'Star Wars: Squadrons' creators reveal the storytelling challenges from a pilot's view
By Gene Park
I always wondered how fast I would fly through a "Star Wars" type trench run. I learned the answer playing "Star Wars: Squadrons": very, very slowly and carefully.
I was still engulfed in the chaos of authentic Star Wars audio - all lasers and pilot chatter - and stunning visual effects that made me wish I was playing with a VR headset. It was easy to get lost in the moment. I purposefully slowed down my X-Wing not just in caution, but in admiration of the gorgeous art direction and the vastness of virtual space. "Star Wars: Squadrons" does a pretty great job of making all the elements of a Star Wars experience pop, even with the player character mostly confined to the cockpit.
Steve Blank, director of franchise content and strategy at Lucasfilm, said the Star Wars brand team was excited to tackle the storytelling challenge of the perspective limits.
"We know what our bounding boxes are specifically when it comes to what the gameplay needs to be," Blank said. "Now how do we craft a story? How do we find that point in the timeline, and how do we build characters that feel emotionally compelling? It's a lot of fun back and forth, at least back when we all used to be able to travel."
The story takes place in the months after "Return of the Jedi," and fills in some blanks on how the Empire fell and recovered after Luke Skywalker's victory in the second Death Star. It's a prime time period for storytelling. EA, the current stewards of the brand in video games, still wants to continue telling the binary conflict that defines the stories as it explored in "Star Wars: Battlefront 2."
The decision for the setting was made within the first two months of discussions with Lucasfilm.
"We pretty quickly identified that we could get some really interesting dynamics between what's left of the Empire and the burgeoning New Republic," said Ian Frazier, "Squadrons" creative director at developer Motive Montreal. "But we were also looking into a period where we have a very wide selection of the ships everyone loves. In a game about ships, that was a great setting."
Most of the game is told from the first-person perspective. But while the action plays out when the player is in the cockpit, there are also hangar areas which act as hubs to interact with other characters, including the four other members of the squadron. You're not able to move in these areas, as they're meant only to advance character arcs and set the stage for the next star war.
Frazier tells The Washington Post that the team did toy with something more interactive. EA's own "Anthem," for example, has a hub area where players walk to interact with various vendors and characters.
"But we had the mind-set that this is a space combat experience, it's the focus of the game," Frazier said. "We didn't want to be wandering off in the weeds of other kinds of things that aren't really what the game was. . . . But some players want to dig more into the characters and get to know them better."
Even during quarantine, there was a lot of back and forth and "fact" checking with the Lucasfilm brand team. Frazier said Lucasfilm is practically a co-developer, at least in terms of the amount of input and assets they provided for art and audio files. Last year's "Jedi: Fallen Order" by Respawn Entertainment and EA was also similarly collaborative and canonical, taking place just after the prequel trilogy. Frazier said he's a huge fan of the "Star Wars" animated series "Rebels," and was eager to tackle his first project for the brand.
Frazier also said the team debated how to present cutscenes. They started with two choices: Tell the entire story in first person, ala "Half-Life," or in traditional cutscenes. The team landed on mixing both. An only-cutscene approach would've left players feeling disconnected from the "helmet in cockpit" experience, Frazier said.
"But at the same time, if we only told the story from your perspective, it felt like we couldn't," Frazier said. "Maybe in the real military you can see interesting conversations that happen in another room, but it's just not super interesting for the player."
The experience makes sense. As Frazier correctly states, "Star Wars" is a cinematic franchise first and foremost, so watching other key players such as General Leia still feels native to the experience. But once you enter gameplay, Motive Montreal's art and audio work kicks into high gear for peak immersion.
The trench sequence I described earlier is only more riveting with the titular squadron backing you up. The gameplay feels a bit like a classic escort mission from third-person adventure games, where a character walks alongside you to give exposition as you move to the next objective. In "Squadrons," the other characters are your pilots, and in the more quiet moments, instead of walking, you're flying through space.
There are even other small moments to immerse players. Docking for the iconic jump into hyperspace was always taken for granted in the films, but here, you get to take part in that process, see how banal and routine it is for the pilots. This quiet-then-loud dynamic of the space battles give each encounter a good rhythm through the campaign.
"As you build relationships and dynamics between people, part of the fun of flying with a squad is learning about who they are and their dynamics among each other, and it allows us to explore both personal relationships to issues or events that we've seen or heard about in Star Wars before," Blank said. "But also we can see the galactic level impact of their perspectives. Why are they on a specific side? We thought that was really exciting."
The Washington Post