The universe of Star Wars is vast and filled with countless stories. The simple concept that came about from A New Hope, has been expanded well beyond that story into something that many people now hold dear. It is a tale of a galaxy at war, about people stuck in the middle of everything. The team behind Star Wars Battlefront II are trying something different with this instalment of the series. They are taking the typical hero story and flipping it. The protagonist, Iden Versio, a loyal Imperial commander, must deal with her own views of the Empire, and find a way to confront the conflict she has between following her orders and the safety of her men on the ground. It is a much more human story then has been seen within Star Wars, and one that goes beyond what many imagined for a Battlefront sequel, especially considering the nonexistent story the first time around.
In Montreal, at EA Motive, I had the pleasure of talking to Mark Thompson, the game director for Star Wars Battlefront II. In a brief yet informative conversation, we managed to dive into what helped shape this Star Wars tale, what aspects they could borrow from the universe, and how the team worked to build a morally grey story. One that went beyond the typical galactic conflict and focused on the troops on the ground, a human story that gives players a better idea of the motivations of the people fighting the battles.
CGM: I’m noticing you have that typical Hero’s Journey story line, but you’ve switched from the Rebels as the focal point to the Empire. Why did you feel a different perspective was the best way to tell the story of Battlefront II?
Mark Thompson: I don’t necessarily think it’s the best way to do it, it’s just about finding different voices to tell within the Star Wars Universe. We obviously wanted to create a different style and tone for this Battlefront story. That pushed us in the direction of the soldier’s story and making the scale of it a much more personal and more human—that was important for us.
To tell a story of the classic hero, somebody who is plucked from obscurity and eventually discovers they have this destiny, a power that they discover during their journey eventually changes the fate of the galaxy. I think that grand sweeping adventure is reserved for the main numbered films in Star Wars. Making a good soldier’s story is often just about the fate of the lives of troops on the front lines. The ones who have to deal with the fallout of what happens after the galactic epic battles. But as I see it the best soldier’s story does not happen to her, it happens around her. It’s kind of out of her control, and her job is to maintain composure and still be a leader running a squad and just get off the planet as everything literally crumbles around the people on the ground. So that makes it a slightly different perspective which is a much more grounded Star Wars experience.
CGM: Was there ever a worry that you may alienate players by having them play on the site of the Empire?
Mark Thompson: No, I think anything you do, you want it to be interesting for the players. The worst that can happen is that you put passion and effort into creating something with hundreds of people just kind of like viewing it as expected and safe. Specifically for us it’s interesting, I think Rogue One kind of showed that Star Wars is more than just black and white. You know the big episodic numbered films, I think they are always and will always be black and white about their concepts of morality. You know the rebels sometimes did bad things for the good results. This story is not meant to re-educate people about the rebels representing good and the Empire representing bad. Iden knows that the empire did those bad things. What’s interesting is the idea that there are people in the Empire that maybe don’t agree with the Death Star. They maybe don’t think that the Death Star is the right path to peace.
In the movies you never really think like that. The Empire is much more interesting to humanize especially for the troops on the ground. You’ll see hundreds of troops, and they’re all faceless. So it’s interesting to take the helmet off and to meet the individuals. An individual has their own moral compass and they are their own souls. It is this concept I’ve shared them with an audience. I think it’s not about making people want to be part of the Empire, it’s more about empathy. it’s about understanding that there are individuals and they can have different opinions. Maybe some, like Iden, don’t think the first Death Star was the right thing for the Empire to do.
CGM: I notice when you’re playing Battlefront II that the troops are going to have different voices and different personalities. Was that intentional to make every little soldier within that universe matter?
Mark Thompson: I think especially on Endor it was important that every storm trooper you meet feels like a person because that whole chapter reverses the power dynamic. Suddenly the Empire is fractured and weakened, and we are not used to seeing it like that. It was important that every storm trooper felt like there was a person inside. I think seeing Iden and the rest of the squad as people—getting to see how they talk and interact, especially when they’re on their own ship and then going down to Endor—it is clear that every soldier is a person, they have a life and there’s a reason they’re all down on this planet and fighting this war. That is much more powerful than the idea that they’re just legions and legions of faceless storm troopers.
CGM: While playing the game, I noticed that the people in command weren’t understanding the struggle of the people on the ground. Was this a major theme for Battlefront II?
Mark Thompson: For the Empire, the path to peace is through order and stability. Sometimes it doesn’t translate from the deck of a command vessel to the troops on the ground. The stories that you get to experience within the game are from that “on the ground” experience. Much of the game and the multiplayer are shown in that perspective—usually from the troops on the ground in the midst of the action or a ship just above the action. These are soldiers, taking orders and doing the best they can in the situation.
CGM: There have been many games that start the story with you, the player, in the role of the Empire only to find redemption. During the development process of Battlefront II was there a worry of falling into the same sort of trap that has been seen in many games in the past?
Mark Thompson: I think what’s interesting is exploring how the Empire and the people in the Empire are different. I think that’s something that hasn’t really been done before, in terms of what we know from things like the Aftermath trilogy and what happened to the Empire and how it became a different thing without Emperor Palpatine. When the leader of the Empire dies and is replaced, things change. I guess it is more about that experience. How the Empire reacts and how it changes and how people in the Empire react to that change and what impact that has on that belief system.
CGM: There are countless stories, games, novels, and audiobooks that touch on what happens after The Return of the Jedi, did you draw any of that or did you start with a clean slate and think of what would happen while developing Battlefront II?
Mark Thompson: When we started developing, Aftermath was still being written. Because we worked collaboratively with the story group at Lucas Film, they helped steer us in the right direction, tell us what was coming up. Of course, everything written before the story group was formed, before Disney took over the Star Wars license, was moved into Legends, and that meant the actual timeline of actual Star Wars was kind of empty, a blank slate. But the story group is very aware of that stuff and we are starting to see things cherry picked from the extended universe, being welcomed back into the Star Wars timeline. Characters like Thrawn, part of the Timothy Zahn trilogy, are now being brought back into the authentic timeline. That trilogy was one of the few novels I read from the Star Wars universe, despite being a fan, because it carried on a story. But Thrawn is a fantastic character and it was great seeing him brought back in Rebels.
We’re always looking at things that have existed before, even small things like Iden’s command ship. In the movies there is nothing like it. There are Star Destroyers the size of Montreal, and you have TIE fighters that are the size of this room, and there is nothing in between. So we needed a mid-size staging vessel that could travel around the galaxy. We realized someone else has this same problem, the Fantasy Flight team, the people that worked on the Miniature game. They developed a mid-size ship known as the Raiden Corvette and we had a designer who played that game, and he had the model on his desk. We thought it would be perfect; it is small, it has a hyperdrive, it can carry a small squadron of TIE fighters, and has a little bridge, so it looks and feels like Star Wars. So we talked to Lucas Film about it, and they said, “yes let’s bring it back from extended universe into authentic”.
CGM: Thank you for taking the time to talk to CGMagazine.
Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out more stories from Brendan Frye, such as the Future of Xbox One – an interview with Xbox Head of Operations, Dave McCarthy, and his interview with Destiny 2 Art Director, Jesse Van Dyke!
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