As of 2019, it’s been 42 years since “Star Wars” made its big-screen debut, changing the cinema and the world of sci-fi forever. Video games set within George Lucas’s galaxy far, far away date back almost as far as the film franchise itself, going back to those early days of arcades and Atari home consoles. In recent years, we’ve seen those games shift from story-driven titles like the Nintendo 64 classic “Shadows of the Empire” and BioWare’s “Knights of the Old Republic” to multiplayer-focused games like the revived “Battlefront” series.
That’s about to change with the November release of “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order,” developed by Respawn Entertainment and published by EA. Because Respawn, the studio behind “Titanfall” and “Apex Legends,” is best known for its multiplayer efforts, the story-driven, single-player nature of “Jedi: Fallen Order” came as a surprise upon its announcement at last year’s E3 festivities. In a June 8 presentation streamed from the EA Play campus in downtown Los Angeles, Respawn showed off “Jedi: Fallen Order’s” first live gameplay demo. The footage shows protagonist Cal, a young Jedi who’s escaped the infamous “Order 66” purge, making his way through the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk to infiltrate an Imperial facility using tree sap for unknown but surely nefarious purposes. Along the way, he meets up with a group of rebels led by Saw Gerrera of Clone Wars and Rogue One fame.
With the action-adventure title finally nearing completion, we spoke with Game Director Stig Asmussen about “Jedi: Fallen Order’s” unlikely sources of inspiration, working with Lucasfilm, and how to create a lovable droid.
It’s not easy carving out your own place in a franchise with decades of history. Movies, games, books, comics — various creators have added to Star Wars’ lore over the years. “Expectations are so high,” Asmussen told us about making “Jedi: Fallen Order.” Sometimes it feels like he and his team at Respawn have “the weight of the world” on their shoulders.
His philosophy for dealing with that kind of pressure? “I just try to focus on making a good game and not so much worry about the fact that it’s Star Wars,” he said. “The best way to keep my perspective and keep things grounded is just like, ‘let’s make sure that the game is fun.’ And the Star Wars part is kind of secondary.”
Working with Lucasfilm to keep track of the franchise’s extensive canon and create a good Star Wars story was an “eye-opening” experience. As Asmussen put it, “I think that everybody kind of thinks they’re an expert on Star Wars.” Over the course of the three-year development cycle, the team at Respawn came to have a great working relationship with the Star Wars studio. “We really understand the brand a lot more than we did before. So I’d say that the greatest challenge was just… becoming really embedded in the franchise.”
One might not immediately associate the sci-fi legacy of Star Wars with Japanese video games, but according to Asmussen, that’s exactly where they drew gameplay inspiration. Some sources are more obvious; you can see the Dark Souls influence while watching gameplay footage. More surprising are the other games the team drew from: “The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker” and Metroidvania (“Metroid” plus “Castlevania”) titles.
“It didn’t have anything to do with Star Wars,” Asmussen said. “It had to do more with what we thought would be good ingredients for making a good combat system. In ‘Wind Waker’ you have so many different tools and abilities and the enemies are designed in a way that they kind of teach you to exploit those abilities.”
The key to “Jedi: Fallen Order’s” “thoughtful combat” was finding the balance between punishing games like the “Dark Souls” and “Bloodborne” series and “Wind Waker’s” lighter battles. “This is Star Wars and we want to make sure that we’re hitting the widest audience that we possibly can,” he told us.
As for the Metroidvania influence, you’ll find that in the ability to revisit certain areas and use your newer abilities to uncover secrets. “You can’t really see it so much in the demo because it’s more of a large kind of set-piece demo… but the rest of the game is more about like unlocking different planets and using your ship to go to the different planets and get new abilities to unlock things at the other planets that you’ve already been to.”
The demo may not focus on exploration, but the set piece full of scripted sequences — what Asmussen calls “Star Wars moments” — showcases several of Cal’s abilities. Though he’s still a Padawan, he’s already got a good grip on using the Force to take down Stormtroopers. And when a good Force push won’t cut it, he’s ready with a lightsaber.
Interestingly, Respawn was able to incorporate Jedi lore into video game staples like save points and a skill tree. “The idea is that Cal is meditating and while he’s meditating, he’s basically learning new abilities,” Asmussen said of the game’s save points, which are also where Cal can spend earned skill points. Though he couldn’t delve too deeply into the details, he did mention that there are “definitely ways to expand your arsenal not only using the lightsaber but your course perks as well.”
Cal isn’t making the journey alone; he’s joined by BD-1, a tiny droid loaded with useful abilities. Judging by Twitter reactions, the world instantly fell in love with the scrappy droid, who Asmussen calls “an evolution.” “Functionality-wise we just wanted it to be, at first, kind of a Swiss army knife… people started to fall in love with him. And we just started pouring and pouring more and more into him and he started becoming more and more of an important character, less of a sidekick and more of an equal to Cal.”
Asmussen says the reaction from fans at EA Play has been “fantastic,” and promises many more “memorable Star Wars moments” to come. “This isn’t a five-hour game. I’m not going to say how long it is. In fact, I don’t know exactly how long it is because we’re play testing it right now… But I will say that the game is big.”
Respawn’s big single-player Star Wars adventure comes to PC, Xbox One, and PS4 on November 15.