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The ‘Star Wars’ Video Game Force Awakens

With original game characters returning soon, Disney’s ‘Star Wars’ battle station is about to be fully operational

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Welcome to Rogue One Week! With the release of Rogue One, set in the years before A New Hope, we finally get our first stand-alone Star Wars movie. This week we’ll be analyzing Rogue One and the greater Star Wars universe from every conceivable angle — the storytelling, the merchandising, the mythology, and the fandom. May the Force be with you (while you read).

Less than two years after Disney acquired Lucasfilm and, by extension, the Star Wars franchise in 2012, the galaxy far, far away got significantly smaller. On April 25, 2014, Disney wiped away the expanded universe, a vast corpus of books, comics, and video games that extended even further into the past than the films, thanks to A New Hope’s novelization. In the EU, virtually every character glimpsed for even a second in theaters led a fully fleshed-out life, alongside many characters who’d never appeared in the movies but came to take on just as much meaning for fans who went decades between Star Wars trilogies. “In a time when there were no movies, video games became the source by which the core audience for that kind of content [got] to live in that world,” says Rob Smith, the author of the 2008 book Rogue Leaders: The Story of LucasArts.

In order for the lucrative sequels and prequels to proceed without encountering continuity problems (and to spawn their own EU), the new stewards of Star Wars had to clear a path through that thicket, de-canonizing everything aside from the six movies and the Clone Wars cartoon. With Rogue One’s release, Disney’s Star Wars reboot now features two films, three seasons of the Disney XD animated series Star Wars Rebels, and dozens of books and comic books. When Episode IX arrives in 2019, it will be the fifth Star Wars film in five years, and, barring a box office bomb, it’s likely that Lucasfilm will continue to release cinematic “episodes” (such as The Force Awakens) and one-off “anthology” stories (such as Rogue One) without long breaks in between.

In almost every medium, Disney’s Star Wars story machine has produced new plot as prolifically as George Lucas’s ever did. The only exception is Star Wars video games, which are in the midst of an uncharacteristically long layoff from world-building. When big-budget Star Wars video games return to telling original stories — which could be as soon as next year — then, to paraphrase Emperor Palpatine, Star Wars’s journey toward the Disney side will be complete. But tomorrow’s purveyors of interactive Star Wars stories will have to find corners that haven’t been claimed by the hundreds of games that have gone before, while steering clear of characters earmarked for the movies that will always keep coming.

From the beginning, Star Wars games offered fans the feeling of actively inhabiting a universe that the movies allowed them to experience passively. The first Star Wars game, 1982’s The Empire Strikes Back for the Atari 2600, let players take part in the Battle of Hoth, a movie event that continues to be revisited in video game form, with ever-greater graphical fidelity and player control. For the first decade of Star Wars video games, each new title essentially stuck to the movie scripts, with some creative license when it came to certain scenes that didn’t lend themselves to arcades and consoles. That changed with X-Wing, the 1993 flight simulation that marked the first Star Wars game developed in-house by LucasArts, a Lucasfilm subsidiary, rather than licensed to an outside developer. X-Wing featured a new protagonist with the Star Wars–y name of Keyan Farlander, as well as an original plot that preceded and paralleled the events of the movies, covering some of the same ground as Rogue One.

With the critically acclaimed and commercially successful X-Wing serving as precedent, Star Wars video game plots pushed deeper into uncharted territory — not just in X-Wing’s flight-sim sequels, TIE Fighter (1994) and X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter (1997), but in subsequent series and many more genres. Dark Forces, a 1995 first-person shooter that featured yet another fight for the Death Star plans, introduced Kyle Katarn, an Imperial defector and Alliance-affiliated mercenary who later got his own action figure and played prominent roles in the Jedi Knight trilogy that followed Dark Forces (and made ample use of cheesy full-motion video). And third-person shooter Shadows of the Empire (1996), which birthed Han Solo rip-off Dash Rendar, blossomed into the most ambitious Star Wars project between Return of the Jedi and the original trilogy’s special edition.

Knights of the Old Republic (2003), a role-playing game, paired the Star Wars license with Bioware, a developer renowned for its storytelling. Bioware delivered a 30-plus-hour adventure set thousands of years before the prequels, which introduced iconic characters such as the misanthropic assassin droid HK-47 and the dark-side-swayed Jedi Bastila Shan. In 2008, the action-adventure game The Force Unleashed served as the centerpiece of a multipronged story about “Starkiller,” Darth Vader’s secret apprentice, that bridged the gap between Lucas’s trilogies; the gameplay disappointed, but the plot impressed. And a 2011 follow-up to KOTOR called The Old Republic brought Bioware’s story skills to a Star Wars–themed, massively multiplayer online RPG.

It’s been five years since The Old Republic reached shelves and, aside from Old Republic expansion packs, five years since a major Star Wars video game release told an original story. The last half-decade has been the slowest period since the late 1980s, largely because of the demise of LucasArts as an active developer in April 2013, six months after the Disney acquisition. LucasArts had suffered from an overdependence on Star Wars and had reportedly been plagued by poor leadership. When the company went down, so did its in-development Star Wars games, including First Assault, a multiplayer shooter, and Star Wars 1313, a promising, mature action-adventure set in the Coruscant underworld and starring a young Boba Fett. A little more than a month later, Disney signed an exclusive, 10-year licensing agreement with Electronic Arts to make Star Wars games, only retaining the right to make mobile and browser-based games and to separately license games intended for “casual” audiences, such as Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a movie tie-in that Time Warner released earlier this year.

