GameCentral talks to a lead developer from Respawn’s Star Wars game, about turning gamers into Jedi and a long-lost Han Solo simulator.
These are strange times for Star Wars fans. The Last Jedi has created a great schism in the fanbase and the release of The Rise Of Skywalker this Christmas is in the peculiar position where it may only be the second or third most interesting Star Wars launch of the year, after TV show The Mandalorian and… this.
Although it’s been known that Titanfall and Apex Legends developer Respawn has been working on a Star Wars game for years, Fallen Order was only publicly unveiled this year – first at the Star Wars Celebration, which mostly focused on the story, and then against at E3. The latter was something close to a disaster though, with a very strange gameplay reveal that went out of its way to pretend the game was an old-fashioned, linear action game.
EA better hope that notion doesn’t stick because the truth is vastly more interesting: Fallen Order is actually a Metrodivania style title influenced by Dark Souls. Although we did play 30 minutes or so at E3 we opted to use our time earlier this week to interview narrative lead Aaron Contreras, rather than play much more of the game.
Contreras is just one of a talented team put together specifically for the game, headed up God Of War III director Stig Asmussen. As we recognised the female Jedi as the same actress that played Grace from Wolfenstein II, Contreras pointed out that the games share the same cinematics director, which is also very encouraging (although not worrying for Wolfenstein III as he works as a third party).
Before the interview started we did take a quick go on the game, to remind ourselves, and were shown the inside of protagonist Cal Kestis’ spaceship (actually, we’re not sure who the owner is) and how it allows you to travel to any planet at any time, regardless of whether you’re currently strong enough to survive it. That alone was an interesting proof of the game’s non-linearity, and potential difficultly, as well as a demonstration of the fantastic looking visuals.
The inside of the spaceship looked exactly like a movie set from the 70s and the view out of the window, and when you eventually land, demonstrated some breath-taking visuals. More importantly, the gameplay seems extremely solid, with a well-thought out melee combat system that seems to sit somewhere between the old Jedi Knight games and Dark Souls itself.
We won’t be able to say more until we play the full game but when exactly that’ll be we’re not sure, as EA are being very slow to send out review code – apparently because of Lucasfilm’s concerns over plot spoilers. Whether we’ll have a review ready for next week we couldn’t say at this point, but everything we’ve seen of the game, except for the E3 footage, looks impressive; most impressive.
Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Release Date: 15th November 2019
GC: You must be very irritated by now, that everyone is always so surprised that the game looks really good.
AC: No… not by this point. I was there for Star Wars Celebration, when we first announced on stage and did our story trailer. And looking out at the crowd, there was just, like, a lot of jaws hitting the floor. Naturally, on the Internet, there’s a lot of people that only care about gameplay, so we started to address that when we revealed the gameplay at E3. I was also there at the Anaheim studio event, which it’s very similar to, so I’ve been lucky enough to be present for most of our major reveals and every time I’ve seen people get exposure to the game and it’s been a really heart-warming reception.
GC: I’ve played it, so I know it’s good. But the E3 reveal was one of the worst I’ve ever seen, in terms of implying the game is much less interesting than it actually is. I was literally shocked when I got behind closed doors at E3 and they said it was a 3D Metroidvania with Dark Souls influences. But even people I’ve talked to today, before coming here, had no idea that’s what it is.
AC: There’s some people, certainly, where if there’s no gameplay there’s no game. But it’s also Star Wars and there is a pace that we were ready to reveal stuff at and the story was kind of ready to go at that point of time.
GC: A lot of big reveals have been like that lately. Marvel’s Avengers was also far more interesting behind closed doors, compared to what they showed publicly. Is this some new theory in game reveals or are publishers just getting a bit carried away with licensed games?
AC: From my perspective – I’ve been on the team for about two and a half years, so not terribly long – the team’s been around for about five years and I think it’s been Star Wars for about three and a half to four years. But the game was really fun the first day I came on board. I couldn’t play it during my interview, because it’s Lucasfilm and they’re very protective of the IP, but the gameplay’s always been fun and we’ve always believed in it. But the nature of the reveal came from the team…
GC: I saw an interview with Stig actually, where he implied the reveal was his idea. Maybe that’s it then, maybe marketing people do actually know what they’re doing sometimes!
GC: It was such a relief to find out that the game seems really good, and almost the opposite of what was implied by the trailers – especially in terms of the non-linearity.
AC: Good, yeah. We do let you, really early in the game, let you go where you want to go. And then as you unlock locations we continue to allow you to choose where you explore, whether to push forward with the main story, whether to pursue side objectives. That’s very much the design of the game. If you step around a little bit on the ship and explore that – talk to people – we have a conversation system with your crewmates.
