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How Respawn created its own world within Star Wars for Jedi: Fallen Order

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Respawn’s narrative lead on the delicate balance of working in a Star Wars world

Licensed video games can be tricky for developers. It’s one thing to make a game, but it’s another to write a storyline when you’re operating under someone else’s rules. That’s particularly true in a universe with as much depth and scale as Star Wars. For the upcoming Jedi: Fallen Order, the goal was to balance an original storyline and characters with the ever-increasing scope of the broader Star Wars universe.

According to Aaron Contreras, the narrative lead at developer Respawn, hitting that balance was key throughout the development process. “It’s been a real balancing act of wanting to create something that’s super authentic to what people think of when they think ‘Star Wars’ ... while also kind of pushing into new territory and giving people something different,” he says.

Some of those constraints have to do with the setting of the game. Set between Episodes III and IV, it takes place during a time that’s still being explored in the greater Star Wars universe. But it also has the potential dangers of any prequel — mainly, that players will know how the story ends in a broader sense: Luke Skywalker will eventually show up, grab a lightsaber, and defeat the Empire.

But Fallen Order isn’t a game about Luke Skywalker. It’s about Cal Kestis, a Jedi Padawan who survives Order 66, the massacre of the Jedi Order engineered by Emperor Palpatine at the end of Revenge of the Sith, just prior to the events of the game.

But Contreras says that Respawn didn’t view this as a bad thing, necessarily. “We know what’s coming in terms of major galactic events: Luke Skywalker, the Death Star, Rey a generation later... but we’re not at that time yet. There is no new hope yet in the galaxy,” Contreras says.

“So that’s kind of the opportunity past the challenge for us: this is the dark time, and Cal’s journey is not Luke’s journey. He has to continually make this choice to get back up from failure, to get back up from defeat, and continue to try and fight for what’s right,” he says. “So we think there’s a real appeal to that story, to having that kind of hero who won’t give up. Even if we know what’s coming down the road [in the movies.]”

All of this goes back to that balance that Contreras alluded to, with Fallen Order working to simultaneously carve out its own space within the broader Star Wars world, with unique characters, lore, and settings, while also building on the foundations that have been established. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Respawn has the full power of Lucasfilm when it comes to things like art, sound effects, and more. The Stormtroopers look like proper Stormtroopers, the lightsabers sound like lightsabers, and the droid companion, BD-1, has sound effects designed by the legendary Ben Burtt, the sound designer for nearly all of the Star Wars films and the “voice” for R2-D2 in the movies.

On the other hand, Respawn had to work to get Lucasfilm to sign off on its ideas. “When we started off working with Lucasfilm, they were hesitant to let us have a melee character, and they were hesitant to let us have a Jedi character; now the game is called Jedi,” Contreras explains. “So it’s been a real collaboration and trust-building process the entire way through. But every force power, every script, every scene, they’ve had eyes on. And we’ve worked together so they trust us to make something that is an authentic Star Wars experience, and we’ve leveled up on our side to where we can deliver that.”

The Lucasfilm partnership also had impacts on the gameplay side. Respawn had to work with Lucasfilm to make sure that the abilities and powers that it wanted include would fit into Star Wars lore. And even with the broadness of Star Wars, it wasn’t always successful. “There’s countless amazing ideas, just dead bodies on the roadside of the production here [that didn’t fit into the Star Wars setting]. But hopefully, the best stuff made it into the game, and it made the game stronger for that process,” Contreras says.

It’s been a collaboration that utilizes both sides’ strengths. As Contreras puts it, Respawn is “a video game company, not a film studio. And we’re working with Lucasfilm, [which is] primarily a film company. So we’re finding our own space inside what they’re doing,” he says.

“Our greatest hope is that people come away from Fallen Order and be like, ‘That’s absolutely Star Wars.’”