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Star Wars Battlefront II continues a long game-based tradition of giving players a chance to see the Star Wars films from the perspective of Imperial characters. But given that taking on such a role involves, well, shooting at the good guys, it takes a focused effort to make that kind of story work in the Star Wars universe.
To get a better sense of the writing process behind Battlefront II, and how it makes a bid for a complex morality inside a triple-A Star Wars game, we invited writer Mitch Dyer onto the Gamasutra Twitch channel to discuss his work.
We've embedded our conversation with Dyer up above for your convenience, but in case you're powering up your X-Wing as we speak, we've highlighted a few takeaways from that chat down below.
Even in a script-first process, Battlefront II's writers had to react to other parts of development
According to Dyer, Battlefront II's campaign mode was slightly unusal in that the writing and narrative design team were afforded much more authority over the game's direction than other games are. But even with script and story direction taking priority, changes from the art and level design teams drove Dyer and writing partner Walt Williams to react constantly, meaning their work couldn't be entirely prescriptive.
In two examples, Dyer first described how simple art tweaks in levels (such as a ship crashing down near the player's location) could send them back to the drawing board in ways that affected an entire level's work. In the second instance, a level where Luke Skywalker teams up with an Imperial special operations soldier (an 'enemy of mine enemy' situation), had to be tweaked constantly to make sure it didn't feel like one of these two characters had a natural window to turn on the other.
Given the amount of time Dyer said had to go into tweaking that level from a narrative perspective, it may be one worth reading closely to study how to create this kind of narrative tension in your game.
Luke Skywalker isn't an ordinary game hero
As Heather Alexandria over at Kotaku noted, Skywalker's presence in Battlefront II is something of a departure from his previous playable appearances. Rather than being laser-focused on a destructive video game objective, he's calm and meditative, open to conversation with his former enemies.
That's a rare opportunity for game writers, says Dyer, especially since his presence in Battlefront II's story is partly to inform the moral turn of anti-heroine Iden Versio. As mentioned up top, it's a tough road to get players to sympathize with a literal Nazi analogue, but Dyer says part of the goal with Versio's turn was to show how a group of villains functions like a normal group of disagreeing people. The goal he says, was to explore how Inferno Squad works together for a common goal despite fundamental disagreements about The Empire, but find breaking points that make them cut ties with each other when those disagreements are put to the test.
Does a Star Wars game need its familiar characters to be a Star Wars game?
One contested point around the death of Visceral's Star Wars game was the fact that, as game director Amy Hennig pitched it, it was going to be a Star Wars game that didn't let players control any previously existing characters. According to one account, EA execs expressed worry about the fact that a Star Wars game wouldn't attract players unless they could play their favorite characters (despite the fact that many successful Star Wars games only featured cameos from movie heroes).
Dyer hedged his bets slightly about whether this was a universal truth for Star Wars development, but did explore what that idea meant from a writer's perspective. In his words, it's a question about whether this world and these characters exist without the actors that first birthed them. He says it's possible, and possibly inevitable, since we've sadly already begun to lose those people.
In an age where Star Wars is now a Disney brand, not just a sci-fi franchise, there's a lot of questions to be asked about what stories can be told while toeing corporate guidelines. Battlefront II ultimately isn't a great push out into the Star Wars universe, but Dyer's experience shows how developers can push for opportunities to be original even in licensed work.
For more developer interviews, editor roundtables and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel.