Star Wars: A New Hope set every box office record you could think of in 1977. It’s not like it was some kind of secret nerd treasure that none of the “cool kids” ever saw. Everyone liked the movie, wore the shirts, played with the toys. All the same, not everyone was a nerd for it. Not everyone has wanted to let their head live inside Star Wars for their entire lives. But I have.
Writing about “nerds” on the cusp of 2020 is a strangely delicate balancing act. On the one hand, the stigma of “nerdiness” is still a strong underlying current. As comedian John Roy (@johnroycomic on Twitter) so aptly puts it: “If you wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons when I was in high school, you needed three friends who could keep a secret.” On the other hand there’s “nerd” stuff everywhere you look, from Game of Thrones to Marvel’s cinematic dynasty to Stranger Things. The same people who would have laughed at a LAN party in 1998 are now business commuters playing Fortnite on their phones. The hobby board games that you used to have to order from Germany (and then scour the internet for a rules translation) are on the shelf at your local Target. Comic-Con reveals about obscure Marvel heroes make headlines on CNN.
I’m a nerd. No shame here. I’m sitting in my office surrounded by Stormtrooper bobbleheads and a Star Wars coffee mug depicting all the lightsabers from the first six movies in the trilogy. (The lightsabers “ignite” when you fill it with a hot beverage. It’s awesome.) I’m a sports nerd, too. And a trivia nerd, a movie nerd, a sci-fi nerd, a gamer nerd, a beer nerd, a pro-wrestling nerd. There’s a theme here. Nerdiness isn’t about the subject of your obsession, necessarily. You can be a nerd about anything. Nerdiness is about the passion, the way it grabs a hold of your brain and won’t let go.
I get how other people see it because (like anyone) I’m not a nerd about everything. I like Harry Potter or Star Trek well enough, but they don’t live in my brain like some other things do. Star Wars, though. That grabbed hold of me at 3 or 4 years old and has never let go.
The amazing thing for me about the Star Wars universe is that it kept growing up with me, creating new opportunities for me to spend time with the planets, the characters, the ideas. When I was a kid, it was the action figures. My dad went out on his lunch break every payday to pick me up a new one. If I’d kept them in the packaging, I could probably buy a house with them now. Instead I did what any kid should do and played with them until the paint wore off. I’d build intricate tableaus covering my entire playroom, creating hundreds of new stories and telling them to myself under my breath the whole time.
Then came the flight-simulator computer games, two modern classics: X-Wing and Tie Fighter. Decades later, they remain two of the best video-game designs I’ve ever played. They captured the feel of the movies (with now-laughable early-’90s graphics) and put me in the pilot’s seat of my favorite ships and the biggest battles. Those two were just the beginning. With every game, my imagination built on the story the game told and made it my own — just a geeky kid with regrettable glasses and a mouthful of braces blasting my way down the Death Star trench and helping Luke Skywalker save the universe. There were more games, of course: 3-D shooters like Dark Forces and Jedi Knight, where I plowed through hundreds of Stormtroopers; and flight simulators and adventure games like Rogue Squadron and Shadows of the Empire, which let me fly a Snowspeeder at the Battle of Hoth, taking down AT-ATs with a tow cable over and over again.
I’ve played miniature tabletop dogfights with a fleet of 1/270-scale ships and a bunch of rulers to show you how far you can move. I’ve run pen-and-paper role-playing campaigns with my players pulling out all the stops to escape vengeance after stealing a load of contraband from a powerful Hutt crime lord. The stories forming in my head have never stopped.
There have been dozens and dozens of Star Wars toys and board games and video games over the decades, and many of them do a great job of capturing the magic of the originals. Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR), a video role-playing game from the early 2000s, is one of my top-five all-time-favorite gaming experiences to this day. It goes farther than the rest. KotOR is one of the best Star Wars stories, period. I’d put it ahead of Episode II, even, if you choose to play through as a “good” Jedi character, and I’d probably put it ahead of all three prequels when you play it as a conniving, power-mad Sith Lord. I’ve done both, multiple times, because the story is good enough to make 40 hours of gameplay feel insufficient. As someone who has spent his life living in the Star Wars galaxy in his imagination, KotOR is the closest thing to living in it for real.
