Tangibility in Deep Space: The Cockpits of Star Wars: Squadrons
Touch is not a feeling I often equate to games, well, beyond the act of touching and manipulating a gamepad. Touch, in-game, is rarely something of merit. In The Elder Scrolls, we just press a button and items will be saved into our inventory, but in Red Dead Redemption 2 almost every action has deliberate animation and many of them are born out of touch. L.A. Noire lets players engage with crime scenes in intimate detail (often in a first-person closeup with Detective Cole’s hands in-frame as he manipulates objects) and that game comes close to making the power of touch resonate through the screen. The Elder Scrolls whiffs because it is just not concerned with it and Red Dead Redemption 2 misunderstands the power of touch with being overly deliberate to the point of becoming tedious. EA’s Star Wars dogfighting sim (lite), Star Wars: Squadrons, does not fall prey to the same issues as it finds the perfect marriage between the tangibility of touch and gameplay.
Locked in a first-person cockpit view, Star Wars: Squadrons sees players playing as both The Empire and The Rebels throughout a relatively short (and narratively dead on arrival) campaign and in a robust and genuinely fantastic multiplayer suite. The familiar ships, sights, and sounds of the Star Wars canon helps build a quick familiarity with the game—X-Wings look and sound like X-Wings and Tie Fighters look and sound like Tie Fighters. At face value, it is pretty simple. Two sets of different ships meetup in some fantastic space skyboxes and laser the shit out of each other. But Star Wars: Squadrons is so much more than that. It is an exercise in videogame tangibility and making in-game touch feel purposeful and powerful. Each cockpit feels lived in as if these pilots have gotten so used to their confines that they've made them personalized. Every first-person hang gesture feels both deliberate and without thought. The X-Wing pilot is so used to rerouting its power that their hand flicks over to the nob with ease and engages with it. Every part of the cockpit is necessary and never just for show—this goes for all of the game’s ships. Every screen and nob and button is key to the survival of the pilot and the core functions of the ship. There is a slight in-game HUD (it can be turned off) but all of the information one needs to properly fly and fight in their ship can be found directly in the cockpit.
Everything about the cockpit view adds a layer of tangibility and grounding that I have yet to feel in anything Star Wars related. People often talk about how the world of Star Wars, specifically the original trilogy, feels lived in, but I have never truly felt that. Yes, it is dirty. Yes, a lot of the text is analog. But these worlds and places and ships are always an arm’s length away. They are convincing tapestries that I will never be able to touch. Star Wars: Squadrons changes that. Being stuck in the cockpit of these fighters grounded me. Constricting my view and relationship to the Star Wars universe actually enhances my metaphysical bind to Star Wars. Seeing my player's hands move to and fro across their cockpit allowed me to get a better understanding of what it might be like to be in one of these ships and to what those nobs and buttons might feel like to interact it. Hearing them click becomes as true as watching a lightswitch flick on and off in my apartment. There is immense tangibility in these tiny, cramped spaces and the simple act of constraining one’s view just helps better place one into the world of the game itself.
Every action in Star Wars: Squadrons usually requires a few prerequisite actions in order for that first action to occur in the way that the player wants it to. This ushers in a verbal sense of tangibility insofar as nothing happens at the push of a button. Where Red Dead Redemption 2 curbed the instant gratification of gaming with a sense of physicality and slowness that just turned into mindlessness, Star Wars: Squadrons creates a sense of verbal grounding through step-process actions that are gratifying unto themselves. So, they never steep into tediousness. Yes, before engaging in combat one has to reroute power to their lasers, lock on to an enemy, get them in their crosshairs, lead their shots, and then fire. Where most games would just be aiming and then firing, Squadrons adds further steps that ground the player in the reality of the world and the vehicle that they are controlling. And none of these individual actions are boring, in fact, they are all fun because, well, it is Star Wars. The sonic and visual signifiers of Star Wars go a long way in making the mundane moments of combat masterful. And the physical affordances of the designs of the cockpits relate us to them because they look familiar and we can guess what most of the buttons and monitors do, and from one look we can ascertain how they work. Nothing in-game, to me, feels as good as repairing my ship. It is just a simple button press that leads to a quick animation but that one animation does so much work in the field of tangibility and giving Star Wars a sense of feeling, of physical texture. A virtual hand clicks a button and then the ship’s health monitor once again returns to green. The button makes a clicking sound as the finger presses it, and we can see that the button does not give easily. It takes a minor force to press. And it is through this simple cocktail of sound and animation that immediately places me in the cockpit. I can almost smell the stale sweat and laser burned metal.
I do not ask games to place me into their worlds—I am often more than fine with engaging with these digital creations from a reserved distance. Star Wars: Squadrons affords no such option. From the get-go, the player is tasked with falling headfirst into a world of immense tangibility and affordances and signifiers that, while steeped in science fiction, feel as close to home as shifting gears in a car. It is a rare thing for a game to evoke a real sense of physical touch, and to do so in such a visceral manner, but Star Wars: Squadrons does. Every part of the cockpits in every ship feel realized, designed with purpose, and relatable in the sense that each action made by the player’s digital hands just makes sense. Switches flip like switches, and buttons press like buttons. They click in a way that is immediately identifiable and relatable, and through that, a sense of tangibility imbues every single aspect of the game. The minutiae of spaceborne aerial combat becomes fully realized without becoming frustrating or mundane—engaging with the world of Star Wars remains fun while actually becoming slower and more deliberate. A sense of physical touch has been realized in Star Wars, and that is no small feat.
In this sort of epilogue, I want to touch on one awful aspect of the narrative of Star Wars Squadrons. Why does Star Wars constantly feel the need to humanize and ground space fascists? What is the point of that? Fascists are evil and do not deserve to be humanized. Many Star Wars fans have also called for seeing both sides of the wars in that galaxy far, far away. Doing so just shows that many folks have misread Star Wars at a fundamental level. What can we really learn from both sidesing a war where one side regularly engages with planetary genocide? The foot soldiers of The Empire are human beings but they are also foot soldiers of The Empire. Their stories do not need to be told and Star Wars Squadrons fundamentally misunderstands that. The opening mission tasks the player with seeking out a Rebel refugee ship and destroying it. One of the Imperial Tie Fighter pilots defects and saves the refugee ship. That pilot isn’t you. So, once again, I’ll ask: What is the fucking point?