As a fast-paced and hectic rundown of all the epic battles in the Star Wars universe, the Battlefront series has always been about reliving the best moments. But for the sequel, Star Wars: Battlefront II plans to shed light on events unseen in the films. After the Level Up games panel at D23, GameSpot had the chance to talk with Janina Gavankar, the actress behind the lead character Iden Versio, where we learned more about Battlefront II’s ambitious single-player narrative, and how her own creative input helped the story.
“It’s everything you could imagine, and more. I thought I was gonna show up to work and people were gonna just say ‘stand here, do this, follow our rules’, which by the way I have been through on lesser projects in other mediums. But this has been so unexpectedly collaborative,” said Janina Gavankar. “I had access to the script and access to the writers. I would ask a million questions, and sat there and tried to poke holes through every single angle of this thing, and they were there to answer them.”
Serving as the bridge between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens--covering the fall of the Empire and rise of the First Order--Battlefront II’s campaign focuses on the exploits of the Empire’s black ops unit Inferno Squad and its commander Iden Versio. After the destruction of the second Death Star, Versio’s unit must come to grips with suffering another major loss, all while trying to keep the Empire’s foothold in the galaxy firm. But they’ll soon realize that their once powerful army has lost more than its leader and sizable war machine, and the remnants of the Empire will have to make some harsh choices in order to survive in a post-Emperor galaxy.
As an official part of the Star Wars timeline, Battlefront II’s campaign focuses on an original story from the perspective of the Empire. With the goal of showing the people behind the large grey space cruisers and sleek black uniforms, even going as far to show what a functioning Imperial society looks like on Iden Versio’s homeworld Verdos, the creatives at Lucasfilm and EA Motive wanted to present more of an element of humanity within the Empire for their collaboration on this title, which will be an official piece of the canon.
“We are such a unified unit, and the actors had access to the directors, producers, and military and story consultants to make it all authentic,” Gavankar said. “When I was with John Boyega backstage after the panel, we talked about how collaborative the whole experience was. I have never been a part of a project that allowed for this much freedom from us. He knows too, it’s just not normal. The fact that I can voice my opinions and be heard is incredible. It means so much to me, and I’m very grateful for it.”
One of the more common criticisms of the previous Battlefront game was lack of gameplay modes and story to follow, focused as it was on online play and recreating battles from the films. Famously, even John Boyega himself criticized the lack of a single-player mode on Twitter. The developers wanted to make good on providing a campaign, while doing it a bit differently. As the initial pitch came from EA Motive in Montreal, Lucasfilm was eager to increase the overall size of the sequel while giving it something special on its own.
“That’s always the core principle with the story group, which is that each story can stand on its own, but it feels connected through the larger galaxy,” said Lucasfilm creative executive Steve Blank while discussing the story group’s approach. “We always want to put in compelling characters give them meaningful motivations, to really give players a sense of what their driving force is. And of course, we are paying attention to the layers of Star Wars--where it falls on the timeline, the appropriate places to visit, and the events that we experience that are relevant. Sometimes it’s a challenge because there’s just so much material to go through in development. But when EA Motive came to us with this story and perspective...that sounded really awesome, and we wanted to figure out how to do it together.”
Just as Rogue One showed a darker and more desperate side to the Rebellion, Battlefront II will recontextualize the Empire’s struggle for survival. Presenting a surprising amount of humanity for the larger and enigmatic Imperial force from the films--even including characters with comedic relief and tender moments between the Versio family--the Lucasfilm story group worked with the devs to craft something that could work on its own, while still feeling like a tangible and cohesive piece of the Star Wars universe.
One trap they wanted to avoid however was to fall into fan-service territory--which is a certainly dubious prospect considering what the Battlefront series is all about--but the developers wanted to channel the spirit of Star Wars and many of its characters, without having to fall back on already established events and characters.
“From our perspective, there’s so much history and there’s nostalgia in Star Wars, but what people really latch onto and really love--and I include myself--is the characters themselves,” said Steve Blank. “You get a great world to explore and a lot of cool fantasy and sci-fi elements combined in Star Wars, but what is really driving people through and why they’re so invested is because of characters like Luke Skywalker really resonates for who he is and the journey he goes on. When we are creating any new story--even if they don’t have an ‘oh my god this has some serious galactic significance’--every one is important in that story, and they feel human. It’s their own story, and it’s their own truth. And they just happen to be connected to the larger stories in Star Wars.”
Speaking more to her character, Gavankar also commented about her complete opposition to making her character into someone that revels in fan-service and repeating falls into moments that cross paths with other more well-known characters, which is a common pitfall for stories fleshing out the Star Wars universe. In game about reliving some of the best moments in Star Wars, the actress portraying Iden Versio wants to make clear that the campaign will be its own unique narrative that tells a story true to itself.
“I am not into fan-service, at all,” said the lead actress. “I do not want anyone to pander to me ever, and this character definitely panders to no one. So that makes me happy.”
Since Battlefront II’s presentation back at EA Play, the new story and the Iden Versio character have become quite popular with fans. And of course, Gavankar herself has been propelled into geek stardom for her lively and fun presentation at EA Play 2017. She spoke briefly about the whirlwind of interest in the game, and how being accepted into the Star Wars community has impacted her.
“I’m always sort of paralyzed and have no words for describing how great it feels. It’s really one of the biggest honors--I never would even dreamed that this would have been a possibility for me, and yet we are--and you have a microphone pointed at my face asking me what it’s like to be in a ‘Star War’ [an in-joke from the panel]. It’s crazy,” said Gavankar. “I’ve been like this forever, this nerdy, emotionally vulnerable person. I am in a very vulnerable place, to be thrust out there and people are suddenly noticing who I am. And I am so thankful that it has all feels like a warm hug from fans. When you grow up as a nerd, you just expect that people are gonna come after you and be a jerk to you. We all have the battle scars of childhood, and yet it has all been really positive and wonderful. It’s like you feel accepted.”