Note: This story has been updated to clarify the progression from the lack of story in the game to the development of Keyan Farlander's arc in the strategy guide.
It's hard to imagine now with the constant din of new movies, games, and comics, but there was a time when Star Wars was very much on hiatus.
In the early 1990s, the media machine that had dominated the late '70s and much of the '80s had more or less ground to a halt. George Lucas had mostly moved on to other projects; the toys had stopped, and new media was confined to comics and the odd book. While it wasn't completely finished, its output was definitely at low ebb.
David Wessman was among those who had more or less stopped paying attention to Star Wars in 1992. A 31-year-old tester at LucasArts, he had made his way to Larry Holland's studio through Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe: the World War II flight sim that would later serve as the basis for the X-Wing flight sims. These days Wessman is a lead designer on Starfighter Inc., a spiritual successor to the space combat flight sims of old, as well as an international game design and architecture lecturer at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.
He remembers the atmosphere around Star Wars being quiet, "There was an arcade game, and... there was at least one console game. Because [LucasArts] didn't want games being made with the Star Wars or Indiana Jones license, they wanted new stuff, and they were willing to lose money."
In this environment, there were only a few movies to work from; the novels were only just getting started, and the prequels were still years away. There was a tremendous amount of room for an enterprising creator to define the Star Wars universe.
And that's just what the team behind X-Wing did.
Filling in the Gaps
LucasArts was new to the Star Wars license in 1992, having just acquired it from Broderbund. Larry Holland, an independent contractor who had built the Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe games for LucasArts, saw it as an opportunity to repurpose his World War II flight sim engine for Star Wars. It was a perfect fit given that Star Wars was originally based on old footage of World War II aerial battles. The game he came up with was X-Wing: A game that mixed flight-sim and arcade shooting elements in an effort to recreate the famous space battles from the film.
From the start, the X-Wing team had to grapple with very basic questions about the universe itself. And with precious little source material to go by, they often had to turn to the movies and go by instinct.
"Of course I read the novels, watched the movies... we had a big laserdisc player and went frame by frame by frame." David Wessman says. "There wasn't a lot of technical information either. We had a World War II combat engine that fit perfectly with the dynamics as they were portrayed in the film, but what were the specs? What was the firepower and the speed and the turning abilities? So that was all based on a feel, right? Just look at the movie scenes and say, 'Okay, it seems like that it should be like this.' Kudos to [Larry Holland] and [Peter Lincroft] on that. It was amazing work."
Even when there were hard sources, they sometimes contradicted one another. Wessman remembers a later conflict on the X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter forums that erupted around the size of the Super Star Destroyer. "'No it's 16 kilometers!' 'No it's 8!' And Bill Morrison, he was our uber Star Wars nerd on the team, and he wanted it to be 16 kilometers, so he built a mission where he inflated it to the size he wanted it to be and said, 'Look! It's working! The engine isn't crashing!' But we were like, 'No, it doesn't look right!'"
While Lincroft, Holland, and rest were trying to figure out how an X-Wing was supposed to handle, Wessman was figuring out the actual missions. A wargaming and science fiction buff, he tried to structure them around actual military campaigns, then fill in the gaps later.
"[W]e did our homework and did our best to make it fit as well as we could and just expand where we needed to in order to tell a coherent military campaign story. The funny thing in hindsight is that we had no idea what the story was when we were making the game. We were just making missions." Wessman recalls, "We were like, 'This is a cool idea for a mission' and 'If they're doing this kind of a campaign, they'll have to do a blockade or something.' So you dive into history and dig up all the scenarios. And so we were just creating them, and we realized, 'Oh wait, we've gotta tie this into the story.' So we've got a mission that's based on a scene in the movie, but there's not a lot of combat scenes in the movie to work with, so what are we going to do to fill in the space in-between? And that's where a lot of that came from."
Some of that was due to the natural churn of game development, and some of that was due to the fact that there wasn't much to work with in the actual movies. X-Wing broadly followed the story leading up to A New Hope, which was described in only a handful of lines in the movie's opening crawl: "Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet."
From that, Larry Holland's team basically had to weave three full campaigns from whole cloth. The first was the destruction of an Imperial Star Destroyer, which was the "first victory" referred to in the opening crawl. The second was the retrieval of the Death Star plans, and the third was the destruction of the Death Star itself. The Trench Run was the game's grand finale, though the limits of technology meant that it bore little resemblance to the famous sequence from the movie.
Decades before Rogue One finally put the story to film, the version Wessman and company came up with involved using captured communication satellites to intercept the plans so they could be delivered to Princess Leia and rushed to Alderaan. Though perhaps less exciting than a heist, it allowed the team to focus on space combat while methodically uncovering the Death Star, intercepting the plans, and getting them into the hands of Princess Leia. Amusingly, Dark Forces would contradict X-Wing's verison of events just a couple years later with a mission in which Kyle Kataran attacks a base and steals the plans.
Wessman admits that Holland's team didn't have a lot of contact with the Dark Forces team, who worked on the other side of the highway. "We'd see [the Dark Forces] guys at events, but there wasn't a big effort to coordinate storylines or anything."
Still, a more nuanced and textured vision of the Star Wars universe was beginning to emerge from the areas left dark by the films. The games would eventually begin to weave in the material from the novels, even incorporating characters from the Expanded Universe. A few years later, the ambitious Shadows of the Empire utilized a novel, a comic, a game, and toys to fill in the space between The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi.
In the meantime, X-Wing was noticed by George Lucas himself, who took the time to send a note to the LucasArts team. "We got a letter from [George Lucas] after X-Wing came out that was a really sincere thank you for giving him an experience that he imagined when he was making the film," Wessman remembers.
For a Star Wars game in the '90s, there was no higher compliment.