Recently, Disney/Lucasfilm made some fairly big news by announcing that they would be de facto decanonizing the Star Wars Expanded Universe. They’re doing it in a nice way, of course, by rebranding it as Star Wars Legends and continuing to make material for the fans who still love it and taking it to a farm where it will be much happier, but the long and short of it is that the stories a generation of Star Wars fans have accepted as the continuation of the universe…isn’t, anymore. And while a part of me is actually happy about this, on the grounds that it frees us from a lot of straitjackets (for one thing, I’ve always felt like people took Yoda at his word that there was no redemption once you started down the path of the Dark Side, when the conclusion to the trilogy was all about him being manifestly and self-evidently wrong), I think it’s worth trying to understand why people adored the Expanded Universe. And for that, I think it’s worth talking about West End Games.
Because when West End Games picked up the Star Wars license in 1987, the property was pretty much dead. The corpse was still twitching here and there, but it had been four years since the last movie and there was no sign from Lucas that he ever intended to film the promised prequels or the promised third trilogy (or the fourth trilogy that fans had heard rumors of based on third-hand rememberings of old magazine interviews…it was a pre-Internet era). There was no TV show, no cartoons or specials to perpetuate things, and the Marvel comic had just been canceled. Even the action figures were off the market. This was, pretty much, the nadir of Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon. Which first meant that West End could afford the license, but second and more importantly meant that they were the only game in town…figuratively, as well as literally.
And they did exactly what a game company does. They systematized and organized the fictional universe. Star Wars went from being three movies and a handful of ancillary material, all of which revolved around the adventures of a few specific people as they battled a few specific antagonists, to being a complete fictional environment that you could immerse yourself into for a few hours at a time. Things that Lucas had glossed over were given depth, weight and texture in order to satisfy people who wanted to play that weird looking thing in the back of the Mos Eisley Cantina. Vague mystical powers were given rules and rationales. And most importantly of all, you could enter that universe yourself. You could join in. It held a tremendously powerful allure for the Star Wars fanbase that was still out there and that wasn’t being served anywhere else.
It’s little wonder that the Star Wars novels felt like a natural outgrowth of the West End material, to the point where planets and technology first referenced in WEG sourcebooks became significant in the series. Likewise, given how starved for material they were, it’s no surprise that the WEG sourcebooks synergistically fed off that new material in the 1990s and detailed it for their games. The West End Star Wars was an incubator, a crucible where new ideas and new material could be tested and refined for an audience of devoted fans before it went mainstream again. And the fans who were around during that time, who were the most loyal of all because they cared about it when nobody did, all identified with that material strongest of all because it was theirs in a way no other form of Star Wars could be. I might not be a huge fan of the EU, but I can certainly understand that.
Plus, it was just a fun game. Any game where you get to roll more dice as you become more powerful has a certain cachet that mere “+X modifiers” can’t match. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of rolling a double-handful of six-siders and realizing you’re absurdly bad-ass in a clear, tangible way. West End Games helped Star Wars fandom get through the hardest time, and Star Wars still bears the stamp of its influence. And despite it all, I feel like that’s a good thing.