In his film 1994 debut Clerks, Kevin Smith changed the way a legion of Star Wars fans looked at the battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. the Death Star was fully operational, sure, but it was also still under construction. There had to be some workers that were there to simply do a job and provide for their families and were killed for it. As Randal in Clerks says: “This is a government contract, which means all sorts of benefits. All of a sudden these left-wing militants blast you with lasers and wipe out everyone within a three-mile radius. You didn’t ask for that. You have no personal politics. You’re just trying to scrape out a living.”
The subtext of who’s truly good and evil when it comes to the cannon fodder and boots on the ground haven’t always been a subtext of the overarching Star Wars universe until Rogue One started to blur some of the lines. Now, in Star Wars: Battlefront II‘s campaign following an elite Empire soldier, fans are finally going to see another side of the Galactic Civil War.
We discussed the challenges of creating a hero out of what fans have perceived as an enemy over the last four decades and the challenges of delivering such an important tale through the shooter medium with Mark Thompson from Motive Studios.
What does that feel like to add to the lore of Star Wars?
It’s incredible. The stakes more than anything cause they’ve invited us to be part of this franchise. They brought us on board as a new studio and partner company. It’s up to us to make a campaign that feels like it belongs inside the franchise. And that’s as big a part of it. Also the amazing opportunity to do something that is legitimate as Star Wars. It’s kind of two-fold. We want to make sure that we deliver something that is gonna live up to the expectations of all the Battlefront fans and also something that was just positive and fresh in Star Wars. I guess they’re kind of daunting and exciting in equal measure.
Fans have the animated series Rebels ending this season and that’s kind of leading to the creation of the Rebel Alliance and bleeding into Episode IV. And now you have the Battlefront II campaign showing the end of Episode VI leading into Episode VII. Do you consider this a bookend to the original trilogy or would you consider Battlefront 2‘s campaign a prologue to the new trilogy?
When I think in terms of Star Wars I think in terms of the big numbered movies they have because they are obviously the source of everything, right? Like it sets the big events up. It’s brightening or expanding the history of Star Wars either backward or forward through time. But no, we didn’t really think of it in terms of a continuous thing. It’s on a timeline, but it’s a different story. I think that’s kind of the important thing. It doesn’t carry on the same themes or necessarily have the same tone as Episode VI because we wanted to tell a story that was appropriate for Battlefront. Specifically, we wanted to explore the perspective that hadn’t been seen in the movies. So we never even thought of it as a sequel or prequel or tried to necessarily connect the movies. It was more just tell a different story from a different perspective. It’s kind of grounded in the events that people know from the movies but informally shows from a different perspective.
That perspective has been followed previously with Operation Cinder in the Shattered Empire comics and the novel based on Versio, Inferno Squad. So can fans expect a partial adaptation of the Shattered Empire comics or will this be offering purely new material?
Yeah, it’s all new material. When we were first developing the original story concepts, Shattered Empire had just been released and after that, it was still being written so the story team was giving us the heads up where Aftermath was heading in the whole trilogy because that whole trilogy was developed as we were developing the game. So yeah, it’s not an adaptation of that. I think that’s the important thing of our story proof. Lucasfilm doesn’t want anything to be adaptations. They want everything to be expanding. There’s still going to be lots of connective tissue of making sure that everything is consistent and coherent, but more importantly that each story is expanding Star Wars, introducing new characters or taking existing characters in different directions. It’s showing them doing things that they haven’t done before. So we touch on Operation Cinder, but we show parts of Operation Cinder that weren’t in Shattered Empire and when we do cross over with Shattered Empire again we see it more as an exploring state between the panels or we’re showing a completely different side of what was seen in Shattered Empire. The same thing with Aftermath as well.
You go to Naboo which is part of Operation Cinder, but that location is also part of the multiplayer suite. So when you were tasked with creating the campaign, did you have to fit the locations together like a puzzle?
