I first became aware of Star Wars in a December 1976 article in The Los Angeles Time’s entertainment section about the filming of the movie. The article described a scene involving a farmboy (Mark Hamill) and a smuggler (Harrison Ford) disguised as “drones” as they infiltrated a space station to rescue a princess. As I read the article, I thought to myself, “I’ll probably enjoy this film, but no one else will.”
Of course, five months later, Star Wars opened at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood and became a permanent fixture in popular culture due to its appealing characters, classic “hero’s journey” storyline, imaginative production design, immersive universe, exciting action set pieces, and groundbreaking special effects. Back then, movie marketing wasn’t the well-oiled machine that it is now, and there certainly wasn’t any movie merchandising at the time. The film won audiences over because there hadn’t ever before been a film that brought pure fun to a broad audience.
Except that it didn’t won me over — at least, not at first. Now, don’t get me wrong: I very much enjoyed Star Wars when it came out. But Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out around the same time, and that film had a greater initial impact on me. I thought that special effects that looked good in an Earth setting were more impressive than ones that took place in a fantasy space environment, and that the wonderment of man’s first meeting with alien life carried more emotional weight than the swashbuckling adventures of Luke, Han and Leia.
At first. However, as the years passed, Close Encounters began to lose its luster for me, whereas Star Wars gained more importance as a cultural touchstone. The film had such broad appeal that it resonated with just about everyone’s inner child, and this was especially so with those of us in the game development community. Game developers of the period all seemed to share a common pop cultural interest in Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and Monty Python, but Star Wars was perhaps our strongest mutual fan interest.
That should come as no surprise, since the movie has been described by many film critics as a cinematic video game. Remember the scene where the Millennium Falcon is escaping from the Death Star after rescuing Princess Leia, and the Han and Luke strap themselves in to gyrating gunner seats to shoot at the pursuing TIE fighers? The displays are look like something right out of a video game of that era. There was something so satisfying and right about those displays, that J.J. Abrams used identical graphics for the Millennium Falcon combat scenes in The Force Awakens.
Later on in the film, the entire Death Star trench run sequence was like a level straight out of game from the Golden Era of Arcades. It had all the structural elements of a video game:
- Outcomes: Lose Life, or destroy Death Star
- Goal: Shoot thermal exhaust port.
- Obstacles: TIE fighters, gun turrets
- Resources: Proton torpedoes, lives.
- Power-Up: The Force
- Rules: You must maneuver your ship through the trench to reach the thermal exhaust port. Only a direct hit will cause a chain reaction to blow up the Death Star.
Curiously enough, there were not that many Star Wars video games that came out during the period that the original trilogy was released. The only one that I recall was a Star Wars game for the Apple II in which players maneuvered crosshairs over a TIE fighter to shoot it down.
George Lucas did have an interest in video games himself, and indeed started his own video game publishing company, LucasArts, in 1982. But also curiously enough, Lucas forbade his game company from making any Star Wars games. He wanted his various companies, including Skywalker Sound and Industrial Light and Magic to earn success on their own without the benefit of an association with Star Wars. And so LucasArts first two games were Rescue on Fractalus, a lunar landing game using fractal graphics, and Ballbalazer, which was soccer played with hovercraft.
Eventually Lucas relented and allowed LucasArts to make Star Wars-themed games like Star Wars: TIE Fighter, a true flight simulator, putting the emphasis on rewarding complexity instead of arcade action, and Star Wars: Republic Commando, that followed a squad of clone troopers into a side of the Star Wars universe we hadn’t seen before. However, it was when LucasArts worked with other developers like BioWare and Pandemic Studios that produced some of the greatest Star Wars games like Knights of the Old Republic and Battlefront.
Of course, this article is supposed to be about how Star Wars influenced me as a game developer. I’ve never had an opportunity to make a Star Wars game (although I came close once or twice), but the films did influence me in one particular way. It has to do with a line that Princess Leia says in her hologram message: “General Kenobi, years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars.” Now, the original film never explained just what the Clone Wars were, but that little throwaway comment — and other details like that throughout the films — suggested an immense universe to explore and many stories to be told.
And so, when I’m designing a game, I try to imagine a world that’s larger than the world I actually need for my game, and then add those details into the game’s story and environment. Star Wars taught me that if you create an experience that goes beyond doing the minimum necessary to entertain people for the length of the experience, it might be something they are eager to return to again and again.
My most recent blog posts were about the impact Star Trek and James Bond had on my childhood and how both influenced my career in game development. The third, but certainly not the least, pop culture in influence on me was The Lord of the Rings, both the books by J.R.R. Tolkien and the films by Peter Jackson. From my childhood up through today, the One Ring continues to work its influence on me.
Until I was twelve years old, I was much more of a reader of science fiction — especially Silver Age writers like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein — than of fantasy. But that all changed when my closest friend in elementary school, Craig Ames, told me about a book he had just read, a book about a magic ring that everyone wanted to get a hold of. Well, that didn’t sound too exciting to me, but my best friend recommended it, so I had to give it a read.
