that benefits all the more from its context. Despite the game’s faults, its forward-thinking design is a lot of fun to relive. When the game succeeds, which it often does, it puts modern FPSes to shame and makes me wonder what they’ve been doing for the past 15 years. And when the game fails, I just don’t care, because it’s not hard to be sweet on a game that broke so much ground all on its own.