Colonel Christopher Blair is a man that spends an excessive amount of time walking through doors.
Of the roughly two hours of green screen conjured FMV in Wing Commander 3: Heart of the Tiger, I estimate that around four hundred percent of it involves the opening and closing of large steel doors.
It’s clear director Chris Roberts was very proud of those sliding doors, stalwart of mid-90’s sci-fi that they were. And so this brave vision of the future is defined: everybody rides painfully slow elevators, everybody drinks out of plastic blue cups, and door handles are but a distant memory. Truly, a utopia.
If this sounds overly glib, or even combative to you, that’s because I have a traumatic backstory with Wing Commander 3. In retrospect, these deep psychological wounds result from one of my all-time favourite bits of game design. At the time, however, it destroyed me.
The white hot torch beam of hype can often blind us to the reality of a game’s quality, but I was rendered starry-eyed with excitement for Wing Commander 3 by that most tantalizing of Pandora’s boxes: Parental Disapproval. The European 3DO cover has a large, red ‘15’ age restriction in the lower right corner. I was nine.
“You know that Mark Hamill is just an actor that plays Luke Skywalker, don’t you? He’s not actually Luke Skywalker”
Yes Mum I can tell the difference between fiction and reality. I thought, secretly still suspecting that Mark Hamill was actually Luke Skywalker.
Long story short; petulant, chubby 9 year old me eventually got my way. Before you know it, my fat fingers are fumbling Disk 1 of four into the 3DO disk slot, ready to be transported to a world of B-Movie grade acting and unspeakably complicated controls.
Playing Wing Commander 3 over this past weekend, I can report that it’s not an overly complex game. Chris Robert’s love for detail is clear, but it wisely veers more towards flashy arcade dogfights than full simulation. There’s some stuff with power rerouting and decoys and lock-ons but really, you just line up the center of the screen with the enemy ships, remember to evade when something’s behind you, and you’re good to go. The space combat is what made the game engaging, but it isn’t what made the game special.
Special is, of course, a relative term, but unless you were around for the golden era of green screens, it’s difficult to convey exactly how immersive those FMV sequences were. Between missions, you can gaze at fuzzily rendered stars rush by from the bridge of the SS victory while Flint reminisces about her homeworld. Or watch Captain Eissen try to remain stoic during panicked missions briefings. It makes the game’s branching mission structure and potential plot changes feel more vital than they should considering how hammy the acting can be. If you fail, you’re not just failing a bunch of pixels – you’re contributing to the deaths of people you’ve come to care about, or at least to more worry lines on Eissen’s forehead.
And when I say fail, I do mean fail. This is where the trauma I mentioned earlier comes in. If you lose a mission in Wing Commander 3, providing you either return to your flagship or eject before you get turned into space dust, the story continues. Fail too many missions, and the game will set you down a story path that’s impossible to win. It’s the sort of consequence heavy narrative I think most of us are starved for now, hence the resurgence of roguelikes and 80-hour CRPG’s. When I first played, to have my character brutally, canonically murdered in a fully rendered cutscene left me physically shaking. I could have reloaded an earlier save, but again, I was nine. And also an idiot.
So, what’s changed in twenty years? The visuals have aged pretty horrifically, although that’s to be expected. The combat holds up surprisingly well. Plus, there’s still a lot of satisfaction to be had imagining the scent of singed fur as you land a perfect hit on barrel rolling Kilrathi fighter. What I hadn’t expected is what an utter shithead Mark Hamill’s character is. I’m hesitant to spoil anything because I’m going to recommend that you track down a copy and play it. Just come back here after you get to the twist. Let me know in the comments how you think Blair handles it. Slight Spoilers: Like a dick. He handles it like a freshly baked dick biscuit.
Director and writer Chris Roberts is now (in)famously involved in Star Citizen, but I don’t have the industrial sized worm-can opener required to get into that right now. Summarized, it looks like it’s either vapourware or the greatest game ever made, depending on who you ask. Whatever happens with Star Citizen, both Wing Commander 3 and its direct sequel remain bizarre and wonderful time capsules. They’re emblematic of a certain period in gaming’s history. Celebratory of their unique potential as visceral simulation. But also, deeply insecure that they weren’t granted the same level of artistic legitimacy as film. They might not still be technically that special. But hey, if you like watching a slightly haggard, slightly paunchy Mark Hamill walk through doors in space, look no further.