Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga is arguably one of the best Star Wars video games ever made. It is also, almost inarguably, the most Star Wars game ever made. Some Star Wars games have offered more complex mechanics or longer playtimes; some, like MMORPGs Galaxies and The Old Republic, never needed to end. But rarely, if ever, has a single Star Wars game packed in more IP per minute or inch of screen space, or attempted to cover the core films so comprehensively, or exuded so much fondness for and familiarity with its source material, combined with care and creativity exhibited in translating Lucasfilm’s well-loved (and well-known but less-loved) trilogy of trilogies into interactive form.
The Skywalker Saga, which came out on all platforms on Tuesday, is the sixth release in the Lego Star Wars series by British video game developer TT Games, which began with 2005’s Lego Star Wars: The Video Game. The franchise brings together two big-name brands in a forgiving, funny, and family-friendly recreation of the Star Wars movies in which Lego-looking characters blast, slash, and soar through levels that revolve around platforming, light puzzle-solving, and vehicular action. The inaugural game covered the events of the prequel trilogy and featured 59 playable characters; its 2006 sequel, Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy, applied the same treatment to Episodes IV through VI and upped the playable-characters total to 68 (though 46 more from the original game can be unlocked with an old save file or for a fee). Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga, an enhanced and expanded 2007 compendium of the two preceding titles, no longer covers the complete Skywalker saga, which expanded to nine movies in a sequel trilogy distributed by Disney from 2015 to 2019. And so—after intervening titles devoted to The Clone Wars and The Force Awakens, the latter of which came out in 2016—The Skywalker Saga ambitiously brings an end to TT’s Lego recreations of the hero’s journeys of Anakin, Luke, and Rey.
When I finished The Skywalker Saga—which took roughly as long as marathoning the movies—I’d unlocked and experienced only slightly more than a third of the content in the game, some of which would send even massive Star Wars nerds scurrying to Wookieepedia for a refresher. (Not that kind of refresher.) That content includes 380 playable character models, ranging from the most famous figures to no-names glimpsed briefly in the background at Maz Kanata’s castle or the Canto Bight casino. (Another 39 are or will soon be available via paid DLC.) Would anyone have noticed or complained if Theron Nett, Dellso Prin, or Grakchawwaa weren’t in the game? Probably not, but there they are. So are dozens of drivable vehicles, usable starships, and explorable planets, and activities that span nearly everything that transpires in the trilogies (save for slaughtering younglings), from doing Death Star trench runs to serving meals at Dex’s Diner.
On a gameplay level, The Skywalker Saga can’t really rival the dedicated combat of Battlefront II or Jedi Outcast or Jedi: Fallen Order, or the flight simulation or arcadey dogfighting of Squadrons or the X-Wing or Rogue Squadron series, or the racing from the Racer series. But it does cram credible, co-op-friendly approximations of all of the above (and more) into one well-animated, well-written, and intuitive package. It also expands the series’ scope via a semi-open-world structure that gives gamers free rein of almost unreasonably large, detailed, and varied environments. At every turn, the impression produced by Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga is Damn, TT Games didn’t have to (Le)go that hard.
Fans who fork over their $59.99 will be glad the developer did go that hard. Yet the labor required to realize the developer’s vision was reportedly torturous. In January, a Polygon piece by journalist Jack Yarwood, culled from conversations with more than 20 current and former TT Games employees, described a culture of crunch at TT Games in which sustained, premeditated periods of 80-to-100-hour workweeks were not uncommon. The report also described bullying, hostile and inequitable treatment of women, and other adverse conditions that led to low morale and high turnover. The burnout-inducing demands of the nearly-five-year-long development process (which included three delays) resulted from a number of factors, including the introduction of a new game engine and problems with planning and management.
But the brutal production cycle also stemmed from the game’s size, which is one of its central selling points. “The number of Lego characters is also a thing that’s definitely led to overtime over the last decade,” Yarwood tells me. “It’s just not realistic for any studio to be like, ‘We’re going to have 300 [playable] characters, many of whom require different animations, art, voice, etc.’” Nobody’s unhappy to have 380 playable avatars instead of 379, but someone may have had to work a weekend or night to get Grakchawwaa in the game. Many developers cried to bring us this recreation.