No, because Battlefront is a huge, huge game. It’s all through timelines, a ton of planets. So when we sat down with DICE to look at the road ahead for the production of the game we saw the list of all the places they were going to be using in multiplayer. Any time it crossed over with a piece of story-telling or an era, something in the timeline that we knew we were interested in, we just seized it as an opportunity. So it is less like we’re trying to fit pieces of a puzzle together, but more like creating this dish and there were all these different ingredients in the kitchen. When we thought that two flavors might combine we tried to see that as an opportunity. When we saw Naboo in Operation Cinder, obviously we thought that would be a perfect moment for us to take a location that we knew was going to be a big iconic location in the multiplayer and also something that fans would remember from Shattered Empire. That seemed like a great opportunity to leverage on both sides.
Versio is this elite soldier who’s completely bought into the Empire’s outlook on the universe. How was it to flip the script and make the Rebels the bad guys?
The thing I was interested in developing when working on character and story with Lucasfilm was the kind of Versio they decided to explore. Individual morality was inside the Empire, and that was something that was important to us. We were going to go down and really zoom in on that perspective as it were. If we want the players to become this hero of the Empire, the Sultan in some ways. It’s important that we can separate them from the rank and file from the soldiers we see in the movies and really understand them as a person and an individual and then get down into the who they are and where they came from and why they joined the Empire and what they believe in.
So exploring what the Empire was, this is what it becomes, what an individual stormtrooper thinks. This explores all things like how much of the extreme bad side of the Empire does an individual stormtrooper ever see or even hear about. What self-censorship measures does the Empire have in place to make sure that people get the right message?
Maybe not everyone in the Empire thinks the Death Star was a path to peace or the right course of action or maybe the Empire told the rest of the world that Alderaan was harboring its own super-weapon and that the Death Star was actually targeting a terrorist attack itself. So we don’t know how it was messaged to the soldiers inside the Empire. So it’s taking that kind of feel because of the audience, they have a kind of different perspective in the movies. We have this voyeuristic view of exactly why and how these things happened. Like a huge galactic-scale event: If you’re just a trooper on the ground you don’t necessarily get the information, but you get the Empire’s agenda filtered down through lots of carefully managed channels so you get the right viewpoint.
The best bad guys think they’re the good guys.
Everyone is the hero of their own story. The thing about the Empire is that there was some level of conscription, but most people decided to join the Empire. Like some people might have thought that it was a good career path, a way to escape. Some people did it because they were raised in a place where the Empire just functioned, it worked. It wasn’t about occupation and invasion so Vardos might in some world that has always been an Imperial planet. It wasn’t occupied. So it’s a peaceful place where the Empire kind of thrives. And then you get people like Luke Skywalker in A New Hope. Luke Skywalker wanted to escape being a moisture farmer by going to the academy to be a pilot, and that was probably an Imperialist academy and he probably would have trained to be an Imperial pilot. So in a very different timeline that doesn’t exist, Luke Skywalker doesn’t do another season in the moisture farm with his uncle Owen and he goes off to the academy and starts flying TIE fighters for the Empire.
That’s a fascinating outlook. Kind of like the Empire, the Rebels… there are fine people on both sides. How dark of a story should we expect here? Empire Strikes Back-level dark?
I think with Rogue One we started to see that the morality in Star Wars isn’t always black and white. I thought it was super-interesting to see Cassian’s backstory right at the start of Rogue One when they introduced him as a character. He was a spy and he was doing questionable things and that you could see that he was kind of uncomfortable with the orders that he was given, but he understood he was fighting for a cause so he was doing bad things in the name of good. That’s something we haven’t really seen in Star Wars, showing their life before. So it was interesting that Rogue One wanted to have its own voice and it wanted to have a slightly different tone than the numbered movies.
