Making Star Wars Look Like Star Wars Is More Difficult Than It Looks

Illustration for article titled Making Star Wars Look Like Star Wars Is More Difficult Than It Looks

What makes Star Wars look like Star Wars? That's one of the questions that The Old Republic's lead designer, Jeff Dobson has to face repeatedly in the course of working on the upcoming MMO set in George Lucas' playground and, as he told us, he still can't really come up with a comprehensive answer. He knows what's right when he sees it, but when something is wrong, he can't always put his finger on why it's wrong. So is there a Star Wars aesthetic? And if so, what is it?Talking at last week's press junket to launch The Old Republic, BioWare's Dobson admitted that Lucasarts had been surprisingly hands-off in terms of the visual design of the groundbreaking MMO, giving only one specific design mandate: "Make sure that it's Star Wars-y." But what does that really mean? "Star Wars has a look and feel unlike anything else in science fiction," Dobson said, adding that "we've got a great team of guys who understand the Star Wars feel," but if pressed to come up with a specific definition of the Star Wars Style, he's still stumped. It's true; while everyone knows what looks "right" when it comes to Star Wars, it's hard to sum it all up into one easy explanation. Not that that stopped him from coming up with some guidelines to keep everyone on the right track:

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Illustration for article titled Making Star Wars Look Like Star Wars Is More Difficult Than It Looks

Keep It Dirty "Star Wars to [the design team's generation] is [Episodes] 4, 5 and 6," he explains, and it's the particular aesthetic of those movies is what the core Star Wars look boils down to for him. "[It's] the dirty sci-fi, it's not a polished and clean sci-fi. It's grittier [and] lived in." Mix And Match One of Dobson's favorite aspects of the movies is the incongruity created by (the then-necessity) of limited set-dressing meaning that pre-existing locations like the Skywalker Moisture Farm combined genuine old architecture with prop technology, something that he called "the practicality of ancientness mixed with technology." "We want to take things that exist and put [our] own spin on it," he added. Start Small The creation of new planets for the game started with the basics. "I'd tell [the designers], come up with two colors. What two colors is this planet based around?" Dobson said, admitting that this was as much the fine artist in him as the designer speaking. But keeping the palette simple helped differentiate all the different worlds in the game, and also helped the game be playable on older machines: "I want it to look right, and I want it to run on everyone's machine... It's a driving factor on everything we do that it's going to run on everyone's machine. When you only run on those high-end machines, I think you're shorting people."

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Illustration for article titled Making Star Wars Look Like Star Wars Is More Difficult Than It Looks

Don't Be Afraid To Change Things The larger Star Wars universe may be full of somewhat... unexpected concepts, but that doesn't mean that they're not savable. "Watching the Star Wars brand evolve... gave us a lot of confidence to try new stuff and think you know how that was over the top in the cartoon and worked? Let's do that... There's some wacky stuff in the [Expanded Universe]... The more outlandish stuff it is, the core of the canon, the movies, is cool. The stuff that's on the fringes, you can really make changes on it. It's boiling things down to its essence, that's your framework." Ultimately, however, Dobson's aim is simple:

I want to design something that's bulletproof to people just trying to look bad [through customizing their character]. It's like you're trying to ruin someone else's experience. We're trying to make something where you'll be bulletproof cool.

[Star Wars: The Old Republic]

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DISCUSSION

One of key element to the Star Wars ambience, especially as demonstrated in the Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, it that the technology is completely unethical and absolute. It has no regard whatsoever for the safety or comfort of its masters. It only exists to perform the most severe function in the most absolute way.

The engineering in the Star Wars universe follows the mandate that function is not focused on the user but upon the task.

Doors in Star Wars open and close dangerously fast. If you don't know how to go through a door in Star Wars it's best not to, you'll get crushed or sliced in half. Lightsabers are the same way- Don't touch them if you don't know how to handle them. Starships aren't large, they're huge. That's the very first impression of Star Wars, the blockade runner getting chased down by the disproportionately massive Star Destroyer. It's not enough just to build a tool to get something done in Star Wars, it has to be built to completely and utterly accomplish the task with no regard for anything else, least of all any of the inhabitants of this world.

The engineering therefore leads to the impression that there are larger agendas at play and that the events that are occurring are larger than the characters. This gives some perspective and sympathy to Luke's angst at the beginning of the film, his perceived inability to change the universe for the better or to fight the Empire.

Complimenting this is the cavalier attitude the inhabitants of this universe have when confronted with the risks of the technology they possess. The Millennium Falcon is as safe to ride on as is deactivating a tractor beam or crossing a bridge on the Death Star. Part of what made this universe so interesting is that the dangers were obvious to the audience but taken for granted by the characters. And neither Luke nor Han seem to worried about accidently severing one of their own limbs the first time they ignite a lightsaber, it's a danger they're accustomed to.

In effect, the technology that permeates Star Wars is for those who know what they're doing. It's darkly comical to witness the selection pressure of this type of technology and engineering on those who don't or for an audience member to imagine themselves in that situation.