But it’s all very fluid and seamless and we’re trying not to lock into a camera or lock you into a decision tree, but try and keep things more immersive and allow you to have control all the way through the experience.
GC: I know you weren’t there at the start, but can you speak to how the project began? I think the first thing we ever saw of it, probably three or four years ago, was just some guys doing lightsabre mocap.
AC: I remember that! That’s the first time I saw it too!
GC: And I think the assumption was, particularly after Battlefront, that this would be an update of Jedi Knight or The Force Unleashed. But the final product is obviously quite a bit different to those as well.
AC: It was before my time at Respawn, but it was always this game. Even before it was Star Wars it was a third person action adventure melee-based game. They actually had another IP that was in-house and they were shopping around – it was a really good demo, which I played – Lucasfilm caught wind of that and came by and said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in doing a Star Wars game?’
And from that point forward we were kind of on a slow march – because it wasn’t an immediate thing – like, we weren’t Jedi right off the bat. We were on a slow but steady march towards becoming the Jedi game and Fallen Order.
GC: So LucasArts were touring developers looking for projects?
GC: Did I say Arts then?
AC: Pour one out for them.
AC: Although a lot of our partners at Lucasfilm were LucasArts producers or art directors.
GC: Oh really? They’re still there?
AC: Yeah, they kind of moved back into the parent organisation.
GC: I never imagined there was anyone still there from LucasArts.
AC: LucasArts was like a first party developer, for Lucasfilm. And then when Disney came on board that was no more. So some of those people got absorbed back into the parent company and it’s cool that they have that continuity.
But they have a deal with EA for production of Star Wars games and EA had not yet purchased Respawn at that point. So EA had published Titanfall and Titanfall 2, and they were very visible and present with Respawn at that time.
GC: So it was a Star Wars game before you got bought by EA? That was handy!
AC: I know, right? [laughs]
GC: But at what point, and why, did this become a Metroidvania? I know you probably don’t want to overuse that term, but it interests me that they’re so common with indie developers but almost unknown in terms of big budget titles. But I don’t understand why, as there’s nothing very off-putting about them from a casual gamer perspective.
AC: I have no idea. [laughs] And I wouldn’t even say, strictly speaking, we’re a Metroidvania.
GC: I knew you were going to say that.
AC: [laughs] But it’s accurate to say that as Cal heals his connection with the Force, as he becomes a Jedi, he unlocks different abilities and those abilities allow you to re-traverse through areas you’ve previously visited.
But from my perspective, especially as someone that’s only been on board with the team for two and a half years, it’s always been that way. That’s always been the game that they wanted to make. So I think you have a real vision coming out of the gate, with the core team of Stig and the design leads that came with him, over from Sony Santa Monica, to start this team at Respawn – who have been pushing towards this game long before it was a Star Wars game.
GC: So he was coming off God Of War III and thinking about what he wanted to do? Because you can see an evolutionary link there, between that series and this.
AC: I can’t speak for them, but I think there was a real collaboration… Stig’s a real leader of the team and Respawn really believes in ownership. So, there was likely a real strong collaboration between him and the design leads to come up with that. It’s hard to say who had the idea first but we like to support anyone on the team throwing out good ideas and using ownership to shoot that up the chain.
GC: Let’s get the other elephant in the room out of the way: I thought EA didn’t believe in single-player games anymore? The prime example of that was a Star Wars game too, with the cancellation of Ragtag.
AC: We were already in development at that point in time.
GC: Did you know what they were doing?
AC: Yeah, I mean… this goes into my personal knowledge but I’m ex-Pandemic…
GC: Oh yes, what did you work on?
AC: Mercenaries 2 and The Saboteur.
AC: So, I go way back with a project at Pandemic called Solo, which was open world Star Wars.
GC: Wha? What?!
AC: This was like a thing that existed inside Pandemic and didn’t get anywhere so…
GC: Hang on, you can’t say that. A Han Solo simulator is my dream game! And they’ll never make it now thanks to that bloody film flopping.
AC: Never say never! [laughs]
GC: What was Solo then?
AC: It was not a project when I was there, but it was something that people were trying to create for many years at different studios. The goal of an open world Star Wars game.
GC: Oh, so just one world?
AC: No, no. Like open galaxy.
GC: I always imagined it as like Elite but with planetside stuff and a sense of humour.
AC: That project has taken many… it’s the hero with a thousand faces in the games industry.
GC: Is it still going on in some way?
