2002 was a very different world.
Britney Spears was still relevant in a pre-head shaving capacity, My Big Fat Greek Wedding sucked in a way that seemed deliberate and just hurtful, and those of us keeping warm by the Mountain Dew glow of Microsoft's first Xbox were playing Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast.
2002 was also the year I wasn't accepted by a single college I applied to.
I was relegated to spend at least another full year within the confines of the well-pawed litter box of my hometown. Litter box is apt, because of our proximity to the beach You can never really be rid of sand when you're that close to the ocean.
Originally released on March 26, 2002, Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast was the perfect alternative to the unfathomable cinematic suck-fest that was to be Episode II: Attack of the Clones, dropping that summer. Taking place eight years after the fall of the Empire and their defeat at the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi, Outcast once again starred Kyle Katarn. After his first appearance in Star Wars: Dark Forces and the previous Jedi Knight title, Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II. Fans of the Star Wars extended universe were stoked to see him helm another title.
As Outcast opens, we learn how Katarn had almost been taken by the dark side during the conclusions of Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith. Katarn has sworn off the Jedi, given up his lightsaber, and broken his connection with the force. Obviously, this is a temporary and convenient plot device that removes most of Katarn's super-human abilities. Outcast sees Katarn begin the adventure as a humble smuggler; a dude in a ship with some memories he'd sooner forget. Not interested in being connected to some all encompassing life-web that unifies the galaxy, he was good being a mercenary.
I envied Katarn. He may no longer have had the limitless powers of the Force at his disposal but at least the infinite embrace of the Universe was his. I didn't even have a car. Growing up in a Southern coastal town, our main exports were: commercial fishing, casual racism, diabetes, and a geriatric population patiently waiting to follow the light. It was crushing.
College was going to be my Jedi academy.
Nerdiest sentence ever written? It's certainly up there, but that's how you think when you've used fiction as a means of escapism during your formative years. College was going to be a place where my horizons were expanded and my true potential would be cultivated. Instead, I was going to have to get a job bussing tables catering to the tourists just beginning their Southern migration for the winter. The Coast Guard seemed like an attractive alternative.
Outcast took on an entirely new meaning as I retreated further and further into the massive and welcoming arms of the Star Wars Extended Universe. The rejection from my applied schools had mostly to do with a) I only applied to private schools b) private schools are expensive c) my family was almost comically poor d) I may have had a small problem with the math portions of my entrance exams. I wound up with a refurbished third-hand Xbox that was given to me from a friend.
Katarn's shortcomings as a Jedi were owed more to his self-doubt than anything else. He denies relying on the Force, afraid he'll be unable to resist the temptations of the Dark Side. My failings were mirrored by my inability to escape the gravitational pull of geography and the dark politics of college admissions.
Of course, Katarn's partner, co-pilot, and love interest, Jan Ors, is abducted and ostensibly murdered by a cabal of Dark Jedi. Since Katarn has sworn off his Force powers, and is minus a lightsaber, he is nearly useless in the fight and barely escapes the ambush that has cost him his partner. Katarn, fueled by revenge, heads to the Valley of the Jedi to regain his force powers.
As I played my way through Outcast as Katarn, I tried not to be consumed by the very real spectre of never escaping the 30 mile radius that had been my entire universe up untill that point. College was always viewed as 'optional' in my hometown, and plenty of people were more than content working the toursist season on the beach for the rest of their lives. Not that there's a damn thing wrong with that, I just knew I'd put a lightasber in my mouth if I didn't get the fuck out of there.
Katarn heads to, after regaining his Force powers, Yavin 4 to retrieve his lightsaber from Luke Skywalker. Hell-bent on revenge, Katarn demands his weapon back. Luke warns him of the dangers of letting his emotions control his actions and the lure of the Dark Side. Luke puts Katarn through a series of remedial Force trials to see if he's capable of responsibly wielding the weapon. Force push, force pull, and the Jedi mind trick are all tested. Katarn passes easily and sets off in search of the Dark Jedi and their leader, Desan.
Attending a community college was equal parts consolation prize and my series of remedial Force trials. Some enterprising family member suggested I enroll in the local community college as a sort of backdoor route to a four year state school. It ended up being closer to high school with ashtrays, but attending classes was still preferable to bussing tables, so junior college is where I washed up. Depressed, alone, trapped for the foreseeable future, and attending classes at the local Chuck E. Cheese college, I felt myself sliding backwards. My once nearly endless fount of optimism for the future was abandoned.
Outcast became the only place that offered any authentic enjoyment. Weeks and months were spent playing the multiplayer component online and it was the only thing keeping the looming tsunami of depression at bay.
Katarn eventually tracks down Desan and the Imperial Remnants. He stows away on Desan's flagship, The Doomgiver, and disables the shields allowing Rogue Squadron to make an attack run. Katarn discovers that Jan Ors is alive, rescues her, and steals an escape pod headed for Yavin 4. Desan's intent was an invasion of the Jedi Academy the whole time and hyperspace jumps to Yavin 4. As the final battle takes place in the Academy, Katarn defeats Desan, like we all knew he would, and successfully defends the temple from the Dark Jedi. Luke Skywalker offers Katarn a teaching position at the Academy, which he, gratefully accepts.
I eventually finished junior college and even wound up getting a scholarship to a state school that accepted me. It may seem absurd or completely juvenile to credit a video game for teaching me one of the most valuable lessons I've ever learned, but it would be disingenuous to say otherwise. When the floor of the universe drops out from beneath you and all your well-laid plans have been shot out of an airlock, sometimes you need to take one big fucking step backwards to gain some perspective on the way forward.