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Let's gush over the art and environments of Star Wars Jedi: Survivor

Great-looking games take a lot of work. Let's celebrate the fine folks at Respawn who've given life to the world of Star Wars Jedi: Survivor.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

April 26, 2023

13 Min Read
BD-1 and Cal Kestis on board the Stinger Mantis in Star Wars Jedi: Survivor.

There has always been something hypnotic about visiting the world of Star Wars.

Good or bad, in the theater, on TV, or turn by turn of the page, the world of this cinematic universe has never failed to conjure the spirit of journeying to a far-off world. Series creator George Lucas and directors Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand deserve plenty of credit for this phenomenon, but their work was built on the labor of artists and technicians like Ralph McQuarrie, Colin Cantwell, Norman Reynolds, John Berry, Leslie Dilley, Roger Christian, Doug Chiang, Phil Tippett, Joe Johnston, and so many other hardworking artisans.

I dug up all of those names because when developers like Respawn Entertainment jump into the now multi-billion dollar universe, they're often tasked with slavishly building on the work of those artists and their peers. Some studios find themselves revisiting locales from the films and shows like Coruscant or Jedha, while others have the chance to add new planets or ships to the series' visual canon.

In Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, Respawn's creative and technical teams took an incredible stab both at revisiting those familiar sites and developing a new visual identity for locales like Koboh and its Shattered Moon. The studio has been given an incredible amount of leeway in the game's production design to iterate and expand on what the films created.

We don't often take time to celebrate the kind of work it takes to make such game worlds possible. But every few minutes in Survivor I'll just stop and go "that looks incredible." It's an incredibly ambitious amount of labor that gives life to a thriving, open game world that goes beyond what Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order built, and it shows how the studio has built a process for making some of the industry's finest triple-A art direction.

Coruscant gets a colorful makeover

The city-planet of Coruscant was first prominently featured in 1999's Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, but strangely was not the first name of the Galactic capitol. Lucas originally named it "Had Abbadon" in early drafts of Return of the Jedi, then adopted the name Coruscant from Timothy Zahn's book "Heir to the Empire." It first made a soft debut in the 1997 theatrical release of Return of the Jedi's Special Edition.

The color profile of the city-planet has been anchored by the harsh steel of the planet's urban superstructures. Various production designers have turned to different contrasting and complementing colors to create visual distinction across the planet, mainly to distinguish from three types of environments: the wealthy and sanctimonious power of the halls of government, the austere but elegant halls of the Jedi Temple, and the seedy sensations of a criminal underworld, which has always seemed to be an intersection of 1970s Time Square and the neon lights of classic Hong Kong cinema.

A screenshot from Star Wars Jedi: Survivor. Player character Cal Kestis is illuminated by a digital billboard whose colors range from gold to Magenta.

Survivor kicks off with a visit to that seedy underworld, and Respawn's done a fascinating job taking the colors of Star Wars Episode II and melding them with harsh reality of life under a newly risen Galactic Empire. It's like wandering through a city that's fallen into decay, but no one's bothered to change the signposts. You can see in the screenshot above that Survivor's production designers lifted some colors from Star Wars Episode II's bar scene but brought them into an outdoor environment.

They're like hazy dreams of that old, sinful space that are being swallowed by the ominous oppression around them.

But these billboards aren't just for lighting the game world, they also (sometimes) serve as surfaces that the player can run on. Respawn plays with the color profile on some of these, making big, bright banners that curve to the shape of the game's traversable walls. They nicely contrast with signs that are just meant to be background environments, and introduce this blue-and-white color scheme that almost invokes some of the clone soldiers from Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

A traversable wall in Star Wars Jedi: Survivor. The sign is a combination of white blue, and white blue.

All of these bright colors are anchored by another subtle visual constant in the design of Coruscant: interior building lighting. In wide shots everywhere, the lights of apartments, businesses, and vehicles in the far distance linger behind characters. And on this planet, they're a stand-in for a slice of civilization whose population numbers in the trillions.

But of course Coruscant in this series is a symbol of excess, of greed, and now of Imperial oppression. Once you get away from the big city, Respawn's flourish really begins to shine.

