Star Wars Battlefront 2 writer Mitch Dyer talks narrative design

There was a pun here. It's gone now.

Sure, there's a big new Star Wars film out, but it wasn't the only Star Wars story we saw this year.

While the release of Battlefront 2 came with a lot of pushback against its loot box system, it also saw some enthusiasm for its newly added single-player campaign, particularly its depiction of Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker. 

Since Star Wars is a gigantic cultural touchstone, we wanted to grab writer Mitch Dyer to talk about the process of doing narrative development for the Star Wars universe. Thankfully, he was able to swing by and share some insight that may help out other developers. 

We've transcribed some of the more relevant parts of our conversation below.  You can also watch the stream embedded above, or click here to see it on Twitch.

Stream participants: 

Bryant Francis, Editor at Gamasutra

Alex Wawro, Editor at Gamasutra

Mitch Dyer, Writer at Motive Studios on Star Wars Battlefront 2

Mixing Narrative and Gameplay

Wawro: These kinds of stories come together where design and narrative teams meet, and how they work together determines who well a story plays out in a game. You're uniquely qualified in that this is your first big project as a game dev.

Most of our audience are making games themselves, and many of them may not be on the narrative team, they may be on the design team or engineering team or something else, and they may not have the same perspective as you do about how to craft a good level, a good campaign, that kind of thing, so I wonder, could you go back and maybe share some specific examples of where you and anyone else on the narrative team had to work with the design team to make something work, any specific challenges you faced in laying out a level, in getting your story to play out correctly, and how you dealt with it?

Dyer: Interesting. Oh man.

Wawro: No pressure.

Dyer: (Laughing) Let me think back through the 15 or 14 missions there are in this game and pick one.

Just to spoil the complete end level of the game, the final level, the Battle of Jakku, is enormous. It's the most multiplayer-feeling level we have. The map is huge, there's different objectives you can do in different orders. The scale of it is a lot more in line with, is the most similar to the old Battlefront games, where you're hopping out of your X-Wing--spoilers--and doing all these things to finish different objectives, hopping back on your ship, hopping back on your ship, flying around, shooting enemy starfighters, landing somewhere else.

It's the most broad, dynamic and imposing mission that we have, I think, and from a narrative perspective we needed to figure out how can we, in a level that is, one, a desert, and two, an enormous war, create interesting things for the player to do, things to propel the story forward and make her feel like an efficient and compassionate commander, but also are different from things we've done before, not only in terms of scope, but we tried to shake it up so that every mission had different things going on aesthetically, that the levels didn't feel like, "I'm doing this beat again, this structure is really familiar."

And because we did so much Star Wars, we had to lead with the script a lot of time, and that's not really how games are made a lot of the time? It's really hard to lead with the script, because what it means is, you have this idea of what the narrative is going to be, and the realities of making something fun changes that pretty fundamentally, and you have to go back and do a lot of iteration. So Walt (Williams) and I constantly, and we accepted this pretty early because Walt is a smart guy, he's made a lot of games, he understood that this process, as good as it is for us as writers, "We get to be first!," it wasn't going to work. We had to prepare for a lot of iteration and churn and rewrites, and we embraced it, and it made for a stronger narrative within the levels. Because, as a designer starts to lay things out, and art starts to arrive, the way you think about what the level is changes.

Because, in your mind, the story was just about the people. And now they're in a place. And the place has things in it that you should be talking about. And events going on in the background that you should have them acknowledge. Because if you have something crashing near by you and somebody doesn't acknowledge that, it's a little weird.

Wawro: I know it's hard to think of an example, but is there a specific time when you had a story laid out and then, when the art came back, or maybe when the team came and said we can't do a certain thing, that changed the way you thought the story would play out in a level?

Dyer: Yeah... without getting too much in to the specifics because I'm really happy with how things ended up, and a lot of the time you make changes like that for the better? Because something isn't quite working, how can we make it work, let's trim it down, let's take something from here and move it over here... our Luke Skywalker mission on Philio. We have this new planet called Phillo, it's make of coral and it's very oceanic, super lush and beautiful, but we spend a lot of time inside caves.

Figuring out how to take two characters with opposing viewpoints, with Luke, who's kind of in the Rebellion but he's kinda over it, he doesn't really care about war, he doesn't want to fight anymore, he's like, I have Jedi stuff to do, that's really important, I'm going to do that, see you later. And to come into contact with someone in the Empire who knows who he is, he's Enemy No. 1. He's the guy who blew up the Death Star, he's notorious, and he's a Jedi. This guy is somebody that I, as someone in the Empire, think is wrong in the galaxy.

So to put those two guys together in basically something inspired by Enemy Mine is, it's hard, to create a situation where you can make those two co-exist, do things together, bond, even if it's not becoming friends? "We'll keep each other alive and that's where we'll draw the line." That's really hard, because if you do it too quickly then it's not believable that they're connecting, and that Del could learn something from Luke. If it takes too long, you might reach the point where it's like, "All right, one of them's going to kill the other one soon, right?"