And read it, I did — all three books in the trilogy, over a three-day weekend. I was so captivated by the story, it was as if the Balrog of Moria had fallen through the chasm and landed right on top of me. The sheer depth of imagination Tolkien displayed in creating an entire fictional world astounded me. The detailing taught me a lot about immersion, which I tried to emulate to a tiny degree in some of the video games I would later create. But most of all, it was the characters who appealed to me — the wise Gandalf, the steadfast Aragorn, the loyal Sam, and most of all, the martyr Frodo, who saved Middle-earth for everyone except himself.
I then read all of Tolkien’s other works — The Hobbit, of course, the children’s book that Tolkien wrote 1937, thirteen years before its sequel, The Lord of the Rings; his medieval fable Farmer Giles of Ham; and his charming short story Leaf by Niggle. I collected all sorts of reference material others authors wrote describing and analyzing Tolkien’s works, including The Guide To Middle-earth by Robert Foster and The Atlas of Middle-earth by Karen Wynn Fonstad. And of course, there were those wonderful Tolkien calendars illustrated by the Brothers Hildebrandt, which inspired me to draw my own illustrations of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and briefly consider an eventual career as an artist.
I was crushed when my mother told me in 1973 that she just read I of Professor Tolkien’s death. It news affected me more than even the tragic assassinations of the 1960’s, and I shut myself up in my room for a couple of days to mourn the loss of someone who opened a whole new (fantasy) world to me. However, I was relieved when Tolkien’s son Christopher proved to be so prolific in completing so many other works of his father, such as Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, The Children of Húrin, and especially, The Silmarillion, a narrative describing the creation and history of Middle-earth.
I lost contact with my friend Craig when we went to separate high schools, so I had no one to share my love of Tolkien’s work with until I went to college. There I met Lee Garig, who headed up the local chapter of The Tolkien Fellowships, a network of Tolkien fans founded by Bernie Zuber in the 1970s. Lee introduced me to her chapter, consisting mostly of fellow students at Cal State Northridge. Everyone adopted the name of a Tolkien character. Lee was our Frodo, and we also had a Sam (Therese Burr), Merry (Sue Corner), Pippin (Ellen Weinstein), Treebeard (Doug Farjardo), Aragorn (Mark Schlosberg), Boromir (Todd Hansen), Gimli (Albert Monroe), Galadriel (Susie Rose), Celebrian (Kathi Sea), and Fëanor (the late Earl St. Clair). I adopted the role of Legolas, despite my dark hair, mainly because I thought archery was cool (long before it became cool in current movies).
Not only did our group meet monthly to discuss Tolkien’s works, we hung out and did everything together: attending science fiction conventions, watching movies (including Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of Lord of the Rings), going to Renaissance Fairs and Society of Creative Anachronism medieval tournaments, and marching in Pasadena’s annual Doo-Dah Parade (a parody of the Tournament of Roses parade). Our Fëanor also ran game sessions of his own version of Dungeons & Dragons, a game that taught me many fundamental principles of game design, including systems, randomness and theme.
Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to develop a game based on Tolkien’s works. The closest I came was when I was hired as development director of The 3DO Company’s Heroes of Might & Magic franchise, an extremely popular fantasy turn-based-strategy game. The armies that the player accumulates consist of all sorts of fantasy creatures, including Tolkien-inspired ones such as elves, dwarves, and halflings (the word “hobbit” is trademarked by Middle-earth Enterprises, and so we couldn’t use it). I even got to become a character in the game when I returned from a short vacation and found that my development team had adding in a “Sir Mullich” character with this description: “Generally stoic, Sir Mullich is prone to spasmodic fits of uncoordinated excitement believed to intimidate his troops into working faster.” Okay, it wasn’t as cool as Legolas, but I allowed them to keep it in the game.
One day while taking a break from my Heroes work, I was looking at a list of upcoming film productions the movie website Ain’t It Cool News and was shocked to see that Lord of the Rings was going to be made into a live action film. Now, I had seen Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of half the story (his film only covered events up to the Battle of Helm’s Deep, but he wasn’t able to secure funding to do a second film chronicling the rest of the story). I couldn’t see how Tolkien’s characters and world could be done in live-action, and I started reading everything I could online about the film’s production.
A lot of other Tolkien fans were interested in the films as well, many of who were skeptical of the project being undertaken by a director known previously only for low-budget horror films and fearful of what liberties he might take with the story. The director, Peter Jackson, became an instant celebrity in his home country of New Zealand, where he was filming the picture, and so the local press produced a news story about the production at least once a day. Much of what they reported did sound alarming to Tolkien purists — Saruman dying by falling on a spiked wheel and Legolas riding a surf shield in battle — but there were also a lot of false rumors being reported by fans, such as Arwen becoming a member of the Fellowship.
To separate fact from rumor, I began compiling a list of all the documented changes Jackson was making to the storyline for his adaptation, as well as the rumors that I could prove to be false. I eventually published this list, which I called Ancalagon’s Complete List of Film Changes, on every Tolkien message board I could find. Soon I became more famous for being the author of this list than I was for my work in game development, and I was being interviewed as a “Tolkien expert” in everything from the local newspaper to an article Wired magazine published on Tolkien fandom.
