Star Wars Battlefront II is doing something fans wanted from the first game but never got: a solid single player experience that hits all the marks for what makes a good Star Wars story. Answering for what makes a good Star Wars story is trickier than it seems, but talking with Game Director Mark Thompson and Lead Writer Walt Williams shows their vision for just some of many answers to that question, and how Inferno Squad fits into the Star Wars mythos.
[Hardcore Gamer] With focus on the single player, what was it like coming up with a unique Star Wars story that is focused on the Empire?
[Mark Thompson] It was never a goal to try and make the Empire seem like the good guy or to re-educate people about the Empire being good and the rebels being bad. It was more about making it more human, more relatable because that’s where human empathy comes from, right? The Empire is always portrayed as rank and file soldiers, you never really meet them as individuals, you don’t really know who they are. They are always dehumanized with the uniforms, you think of them as a legion of Storm Troopers. A large part of what we wanted to do is to meet individuals inside the Empire, understand them as people, as humans. What they know about the Empire, how they were raised, what their family looks like, because that stuff hasn’t really been explored in the movie storytelling at least.
You’re able to take away something from each person being encountered, even this three-person squad that is Inferno Squad. How important was the focus of putting this human element into all characters encountered? Everyone seems to be fleshed out in the best of ways for the audience to connect to.
[MT] That’s part of Star Wars storytelling, any one movie has a principle protagonist, but it’s very much an ensemble cast with all the characters. If you talk to ten Star Wars fans they’ll tell you a different favorite character, even inside the same movie, right? It’s testament to the ensemble cast storytelling of Star Wars that they have so many relatable characters and it’s not just focused on one character at the expense of others.
[MT] I don’t want to spoil it, but there was a novel published in the summer called Inferno Squad. As we were developing the game, Lucas Film liked the characters in Inferno and they saw the opportunity to tell the origin story of Inferno Squad in a novel. They had Kristy Golden come on board and write the origin story of Inferno Squad. They were formed in the wake of the first Death Star by Iden’s father Garrick Versio, as a special, small, agile group whose job it is to wipe out leaked secrets, tie up loose ends, but not from an administrative point of view (laughter).
There seems to be so many ways you can play that there’s going to be something for everybody with how you can exchange cards/powers and it makes you feel like you’re part of this special unit, even without force powers or a lightsaber. When you were making these characters were you trying to create something everyone could relate to, that sense of Star Wars being the heroes story?
[MT] We spent a lot of time analyzing Star Wars storytelling, figuring out what makes something Star Wars(y) is kind of abstract, it’s kind of intangible. It’s something that’s been done before and it’s still being done so it’s something you can understand. A lot of what we did in terms of story was really driven by the idea of player fantasy. The fact that we are special forces at all is because we wanted a versatile player experience. We wanted a character that could show all the different things you can do in Battlefront, then from a narrative point of view like I said before, it was about humanizing that character. You get to try out all these different things from the overall Battlefront experience, but you are connected to it on an emotional level because it’s a story of humans with thoughts, feelings, beliefs and opinions like anyone you’ll meet in any walk of life. It just so happens this walk of life involves galactic warfare and TIE Fighters, just normal people like you and I (more laughter).
Coming from a story like Spec-Ops: The Line, how was it when you were approached with writing a story for Star Wars?
[Walt Williams] I was ecstatic just because you never expect to get the call that says, “Hey would you like to write Star Wars?” that’s just a thing…you maybe dream about what your story would be, but you never think, “That will actually happen, that is a question I will have to answer one day.” When I did get the call from Mark, nothing else went through my mind, no other game or anything other than “Yes, I would love to, we can absolutely write Star Wars together.” And, it’s interesting that my co-writer Mitch Dyer who had been interviewed for the job about a month before, he called me up freaking out asking “Hey, man, would you look at my resume and writing sample before I send it in?” and I said “Absolutely, send it over, I want this for you.” Then getting a call to come on and co-write this story with him is even better, this is amazing.
Coming off something like Spec-Ops, which to be fair I had finished many many years prior. It was interesting I thought “I’m never going to do another military game”, I felt that I had kind of said everything to be said in military shooters. I come from a military background, military family, lots of friends still in the military, I have a tremendous amount of respect for people who choose to be a soldier. It is not a life style that is one suited to me, but I understand why people are drawn to it. With Spec-ops, it was kind of a response to how I felt military shooter games ignored the reality of combat, whereas coming into Battlefront II with a character like Iden Versio, this is a franchise about soldiers on the ground. It allowed me to work at a military character that was different from Spec-Ops that would focus on the strength, honor, and duty to a person that would choose to focus their life on something they believed in, even if that something was the Empire.