The latest Lego Star Wars delivers on its lofty goals and will likely sell well and make many players happy. The game has garnered “generally favorable reviews” on Metacritic, and it shattered the previous Lego game record for peak concurrent players on Steam, where its user reviews are nearly 94 percent positive. But it’s impossible to separate the foundation of its appeal—the thrilling capacity to play through the events of nine movies in one game—from the pressure it put and the toll it took on many of its creators. All of which positions Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga at the center of an increasingly common dilemma in an era of heightened focus on (and collective action concerning) the dark side of video game development: how to cover, and whether to play, games made under punishing, exploitative, or otherwise toxic conditions.
CRUNCH. Star Wars #76. Cover dated Oct '83. Script/plot - Jo Duffy; Breakdowns - Ron Frenz; Finishes - Tom Palmer; Letters - Joe Rosen; Colors - Glynis Wein; Editor - Louise Jones; Editor in Chief: Jim Shooter. pic.twitter.com/a0JJs7Vuwb— Pablo Hidalgo (@pabl0hidalgo) October 15, 2021
The roots of TT Games extend to 1989, when it was founded as Traveller’s Tales. The studio has always worked largely with licensed IP and existing franchises, including Disney and Pixar properties, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Crash Bandicoot. But the first Lego Star Wars game set a new course for the company. The game was published by Giant Interactive Entertainment, a company founded by former members of Lego Interactive that held the rights to Lego titles for a prolonged period. Immediately after the release of Lego Star Wars: The Video Game, Traveller’s Tales acquired Giant Interactive, and the two combined to form TT Games, which was in turn bought by Warner Bros. in 2007.
Since then, TT has worked almost exclusively on Lego adaptations of household-name franchises, including Lucasfilm headliners Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Marvel and DC’s superhero stables, and WB tentpoles Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. In a span of 10 years from 2008 through 2017, TT made 16 Lego games. That fast-moving assembly line, exacerbated by the desire for the games to coincide with other, non-Lego releases, led to institutionalized crunch, much as it did at Telltale Games, a now-defunct studio that specialized in pumping out story-driven games based on some of the same IP. (TT has at least one more unannounced Lego game on the way, but it’s reportedly losing its exclusive Lego license, putting the all-its-bricks-in-one-basket studio’s future in doubt.)
A lighthearted, fun-for-all-ages, not-very-violent video game featuring Lego versions of Star Wars characters sounds unlikely to cause an ethical quandary, and for most players, it probably won’t. (Surely many more people will play it than will read and retain the substance of Polygon’s report.) But the fact that the product is cute and cuddly doesn’t mean it was made in an equally feel-good way. (Welcome to capitalism.) Of course, TT Games is hardly alone in reportedly pushing employees too far as many games get bigger, longer, and more expensive to make. “This is a problem that is endemic to the industry at this point,” says Polygon cofounder and editor in chief Chris Plante. “Which means that yes, it is happening at the studio that made [Lego] Star Wars … but you can also kind of assume that there are many studios that are not being reported on that have similar issues.”
Not that there’s any shortage of video game companies where crunch and even more serious abuses have been reported. In recent years, the industry has been rocked by repeated reports of sexual misconduct, harassment, and discrimination at a number of behemoths, most notably Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft, and Riot Games. And some of the past decade’s defining games, such as Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II, have been revealed to be products of extreme workloads. The egregiousness and growing visibility of these issues, in tandem with pandemic-driven changes in the labor market, have kickstarted a labor movement in what has historically been a nonunion industry where layoffs are frequent and developers are frequently forced to relocate. The first North American video game union was recognized in December, and amid a wave of acquisition and consolidation, unionization efforts and other forms of collective action are proceeding slowly (and extracting concessions) at multiple major studios.
As reporting and public scrutiny, coupled with whistleblowing and internal activism (not to be confused with Activision), have brought public-relations backlashes and legal consequences, many studios have taken belated steps to prevent discriminatory practices and shifted from viewing crunch as a necessary evil to thinking (or at least sometimes speaking) of it as a practice in need of reform. (Yarwood reports “cautious optimism” at TT about the studio’s recent direction.) One byproduct of the escalating interest in and attention to these topics is that there are fewer and fewer game makers whose hands are seen as clean from a workplace-conditions standpoint. “Most big video games are going to come from Ubisoft, Rockstar, Electronic Arts, Sony, Activision Blizzard, and all of these studios have had controversies, to use the lightest word for it, over the past few years,” Plante says. “Because of that, it creates a scenario where it’s like, ‘Well, what do we cover?’ If we draw a line in the sand on Lego Star Wars because of crunch, well, what then of all of Activision Blizzard? And if Activision Blizzard, then how do we cover any of Ubisoft? And if we’re doing that, then how do we address Sony?”