Those games and experiences kept the magic of the movies alive for me in the years between movie releases and throughout the prequels by capturing the feel of the universe in countless small ways. Only one movie in the Star Wars canon has ever felt like it turned around and captured the spirit of the galaxy found in those games: Rogue One.
The best roleplaying games feel like an interactive group-improv session. Sure, on the surface there are die rolls, character statistics and incredibly granular rules for all kinds of interactions with the world. (No joke, the Star Wars game system has an entire table dedicated to the penetrating power of a standard blaster into and through various construction media. This is a thing they printed on the game-master’s quick reference guide, apparently expecting it to come up on a regular basis?) The players make their characters up based on another set of rules, but it’s really when they start creating back stories to explain the numbers on the stat sheet that it all comes together and the group starts making a world together. Rogue One has that feeling to it.
There’s always the player who insists on playing the noble, principled hero even though you told them the game was about a group of unsavory spy types because they believe that every story needs a good guy. That’s Jyn Erso. There’s the player who everyone secretly worries about a little bit because every character they create is Machiavellian and slightly murderous in an end-justifies-the-means way. There’s your Cassian Andor. The goofball who is mostly there for the beer and the wisecracks and doesn’t want to make any hard decisions? K-2SO.
You have a player who wants to push the rules to the limit and make it way too complicated by adding off-the-wall limitations. Like, say, being a wandering monk who is like a Jedi without actually being a Jedi, oh, and also they’re blind because why would they have rules for blindness if you aren’t supposed to use them? Chirrut. The player who just wants to blow stuff up with the biggest gun they can find? Baze. Of course the game master has a villain in mind, and naturally they want to do an accent, and so you have Krennic. Then the game master throws all those new creations together into a scene and makes them start interacting, and the magic happens.
Everyone I know who plays RPGs — whether it’s Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons or Vampire: Masquerade — has stories like the ones that make the big setpieces in the movie. The time the person playing Cassian just up and shot the NPC that the game master had intended to be the group’s guide for the first several sessions, leaving everyone sitting around the table in shock. The time Jyn’s player flubbed a persuasion roll so badly that an entire room full of Rebel leadership completely ignored the big plea for assistance. The time the jokester shocked everyone by sacrificing K-2SO in a hail of gunfire, suddenly setting aside the wisecracks and taking their character’s “loyalty” trait to the extreme. The time the one playing Chirrut rolled three 20s on three 20-sided dice and walked through covering fire from 18 imperial troopers to hit a switch when it looked like the whole campaign was lost.
Rogue One also manages the familiar faces like the best games do, in small doses just to set the tone and give the players some context. Darth Vader, Governor Tarkin, C-3PO and even Princess Leia appear just long enough to ground the audience in the universe and give it a time and place, but they’re not the villains or the heroes this time around. Those contextual appearances give the story dramatic weight, though. In our RPG scenario, this kind of tie-in is how you make your players feel like what they’re doing matters in some larger way to the universe in which they’ve chosen to play. In the film, this is what makes it such a joy for the nerd. Are there people who saw and loved the movie without even recognizing Peter Cushing as the secondary villain of A New Hope? Plenty of people. Does the extra effort to literally bring an actor back from beyond the grave mean something special to the folks who did recognize him right away? Of course it does.
Rogue One feels like one of those “new” stories I used to tell myself while playing with my action figures or piloting an X-Wing simulator or choosing whether to give in to the dark side in another role-playing crisis of conscience. Like someone else knew that feeling of wonder the first time the lights went down and that John Williams score swelled and the impossible bulk of the Star Destroyer filled the screen hot on the tail of Princess Leia’s ship. Someone else whose brain couldn’t stop telling stories in that universe. Rogue One is a monument to the power of those side stories, as well as to the enduring power of this particular universe to burrow into your imagination and send your brain down a thousand branching paths of creative energy.
That’s what makes the difference between the nerds and everyone else — the difference between watching those movies and being consumed by them.
Star Wars has been living in my head for almost four decades now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.