(Note: I took all these pictures myself, but the maps are obviously not mine. As the website I got them from is now defunct, I’ve only been able to find the author of a couple. If I find the others, I’ll be sure to give proper credit. The image at the top is the “Lost Temple 2” map, author unknown)
I spent my teenage years with various video games, probably far too many to consider myself a writer. Games instead of stories, play mechanics instead of narratives. I learned how to fly a starfighter before I knew the proper use of dialogue tags.
But this kind of background has led to a strange sort of dimension in my writing, a weird fusion that I don’t entirely understand. I don’t really write stories based on the narratives of games, or base characters off of pixellated heroes. My concept of worlds and moving around them, though, that’s all video gaming. And it’s come from a lot of places, this is just one example I want to delve into.
I think it was 2004. I got a copy of the exhaustingly-named Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy for I believe Christmas. I’d played a lot of the much-better prequel, Jedi Outcast, and was pretty pumped for this one as well. I’m not going to talk about this game itself, its whole caveat was that you created your own Jedi and got to guide them through their education with the Force. You chose between the boring but just Light Side powers and the way more awesome but morally…flexible Dark Side ones, like Force Choking people and throwing them off cliffs. Which happened all the time in multiplayer. You ‘built” a custom lightsaber, which amounted to choosing one of six hilts and one of six colors, though more if you got one of those weird expansion mods like JA+. The story was forgettable. The best character of the Jedi Knight games, Kyle Katarn, was shoved to the side in favor of your generic player avatar, a Jedi Padawan of the New Jedi Order. God, I missed Kyle.
By all accounts, it should have been a mediocre game, especially coming off of the fantastic Jedi Outcast. Where it excelled, though, was with the fans.
Fan modifications were getting really big at this point in the mid-2000s, with dedicated forums and websites to specific games. People discussed endlessly on how to modify any number of games from Doom to Half-Life to Age of Empires. I can’t even imagine how many mods were churning out of the collective imagination of the internet at that point, but rest assured, business was booming. It’s so fascinating to me, the ways people thought to modify their favorite games, the ways they changed and evolved the original play-states to something more unique. Look at how Counter-Strike evolved out of Half-Life, two FPSs with totally different gameplay. Then Portal from Half-Life 2, well, sort of.
For a teenager without any money, mods were pretty much ideal at extending the life out of whatever games I had at the time. For free, you could go on one of these websites, browse through custom levels, campaigns, whatever, and squeeze a few more hours out of an already dogeared game. Hell, sometimes the mods would be better than the actual game! I can’t tell you how many hours I spent lurking in the mod scene, looking at what other people made and just, like, imagining.
As I’ve been alluding to this entire time, Jedi Academy was one such game that really benefited from fan modification. People made custom avatars of basically every popular character at the time, including ones in the Star Wars universe that weren’t even in the game (though I could never find a decent Han Solo skin). More interestingly, though, were the maps people made.
God, these maps. It’s so strange looking back and thinking about how they, too, fundamentally changed how to play the game. Ostensibly, they were multiplayer maps, different arenas that you could load up on your host computer for people to play in. They still had all the proper placement for weapons, health packs, what have you, but I never really played them for that. I just liked walking around.
I was in a clan at the time, that great melting pot of lonely teenagers. I don’t even remember their name, or how they recruited me, though I suspect it was mostly me randomly joining their server, someone asking if I wanted to join, and me not having anything better to do. But they always loaded these custom maps, originally in Jedi Outcast, later in Academy, that other people had made. They wouldn’t even play the game normally, it’d just be a chat room, essentially. We’d explore the maps, not really with the intent to fight each other, just because it was cool and probably had a lot of secrets for us to find.
In the mod sphere of Jedi Academy, people eventually caught on and started developing maps specifically for these purposes, Sith Council and Jedi’s Home being prominent examples, where the intent was mostly to facilitate the whole hanging out vibe. You’d have bars, private and public dueling rings, council rooms, even private bedrooms for whatever clan to host on their server and its members to claim as their own. Bars, in this virtual world, which seemed so cool to a 15 year old, even though the drinks were just textures on a wall.
