Jedi Knight is a video game that predates the modern era of first person shooters’ preoccupation with realistic or rational settings. The first level, for example, is set in some sort of dense spaceport docking station, because this provides the video game with a reason to force you along narrow ledges, running along moving cranes or scaling tiny ramps that scaffold an empty shaft that spirals down into nothingness. Most of the levels are essentially challenges of vertical traversal; there’s the spaceport, there’s a refueling station, there’s a level that only involves scuttling along narrow ledges on the exterior of this immense tower and along elevator shafts. What I remember best about this game is a joyous feeling of vertigo, staring down into these vast empty spaces.
This game came out the year after Quake, and I think that developers were finally allowed to enjoy the possibilities of video game environments. They were capable of handling anything more complex than the traditional constructions of corridors connecting larger rooms full of enemies. So they went nuts and actually thought about the architecture of these worlds as more than monster-containers. Quake was the real champion of this new capability of design, since it had so much fun with an abstract design philosophy carried over from the bizarre days of Doom. The walls and floors of levels became shifting platforms, transforming into new constructions; a pool of water might open to a small room with a low ceiling, but a button on the wall would split the ceiling, which then became the floor of a much larger room above.
I’m interested in what these games did with architecture because the environments themselves are a more effective communication of my progress. The shifting platforms of Quake are the moving pieces of a mysterious puzzle that invite me to explore through the revealing of its constituent parts. It’s a successful design because the desire to find the exit to a level is subconscious. And I find it more satisfying than modern first-person shooters, which have reverted to a philosophy of single rooms, connected by corridors, which contain enemies. Except that now the single rooms have become “realistic” set-pieces which exist to deliver waves of bad guys I’m supposed to kill, and I only know that I’m doing it right when I reach a checkpoint and the game tasks me with some other objective. The design of the world itself has ceased to become part of the challenge. The levels no longer want to kill you.
Both Jedi Knight (and Quake) were successfully designed because the architecture of their worlds promoted a very free sense of movement. They understood the absolute value of fluid kinetic movement in a game with a first-person perspective. My character moves like he’s on a skateboard. Jedi Knight is a sort of Super Mario Bros analogue in which the challenge sometimes involves having the discipline to not hold down the ‘run’ button all the time, lest you throw yourself to your death. Much of the game involves leaping from precarious heights, but bile does not rise in my throat the same way that it would during “platformer sequences” in other games since I’m never making unlikely jumps because, I think, Jedi Knight just wants me to have a good time and feel like I’m an accomplished Jedi adventurer, rather than punish me with arbitrary challenges of movement. There is even a Force power dedicated to jumping.
Jedi Knight is successful as a video game because it is a game foremost concerned with the mechanics of a good first-person shooter rather than a game that must self-referentially flaunt its Star Wars license. It’s the story of a man understanding his own powers and avenging the death of his father and it happens to contain Stormtroopers and lightsabers as decoration for the satisfying feeling of using magical powers to push enemies off of cliffs. The story involves saving the galaxy, but for once it resists shoving a billion space ships and armies on the screen to make us feel like we’re involved in some epic struggle. The lightsaber mechanics themselves are badly dated and feel clumsy, unsatisfying, but the game doesn’t force me to use it so that I get The Guaranteed Jedi Experience. If I want to run around with the basic blaster rifle, then the game says – so be it.