The most popular Tolkien message board on the internet, Tolkien Online (aka theonering.com), run by Jonathan Watson and Ted Tschopp, offered a permanent home for Ancalagon’s list, as well as an opportunity to be a news reporter and message board moderator. As moderator, my main task was to stop flame wars between Tolkien purists and “revisionists” (those who accepted story changes as necessary in a film adaptation). However, the real fun for me was being a news reporter, which provided me with an outlet for my obsessions with the films: one day I published a total of 27 Tolkien-related news articles.
My biggest scoop came when a fan contacted me with a link to a file stored on New Line Cinema’s server that proclaimed that Donald Sutherland would be playing Denethor. What made this exciting news was that actor John Noble was supposed to be portraying the role. So, like any investigative reporter, I managed to track Noble down and ask him via email whether he was still in the movie. Unfortunately, he declined to answer my questions and instead directed me to New Line’s Online Marketing representative, Wendy Rutherford, who always had been very nice to us Tolkien news sites, sending us all sorts of promotional materials, but quite properly admonished me to trying to speak to the actors directly. I never did find out what the Donald Sutherland connection was all about.
One Lord of the Rings actor I was able to meet in person was Sean Astin, who played Frodo’s loyal servant, Samwise Gamgee. About a month before The Fellowship of the Ring premiered, Sean appeared at a Beverly Hills bookstore-signing event for a movie art book. I covered the event for Tolkien Online and brought my oldest son, Ben, who was 8-years-old at the time, and we got to have a picture taken with our favorite Hobbit, who many readers (including myself) consider to be the real hero of the story.
Ben was an accomplished reader for his age, and when our local Barnes & Noble bookstore in Santa Clarita started hosting a weekly Lord of the Rings reading group, it was an easy sell to convince him to go with me every Tuesday night. One evening, a new member showed up at our group — Chris Pirotta, who I knew by the nickname Calisuri, the webmaster of the most popular Tolkien news site on the internet, TheOnerRing.Net. What made this an even more amazing coincidence was that Chris had just moved to Santa Clarita from Pennsylvania because his fiancé was attending college there.
Now, there had been a history of animosity between our two sites because Tolkien Online had managed to snag the domain name theonering.com just minutes before TheOneRing.Net did, and so they wound up with the less popular .net prefix. However, Calisuri and I became friends, and we worked to end the feud between our two sites. In fact, Calisuri invited Jonathan, Ted and myself to the lavish Oscar parties they hosted from 2002 through 2004, when The Lord of the Rings films were nominated for awards. After the Oscar ceremonies, the film cast and crew would show up at the TheOneRing.Net’s party first, to thank the fans for their support of the films. The 2004 Party was particularly memorable because The Return of the King had swept the Oscars that night, and afterwards Peter Jackson himself, along with Elijah Wood, Dominic Monaghan, John Rhys-Davies, screenwriter Philippa Boyens, and composer Howard Shore, among others, came to our party.
Once the three films were released, my obsession with them started to ebb. I did interview for two jobs as on Lord of the Rings online. The first was as a development director at developer Turbine Studios, but although everyone agreed I was a perfect fit, I couldn’t agree to relocate to the East Coast. A couple of years later, I interviewed for a producer position at publisher Warner Brothers Interactive in Burbank, but although I thought I was a perfect fit, I wasn’t offered the position. As for my son Ben, his interest in The Lord of the Rings waned, but he took up a new interest: Harry Potter. He was such an articulate fan of the books and the films, that for nine years, he became the official Harry Potter expert of Los Angeles’ most popular morning radio program, The Bill Handel Show, where he gave a review of each new Potter book and film as it came out.
Tolkien became an active presence in my life again when Peter Jackson produced his trilogy of films based on The Hobbit. Although the films themselves were not of the quality of Jackson’s Rings films, the did provide an opportunity for TheOneRing.Net to hold a new trilogy of Oscar Parties, the final one being at The American Legion Hall in Hollywood. Once again, Calisuri was kind enough to invite my wife, Charlotte, and me to this fun event, where we had an opportunity to cavort with other Tolkien fans.
The excitement surrounding The Hobbit films also turned my youngest son Timothy into a Tolkien fan — maybe an even bigger one than I am. He watches the Lord of the Rings films incessantly and his room is decorated with all sorts of Tolkien memorabilia that he has collected at film events and been given as Christmas presents. Even the Legolas costume he wore one Halloween was far better than the one I used to wear in my college days (and his hair is appropriately blonde too!).
Timothy also had an opportunity to meet Sean Astin, just as his brother Ben did 14-years-ago. Sean is hosting a new documentary show about the game industry, and a couple of months ago, he and a film crew visited The Los Angeles Film School to do a segment about our Game Production program. As the coordinator for the event, I made arrangements to have Sean meet Timothy, who later told me, “That was the coolest thing ever!”
I couldn’t have put it better myself1 Forty-five years after I first read The Lord of the Rings, it continues to be the coolest thing ever! J.R.R. Tolkien created a world so immense and immersive, that it continues to overlap into my own.