How Respawn Entertainment Made the Best ‘Star Wars’ Video Game of the Past Decade

6 minute read

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is the first good Star Wars video game since Disney took over the franchise in 2013. Video games are complicated and expensive to make, especially when you’re dealing with a licensed property like Star Wars. Fallen Order pulls it off, delivering a thrilling Jedi simulator that manages to both tell a compelling story and deliver action-packed gameplay.

Developer Respawn Entertainment is the reason Fallen Order succeeded. The studio behind Titanfall 2 and Apex Legends has yet to make a bad game, but its games haven’t been as narrative driven as Fallen Order. Swinging a lightsaber is fun, but the story of outlaw Jedi Cal Kestis and former Jedi Cere Junda are what kept me playing. I wanted to know what would happen to those characters. I cared about them. That’s rare, for me, in a video game.

Getting the player to care about the success and failure of a video game character is Aaron Contreras’ job. He was the narrative lead on Fallen Order, and—with a team of other writers, including veterans of The Clone Wars and Rebels cartoons—Conteras set out to tell a story that would connect with audiences. “In game development, good stories challenge the audience with a very specific question,” Contreras says. “Fallen Order asks ‘what does it mean to be a Jedi now that the Jedi order is no more?’”

Fallen Order takes place after the events of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and the Order 66, when Emperor Palpatine all but wiped out the Jedi. Cal was a young padawan. He survived, but never completed his training. He’s a character traumatized by the events of Order 66 and dealing with guilt over people he couldn’t save. “Trauma is a huge theme of the game,” Contreras says. “Trauma and failure [and] the answer we have to failure, the choices we make when we fail is right there at the emotional heart of the game.”

According to Conteras, video games have a unique ability to tell a story about failure and loss. “As the player plays the game, they will fail, they’ll lose a fight, they’ll miss time a jump, and they’ll have to take a step back and then get back on the horse and try again,” Conteras says. “So we’re hoping there’s a real synthesis between the player and the protagonist…it’s hard to do that in any other art form. I think games are especially suited to including that ingredient of failure.”

Communicating themes of trauma and loss in a big budget video game set in the Star Wars universe would be hard without great writing and great acting. If the player doesn’t care about the character they’re controlling, they won’t care about their tribulations. “I think a major ingredient was hiring Cameron Monaghan and casting him as Cal,” Conteras says. “So much of the life of Cal and the personality and nuance comes from Cameron’s performance and his understanding of what we were trying to do.”

Monaghan, probably most famous for his turn as the Joker on Gotham, says that Cal’s past trauma informed his performance. “It caused [Cal] to put up a wall. He’s hesitant to get attached to people,” Monaghan says. “That hesitancy drives the early story for Cal, but we see him create relationships with Cere and the droid BD-1 who form this team of outcasts and outsiders who are forming a rebellion against the Empire.”

Fallen Order’s characters are defined by loss, in direct connection to the rise of the Empire. “I thought that was something really beautiful,” Monaghan says. “It’s a universal theme. It’s not only trauma, but how you choose to deal with it. Do you let it destroy you?”

Star Wars has always been an epic about the battle between light and dark. It’s about a war against galactic-scale, planet-destroying forces. But its most recent success, The Mandalorian, is a smaller story about the relationship between a faceless bounty hunter and the adorable baby Yoda he’s hired to bring in.

Star Wars is a deep universe, capable of telling stories that aren’t focused on world ending struggles. Like The Mandalorian, Fallen Order succeeds, in part, because it’s a small story about personal relationships between characters. “[Star Wars] is a very epic story,” Monaghan says. “And to take it to a human place of the idea of trauma, I thought was a really beautiful way to tell the story. I give full credit to the writers on that one.”

According to Conteras, Respawn was already working on its own single player action adventure game when Electronic Arts, the publisher who owns Respawn, and LucasFilm approached them about making Fallen Order. A demo of Resapwn’s game had been floating around the company. “Electronic Arts and Lucasfilm looked at it and thought, ‘Hey, this team could maybe pull of a single player Star Wars experience,’” Contreras says. EA and Lucasfilm asked Respawn if they wanted to set aside their original IP and turn it into a Star Wars game. Respawn took a vote and unanimously decided to tackle the beloved franchise.

It was a brave choice. There’s baggage that comes with trying to make a Star Wars game. Disney gave EA exclusive rights to make Star Wars games in 2013 and since then, the publisher has released Battlefront I and II. In Battlefront II, progression was tired to in-game purchases called lootboxes. Fans and critics hated the game’s use of lootboxes so much that it started an international conversation about regulating in-game purchases.

That’s a tough act to follow. “There’s a sense of responsibility from everyone on the development team. We want to make something that is authentically Star Wars,” Contreras says. “A big goal for us is that you load up the game, you take one step into the world that we’ve realized and it’s immediately Star Wars.”

Respawn succeeded. Fallen Order’s lightsaber combat is a delight and exploring the worlds of the Star Wars galaxy is a great way to spend your free time. But what sets Fallen Order apart, what makes it special and puts it in league with other classic games like TIE Fighter and Knights of the Old Republic, is its story. It’s the kind of small-scale, personal narrative that Star Wars is only just starting to explore.

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