Friday, January 29, 2010

What Star Wars Got Right

Still working my way through Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Season One, delayed by the arrival January and the return of network TV from the holiday doldrums.

I've had many discussions over the years with various friends about what is "wrong" with the Star Wars films--and there are a lot of things. Mainly though, they boil down to bad writing. Well more completely stated it's: Lucas isn't a good writer compounded by the fact that Lucas isn't a good director of actors.

It's no accident that the best of the Star Wars Saga, The Empire Strikes Back, was at least partially written by Leigh Brackett--someone who surely knew how to write.

But anyway, that's a topic for another blog, maybe.  I'm not interested in revisitng the hate, but in accentuating the positive, to wit: What's good about Star Wars? And what's good that might be applicable to gaming?

To me, the core "good thing" is that Star Wars melds together two predominant forms of sci-fi adventure media (I specify this as it has very little to do with science fiction as a literary genre--even the science fiction sub-genre space opera only shares a few similarities with Star Wars until after Star Wars enters the public Zeitgeist).

The two types are:
  • Euro-style daring-do: This is sword-fights, castles, and princess-kidnapping villains. Like John Carter or Flash Gordon. The action and plots resemble The Prisoner of Zenda, and the latter-day stories can be seen as sort of allegories for young America interacting with the Old (decadent) World (Burroughs' The Mad King, comes to mind)..
  • "the flyboy" or square-jawed aviator tale: This is rockets and jetpacks, leather helmets and robots. This is like Buck Rogers, and Burroughs' Beyond the Farthest Star, and any number of serials--and both aviation and science fiction pulps at times. A purer modern example would be Sky Captain.
Star Wars eliminates the problem of having to give up jetpacks for swashbuckling by putting them both together! And this is not a bad idea. The incoherence that would be created by aviators wearing swords is resolved by giving the swords only to a select group (the jedi)--this was an innovation discovered by accident, it seems. Lucas' early drafts had "laserswords" being more commonly used.

But this still isn't all of Star Wars. Lucas lacquered it with Japanese exoticism by cribbing design, plot elements, and character from Kurosawa. Shooting in Tunisia, and having an expert in African languages provide him with Greedo's lingo and Jabba's Huttese further lathered on the exoticism. So another element of Star Wars is what we might think of as a sort of chinoiserie (if I can be allowed to somewhat misappropriate a term, when a better one doesn't exist). This is probably the element of Star Wars that I most think about playing up when I've though "How could Star Wars be better?"  This would lead to a Star Wars more like Dune, or most likely, more like a Heavy Metal story (or the Star Wars (and Dune) inspired Metabarons).

We're not done yet. The last piece, is latter century Americana. The original trilogy can't escape its 70s vibe, in some ways. Some of that is accidental no doubt--an artifact of when it was made. Other parts--primarily cut scenes of Luke and his teen friends--transplant American Graffiti car-culture to Tattooine. Episode II even gives us a 50s style diner! These elements are wholly Star Wars and not found in really any of its progenitors or imitators that I'm aware of (One Han Solo novel in the late seventies gives us an explicit disco, as well!).

So how might this be used in gaming? Well, I know that if I was looking to create my own Star War-ish space opera/science fantasy campaign, I'd look to these elements to make sure I got it right. Also, I think these can kind of be used like dials--one could turn down the elements one didn't like in Star Wars, while cranking others to eleven. If you want more Dune, play up the "exoticness," and chunk the Americana; more Sky Captain, means more swooping spaceships and fewer swords or Samurai movie borrowings.  If one wanted Star Wars that didn't feel like Star Wars, eliminating two, or perhaps even just one, of the elements above would probably do it.


MadDrDevo said...

My only comment on this is burroughs, flash gordon, buck rogers and pretty much every single example you mentioned of "old world" writers are well american.. (except prisoner of zenda which i am sure is actually english)burroughs certainly was.. what you might be better saying is that there was a time even in the last century when the sword still had a certain mystique.. in flash gordon and john carter in particular you see that while they have guns they fight with swords. its a hold over from the victorian era, which was coming to its end at the time burroughs wrote his first story about mars(@1914) Lucas clearly liked flash gordon and undersea kingdom serials and like tarrentino and his obvious love of B italian gangster movies its shows in his works.. but i am happy to see someone talk about what is right with star wars.. it was one of the greatest things ever to happen to us and we shouldnt forget that

Trey said...

Thanks for the comment, but you misread me a bit. When I say Euro-style, I'm talking about the Ruritanian/Graustarkian settings not the birthplaces of the authors. There is a certain exoticism that Anglo-American authors gave their work by setting in in Mittel Europe.

I don't think it's specifically about swords as they still carry a mystic--though the type of sword so mythologized varies (Kill Bill and the katana), so I don't think that amkes the same point at all.