AC: Not that I’m aware of. But you know, the dream can never die. [laughs]
AC: But yeah, I was onboard during that time period, alongside Ragtag, and our project has always been single-player focused, nothing but that. We’ve always been Unreal, we’ve never been under any threat to be anything else. So, it’s really been a surprisingly smooth production. By far the most challenging aspect of it was being a new team. We’re a bunch of veteran developers but this is the first time we’ve made a game together.
GC: So there’s not many people from the core Titanfall team or anything?
AC: There’s quite a few people that came over but we’re a different codebase. They’re inside a different engine than we are and it’s third person versus first person. Sometimes people on the Internet will assume Repsawn is one team but we’ve grown quite a bit in the last year.
GC: I imagine so, with the success of Apex Legends and everything. But if it’s always been a third person game at what point did it become a Jedi game. Because I guess the three main options would’ve been bounty hunters, Jedi, and straight military?
AC: It was before my time, but Stig and his team thought: melee, this is what we do. We can make a really cool Jedi game. And it’s always been a lightsabre Jedi game since I’ve come on board. But I think there was a period of time where they had to work through trust gates with Lucasfilm in order to prove out that concept with them.
GC: Especially as this is a licensed game, this seems to suffer many of the design challenges of a superhero game, in that the protagonist is very powerful and there aren’t many opponents on the same level. Was that the most difficult design issue in the game, especially since a lightsabre can cut through anything?
AC: There’s been a bit of anxiety about that but I don’t believe it’s been a challenge for the team. I think they really embraced the challenge of the lightsabre, day one. And I think that allowed the game designers – which is a bit separate from what I do – to really surmount that challenge. Because we have four difficulty levels, so we’re trying to make a game for a very broad audience, from story mode to grandmaster and the lightsabre is a constant across all those difficulty modes.
So if you hit a stormtrooper with a lightsabre, they die. Not matter whether it’s in story mode or in grandmaster. We tune aggression, parry windows, how much damage you take – we tune all these variables to create a really satisfying combat experience. Whether you’re somebody who’s not very experienced with video games but is a big Star Wars fan or if you’re a really hardcore melee game player.
So we really tried to respect the majesty and the grandeur of the lightsabre in the core design and carry that all the way through.
GC: I always find it bizarre how few superhero games there are, especially before Spider-Man and especially given most video game characters are superheroes in some way or another anyway. Why do you think there’s been so few?
AC: I think you touched on the core reason, which is that every video game hero is a superhero, if you look at how they perform. Drake [from Uncharted] is a superhero if you look at what he does. Maybe he doesn’t fly around but I think that’s the constant, that game heroes are superheroes.
But with Cal, the fantasy we’re trying to make is not that of Luke Skywalker or Rey. Or a Jedi in their prime. This is about becoming a Jedi. So you’re a Padawan who’s had a really rough go of it, you were a trainee when you survived Order 66, he’s got scars on his face, he’s got trauma. And it’s about that hero’s journey and him rising to that level of being a fully-fledged Jedi.
GC: So when you came on and the gameplay and basic structure was already established, what impact did you want to have on the game? What was your interview pitch?
AC: [laughs] I was the first narrative hire on the team. So myself and my team own the cinematics and the characters from a story perspective. So my job was to take the game design, that Lucasfilm relationship, and then the existing story – because we had a contract writer named Matt Michnovetz, who’s a stellar individual who worked on The Clone Wars and Rebels, and he was already working on story stuff with Stig.
So I kind of took their first draft and in collaboration with Matt and Stig, and the narrative team as I hired them, tried to integrate all those ingredients and not only have the gameplay be realised in the way that the game team wanted it done but also make sure that we’re delivering on a cinematic Star Wars story.
Because our game vision is very, very clear and a lot of what I did – and Lucasfilm and my team did – is be a bridge between these mechanics and the Jedi fantasy. And we tried, on both sides, to negotiate that so that it feels like a Star Wars experience from start to finish.
GC: OK, here’s a question that can get you into trouble with a different set of people.
AC: Keep ’em coming. [laughs]
GC: I wouldn’t say the prequels were flawless movies.
GC: Probably one of my least favourite flaws is the way they portrayed the Jedi as a) idiots and b) these weird emotionless, sterile monks. Which is not the impression I ever got from the original films. How do you reconcile that in the game? Because Cal, and the female Jedi, seem quite human and relatable.
AC: We definitely looked to A New Hope and the original trilogy, but especially A New Hope, in terms of what we’re emulating and the experience you get. So I want to take you back to 1977 as much as possible. And you have to look at Star Wars, because it’s been around for 40 years now, in terms of intent and execution. And that’s true of our game as well.
GC: I think you’ve made absolutely the right decision, but I’m curious as to how you got there.
AC: So you look at the lore of the Jedi, which you know is that they’re trained from a very young age to control their emotions, to be dispassionate, to not have attachment, to have this stoic perspective on life and death.
