As one of the first true cornerstones of so-called "nerd culture," along with fellow ’70s phenomena Dungeons & Dragons and The Lord of the Rings, the Star Wars films have always exerted a tremendous influence on video games. I posited a few months back that every Final Fantasy game is secretly Star Wars, and Square Enix's RPG franchise is hardly unique in that regard—a remarkable amount of pop culture has been crafted in the shape of George Lucas' films.
Note: Full spoilers for The Force Awakens and Metal Gear Solid V ahead.
However, with The Force Awakens, something unusual has happened: The tides turned and Star Wars has begun to resemble a video game. Not to put too fine a point on it, but The Force Awakens is basically the Metal Gear Solid of movies.
Video games and Star Wars have always fed off one another, dating all the way back to the Atari 2600 era. The phenomenon definitely reached a peak (or perhaps nadir) during that terrible droid factory scene in Attack of the Clones, in which Our Heroes had to pass through a series of timed hazards in a decidedly "action platformer" sequence that was even filmed with camera angles that made it look like nothing so much as a 2D side-scroller circa 1994. Thankfully, while The Force Awakens creates plenty of parallels with video games, it does so in a far more subtle fashion.
The Force Awakens draws heavily on the classic film trilogy, and most heavily from the original 1977 Star Wars. In fact, at times it hews so closely to the plot beats of the movie that started the franchise, you could almost accuse it being a remake. An Imperial attack kicks off the movie, leaving a lone droid bearing an essential holographic message to wander the desert alone until it's picked up by scavengers. The heroes hide in the smuggling hold of the Millennium Falcon to evade a boarding party, then end up in a crowded and dangerous alien cantina. An enemy superweapon destroys planets that secretly support the rebel cause before turning its focus on the Resistance base itself, only to be destroyed by a lone X-Wing darting through the superweapon's trenches in order to take out its core. The parallels go on and on.
I couldn't help but be reminded as I watched the film of the Metal Gear saga, which took a similarly recursive approach to its sequels. The Metal Gear/Star Wars parallels go way back, of course; with 1998's Metal Gear Solid, producer Hideo Kojima retconned the final encounter of the previous game (Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake) to include a Vader-esque revelation that series antagonist Big Boss was in fact protagonist Sold Snake's father. Several years later, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater gave Big Boss the same treatment as the Star Wars prequels did for Vader, exploring his past and chronicling formative events that led to the character's fall into villainy. Much as we saw with Lucas' treatment of Anakin Skywalker's descent, subsequent Metal Gear games left the distinct impression that the saga's creator ultimately preferred its newly nuanced villain as a character over the series' original protagonist. Solid Snake was prematurely aged and left to die, while Big Boss gained additional depth and pathos, ultimately even being redeemed of his sins with Metal Gear Solid V's seeming revelation that the villain we knew from the old 8-bit Metal Gear games was in fact a patsy brainwashed to stand in for the real Big Boss.
But this time, Star Wars seemed to take a page from Kojima's book rather than the other way around. The Force Awakens seems like nothing so much as a carefully calculated exercise in applying to film the tendency of Metal Gear games to iterate on their own narrative beats and gameplay set pieces, something that's been true of the franchise since its very first sequel 25 years ago. You can find plenty of essays online about how the Star Wars prequels were crafted as a sort of inverse rendition of the original trilogy, creating a ring cycle of sorts, but the prequels (for all their flaws) always gave the impression Lucas was trying to accomplish something new and different with his work. The Force Awakens meticulously imitates classic Star Wars (and not just in terms of aesthetics), to the point that you'd almost call it plagiarism. Since Episode VII rips off its own direct predecessor, I suppose it's more of an ouroboros than it is plagiarism.
Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake began that series' trend of taking the same recursive approach. Many of MG2's key moments came directly from its predecessor, including Snake's battle with a Hind-D helicopter. The process really took off in earnest with Metal Gear Solid, though—fittingly, given that it was also the game in which Big Boss began his Vaderization process. You can practically trace every moment in MGS back to an earlier game in the series, from Snake's infiltration of the Shadow Moses complex via underwater insertion to, yes, the showdown with a Hind-D.