Koboh pays tribute to the American Southwest

The story of Survivor gravitates (almost literally) around a far-flung Outer Rim planet called Kobol, which is home to both a frontier town and the ruins of a bygone civilization called The High Republic. No, not the Old Republic, that's BioWare's brand. The High Republic is a new, sort of "golden era" setting that's taken shape in Disney's book and comics publishing, and will be explored in live-action in an upcoming TV show called The Acolyte.

On Koboh that golden era is long gone, and the wilderness has crept back in. Respawn's team very nicely blends these two types of structures, but one of their main technical achievements on this world is how vast and open it is.

In Fallen Order, the game's various environments were shaped by very linear levels and textured by new areas that could be unlocked as the player acquired new Force powers and bits of technology. In Survivor, those types of levels remain, but Kobol and other worlds are filled with these vast open zones that can conceal little levels of their own.

A screenshot of Kobol from Star Wars Jedi: Survivor.

The vista above is the player's first introduction to such a large area, and it's sort of a brain-breaking moment if you think about the level design and environment choices. The main path goes off to the left, which will guide the player to the town down in the valley where the next objective is. But the area on the right is fully traversable, and curious players will be rewarded with combat and unlockables if they go off the beaten path.

You should also pay attention to some of the environment assets on the right side. Respawn has made the fascinating choice with Survivor to not highlight climbable objects with that classic open-world yellow paint that we've seen in recent games like Horizon Forbidden West and The Last of Us: Part II.

Vines do still have a distinct pattern, and walls that you can wall-run on have a certain horizontal texture, but the landscape often refuses to signpost where to go next. "Figure it out," it seems to say.

A screenshot from Star Wars Jedi: Survivor. The player looks out at a carved rock wall.

As noted above, the foliage and terrain of Kobol resembles the American Southwest. I joked that it's "space California" to another writer who's reviewing the game. They insisted that it's "space Arizona." Take your pick, I think it looks like the kind of terrain you might find near Chatsworth, CA—where Respawn is headquartered.

I keep coming back to the above screenshot though, where the rock walls definitely don't look like any cliffs I saw in California. The strange bending lines and grooves in the wall give it an alien feel, but they also remind me of a line that comes when the player later arrives on the world of Jedha. One of Cal Kestis' companions comments on how the galaxy is full of the graveyards of ancient civilizations.

Some of these civilizations are most relevant to the story, but details like this cliff wall feel true to that same ethos. Something shaped the wall to look like this. It's not clear if that "something" was technological or natural in origin. But what does "natural" even mean on another planet? (Especially one with a strange celestial phenomenon floating overhead).

It's the kind of environmental design that can tell a story without leaning too hard into classic "environmental storytelling" (AKA, dropping skeletons everywhere).

A screenshot from Jedi Fallen Order, showing a bartender droid with an unsual swiveling head.

When I started writing this piece I was primarily focused on Survivor's environment art, but I couldn't not comment on this wonderful bartending droid that shows up in a cantina owned by Greez Dritus, the grumpy alien pilot who players met in Fallen Order. The artists at Respawn are really invested in making great robots. There's a little bit of Pathfinder and the MRVN droid of Apex Legends in this guy, and like Pathfinder he's an odd-looking fellow without clear anthropomorphizing and a chatty personality.

One of the fun parts of Star Wars is that alien creatures or machines will often behave like over-the-top characters from classic films, and Survivor's secondary cast lives up to that energy.

A screenshot from Star Wars Jedi: Survivor. The player character stands in front of a closet in an underground room.

Speaking of Greez, I wanted to call out this fun background detail located in a sleeping chamber under his bar. After arriving at the bar, Greez shows the player to an underground smuggler's tunnel where serious plot developments take place.

In the closet are Greez's jumpsuits from Fallen Order. In Survivor, Greez is wearing a more toned-down outfit, something comfortable that reflects his newfound retirement. Whoever modeled this background asset put an incredible amount of love and work into not just sizing these clothes to resemble Greez's size, but also his shape. Greez is a four-armed being who sags his shoulders and has a pronounced belly. That identifiable pose is captured even while his clothes hang on the wall, and it does such a great job of communicating "whose" closet this is.

