More than a game
In the rich history of computer games there is a lot of titles that brought groundbreaking concepts. But if you were to look for a game, which revolutionized the look of the computer game world, also for the people that never held a joystick in their hands, only one immortal series comes to mind- Wing Commander.
I have a strong feeling that every one of you one time or another has played one part of the Wing Commander series, or at least set in the same futuristic world, Privateer 1 and 2. I believe that almost everybody threw the brutal Kilrathi race on their furry knees, earned the name of "Heart of the Tiger", defeated the traitor Tolwyn, and finally with success stood against the new threat foretold in the ancient Prophecy.
I do think though, that not many of the proud pilots of the Confederation from the group of CD Action readers realize the huge cultural impact of the Wing Commander series - it's influences on literature, television, movies, music, and finally the start of a huge worldwide fanbase. The article which you're reading, will be about Chris Roberts' space saga, and the not so well known fruits of inspiration which it created. First, let's remind ourselves the story, how "it was", or rather "will be".
History..... of the future
The action of the space saga takes place in the distant future (the 27th century) when Humans reached a technological state that allowed them the exploration of space. So, the Confederation from the Blue Planet colonizes new planets when suddenly it's attacked by an alien race of cat-like Kilrathi. The hostile civilization is so culturally different than ours, that there is no talk of a simple solution, in the Kilrathi culture there are no such words like surrender, or peace... That's how begins a war that is to last almost half a century and almost completly destroy both species. Soon, new generations than don't remember peace are born. The galactic war goes on, and Humans fall behind the aliens in the war effort...
In the first part of Wing Commander (released nine years ago) the player is a young rookie pilot, who is assigned to the TCS Tiger's Claw. During his tour of duty he meats his friends and enemies, and also the love of his life - a pilot "Angel" Deveraux... At the time it was released the game was revolutionary - a flight simulator connected with a rich story presented as animated cutscenes.
Three years later a second part - Vengeance of the Kilrathi was released. Our hero, despite his achievements, is convicted of treason that led to the destruction of the Tiger's Claw by enemy ships, and is sent to the Caernarvon station on the edge of nowhere. The new invasion of the "cat-like" mobilizes every active Terran pilot. The alter ego of the player is given an assignment on board the super warship Concordia. That's where he'll have to start over his career... In the second part of Wing Commander the bitmap engine was upgraded along with many other things. The real revolution and the quality jump (not only to the series, but to the whole computer game industry) brought the third episode Heart of the Tiger. Chris Roberts came up with the idea to dump the animated cutscenes, and replace them with interactive FMV cutscenes with real actors. The idea turned out to be a great one, especially since the young director was able to get great Hollywood actors - Mark Hamill, Tom Wilson, Malcolm McDowell, John Rhyse Davis, Ginger Lynn and others to work with him in creating this first real interactive movie. In the Heart of the Tiger our hero is given the name of Christopher Blair, and now he's not a rookie, but the largest ace in the Confederation. The war with Kilrathi goes very wrong, and the only chance for humanity, the project Behemoth under the eye of Admiral Tolwyn, ends with a fiasco. The ultimate victory brings Blair in the fighter armed with the wonderful T-bomb, which causes a tectonic armageddon on Kilrah. The cats surrender to Blair...
The huge success of the Heart caused the budget of the next part, titled The Price of Freedom, to nearly double. The plot also grew, exploring the little known areas of conspiracy and dark intrigue.
After years of fighting with the Kilrathi, Blair looks for peace in a life as a farmer. But he is again called back to duty when the tension between the Confederation and it's ally - The Union of Border World, grows. Nothing is what it seems however. The Conflict with the border colonies is a cover for the appearance of a secret organization, the Black Lance, which is a serious threat for the Confederation as well as the Border Worlds, and is led by... Admiral Tolwyn. In Wing Commander IV we watch Blair torn between his loyalty to the Confederation and his friends, between the orders from people above him and the voice of his heart, which gives the directors a chance to create not only a great drama but also a deeper picture of Blair's character. Talk about WC IV and the reasons for it's success could be a separate text by itself, but we will go straight to the fifth part of the saga - Wing Commander: Prophecy. The title is great, but Wing Commander: The Next Generation would be more fitting.
The action takes place long after the end of the Terran-Kilrathi war and the Black Lance conflict. The budget for military spending was cut, and the Confederation is policing the borders of the known universe. The cats are rebuilding their empire... when suddenly and new race, foretold in an ancient prophecy, appears and destroys everything in it's path. During that dangerous time, a young pilot Casey - son of Iceman from the first part of the series - is assigned to a new carrier, the Midway. And that's where the old heroes, let the new ones take over, and it doesn't come out to good for the game, because the new actors don't have the class of Hamill or Rhys Davis.. Casy and his friends fight the dangerous civilization of Mantu, but the world is again saved by Christopher Blair who sacrifices AS IT SEEMS FOR NOW (since the creators obviously left a possibility of his return) his life. Prophecy ends somewhat like "Empire Strikes Back", in the middle of a conflict, while the end is still far in the future. How will the war end? No one knows - the additional missions Secret Ops that were distributed over the internet, don't show us the final battle with the civilization of Mantu. The future remains a mystery...