When we first sat down with Lucasfilm that was exactly the kind of discussion we had writing-wise. What is the identity of a Battlefront story because we’re not making a standalone experience here. The campaign is part of the overall experience so we wanted to make sure we found the right voice and had the tone and a style that was appropriate for the brand of Battlefront‘s creative heart and soul. So yeah it had a different style and tone as the cinematic movies. Yet it still uses a lot of cinematic languages and there a lot of similar and appropriate stylistic elements. They’re just quintessentially Star Wars, but we did want to find something that was unique to Battlefront.
I enjoy marathoning all of the Star Wars movies and most cartoons every few years. Am I going to have to add this to the lineup?
It’s gonna generate a ton of Wookiepedia articles. I can say that for sure. I think by the time we got back from the Star Wars celebration there were already a bunch of Wookiepedia articles. We’d just said these things on stage and Wookiepedia was already populated with all of this stuff. That was kind of fun to see. One of the things we tried to do, one of the creative souls we had was if we saw a familiar event we have to show it from a unique perspective.
Can you expand on that?
So showing the Death Star to explode over Endor. We’ve seen that in movies from the perspective of the rebellion. We see it as Lando in the Falcon flying away victoriously. We see it as a celebration. We chose to explore it from the perspective of a soldier on the grounds who for them it’s a loss, a devastating loss. Questions about the future, suddenly their survival in question. Again, we knew we wanted to tell the story from the perspective of some of the iconic heroes of Star Wars. The other side of that coin — if we were going to the world from a familiar perspective, it had to be on a new event, right? So when we tell a chapter of the story from the perspective of Luke Skywalker, we have to be going to a new location and new event and something that hasn’t been seen in an existing story, whether that be comics or movies or whatever.
Disney and Lucasfilm are known for going back and really chipping away at the story to make sure it’s perfect. Does refining a tight story affect the creation of a fun first-person shooter?
The first hurdle is the biggest one, right? The important thing to do is to try to tell the story that’s appropriate to the game. Otherwise, we’re always going to be fighting with the core conflict. So if Battlefront was made to tell the story of a son of a moisture farmer or a scavenger who was abandoned in the desert planet and then discovers they had Force powers and went on this incredible journey and were a chosen one, the core gameplay of Battlefront doesn’t necessarily support that. The fact that we went with a soldier’s story it wasn’t an accident or a surprise. It was because that’s kind of the core experience of Battlefront.
It’s like being a trooper on the ground of the multiplayer battles or being an ace pilot in the sky in the starfighter game modes and then occasionally getting to step into the shoes of the iconic hero. So those are the three pillars of the experience that we wanted to embrace in the campaign. So it makes your life so much easier if you embrace the game pillars as the narrative pillars as well in trying to tell a story that’s appropriate. So telling the story of Imperial forces allows us to embrace the character if Idan Versio as this versatile trooper who can also be a pilot, so she can use all of the different tools of gameplay, experiences and gadgets, vehicles and weapons and so on that you find in multiplayer, but in telling a story with all the explanation it doesn’t feel human.
Are you familiar with Ludonarrative dissonance? It’s something that’s coming up more and more in gaming. For example in Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, you’re in the middle of a firefight but can stop and read as bullets whiz past. As a game developer, how difficult is it to get exposition across while lasers are flying past? Especially considering the story is an important part of a larger mythos and will be dissected by fans.
We looked at the brand and the references and how Star Wars storytelling works and still be looking at the action scenes because they communicate a lot. If you think back to A New Hope there’s so much character work just in the extraction of Leia when Luke and Han and Chewie work together and they break Leia out of the cell and then she obviously helps them escape by taking charge. There is so much character and so much exposition and it all happens, as you described when lasers are literally flying at their heads. For us, it’s about taking that as an example and for us, it’s a gold standard example of how you can show character and how you can build relationships and you can show personality in the middle of a firefight. It’s such a great example.
That is a great example. So, final question: Did the name Jar Jar Binks ever come up in any meetings while creating this game.
More often than you would think.