GC: [exasperated] But where did all that come from? There’s nothing like that in the original trilogy. Ben Kenobi chopped someone’s arm off just to make a point and Yoda got a kick out of pretending to be an idiot in front of Luke.
AC: It came from George Lucas, right?
AC: It’s certainly the lore of the Jedi as it’s established. But you look at execution and some characters, for various reasons, don’t behave that way or don’t have that same sort of demeanour. It was very intentional for Cal that we wanted to have him be a human. So he has feelings and he has pain and he has desires… But at the same time he’s struggling to centre himself and stand up against the Empire, at the point where the Empire is at its most powerful. There’s no Rebellion yet, it’s a really bad time for the good guys.
And there were open conversations we had with Lucasfilm about the training of a young Jedi versus the emotional appeal we wanted a character to have and how we kind of threaded the needle on that. So those were very lively discussions.
AC: It wasn’t that they had one monolithic stance and we had another and it was just a battle of wills, but in that regard I might have made that same point you just made a couple of times over the course of production. But I really believe that a lot of what makes Cal such a great hero for these dark times is he has this grit and determination, which you see in stoics.
You see this acceptance of, ‘There’s things I can control, there’s things I can’t’. Trying to control things I can’t is the path of suffering, which isn’t so far away from Yoda’s fortune cookie wisdom of, ‘Fear leads to anger lead to hate…’. So there’s kind of that connection there.
(The PR guy interrupts us to tell us it’s the last question.)
AC: I love talking about that stuff though.
GC: Let’s take it up a level of abstraction, especially as I’ve just come off playing Death Stranding which is, as you might imagine, filled with lengthy cut scenes. Most of the long ones are only at the end, but when that starts up I just sit there and think, ‘I’m not doing anything here. I’m not doing anything in terms of gameplay, I’m not having any influence on the story, I’m just watching something pretending to be a movie’. How much of a problem do you see that as and how do those issues relate to your game?
AC: It’s been a challenge. I think why I got this job is because I come from a game level design background and because my passion is interactive stories. So where we’re trying to go with this game and my passion – personally as a creator, I can’t speak for the team – is to have interactive narrative gameplay in an action adventure game.
So at Respawn it’s gameplay first, you’ll hear people on my team say that all the time. And I will counter to say that story is part of gameplay. And as we’re continuing to iterate with each version of what we do I think we’re going to see that happen more and more. And that’s where my passion lies, in making that a seamless experience. That you are always feeling like you’re playing the game and you’re also getting the cinematic story.
Now, that said, this is a Star Wars game, this is our first time as a team together. So we have also a strong mandate to deliver a cinematic experience, which I don’t believe interferes with interactive narrative. But it’s tricky. And it usually takes teams a couple of times before they figure out that correct cadence and we’ve done the best we can this time around, so we really hope people enjoy it and see where we’re trying to go with it.
GC: It is a struggle. Do you feel you’re stealing time away from the gameplay? Do you always sit there and imagine if only you had a 10-minute cut scene instead of just a five minute one?
AC: There’s awareness and a desire to balance that. It’s something we think about and talk about all the time. Different people have a different focus and where I’ve made my piece with it is we needed to make this a Star Wars experience. That’s as important as anything else.
GC: But movies tell their story in two hours or less, while a game can go on for 20 hours or even 60 or more and there’s no other media on Earth that tries to tell a story for that long. I worked out recently War And Peace is only something like 40 hours – that’s nothing to a JRPG!
GC: We’re always forcing methods of storytelling from other media onto games. It always frustrates me that gaming doesn’t have that many unique methods of storytelling. We’re so keen on using the term cinematic, but why do you want it to look like a movie? It’s not a movie. Why can’t it be gamematic?
AC: [laughs] If we had more time we could talk about how we’ve tried to model game systems and narrative systems inside the games, to replicate what’s happening in the story. At the simplest level our game is about becoming a Jedi, and we have a very intentional game design where there’s choice and consequence at every moment in the combat and traversal. And we want you and Cal to grow at the same time, to really make you feel like you’re mastering the skillsets and the powers of the Jedi as he’s doing them in the story.
So there’s a real intentional goal on the part of us as developers to, under the hood, meld those two things together. It’s certainly something new and different, whether you want to call it gamematic or ludonarrative…
GC: Oh god, don’t call it that.
AC: But that’s something that’s very intentional on our part, to try and explore those boundaries, because it’s an evolving space.
GC: OK, well sorry to overrun but it’s a fascinating subject, especially when it’s Star Wars.
AC: No, no. That was the most fun I’ve had today!
GC: That’s good to know.
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