There's only so much that you can do there. So I know that's like a really vague answer, but that one went through a lot of changes narratively and with level design, to kind of make sure that it felt at true to Luke Skywalker as possible, and that it also was in service to Inferno Squad's story.

Writing Luke Skywalker

Francis: We were sharing Heather Alexandra's story over at Kotaku, where she talks about how that's the level that gets Luke right. Which is something that I really agreed with, and was relieved when I hit that level, and found Luke, not as a caricature of how he is in (Star Wars:) A New Hope, in exploration of who he is in the first days after Return of the Jedi, as an older, calmer person who's not super angry at Del when he meets him. I want to build on Heather's praise for that scene, and ask, when did you realize you were working with something different here, where working through Luke at his most heroic involved making a character who wasn't like other videogame heroes? How did you feel when you realized you were making something that wasn't like other stuff that you'd see in a game?

Dyer: This connects really well to the earlier question about your friend who feels a little uncomfortable wearing Imperial gear this year. in a game about a villainous entity like the Empire, and represents people who fight for it and represent it in a positive way, it was really nice, in a game about heroes, and heroism, and goodness in the galaxy, to get to do something like Luke Skywalker. We originally, when we went to Lucasfilm and said "Hey, we want to do a Luke Skywalker mission!," and they said "Cool! Why?," we said "Oh... because it would be awesome?" And they said "Okay, cool, that's not an answer. Why don't you come back with one?" Because they don't want to do anything frivolous, especially with someone like Luke Skywalker, you don't just get to throw that dude around and say "Muh muh Luke Skywalker story." You need to do something significant to justify having a kind of story like that.

So for us it was two things, it was, one, we got to do a Luke Skywalker story that felt significant, not only for our character Del but for where Luke is going, you know he finds an object that has a significant story to be told. And then we got to write the most compassionate, good guy in all of fiction. And that felt really good, especially, like this year, being able to talk through someone like Luke Skywalker, who spared someone's life because he asked. "Why are you helping me?" "You asked for help. I'm just going to do that. I'm going to help you."

Francis: Do you think more game heroes could stand to be like Luke?

Dyer: I think a lot of characters in fiction could be more like Luke. There are places for anti-heroes, there are places for deeply-flawed characters, and all of your Game of Thrones. But I love someone who's like Luke Skywalker, who is pure, and, clearly, has his flaws, and I anticipate we'll see a lot of those flaws exposed in The Last Jedi. He's someone who's just... he's learning? And I feel like that's something that is important in any character arc, growth and change. And you can see Luke do that in every Star Wars movie. The ways he walks, the things he says, the ways he says them.

You can identify, if you took Luke Skywalker lines from any film, if you didn't know they were his lines, you would think these are different people. You would think those lines are from a different individual, or at least from somebody who is older. And you see that in Return of the Jedi, he's definitely more wise. When he goes to Jabba's Palace, he's very monkish and chill, and he's not as extreme as he was with Yoda, where he's saying "I gotta go! I gotta leave!" and he just takes off.

He's measured, calculated, matured. Then after Jedi the guy loses his father who redeemed himself. He loses Yoda, his mentor, who was kind of his only connection to the Force besides Vader. He finds out Leia is his sister. The Emperor is killed. The Death Star is destroyed. He's going through a lot of stuff, he's processing a lot, while being in this monkish phase of his life. So getting to write someone who is figuring stuff out in a mature way, who is also incredibly compassionate and purely good, it was just, nice.

Do Star Wars Games Need Movie Characters To Succeed?

Dyer: You see especially in the comics, and in the novels, they inch away from the iconic characters that you know. You get a little further away, you get closer to original stuff: new planets, ships, races, characters, all these things, because that's what you would expect, the extra material outside the films to broaden what you already know. With games it's the same thing. You definitely want to add new characters, and we always knew, if we were going to do a Battlefront game about a soldier, we wanted it to be an original character. We never wanted to do, what's Captain Rex up to? He's a soldier, let's use him.

We wanted to have an original character. But I'm very curious about Rian Johnson's new Star Wars trilogy in this way, for the same reason you're asking, right? You don't have a point of reference, to characters, to planets, to things that you know. Will it feel like Star Wars?

And I think... yes? It could be done, I think it will be done eventually. Eventually we're going to exist in a period of time in the universe when these characters don't exist, they're not around or they're far away, or whatever. We're going to hit a point where we can't rely on Luke Skywalker. But I wonder how much of it's going to be, now it's Rey and Finn? How much of it's going to be, now it's the new characters from the new trilogy?

But it's connective tissue, right? Star Wars is a single story, and Battlefront II's chapter in it, The Last Jedi is a chapter in it, you have these connective pieces in a galaxy that is really big, and whether it's somebody as important to the galaxy as Luke Skywalker, or just something as iconic and notable, from a smaller perspective, as a Gonk Droid. Or a Wookiee. If you see a Wookiee, you say, "Ah! This is Star Wars."

For more developer interviews, editor roundtables and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel.


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