E3 is underway, and it's showcased some of the year's biggest games, including the most notable one of the year from Electronic Arts. Respawn Entertainment opened EA Play with a 15-minute gameplay demo of Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order. Viewers got to watch as protagonist Cal Kestis, a survivor of Order 66, which empowered the Empire to massacre Jedis and their padawans, embarked on a mission to free Wookiees that were fighting for the resistance. On the face of it, what unfolded seemed like pretty standard fare for a Star Wars action game. Cal climbed and parkoured around environments, deflected blaster shots with his lightsaber, and used Force abilities to manhandle Stormtroopers.
However, there was much more going on beneath the surface and, it turns out, the demo without an accompanying breakdown didn't do the game much justice. Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order is surprisingly cut from the same cloth as From Software's Bloodborne and Dark Souls, though it's perhaps less coarse and rough and irritating. Director Stig Asmussen has used the phrase "thoughtful combat" often when describing how Jedi Fallen Order plays and, thus far, it's not been apparent what that means.
Having seen an extended version of the gameplay demo shown during EA Play, we sat down with Asmussen to discuss the game, its influences, and the particulars of the experience. We also talk about the origins of the project, the pressure of working on a property as beloved as Star Wars, and more.
GameSpot: How did you arrive to this format for the game? Star Wars could be anything and, often, it's an RPG. What was it about like the action genre that made it right for Fallen Order?
Stig Asmussen: It's a good question. Actually, before working on Star Wars we were working on a different game and it had basically the same pillars that we have in this game, which is thoughtful combat, agile exploration--you know, beyond human--and Metroidvania level design. And that's something that when we were working on this other game and we demoed it, people [at] EA saw it and said, there's something in there that you could see easily see it turning into a Star Wars game. My background is melee action, so when they came to us and were like, "We really like the game you're working out and we want to do at some point, but how would you guys feel about doing Star Wars?" we were like, great. And [a lot] of the core functionality that we were building for the other game, a lot of the fundamentals, were able to transition over. So we always start with, "What is the game? How does it feel? How does it play? What are the mechanics?" before really figuring out the story. It just so happened this thing that we were working on translated really well.
That's a really interesting origin for the project. On the one hand, as a creator, you're working on something brand new and you can make it whatever you want. But then you're also presented with Star Wars--one of the most beloved properties of all time. How did you weigh up doing something new or doing something that people know and love, which comes with a lot of pressure?
Well I've always wanted to work on Star Wars. When I first came to Respawn, Vince [Zampella] and I talked about it because it's something that he always wanted to do [too]. We had a close relationship with EA at the time so we pitched an idea. They were interested and we were interested but not everything aligned at the time. So when it came time to make the decision and what we are going to move forward with, we brought it to the team: "Hey, we can work on this thing that we've got or we can try this other opportunity with Star Wars." The entire team at that point, which is about 12 people, was like thumbs up, let's do Star Wars. I mean Force powers and lightsabers are like milk and cookies for us.
Many games lead with story when they're teasing. They bring out the recognizable things to hook people, and while Jedi Fallen Order has a little of that, it feels like this it's also leading with gameplay mechanics and systems.
Absolutely. But we've been working really closely with Lucasfilm and they've been great. They're like, "We love the game you're making, let's try to figure out how to solve the things [that] are Star Wars." So that's always a conversation that we're having, but our designers design very freely when they're laying out levels. I mean, they have a rough idea of what we're trying to do with the story, but really what we try to encourage them to do is come up with something that's fun and within the metrics of what our game is. In a lot of cases, our metrics of our game kind of break what Star Wars is, so then we have to sit down with Lucasfilm and have that conversation, have that brainstorming session where we figure out how to make it work for Star Wars.
So one of the things that you've mentioned repeatedly is "thoughtful combat." What does that mean to you and what should it mean to someone thinking about playing the game?
You're not just going in and mindlessly hacking down enemies. Every enemy has a weakness, maybe several weaknesses. Every enemy has a way to exploit the hero as well. And there's synergies between the different enemy types, so they act in different ways depending on how you combine them. So every time you walk into a battle, you really have to weigh how you're going to go in and take the guys out. We obviously want to have a power fantasy in the game, so as you're getting stronger, your abilities are getting greater. Enemies you found early on aren't going to be as much of a challenge, but we'll be introducing new enemies that will challenge you. And once you take those and you combine that with the fact that now you have several different types of entities together, and then you have your new Force abilities that you're picking up along the way, new skills that you're learning, the lightsaber--we're encouraging the player to do more than just press a button.
What was the seed for that kind of combat? You came from God of War, which has depth and nuance but is mostly played as a button masher.
Well, God of War is great because yeah, you can mash in the game, but there also wasn't a steep curve for skilled players because you can unlock an insane amount of moves in that game and you can change the combos in different ways. When we started this new combat system, we were looking at Wind Waker. We wanted to have kind of a Metroidvania style, which Wind Waker has a little bit of in there as your abilities unlock gates across the whole map.
And we were also looking at Bloodborne and Dark Souls, and immediately I was like, "I want the game to have Z-targeting." You can turn it on and off, and it plays really well in the free mode as well. But it was really kind of like, we don't want to be as whimsical and quite as accessible as Wind Waker but Zelda does have like enemies that you kind of unlock in different ways. So we wanted to have that. That's where we started thinking about "thoughtful." You have to learn how to use the different abilities, you know?
We knew it couldn't be as punishing as Dark Souls, especially since it's Star Wars. We needed to find something that was more accessible. So, yeah, those were our touchstone.
