Before Rogue One: When Games Were Filling in the History of Star Wars

The veterans who worked on X-wing remember when Star Wars was still a relatively blank canvas.

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The Super Star Destroyer was the subject of more than a little controversy among both the fans and the developers.

The Farlander Papers

Rusel DeMaria was the creative director at Prima Games when he was contacted with an interesting proposal. He was asked to write a novella for the forthcoming X-Wing game that would offer a bit of backstory while introducing gamers to the Star Wars universe.

DeMaria was thrilled. He told me over email, "Oh, I was a huge fan, especially of the first two films. I wasn’t as much of a fan of Return of the Jedi, but overall, I thought Star Wars was a great franchise and something I was thrilled to be able to be part of."

The story he developed starred Keyan Farlander—a Luke Skywalker-like figure who witnesses the destruction of his home at the hands of the Empire and decides to join the Rebellion. With Lucas out of the picture, DeMaria worked with Larry Holland and LucasArts' Lucy Wilson to flesh out the details of the story. At the time, the franchise backstory was still ill-defined, but what would become the prequels was visible in broad strokes in DeMaria's Farlander Papers: It refers to the aftermath of the Clone Wars and and the growing corruption of the Republic, as well as Palpatine's political maneuvering to become President of the Republic.

The Farlander Papers would eventually become a full-blown novelization couched within a strategy guide.

DeMaria was actually forbidden from filling in the details of the Clone Wars: one of the only limits imposed on X-Wing's writing team. "I was told that I could write anything I wanted, make up anything, as long as it didn’t involve the Clone Wars. Clone Wars was absolutely forbidden at the time. Everything else was fair game. And I did make up stuff. I gave certain races mannerisms that I just made up. I invented some alien foods for my characters to eat. Stuff like that. Everything was approved."

The novella ultimately wound up covering Farlander's introduction to the Rebellion, his training as an X-Wing pilot, and his first mission. Mixed within this novella were pamphlets describing the rise of the Empire, key characters like Admiral Ackbar, and starfighter technical specifications. It made for fascinating reading if you were a Star Wars fan in the early '90s without access to the materials that fill the Internet today.

DeMaria would next team up with David Maxwell and David Wessman to turn that novella into a hybrid strategy guide and Star Wars novel. Wessman remembers, "Rusel had a great rep as a game writer, and did a lot of strategy guide work. I wasn't aware of his creative writing side, so that was kind of a separate thing. He and I and David Maxwell ended up working very closely together because [DeMaria] was focusing on the fiction and wanted us to do the actual mission guide. So we wrote them as if it was a pilot giving an after action report, then I would take all of the material and do the proofreading/editing pass on it, then Rusel wrote the interstitial pieces."

The actual game was only a loosely connected with no real protagonist, so DeMaria set about filling in the gaps in the strategy guide with Farlander as the hero. The finished product was one of the more interesting strategy guides ever developed. The mission guides were pitched from Farlander's point of view, but the appropriate strategies were very much apparent. In-between, it followed Farlander as he lived the life of the pilot, and eventually began to dabble in the Force. DeMaria recalls, "The strategy guide includes all of the original novella and then continues his story as he learns to become an X-Wing pilot and then rises in the ranks through his experience in the missions. He has many adventures, makes friends with people I invented, and even has a short, but devastating brush with the Dark Side that forever changes his destiny. I had planned to write more stories about him, and would still like to do so if I could get permission. At one time, Dark Horse comics approached me about doing a series on him, and Lucas approved it. But then the guy who approached me just disappeared from Dark Horse and it was never pursued."

The strategy guide ended up selling very well (in part because X-Wing was famously difficult), and to one extent or other, Farlander managed to stick with the Expanded Universe. It became accepted canon, for instance, that Farlander was the one flying the lone surviving Y-wing that fled the exploding Death Star. Farlander also made an appearance in the later novels alongside Maarek Stele, another DeMaria creation from TIE Fighter, as well as Dark Force's Kyle Katarn.

But while DeMaria wanted to continue telling stories in the Star Wars universe, his own involvement with the franchise ended after TIE Fighter. "Technically, I was never on the X-Wing team. I was a contractor and the strat guides were done through Prima. But I guess I worked with them for a couple of years."

Still, DeMaria's stories would fill in the gaps for a generation of Star Wars fans. And while saying that they laid the groundwork for what was to come may be overstating their importance, they've nevertheless managed to stick in a way that is unprecedented for a strategy guide.

Rogue One.

A New Era

In the years following X-Wing, the fiction of the Star Wars flight sims became progressively more involved. TIE Fighter prominently featured Thrawn—the popular villain from Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire trilogy. X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter initially dropped the single-player campaign in favor of multiplayer ("I am primarily to blame for the lack of story in [X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter] because I convinced myself and everyone else that we didn't really need it," Wessman admits), but rebounded with an expansion featuring campaigns from the perspective of both the Empire and the Rebellion. X-Wing Alliance concluded with a Shakespearean tale of two families in conflict that culminated in a run through the Death Star II in the Millennium Falcon.

By the time X-Wing Alliance came around, times had definitely changed. Promotion for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was in full swing; and while Totally Games retained much of their creative freedom, they nevertheless ran into one rather large conflict. Wessman explains, "In [X-Wing Alliance], we had based a big chunk of the story around drone starfighters, and we didn't know anything about the content of Episode I. We just knew that our game had to be out before the movie was released. Then one day word comes down that [George Lucas] said, 'Yeah, you've gotta take out the stuff about drones.' And we were like, 'What? That's a huge part of the game that's already done.' And it came down to it that if we actually had to act on it we wouldn't meet our ship date, and that was more important, so George allowed us to keep our drones even though it was going to be something he was doing in Episode I. I guess we thought we were stealing their thunder... I don't know."

He continues, "The whole thing about X-Wing Alliance's ship date. It had to be out a couple months before the movie. If not, they were going to sit on it until September, which would have been really bad for us. Their logic was that New Star Wars shouldn't be confused with Classic Star Wars, and we don't want fans to be confused because there's a new movie and a classic game. So okay... fine. And I thought, at one point, because I had been wanting to do it for years, that I would be able to shoehorn in an RTS mode and... I almost made us miss our target date. I didn't do anything to cause that, but I thought about it."

Sadly, X-Wing's run was nearing an end. While X-Wing Alliance was successful and made money, the bottom fell out of the sales. No plans were made for an expansion or a sequel, much to the chagrin of fans hoping for a resolution to the Azzameen story. Both Star Wars and PC gaming were in a new phase, and the days of building freewheeling campaigns that defined large chunks of the franchise's backstory were over.

But to this day, X-Wing still resonates. Indeed, Disney may have hit the reset button, but there has yet to be a film about the anonymous Y-Wing pilot who makes it out of the Death Star. As far as I'm concerned, it's still Keyan Farlander.

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Tagged with david wessman, LucasArts, PC, Retrospective, Rogue One, Star Wars.

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