Suffice to say, at this point, I didn’t play Jedi Academy the ‘proper’ way anymore. I didn’t play for the single-player experience, which wasn’t too good anyway. I played for these maps. Either in that forgotten clan, or more often by myself. I’d go to a couple of modding sites I knew, I don’t think they’re still up anymore, and check what new maps were available. I’d track a few modders I knew by name, and see if they had anything new. For a day after school, I’d just explore. I’d walk through the map with whatever avatar I felt like at the time, none of them making sense in a Star Wars context. For example, when I took these pictures (and lots more) a couple of years ago, I used a Solid Snake skin. Just because it was the best I could find.
These were spaces to explore, not to fight in. I didn’t care about proper vantage points, good ambush spots. I appreciated the architecture, the different textures the mapper chose to give the area some life. I’d marvel at whether the monuments and pillars in one map were taken from existing game assets, or crafted from scratch. More than anything, I loved seeing how these guys fit their maps into some kind of existing universe, whether it was the Star Wars galaxy, or just something in their own heads. A beautiful, hoary installation built into mountainous rock, called one of Boba Fett’s hideouts. A strange desert temple, mysterious and tinged red throughout, with an inner sanctum open to the stars (“Desert Temple,” above). A tiny little spaceport attached to a sprawling ancient temple, built by some unknown starfarer (“Lost Temple II,” at the top). Even the Millennium Falcon, not in vanilla Jedi Academy, realized in extreme detail.
These places took over my imagination at that age. I’d walk around and let the maps infuse my imagination. The ones I liked best, the ones I’ve linked to here, seemed so full of care, so packed with ideas, that it made me wonder just how they fit in their own little universes. It’s hard for me to put into words, since this was long before I started thinking creatively, analyzing my feelings and my imagination, this was when I just…felt. Not to mention it was ten years ago. But all the same, maps like these are probably the reason I love escaping into fantasy, because I’d always want to live in places like these. Nowadays, it’s wanting to write places like these, and the people inside.
More than any other game I’ve ever seen, the modders for Jedi Academy let their imaginations go wild. They spent untold hours creating temples, cities, grottoes, gave them so much life that, in my mind, they weren’t really meant to be ‘played.’ These weren’t spaces where you blew people up with rocket launchers, where the scorch marks of blasters slowly faded from the walls. These were places to explore, expressions of the artist’s creativity in a game engine. Creativity I don’t really see the likes of before, at least the way JA could bring it out.
I’d almost liken them to Minecraft, the ways that the modders created whole spaces out of their imagination. Minecraft has all these cities people have made, you can spend hours just looking at them on YouTube. God knows I have. They’re places that excite the imagination, that almost beg you to create a story for it. Empty houses, empty castles, just waiting for an injection of humanity. Places full of potential loves, hates, tragedies, and hopes. You walk through them as you might a museum, appreciating the effort the creator put in, and you just wonder what, in-universe, happened within their halls.
I do, at least.
I don’t really know why Jedi Academy specifically had this sort of sub-movement. Half-Life was also really big at the time, Doom as well, but all the mods I saw for that were different campaigns, different ways to play the same game as you normally would, just with clever level or enemy designs. You’d have horror mods, sport mods, but nothing to explore. I don’t know what it was about Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy, but those games just lent themselves to calm, relaxing exploration of strange, beautiful spaces.
When I write, I get hung up on how to describe scenery. I don’t really know how to do it effectively, the right words to use, the specific language. I didn’t learn scenery through books and the written word. I knew scenery by hours of exploring them inside video games, and understanding them in terms of the game engine, the assets provided by the developers. If you asked me to describe any of these maps in the vein of a story, I don’t think I could for you. I’d much rather reinstall the game and show you myself, the same way I learned a decade ago.
If this post gets popular enough (ha), I’ll try uploading the other pictures I took of these and a few other maps. There’s quite a few, not all might make sense, but I hope they’ll be as evocative to others as they are to me. You really don’t see this kind of thing anymore, and while I don’t have the time I used to, I miss this particular escapist niche.