In Metroidvanias the growth of power and fulfillment of the power fantasy is a lot slower. And people coming into Star Wars may want to feel like a badass Jedi straight away, right? It doesn't seem like that slow progression would play nicely with the Jedi fantasy.
Right. Well, it can because of the way our character is built in the story. He's unfinished and he's unpolished. But, at the end of the day, he's got a lightsaber and that's a pretty devastating weapon. And that's another thing that kind of goes with "thoughtful combat." When you swing a lightsaber, for it to feel right, a lot of enemies need to go down with one hit, so you have to figure out how to open up an enemy. And once the player does that, then the power fantasy starts to take hold.
Games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne have this process of an uphill struggle and then you're rewarded for overcoming the challenges. That's a key part of feedback and satisfaction in the games. How are you treating death in Jedi Fallen Order?
That's an interesting question. We certainly can't be as punishing as Bloodborne because I think that we have to be fair to the fans and respect the fans of Star Wars. Those games are awesome, but we have a much wider audience. We love those parts of those games, so we have to figure out a way. We're in the process of playtesting right now and thinking about how difficult the system [is]. I can't really answer that question because it's still something that like we're trying. We have something that works and it works for a certain group, but we need to find a final solution.
There's a moment when Cal sits down and seems to meditate. Is that the equivalent of a bonfire or lantern?
Yeah, that's a save point. We have those scattered throughout the game. He goes in and he meditates. And in there you can also access your skill tree.
And the blue and white bar on screen. Are those Force powers and guarding/resistance?
Right. So the blue bar is your Force power. Every time you use a Force ability it gets spent. You build it back up by swinging at enemies, so you have to be offensive.
That's the Bloodborne inspiration then.
But the white bar is your block and enemies have the same thing as well. They've got health and they've got a block bar. So if you go in and start wailing on an enemy and they're just blocking all the time, you can break their guard.
And there were moments that had a parry-style look, like Sekiro.
Yeah, it's actually funny when I first played Sekiro, I was like, "It's almost the same control scheme that we have." It's very similar. Like I jumped in and said this feels like our game but it's hard as f**k. Yeah, the parry has a window that is somewhat tight, but I think a lot of people will get it. That's also how you deflect shots, like blaster shots. If you just hold [the button down] Cal will bounce them in different directions, but you can reflect back to your enemy by hitting [parry].
So returning a blaster shot is the skill-based part of a reflect ability that is otherwise quite accessible to pull off.
Yep. And any time an enemy is swinging there's a window where if you hit it, you'll be able to topple them.
How did it feel to play Sekiro and see ideas that were so similar? That seems to happen a lot, with people coming up with similar ideas despite being completely secluded from each other.
I came into and work and said, "People are going to say we stole Sekiro's stuff and put it in this game." But we didn't! I think the other similarity is you can jump in that game so that makes it a much more agile and faster than the other [From Software games]. Our game has a lot of speed to it.
How much platforming and puzzle-solving do you want in the game? That's the kind of thing that engages video game fans, but may be a snag for just random Star Wars fans.
They won't be arbitrary. We use puzzles as kind of a pace breaker. We had some pretty tricky ones in the God of War games, but for this game we're not doing things that are tricky, but they're still clever. The three main pillars are exploration, level design, which includes problem solving, and combat. And I would say the lion's share of it is probably combat. Even within combat, it can feel like a puzzle.
You have a lot of weight on you. You're handling Star Wars, so there's that. You've got God of War 3 to your name, so there's an expectation of quality. And then it's a game from Respawn, a studio that always hits a high bar.
Don't wanna screw that up!
How do you deal with that pressure and expectation?
Yeah. A lot of it is just leaning on my team and the incredible support we give each other. We all know we have the weight of the world on our shoulders, so to speak, and I kind of feed off of that. You kind of have to. The other thing too is you just can't worry about it all the time. You know, if I make a mistake, if we make a mistake on this, then we learn from it and we're going to the next thing. But we can't be afraid to fail. So we've taken some risks; I think calculated [ones]. Hopefully it works out.
Do you see a future beyond this for the story of Cal? Is this the first chapter of a series?
I don't know that we've really decided what's next, but he certainly is a character that we can take to different places.
Did you play much Force Unleashed before making this?
It was kind of interesting because Steam had a big sale on Star Wars games right when the deal was official. It was a pretty small team then and everybody downloaded [them] and played these different Star Wars games. Of course we played them growing up, but over the years what you remember about them might not have been exactly the way it was. In spirit, a lot of that stuff ended up informing us on things that we're doing in the game.
What do you want people's biggest takeaway from what they've seen so far to be? There's so many people coming at this for different reasons and latching onto different things. What do you want them to be thinking about when they're looking at Jedi Fallen Order?
That's a good question. I mean, the thing that I don't want to be misrepresented here is that this is a linear game. You just saw a large chunk of linear gameplay that we would call a Star Wars spectacle, a wow moment. [Editor's note: Asmussen is referring to an extended gameplay video featuring an AT-AT that was shown behind closed doors.] That is one of a handful of things like that that you'll find in the game that are very scripted and linear. But most of the game is through player choice and agency for where they want to go based on the abilities that they have. I would want to make sure that everybody has a good impression of what the moment core game experience is.
Final question: Have you played the new God of War and if so what do you think of it?
It's fantastic. It's fantastic.
Did Cory Barlog show or mention it to you before you left?
Well, before I left Sony, I knew what the idea was. I thought that Kratos being a dad was going to be a tough sell. But Cory was very earnest about it and you could see that he had a passion and he knew what he wanted to do with it. And it totally worked. It's awesome.