We’ve seen the story from the Rebels side, after Jedi the Rebels are on the uptick, they are the top dog now. It would not have felt like authentic Star Wars experience if we continued to play as the Rebels immediately after Return of the Jedi. With Iden, someone who was born into the Empire, someone who has seen the Empire bring order to the galaxy ravaged by the Clone Wars and seen some planets come out stronger, better, more stable, they might believe the Empire truly is what it says. That’s where we wanted to come from with Iden. How would they move forward to secure what they believe is truly best for the galaxy? That really allowed me to take those traits that I find so admirable for people who choose to be soldiers and explore a completely different side of the military persona through a Star Wars game.
It’s an everyman story the player can relate to immediately; was that something you had to nail with writing, to make sure this is a Star Wars story so the player needs to feel that connection even if they are playing the Empire?
[WW] Absolutely, that comes with the whole what we like to call “an authentic Star Wars story” ultimately the north star is — is it an authentic Star Wars story? For me, in the writing process does this story make me feel the way I did when I encountered it as a kid, make me feel the way I felt when I saw Force Awakens on opening night, or when I first sat down and started watching Clone Wars the first time? Does this story cause the same feelings in me? Will it cause the same feelings in someone else? If yes, then that is authentic, it is hitting the notes, it is causing the same emotional response. Finding that note when looking at Star Wars, we know these characters as heroes, but they weren’t heroes when we met them.
These are all stories about normal people thrust into extreme circumstances who rise to the occasion and come out of them as heroes. Even though Iden is already a hero in her own right for the Empire, that is what Inferno Squad was designed to be, these are the people put on a poster slapped on a wall that says, don’t worry Inferno Squad is out there, they are fighting for your Empire, you can feel safe. Even though she is already that hero, she is still an everyman to us a person who is alone when we first meet her fighting on her on for something she believes in pulling off extreme feats of courage. To see the Empire, continue to survive, made strong in the way she believes it should be, there’s something relatable to that in all of us. When put in that situation where our idles are at risk and the things we believe in are at risk, whether it’s loved ones, strangers, things we would fight for.
Seeing Inferno Squad as a unit, as a family unit that’s this close, bringing in that military aspect of not being faceless soldiers, we have these emotions, we have these feelings and then also seeing the family element, was it important to hone that?
[WW] It was, Star Wars at its core, it’s a war story and it’s a family story. I mean it’s called Star Wars so clearly… war (laughter) that’s going to be in there regardless, but family is such a key component to these stories. I think there is an aspect of what I was saying about that ideology we all fight for, that thing we all long for, even if these characters don’t have the family relationships that they know. We all can relate to family. When you’re fighting wars, you’re fighting wars for that thing you’re hoping is going to survive at the end of it. A lot of it comes down to the relationships we have with people, the families and communities that we build. That’s where a lot of these connections come from. Personally, from my time in the military I remember and I still have a lot of those people I was with who are like brothers and sisters to me, who I love deeply even though I haven’t served with them in (sidetracks to day dreaming, it was sweet.)
You have that family that forms on the battlefield, having that contrasted with one’s natural family. Iden’s father Garrick who is the admiral who’s in charge of deploying Inferno Squad that the natural relationship would be so cold, yet so powerful, and the Squad family can be equally powerful even if it is more close and emotional. Showing these two different sides of strength and what drives these people. With Iden this woman believes in what the Empire is, she’s fiery, emotional, passionate. With Garrick he’s cold, clinical, he is surgical. When you think of that cold Imperial steel design he is that in human form, and Iden is that fiery Sith emotional passion, they are the two sides of the Empire, they are both fighting and believe in the same thing. They are going to butt into each other every now and then. It’s the same thing with how we developed those two sides of the family.
[WW] I’ll say this, if anyone ever ask me to write another Star Wars story I would never ever say no. It has been the best writing experience of my career, and the most rewarding game experience of my career. Working with Lucas Film has been amazing, the genuinely want to you to succeed and are so excited. It makes you more excited and energetic. Yes, I would always love to do more, right now our main focus is this one story. When I’m writing a story, I focus on only this story, how can this story in itself be a fully complete experience that makes you feel like you’ve gotten everything you’ve wanted out of it, and when you walk away you feel totally satisfied.