From a narrative perspective, this thematic repetition didn't necessarily make much sense. While the motivating plot force for the game resulted from Snake's clone brother (Liquid Snake) attempting to uphold the legacy of their genetic father by reviving the concept of a self-sufficient military nation called Outer Heaven, the story involved a great deal of hand-waving justifications for the narrative shenanigans. However, the sensation of a redux did serve a more important purpose: Building on the blueprint of MG2 allowed Kojima's team to translate the series into the third dimension without having to reinvent the wheel.
We saw this approach several times in the early days of mainstream 3D gaming: Developers would look to their own previous successes for inspiration and guidance as they began the arduous chore of making a game that worked when rendered in polygons. MGS's contemporary The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time took a similar tack, building upon 1992's A Link to the Past as its cornerstone. Any random sampling of mid-’90s game releases will yield a bumper crop of failed attempts to bring 2D legacy franchises into 3D (along with many failed attempts to create new properties), generally because they strayed too far from their origin point. Games like Metal Gear Solid and Metroid Prime, on the other hand, steered those series successfuly into the third dimension by playing it safe, coloring neatly within the lines established by their predecessors. The question then became not, "How do we make a game that works in 3D?" but rather "How do we translate these individual elements into 3D on a case-by-case basis, within the context of a structure that we know will work?"
The Force Awakens works in a similar vein. Disney has billions and billions of dollars riding on the successful relaunch of the Star Wars films, and they couldn't afford for this new film to meet the same lukewarm reception as The Phantom Menace did in 1999. So they, too, colored within the lines, calling back to familiar elements like planet-busting superweapons and droids playing hologram courier. While this does cause the movie to feel overly predictable in places, its scrupulous devotion to capturing the look, tone, storytelling beats, and overall style of the first Star Wars made for a movie that felt more at home with the original trilogy than its glossy, robotic prequels did. The message was clear: "Trust us. We will feed your fan expectations."
But as with Metal Gear Solid's adherence to Metal Gear 2, The Force Awakens' historic fidelity allows its story to build thematically on its predecessors. New central characters Rey and Finn, like Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa before them, come into the scene as orphans and find family in one another—though in this generation it seems likely to be strictly a surrogate family, free of the eventual realization that they once shared an uncomfortably deep kiss with their twin sibling. Likewise, the father/son relationship shared by Han Solo and Kylo Ren echoes that of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, which makes Ren's decision to murder his own father all the more meaningful in light of the reconciliation that Luke and his father reached.
Metal Gear, too, made use of generational parallels as a narrative device. Nowhere did this appear as profoundly as in Metal Gear Solid 2, where Kojima deliberately created a game that copied its predecessor note for note. His goal? To throw players off their stride, deconstruct the Metal Gear formula, and critically assess the potential hazards and strengths inherent in the world's transition from analog media to networked digital communications. If MGS2 elements like a cyborg ninja calling "himself" Deep Throat and a sniping shootout seemed overly familiar, that was by design: The events of the game were eventually revealed to be a carefully crafted simulation of the previous game, with the ultimate aim of creating a training program capable of conditioning and mass-producing soldiers on par with Solid Snake, hidden inside a larger program to shape culture through the editing of digital information.
It's hard to know yet just how much of the familiar within The Force Awakens was artfully crafted as a metatextual commentary on Star Wars and the Hollywood blockbuster formula and how much was simply Disney and director JJ Abrams consciously working with a can't-fail formula. That probably won't become clear until the sequels arrive and we see the overall direction the Star Wars saga goes in the future. We can safely assume we won't see the franchise subvert expectations and deliberately troll fans the way MGS2 did, but it would be nice to think there's something more happening beneath the movies' surface than calling back to one of the most successful cinematic creations of all time in order to sell more action figures.