Weekend Reader: The Themes of 9/11, and After, in TIE FighterS

TIE Fighter was released in 1994, a time in which serving as the instrument of an oppressive, corrupt government against insurgent forces didn't raise the kind of uncomfortable questions such a game would after Sept. 11, 2001.

But, however uncomfortable, there are similarities between the Empire's prosecution of its war on the Rebellion and hegemony in the Galaxy, and the United States' campaigns in the Middle East, writes L.B. Jeffries for PopMatters. They become especially relevant if TIE Fighter or the X-Wing franchise is due for a reboot from LucasArts, as has been rumored.

In TIE Fighter, you spy on your own, under secret orders. You attack both sides of a civil conflict ostensibly to project neutrality, then undermine both to impose your side's authority. You are engaged in a more symmetrical warfare, relying on strength of numbers to execute single tasks, than in X-Wing, when your spacecraft is taken up against larger odds and for multiple purposes. Overall, all of your missions are done in the name of a society grievously wronged by an attack of "terrorists." The very word is used in TIE Fighter's opening crawl.

This game would have a completely different meaning, and would probably be more controversial, and deliver more of the point Lucas supposedly intended to make with Star Wars: Episodes II and III, released in 2002 and 2005 respectively. Here is TIE Fighter, refracted through the prism of 9/11.

TIE Fighter: A Post 9/11 Parable

The thing about the Rebels in this series is that their tactics are the same as any insurgent group. A collection of cutscenes from X-Wing shows them planting a bomb in a cargo shipment by using fake imperial codes. This is similar to how the insurgents have operated in Iraq. An article for TIME interviewing insurgent leaders explains that they often use fake papers, IDs, and government sanctioned vehicles to sneak weapons and explosives past checkpoints. Flying suicidally into conflicts is also a common strategy in the X-Wing games. A standard tactic for taking down heavier ships is to drive a Corellian Corvette straight through the bridge of such ships. Although not quite the same as suicide bombings (the pilots usually eject before impact), both cutscenes show the Rebel's willingness to destroy capital ships by flying their craft into them. This tactic is even employed in the films, such as the memorable scene in Return of the Jedi when an A-Wing crashes into the bridge of a Super Star Destroyer. Noticing the connections between these two groups is not much of a stretch since many insurgencies work like this but only becomes harrowing after one examines the game's depiction of these groups in contrast to real world politics. After all, the Rebels are the heroes in Star Wars.

However, Tie Fighter has you working for a technically superior force trying to establish defenses and maintain order against an insurgency. The Empire builds their ships for one combat purpose unlike the Rebel's multi-tasking ships. The TIE Fighter and TIE Interceptor are for dogfighting. The Bomber and GUN Boat are useful for raiding larger ships. They are very good at these single functions. Imperial fighter craft abandon shields for the sake of speed, which almost always gives you the advantage in the game. Far from being a handicap, not having shields mostly teaches you to avoid getting shot at by always approaching a ship from behind. The basic maneuver of a TIE is to roar past the target ship, flip around, and match speed while you light up their tail pipe. The thing that gets you killed the most often is not enemy fire but just getting too close to ships that you engage allowing debris smash into you. Although some missions force you to work with ships outside their intended role, flying for the Empire for the most part means only engaging with ships that you have an advantage over. When flying a TIE you don't go near a capital ship because you won't last a minute against their turrets. When flying a Bomber you call in a Wingman to handle the faster A-Wings. Unlike in X-Wing, the game design teaches you to only engage with opponents you have an advantage over.

The Empire's reliance on sheer power is a theme present throughout the Star Wars canon. Enormous ships such as the Death Star are emblematic of the solution that the Empire employs: overpower your opponent. The game's cutscenes explore this theme in a variety of ways: after the repairs on an Imperial stronghold have been completed, the Empire discusses new weapons, Thrawn's promotion to Grand Admiral, or the constant tension of defecting officers selling or destroying technology. What is constantly at stake in each scene is power, whether it be represented by rank or technology.

[...]

While your commanding officer speaks with a stern British accent and rarely betrays any emotion, most of the game's strange parallels to a government besieged by terrorism comes from the instructions of the Secret Order. Prior to missions, a robed figure can be approached to explain your secondary mission objectives. One example of such secondary concerns is when you are assigned the task of inspecting a ship. Like an elaborate version of tag, you must fly extremely close to a ship to scan its contents often in the middle of heavy fire fights or simply by racing to catch the ship. It's a weird experience because it creates what EDGE Magazine describes as a sort of "bureaucratic joy." It's fun and thrilling to tag ships, yet the narrative defines this as the most mundane of activities. You will be inspecting ships all the time, sometimes without any real cause, and it remains engaging as another mission objective to be ticked off in service of the Empire.

What's disturbing about this task is how much it involves eavesdropping on fellow officers. In the second battle (the game consists of several battles each of which contain five or so missions), the Secret Order commands you to inspect cargo ships whenever you can. Essentially, you are tasked with spying on people for the Emperor. It's hard to not be reminded of the Patriot Act and warrantless wire tapping while doing this. Just as evidence emerged that Bush had been tapping phone calls since 2004 and possibly even before 9/11 without a warrant, the game's snooping missions become an awkward reminder of post-9/11 politics. Often your commanding officer will ask why you're deviating from the flight path for an inspection. In the Fourth battle, there are several instances where your spying turns up nothing. The representative of the Secret Order simply shrugs and says that it's always a good idea to check.

Another example of the results of these secondary goals is how capturing prisoners for the Empire becomes an exercise in careful phrasing and tiptoeing around the consequences. The very first mission of the game involves inspecting cargo ships and discovering Rebels fleeing from Hoth. In this mission and subsequent battles, you are always instructed to disable the craft and defend the boarding parties. When your commanding officer or the Secret Order explain what will happen to these people, they use phrases such as "interrogation" or imply that they will be sending them to prison. Yet at the end of the fifth battle when a defecting Admiral is captured, we see what really happens. Vader uses the Force to lift the screaming Admiral into the air and then all we see is a closing fist and the sound of bones crushing. As more and more documents are disclosed about the US waterboarding suspected terrorists, it's hard to not remember similar wordplay being employed in the media.

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Ten days after 9/11, President Bush announced to the nation, "Freedom itself is under attackā€¦[they] hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to assemble and disagree with each other." Lynne Cheney chastised Humanities professors who did not teach that society "[was] best exemplified in the West and indeed in America." A publisher's ad for Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About America claimed that anyone who disagreed with him sowed the seeds of terrorism. William Bennett's book Why We Fight, claimed that everyone that he quoted and argued with "sowed widespread and debilitating confusion" and "weakened the country's resolve." Today, politicians still defend or attack a bill because it is an enemy of "freedom."

In TIE Fighter, the Emperor rallies his followers after the destruction of the Death Star by proclaiming, "The Empire is on the verge of success. Soon, peace and order will be restored throughout the Galaxy. Even now, our capable forces, led by Darth Vader, are striking back at the Rebel insurgents." As an Imperial pilot, you are constantly assured that you are spreading peace and order with each battle. Rebels, pirates, unruly aliens, all of them are lumped together under the general designation of being the enemies of that noble cause. In America, numerous unfavorable groups were labeled terrorists in the wake of 9/11. Even marijuana growers were referred to as terrorists. Buzzwords like "freedom" or "socialism" are replaced with the need to maintain "peace" and "order" in TIE Fighter. The Imperial government is consistently depicted as a political entity relying on both rhetoric and power.

- L.B. Jeffries

Weekend Reader is Kotaku's look at the critical thinking in, and of video games. It appears Saturdays at noon.