From the rooftop, Chad could see the Texas sun slick across the asphalt with a sheen that reminded him of Vader’s helmet gliding through the Death Star’s corridors. Soon, that asphalt would be rushing toward him faster than a Force Push, and still he couldn’t stop thinking about a childish sci-fi franchise, a silly story that had never requited his love. He tossed the Kinect Star Wars disc like he was still a bro playing Ultimate Frisbee on the quad, and it spun lazily, glittering like fool’s gold as it fell. For the last two years, Chad had been deep its midichlorian-soaked world, and as he watched it drift downward, he asked himself, where did it all go wrong?
Like every game, they’d started with a stomach-churning burst of dread and anticipation. The Microsoft rep who first came to their studio to reveal their next big project was a fun guy, and his excitement over their motion controller got everyone psyched. He bounced around like a kid when he showed them how the camera could follow your moves, and even though his sloped, simian forehead and low-hanging arms produced a lot of never-to-be-repeated office jokes, everyone was geared up to finally be the ones to fulfill the dream of this generation’s motion controllers: a game that let you enact childhood lightsaber battles and have your every swipe translate to the screen.
It would have been great. Every time the programmers brought in a new prototype, Chad joined the staff in the hip, minimalist gaming room ready to fling himself around like he did the very first time he came out of Star Wars—we didn’t call it “A New Hope” back then, it was always just simple, awesome Star Wars—swinging his arms around so much his dad had to hold him with gentle restraint before he put a dent in some other family’s car. Mom laughed, and said he had imagination. And he did, back then, he really could imagine things. Even two years ago, when they started, he could imagine a game that would be a new standard in interactive entertainment.
But all the creativity in the world couldn’t solve the problem that turned every game-room gathering into a glum chorus of noncommittal grunts. It wasn’t the programmers’ fault, not really; it’s hard to create a consistent virtual swordfight when your real-world arms aren’t knocked back by an enemy’s parry, creating a constant displacement between your actual position and your character. But it was the tech that was the real killer; the Kinect’s tendency to lose track of your arms every time they crossed your torso meant the two-handed grip favored by the galaxy’s great Jedi just wasn’t possible, and every time they couldn’t implement an aspect of a real lightsaber duel (funny how he’d come to think of those glorious fictions as “real” over the years), Chad’s in-the-way arms would drop to his sides and he’d feel all his dreams draining slowly out of him, pulling his whole body down like a middle-aged gut.
Even two years ago, when they started, he could imagine a game that would be a new standard in interactive entertainment.
Everyone knew the lightsaber duels had to be the heart of a motion-controlled Star Wars game, so they’d built the whole single-player campaign around a great battle on the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk, with the player running, jumping, Force-flinging enemies around and slashing through waves of comical droids and sinister mercenaries. But nothing worked. The stench of failure drifted out of the little black Kinect and settled like a miasma over every aspect of the game, until even the basic level design and pacing was so confusing that they had to flash an icon on the screen every damn time they player was supposed to jump or dodge. When Chad tested builds of the levels, he felt like the developers were grabbing his limbs and waggling him like a marionette in a desperate attempt to simulate the appearance of fun. He would try to smile, sometimes, thinking that maybe if he just acted like he was having a good time he’d feel a little less like a mouse getting electrical prods, but he just couldn’t pretend any of this was like playing a video game. Guess he just didn’t have the imagination.
They all knew this project was going terribly wrong, and that was when Dave suggested that they add some mini-games. “This is basically a casual title anyway,” Dave chirped in the meeting, “So we can add some quick-to-learn mini-games, make ’em fun, and no one will even remember the problems with the campaign.” Chad wanted to like Dave (the higher-ups sure did), but he was enraged by Dave’s love of those easy solutions that made him management’s golden boy; it sometimes felt like Dave thought anyone who played their games was stupid. Maybe Dave was right. But no bad game has ever been redeemed by mini-games, why would this one be different? They threw in nice touches when they could: It was Chad’s idea to have C-3PO ask where you’d gone if you stepped out of the Kinect’s view, a fun joke that worked with the tech instead of fighting it. But a few nice touches don’t make up for slapping your customer in the face.
Still, it was the best idea anyone had, so they threw together a podracing game that didn’t provide any of the competitive violence of the real thing (“There’s that word again, Chad: ’real’!” he snarled at himself, “Whaddya still believe in interplanetary fairy tales?”), but at least steered consistently. It didn’t do anything that other Kinect racing games hadn’t already implemented, but at least it didn’t make you think the Kinect itself was a completely failed peripheral, and the higher-ups would like that.
They added a mini-game where you can stomp around as a Rancor, even based it on the arcade classic Rampage with lots of eating civilians and fighting off police; whatever Star Wars nostalgia they’d once felt was long dried up, so maybe recalling a beloved arcade title would make them feel like there was still some joy in the world. There was no reason to play Rancor mode more than once, no real challenge or exploration involved, but at least it let Chad stomp around and watch people scream, and he could pretend those people were all the executives who’d given him an impossible task and not enough time to finish it. After a few minutes of throwing droids and biting the heads off space colonists, the tears would start, and before he knew it, he’d be curled up on the industrial-carpeted floor, the Kinect watching him coldly while he sobbed like a goddamn baby, knowing no one would ever love this game he’d made, no one would ever remember it and feel innocent and happy the way they still felt about the stupid goddamn movies that got him into this mess.
And then there was the dancing game. After those sons of bitches at Harmonix got everyone tweeting that Dance Central was the only great game for the controller, management said it was time to put a dancing game into Kinect Star Wars, and hell, why not, it’s not like the project had any coherence or integrity left. Why not have Slave Leia shaking her bikini to sub-Weird Al pop-song parodies with Star Wars themes? At least it’d be fun, and that was something in short supply around the office these days. There was no real reason anyone would want to play it (the moves weren’t as fun as what those lousy Boston hipsters came up with for their dancing game, and it was only after the game went gold master that they realized they’d never put any kind of move training in), but at least it would get the Internet talking about them, if only to gawp at the sight of Stormtroopers dancing around to a “Y.M.C.A.” parody: “It’s fun to be in the Eeeempire today.” Jesus, Chad could remember when the frozen, monochromatic frowns of Stormtroopers were the first thing he thought of when his history professor talked about the faceless face of state terror, and now they were slapping their knees with their elbows and he’d made it happen.
Chad stepped to the edge of the roof. Was it time? The game was in stores now, and if he stood still, he could almost hear a thousand children cry out when they brought home the game that took so much of their hard-earned allowance and gave them an experience that was, at its very best, bad enough to be funny.
No. Chad wasn’t going to jump, and he knew it. Dave had been right all along; anyone who bought Star Wars merchandise had burned out their critical facilities more than a decade ago, and Microsoft was going to push this thing so hard that it wouldn’t matter if the disc had been nothing but a two-hour movie of the developers’ buttcheeks farting at the viewer, it would still sell just fine.
Chad took one last, longing look at the drop, imagining what a sweet relief it would be to have all his limbs shatter so completely that he’d never again have to jump around in front of his Xbox and watch a digital avatar pathetically try to follow him. Then he turned around and shuffled back to the elevator. Work had already begun on the sequel, and he had until Thursday to program three dance routines for Jar-Jar. This time, it was going to be great. This time, he knew it.