There's plenty more to say about Koboh, but there are Disney snipers training laser sights on me if I reveal too many spoilers, so let's move on, shall we?

Jedha and Koboh's Shattered Moon are loaded with subtle detail

Jedha is a world that first appears in the 2016 film Rogue One: A Star Wars story, where it's the home of a cell of partisans led by Forest Whitaker's Saw Gerrera. That film only uses the planet's backstory as light texture for its narrative, but Lucasfilm has continued to return to this world as a religious site important to the Jedi.

In Jedi Survivor, a group of Jedi and Force Acolytes led by Fallen Order supporting character Cere have taken refuge in the planet's caves, and the general artistic design of the region tells the story of ruined religious sites and the perils of pilgrimage.

Taking too many screenshots might have thrust me into "spoiler" territory, but I wanted to share one that struck my eye. Early on, the player can encounter a shrine that pilgrims frequent. A little narrative log uncovered by scanning the shrine with his droid pal BD-1 explains that these are spinning prayer wheels pilgrims would use to pray for luck on their journey.

Jedi: Survivor protagonist Cal Kestis stands in front of a shrine with spinning ornaments.

I don't know why but something struck me about this out-of-the-way spot. The detail on the prayer wheels (which resemble those seen in Tibetan religious traditions) reinforced the influence of Buddhism and other Asian religions on the Jedi Order. It conjured images of characters that pray to these mantras instead of to deities or saints. The planet is filled with gigantic statues of long-dead Jedi, and this small shrine served as a nice contrast.

The first time players visit Jedha, it can be a fairly quick trip. They're given a choice after that to either return to Koboh or visit its big broken moon (formally referred to as The Shattered Moon).

On The Shattered Moon, players visit an ancient array constructed in the time of the High Republic. At first I was struck by how "modern" everything felt. I guess since the base is supposed to be frozen in time, only recently disturbed, meant it wasn't supposed to be a ruin like everything on Jedha.

But as I played through this level, something very neat happened: the level design, combat encounters, and environment all came together to create something that felt like the end moments of The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke Skywalker carefully navigates the underside of Cloud City. The enemies on the Shattered Moon hide behind walls and stage ambushes, and the background noise is mostly very still, with the quiet punctuated by hissing vents that obscure the player's view as they emit different gasses.

An orange room in Jedi: Survivor.

George Lucas' now-memed quote "it's like poetry, it rhymes" was meant to refer to the narrative overlap of small events between the two film trilogies he helmed, but it has resonance here. Though the story elements are completely different, this environment evokes one of the most memorable parts of the Star Wars saga by painstakingly recreating that tension in a different environment. It's really cool, and unlike anything I've encountered in similar third-person action games like The Last of Us: Part II or A Plague Tale: Requiem.

A screenshot of Koboh's Shattered Moon. It looks like a factory with a massive circular structure branching through the middle.

I really don't have much specific to say about this specific landscape other than A. it's neat, and B. shows off how much Respawn gets out of all the space—vertical and horizontal—that it builds in Survivor's game world.

A screenshot from Jedi: Survivor. The player character stares down a droid and a bandit standing on the other side of a laser wall.

I'll close out by expressing admiration for how Respawn stages enemy encounters in increasingly creative ways. Where many games guide players through tight corridors only to open them to a room full of enemies, Respawn regularly shakes up how players become aware of enemy groups. In the instance up above, players find an impassable laser wall with a bandit and droids on the other side. The bandit taunts the player and shrugs them off as a threat.

After navigating a traversal puzzle, the player is then able to drop in and surprise this bandit, closing a little mini-narrative arc that defines the scene.

Like I said up top, the world of Star Wars is just downright hypnotic. It takes a lot of work to conceive of a galaxy that's both alien and familiar all at once, and when the setting is taken seriously, it can be used to tell stories that hammer home truths about our own world.

Respawn is one of the rare game studios given room to apply that level of detail. And with the game's imminent release, its artists (of all backgrounds) deserve credit for diving so passionately into a galaxy far, far away.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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