Regardless of the type of entertainment, few consumers are strangers to dark nights of the soul. Sports fans wrestle with whether to root for teams that have awful owners or that employ and richly remunerate loathsome athletes, and admirers of the work created by “problematic” directors, writers, and musicians agonize over “separating the art from the artist” and contemplate taking private or public stands. These matters are complicated further for gamers by the fact that the victims of crunch and deleterious development practices are often the developers themselves. Boycott a game, and you may mostly be punishing the people who already endured plenty of punishment to get the game out the door.
One consequence could be a financial hit from a reduction in bonuses tied to the game’s performance. “Every company does it differently, but the most common method I’ve heard is that employees will get some bonus based on an algorithm that takes into account both sales and review scores,” says Bloomberg News reporter Jason Schreier, who has authored two books about game development, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels and Press Reset. Schreier notes that “sales bonuses are extremely common.” Yarwood believes, based on his reporting, that TT has a bonus program for current employees that’s tied to company performance. It may be based purely on finances, not reviews, although Yarwood previously reported that studio management used the phrase “Strive for 85” to set expectations for The Skywalker Saga’s Metacritic score. (Thus far, the game appears to have fallen just short.)
The other potential costs to developers when consumers or reviewers forgo a game are a loss of satisfaction about a job well (if difficultly) done, and a loss of the luster surrounding a hard-earned credit on their résumé. Patrick Klepek, a senior reporter at Vice Media’s video games site, Waypoint, says that many developers he’s talked to over the years wouldn’t want gamers to go without in an effort to demonstrate solidarity. “Despite whatever they went through, they do want you to enjoy what they toiled over,” Klepek says. “Their experience of making a video game might have been difficult and painful, but pretending it doesn’t exist is, in a way, pretending the labor they exerted doesn’t exist, either. Which isn’t to say you should handwave the realities of making modern video games in pursuit of having a good time—each person should come to what makes them feel comfortable on their own terms—but outright boycotting the final product isn’t what most developers are looking for.”
Yarwood says he’s heard the same from his sources who work or worked at TT. On the one hand, he notes, “it’s not as simple as ‘support the game, support the devs,’ because there’s a lot of people who have since moved on or retired and won’t see any benefit whether the game does well or not.” But he adds that “the sample of people I spoke to generally want the game to do well, mainly to ensure the job security of their colleagues and former colleagues.” In the absence of a coordinated, anti-crunch boycott campaign, an individual decision to protest by withholding one’s purchasing power probably won’t even convey the desired signal.
Klepek concedes that it’s common to feel conflicted about playing games made by companies whose exploitative labor practices have been documented. “Most of the time, we can suspect people went through hardships making a thing, but if it’s just an assumption, we can exercise cognitive dissonance and stop thinking about it,” he says. If those hardships have been reported, then goodbye, blissful ignorance.
And what if you run or write for the site that reported the problems? Do you still go about the business of publicizing, previewing, and reviewing, or does pursuing service journalism as usual undercut or conflict with that investigative journalism? “These things don’t have to be at odds with one another,” says Kotaku editor in chief Patricia Hernandez. “A news item or preview is an opportunity to inform people of said crunch practices. If your purpose is informing the reader, realistically you know they want to play Lego Star Wars, so you write to inform that readership.”
Along those lines, Polygon posted a trailer and release date announcement for The Skywalker Saga on the same day that Yarwood’s feature ran. Although the timing seems indicative of the challenge of striking that balance in coverage, the second sentence of the story directs readers to his report, which is further described lower down. “The trailer’s there, but you cannot read about the trailer without reading about everything else that happened at that studio,” Plante says. If the site decided not to continue to cover the game, he adds, people would still see the trailer and straight-from-the-publisher promotional messages elsewhere, without the behind-the-scenes story that Polygon provided. “I truly do believe that if you just simply ignore something, that you end up just giving it its own power to completely control the narrative,” Plante concludes. Yarwood echoes, “For critics and reviewers, I think the main thing is just to mention the working conditions in any capacity, so workers feel heard and consumers can make their own minds up [as] to their own comfort level in whether or not they want to buy the finished product.”