When we look closely at Wing Commander, we'll see some similarities with known movies and TV space operas. Aren't the Kilrathi similar to the Klingons from Star Trek? Isn't the flight deck of the Victory a slightly modified runway of the Battle Star Galactica? Isn't the drop of the T-bomb on Kilrah similar to the ending of Star Wars. Yes and no.
You can find many similarities, most of them however are almost meaningless. The elements of other, well known, series, movies and novels weren't simply copied or stolen, but were more of an inspiration, which Roberts and people that came after him used very effectively. The strength of Wing Commander is a specific climate, the atmosphere of a ship with a bar full of characters, with a killboard and a military-styled look of various places on the ship.
The characters, somewhat based on the pilots form World War II, move the game closer to a war epic than some mindless heroes and their adventures in the Never-Never land which are often served to us in various other space sims. A great idea was the limitation of intelligent beings in the universe - unlike something like Star Wars, where practically everywhere you can find a new alien, in Wing Commander there are Terrans, Kilrathi (and later Mantu), and that gives the whole series more realism. Realism that is so desperately needed in the science fiction genre comes out beautifully in Roberts's creation. In the next parts of the series the universe was enlarged in an intelligent way. Each new episode pushed the borders of the imagination further and further.
Expanding the vision:
The expansion of horizons of the wonderful new universe didn't take place only in games. At about the time of the premier of Heart of the Tiger, books based on Roberts' fantasy started appearing and - I have to say - they weren't just any books. WC: Freedom Flight was written by Mercedes Lackey (along with Ellen Guon) - known and extremely talented science fiction writer, the WC3 adaptation written by R. Forstchen, a hard core sci fi writer that's moving up in the rankings. It turned out that Fleet Action, is read not only by the gamers, but also by people who never even played the game. The success of the first wave of WC novels motivated the writers to expand their story. To this day there have been about ten WC novels published. In many of them Christopher Blair is not the hero, but rather Jason "Bear" Bondarevsky - a young pilot, soon to became one of Confederations aces. The change of the main character is a clear sign that Wing Commander is not only a story of Blair, but a whole universe, in which story's of different people can be played out. As well as different Kilrathi.
Wing Commander inspired not only professional writers... Even the fans picked up their pens (or rather keyboards) and started creating their own versions of adventures of the WC heroes. Many of those works can still be found on the internet.
How to kick down the legend:
The success of games and novels inspired the expansion of Wing Commander to other media. Unfortunately, on these two new fronts Chris Roberts' saga suffered a total failure. First an animated series was created - Wing Commander: Academy, whose action takes place twenty years before the story of the games. The poor, ugly line, and very weak animation combined to the failure, and WC: Academy didn't even get one whole seson.
Roberts, as a director also failed miserably, presenting a not-so-well thought out contradiction to the games. In the following episodes the plot of WC1 and WC2 was mixed without much thought, and the Kilrathi were transformed from dangerous enemy's to meat that pushed along the series.
Even worse was the Wing Commander movie, deserving the total failure it got at the box office. It's especially sad, because if Roberts had kept the concept and actors from the game, the cinematic Wing Commander would probably be a success. Unfortunately very, very few things from the games remained in the movie. The cast was changed (for worse - Freddie Prinze jr. is no Mark Hamill) and the ships (for worse - the new Rapiers were "made" from part of old planes found on a dump. The Kilrathi were completely changed (for worse, besides, the new Kilrathi were half as expensive as the ones in the game), and also uniforms (from elegant, new designs to some old ones, obviously inspired by the Red Army).
Additionally some talk about Pilgrims was included, and the audience was treated like morons, I'll mention the scene were Paladin explains to our heroes (read, the audience) what was the mythical Scylla. The movie angered many of the fans. Many of them boycotted the movie, because of which it brought a very small profit, and in many american theaters it was taken of the screens after a week since it's premiere. Ironically, the man guilty for this failure was the man who created the legend - Chris Roberts. The only thing that could excuse him is the microscopic budget, with which he could work (officially $27 million, in reality probably even less). I bet a night with Angel Deveraux, that it was the thin wallet that dictated (almost) all changes in the vision and cast of the movie.
However, anyone who would think that the big failure of the Wing Commander movie could bring down the fan base. A complete opposite occurred - the fans got together. Some net-based RPG's were created, and the huge site WCNEWS began to expand like never before. Because of the fans of this space saga a card game based on their beloved universe was created, as well as tons of modifications and additions to the games. One of the most interesting fan projects is the computer film "Incursion", which will soon be distributed over the internet.
It's been ten years since the premiere of the first Wing Commander. Even though many stars have died out since the release of the last game in the series, the world created by Chris Roberts didn't die, and won't die as long as there'll be people who consider the history of our conflict with the Kilrathi and Mantu as one of the most beautiful computer adventures they lived through. You can't hide it, we probably won't see a new Wing Commander. Among the fans a rumor is circulating of the release (in about two years...) of set in the same universe Privateer 3. It is supposed to allow space combat as well as trade to players all over the world thanks to the internet. Will it really happen? Only Sivar knows.
PS, In this shortened look into the future I couldn't mention the add-ons to WC1, WC2 as well as the spin-off series - Privateer.