The story behind Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is one of those perfect anecdotes destined to be enshrined in Star Wars mythology. As first related to the public at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim in 2015, the origin goes like this: John Knoll, chief creative officer of Industrial Light & Magic (Lucasfilm’s visual effects house), heard that new boss Kathleen Kennedy had plans to expand the Star Wars universe beyond the core “Skywalker saga” films. “I started thinking about what story would I like to see told,” he recounted on stage. And then inspiration struck, and he made an appointment with Kennedy shortly after she took over operations in 2012. He told her he envisioned a standalone film set between Episodes III and IV about “how the Rebels stole the Death Star plans,” something hinted at in the opening crawl of A New Hope and bits of dialogue in that 1977 blockbuster. Kennedy loved it. Now, four years later, Rogue One is in theaters, tracking to be a hit.
But, as a certain subset of Star Wars fans might tell you, there already was an explanation for how the Death Star plans wound up in the hands of the Rebellion. That story dates back two decades, and involves a character named Kyle Katarn, roguish hero of the video game Dark Forces.
In 1993, the game Doom was all the rage. The revolutionary first-person shooter put players into the action; it also allowed them to build and share their own modified levels. Soon enough, Star Wars-based mods proliferated, including some set aboard the Death Star. LucasArts, then the gaming division of George Lucas’s empire, took notice and assigned a team to begin developing its own Doom–meets–Star Wars title.
In February 1995, Dark Forces arrived. The plot involved the new hero Kyle Katarn, a Stormtrooper dropout-turned-mercenary who falls into a Rebel Alliance plot to destroy an Imperial factory. Per gaming convention, the opening level served as a tutorial, allowing players to get used to the controls and solve some rudimentary puzzles along the way. The objective of the introductory segment: yes, steal the Death Star plans. The game’s opening crawl lays everything out.
The New Order of the Empire stretches its evil clutches across the galaxy, consuming planets with devastating results. Through many struggles, the Rebel Alliance has learned of a new Imperial battle station, the DEATH STAR, with enough power to destroy an entire planet.
Unable to acquire the plans to the deadly space station, the Rebels have employed the skills of Kyle Katarn. Known to most as a mercenary for hire, Katarn is a rogue figure who has a partial alliance with the Rebels.
Armed only with a blaster pistol and an intimate knowledge of Imperial methods, Kyle prepares to infiltrate the Imperial base where the plans are kept…
Some of the elements will sound familiar to Rogue One fans. At the behest of Mon Mothma, “rogue figure” Kyle Katarn — armed only with a blaster pistol! — needed to infiltrate a secret Imperial facility, navigate through enemy forces, find the secret chamber where the plans were kept, and then deliver them to the Alliance. In the video below, you can see the full level, which takes about eight minutes to complete. When he retrieves the plans (at the 7:20 mark), Kyle says, “This is too easy.” (Even if the Lucasfilm brain trust wanted to repurpose the Dark Forces storyline for Rogue One, it would have required some substantial padding and a tad more suspense.)
Following his introduction in Dark Forces — which, not surprisingly, was a hit — Katarn became a key figure in what was then known as the Star Wars Extended Universe, appearing in follow-up games (where he would train to be a New Jedi), novels, and comics. But when George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney, the company decided to push the reset button on the EU, rendering those stories noncanonical and stealing Kyle Katarn’s glory.
His loss is Jyn Erso’s gain.