As it turned out, Polygon didn’t have the option of publishing a Skywalker Saga review on release day, because it didn’t receive a review code. Although Plante says he doesn’t know for a fact that Polygon was denied a code because of its reporting—a retaliatory tactic that wouldn’t be unheard of—the site’s reviews editor did communicate interest in obtaining one, and many outlets (including The Ringer) were provided with one in advance of release. From Plante’s perspective, the constant rush of releases in an industry where more and more games come out all the time makes missing one immaterial. “I don’t feel like there is a huge rush to now get a review to compete with everybody because we got left out or behind,” he says. “I think it’s like, ‘Well, OK, if you don’t want coverage of your game because you know that we’re going to talk about how it was made, so be it. There’s literally a trillion other games out in the world right now.’”
Naturally, not everyone wants to worry about working conditions when they’re looking for a few hours of escapist, pew-pew-pew relief from their own problems. After all, abuses abound wherever we look, and we have to find happiness wherever we can get it. (For that matter, working conditions within the games press itself aren’t always so hot.) “In the broader gamer audience, maybe there is an expectation of ‘Hey, just let me play my thing,’” Plante says.
But, Klepek argues, “highlighting the issue over and over and over is important, because it helps players understand the stakes and gives developers evidence to point to about what is going poorly and how things can be better. Because ultimately, one of the biggest problems, one you see brought up by the old guard who want to defend how games have been made, is that This Is the Way We Do Things, that Making Video Games Is Hell and That’s Fine. It doesn’t have to be that way, and it’s the responsibility of players and developers, in concert, applying pressure in a direction that produces meaningful change and improves the lives of the people who make the games we love.” In other words, we can marvel and rejoice that games get made at all without excusing the tactics of “whatever it takes.” That may mean that games will cost more or take longer to make (or maybe just be shorter, which in some cases wouldn’t be a bad thing). Even so, Klepek concludes, “Pretending change is impossible is worse.”
As Klepek puts it, “It’s possible for players to enjoy a game while also advocating that conditions improve.” It’s especially possible when the game is as good as The Skywalker Saga. TT’s magnum opus may have been made with excessive sweat and tears, but it also clearly came from a place of love for the mystical, inspiring, and silly sides of Star Wars, from its evocative opening montage to its (slightly tamed-down) Family Guy/Robot Chicken–style sight gags and referential humor and its commitment to recreating almost every cinematic set piece. The Skywalker Saga always passes the Star Wars sniff test; even to someone who knows the films’ flavors well, the snozzberries taste like snozzberries, and it never stops being entertaining to wonder “What will that look like in Lego?” and then see it on the screen.
The score comes straight from John Williams, but the voice-acting quality varies—which is noticeable because the script lifts so many lines directly from the movies—and the screen is incredibly busy by default (though the clutter can be toggled off). And because the game is so committed to following the films—aside from some deviations for comedic effect—its pacing sometimes suffers when the movies’ do. TT doesn’t take a position on the Star Wars viewing order debate, allowing you to tackle the trilogies in any order you choose, but there is a loose correlation between the quality of the movies and the quality of the gameplay (a realization that sets in during the prequels, while wandering uneventfully back and forth between the unnecessarily expansive settings of Coruscant and Naboo). Mostly for better but once in a while for worse, The Skywalker Saga is bursting at the seams with Star Wars—sometimes literally, in that I repeatedly fell out of a level ironically called “Endor the Line,” which was so buggy I was barely able to beat it.
At various times, the game also triggered co-op mode without a second controller connected; banished me to an inescapable black screen; and prevented me from advancing because a keycard got stuck. And as is customary in many of TT’s Lego games, the camera is occasionally borked. So yes, the jank is strong with this one. But the behind-the-scenes story of the game’s troubled development makes me much more forgiving of these flaws. I’m not about to tell anyone at TT that they should have worked harder.
If no mistake have you made, yet losing you are, a different game you should play.— A Wise Yoda Bot (@yodaism) April 6, 2022
In The Last Jedi, and at the end of The Skywalker Saga’s intro video, Rey wishes for someone to “show me my place in all this.” As they salivate over trailers and cringe over crunch, gamers may well wonder the same. If they play misbegotten good games like Lego Star Wars, are they enabling bad behavior? If they don’t, are they directing their outrage at the wrong party? It’s complicated. The way The Skywalker Saga plays will remind you why you love Star Wars and why you love video games—or potentially help you learn to love one or both for the first time. The way it was made will remind you why there’s still a lot not to love about video game development. Maybe the game, like the Force, can be a balance between extremes. Only a Bith—excuse me, Sith—deals in absolutes.