EA’s first and only non-mobile Star Wars game since the licensing deal, Battlefront, is a reboot of an online, multiplayer-shooter franchise that had languished for 10 years prior to the new Battlefront’s November 2015 release. The game, which lets up to 40 players fight on foot and in vehicles in arenas inspired by Star Wars films, garnered good reviews and strong sales, with most complaints focusing on its light launch content. While downloadable content has bolstered its multiplayer modes and maps, the game lacks a single-player story, a shortcoming it sounds as if EA will rectify in the sequel, which is due out next fall. “We heard the fans loud and clear that the multiplayer was great but it wasn’t enough and they wanted the complete package, so the team has been very focused on delivering that,” says Justin McCully, the general manager of EA’s Star Wars work.

Although EA hasn’t divulged any details about what the setting or story of its campaign mode might be — or whether it will be related to the recently released Battlefront Rogue One: X-Wing VR Mission, the first foray into virtual reality for either Star Wars or EA — Battlefront 2 should end what will have been a six-year story drought dating back to Old Republic’s debut. “Games have a very long lead — even longer, in some cases, than the films,” McCully says. That explains why it’s taken EA this long to get the original-story assembly line started, but Battlefront 2 will put EA on a one-a-year release model that mirrors that of the films.

In 2018, EA will publish a third-person Star Wars action-adventure created by Dead Space developer Visceral. Amy Hennig, who cocreated the Uncharted series (which is celebrated for its cinematic qualities), is leading the project, about which we know nothing aside from an extremely brief early look and the fact that it will feature an ensemble cast with multiple story arcs. Another third-person action-adventure from Titanfall developer Respawn, set in a different, unspecified timeline, will follow in 2019.

McCully says that the one-a-year schedule is “not a hard-and-fast rule,” although that modest pace gives EA time to see how stories develop in the new, post-Disney Star Wars universe. “We have a better sense of what characters are coming into play, what stories we can tell, what stories are maybe being told in a film versus a game,” McCully says. And as Douglas Reilly, the senior director of Lucasfilm digital and franchise management, notes, staggering the high-profile games also has the advantage of restricting EA’s output to “really great experiences that are complementary without overwhelming the players and the franchise with too much content,” a consideration LucasArts sometimes overlooked in the rush to capitalize on the prequels.

Juggling multiple titles within an already-crowded fictional universe forces EA and Lucasfilm to collaborate very closely. “In many ways over the last four years, it has become a situation where it doesn’t even feel like we’re two teams,” says Reilly, who talks to McCully on a daily basis. “We’re both macro and micro at the same time. We’re trying to make sure the experiences they’re building fit into the larger, big beats of Star Wars, but at the very same time, getting down to some of the tiniest details of story or what characters do or don’t do, what they look like, how models look.”

Those conversations regularly involve the Lucasfilm Story Group, a small council of lore authorities who keep all of Star Wars’s interlocking stories straight. “They’ve been essential point for all of us to plug into that didn’t used to exist in the Star Wars universe,” Reilly says. “Our partners have the ability to develop stories and write stories that are interesting to them … and then our groups, individual business units, plug back into the story team to make sure that those things can live within the continuity and that we be held to them in the future so that films and comics and other properties won’t contradict them at a later date.” McCully doesn’t seem to resent the oversight. “Even if we have massive fans on our team, it may be impossible for them to keep up with every thread, every character, what [Lucasfilm’s] plans for that character are,” he says. “But folks on the story team — that’s what they live and breathe.”

Although McCully acknowledges the need to “navigate the film releases,” committing to telling original stories simplifies that task, while also satisfying fans’ insatiable appetite for more Star Wars. “You don’t necessarily want to retell the story of this character and make a movie game that traces the steps of Luke Skywalker,” he says. “I know Luke Skywalker’s story. I want to know a new story about another character or a character that I control.”

One factor that marginally lightens the developer’s load is that hardware improvements permit more technological crossover between video games and movies. “A lot of people who work in games now work in special effects, and people who work in special effects now work in games,” Reilly says. “While we may not be there yet, where we can just hand stuff back and forth, we’re getting really close, and a lot of the techniques, some of the tools, a lot of the assets can actually be used across projects, even if they have to be modified for their purpose. Even five years ago, we would’ve never been able to make use of them.” Textures and shaders created by Industrial Light & Magic, the special-effects company founded by George Lucas, are available to EA artists, and they often function as building blocks and reference points for EA’s development teams. The primary obstacle is that EA’s in-game elements need to be viewable from 360 degrees, whereas ILM’s assets don’t have to be constructed with interactivity in mind.

Reilly cites pre-Disney-deal titles KOTOR, Republic Commando, The Force Unleashed, and Old Republic as examples of games that told Star Wars stories in styles that could be instructive to today’s teams at EA. But both he and McCully are conscious of the need to look beyond the genres that have traditionally dominated Star Wars video games. “There’s more that you’re going to see from EA over the years to fulfill that entire fantasy of Star Wars that isn’t just a blaster experience or an X-wing experience,” McCully says.

As exciting as that sounds, former LucasArts president Jack Sorensen, whose 1991–2000 tenure spanned the sweet spot from the development of X-Wing to the initial discussions surrounding Knights of the Old Republic, cautions that with a brand as beloved as Star Wars, nailing the details is vital, even if it sometimes means reducing the scope of a project. “The real danger you have with licensed IP, and particularly in Star Wars, is that people really want to like it,” Sorensen says. “If you satisfy that, you have a really good floor of support. But if you don’t satisfy it, they will go after you with a vengeance.”