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[Note: This article contains spoilers for Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, pretty much up through the ending. You’ve been warned.]
One month ago, Respawn Entertainment released one of the best new Star Wars games in years, Jedi: Survivor—a fast-paced, expansive sequel to the studio’s own 2019 hit Jedi: Fallen Order. With a few weeks with the game under our belt—and a chance for everyone interested to dive fully into the game’s complicated story, which centers once again on titular survivor Cal Kestis, fighting to stay a live and maybe make a difference during the height of the Galactic Empire’s power—we sat down with one of the game’s narrative technical designers, Respawn’s Joanna Robb, to talk about the adventure, its biggest twists, and the gaming industry as a whole.
A.V. Club: So, in your own words, what does a narrative technical designer do?
Joanna Robb: It means I technically do narrative design [Laughs]. For us, narrative design and narrative technical design is about game design related to narrative systems. How do you interact with that NPC? What is the logic of how a prompt comes up that you click on that then triggers dialogue? For Survivor, our team had a lot of ownership over the cantina. How do we spawn characters for you to talk to? How do we handle different elements of progression like unlocking more fish for the aquarium or new seeds for the garden? And then my work specifically was mostly about the companions, Bode and Merrin, which was really exciting, and really challenging to pull off.
AVC: People who’ve played the game will know that one of those characters is harboring a lot of secrets. If you’re designing interactions with a character who’s lying to the player, what are the difficulties? What are the additional challenges of approaching that?
JR: Bode was very tricky to handle at all levels: writing, performance, how he behaves as a companion. I think what’s cool about Bode is that he sometimes is lying to you, and then there is an arc of the game where he is on your side 100 percent. But yeah, obviously, even if he’s on your side, we are focused on seeding in elements, so that the later revelations about his character will hit for the player. Like making sure that we were incorporating elements of how he would behave in his boss fight, into how he fights as a companion. You can actually see he has some moves that he will do to you, as a boss, that you can see him doing to enemies.
And this is also true of Merrin, but it was really important that Bode felt like he was a helpful part of your journey, the way he unlocks the path forward for you. But also little things that endear you to the character. Since he’s a companion, we have so much more time to develop the relationship between him and Cal, how they banter with each other, their comfort with each other. That’s really important for the entire final arc of the game, resolving to make all of that hurt. Because when Bode says, “This is my best friend,” describing Cal Kestis, he is not lying.
AVC: And then with Merrin, what are you trying to communicate about her?
JR: It’s Merrin and Cal’s relationship, which is one of the central themes of the game. A lot of it’s about, what does being a “Jedi survivor” mean? Cal coming to terms with the fact the Order got some things wrong, and he has strong romantic feelings for Merrin, and she reciprocates them, and they kiss, and everybody claps. You’re communicating the dynamic between the characters, their banter. You’re letting the relationship grow, because they’re companions. It was really fun working on the initial sequence on Jedah, where you meet Merrin, because we were trying to figure out what their dynamic is, when they haven’t seen each other for so long. Merrin has kind of had her gap year. She’s come back, she’s a total badass, she’s very sure of herself. And there’s some friction in how she and Cal interact. But there is also a really genuine warmth within them, and an urge to rekindle their relationship together, and then that grows into something that’s romantic throughout the game.
AVC: This is a game, at least in part, about abandoning those parts of the Jedi Code that don’t work, or don’t make sense. Was that theme present from the start?
JR: We went through a few different iterations of what [the game’s central goal] Tanalorr represented, but the one that we landed on was safety from the Empire. And then it was an interesting challenge because we kind of have an “anti-hero’s journey,” where Cal needs to run away from the fight, or at least see that idea of a place that Cal can call home. It was pretty tricky, especially considering that I think the player has a much different idea about what they need, or about what they want Cal to do. Because if you’re playing a video game, you want to fight enemies. You want to defeat the Empire. That’s what Star Wars videogames have been for like 20 years. But we needed to make sure that Cal was in a place where the fight against the Empire is weighing him down, and it’s burdened him with even more guilt. He still has this undying need to fight. There’s this really lovely scene with him and [the character] Greez where he talks about how if he gives up, then it’s like dishonoring the memory of everyone that’s died so far.
Over the course of the game, you see Cal steadily move away from being a Jedi—specifically through using the blaster. We were also really keen that this would be a story that would take Cal to the edge of the Dark Side, which is also not really the Jedi way. We really wanted to press those conflicts with the character and to leave them in kind of an uneasy state at the end of the game.
AVC: Do you get narrative pushback from Disney when you’re exploring this kind of perspective, that’s at odds with so many other depictions of the Dark Side and the Force?
JR: It’s a lot of back and forth to work out what the proper understanding of the Dark Side is, and how we should be using it in our story. I wouldn’t describe it necessarily as pushback. It’s trying to make sure that everybody is on the same page about this stuff, because it is very evocative. These are really emotional ideas, and I think that everybody has different understandings of them.
AVC: This is also a game where Cal kills a lot of people, from Inquisitors like the Ninth Sister near the beginning of the game, through, like, hundreds of Stormtroopers. How do you approach his morality from that angle?
JR: One part of it is that the Inquisitors are really tragic characters, they’re fallen Jedi, kind of set against their own kind. There’s something that’s really sad in that.
Also, I think I’m pretty happy that, when it comes to Stormtroopers, they’re just kind of Nazis. You know, we can churn through those guys as easily as we can churn through robots, and not feel bad about it in the slightest. Killing a Stormtrooper is an act of good.
AVC: Survivor is set between the prequels and the original trilogy. Why do you think so many creators are exploring this era of Star Wars lore at the moment?
JR: For me personally, there’s something really cool about the Clone Wars era padawans, people like Ashoka or Cal, who find themselves in the darkest time in the galaxy, where they grew up literally being child soldiers and then having to wrestle with how a core part of their identity makes them an outlaw or a traitor, somebody who needs to be killed on sight.
One of my favorite sequences in the game is the ISB base, which is very close to the end. And I think I would love it even if I wasn’t head over heels for Andor, which I am. I think there is something so compelling about seeing horrifying clinical depictions of fascism, these horrible bureaucratic machines that crush people with unrelenting efficiency. Which is what the Empire represents, as a whole.
AVC: Pulling back a bit: You went to DigiPen before doing an internship at Respawn. How do you feel that prepared you to work in the industry?
JR: It was an environment that allowed me to be really creative, and to fail, and to get help and to collaborate with people. The thing that stands out about DigiPen’s curriculum is that they force you to make—I shouldn’t say force—but they force you to make so many games. A lot of other colleges are like, “Hey, for this semester, make one board game.” At DigiPen, during an average semester, I was making like three board games, three digital games, and then also sometimes four digital games. So there was an insane amount of output on the students, which is definitely crunch culture stuff, and is not cool. You know, there’s definitely that lingering trauma burnout from having a really intense college curriculum. But it allowed me to try and fail and to learn so much about game development. I really think that that kind of environment allowed us to just have unparalleled ambition towards the stuff we were doing, allowed us to gain just like a really weird, eclectic set of skills that became actually very useful when we started working in the industry.
AVC: You entered the industry around 2017, a time when we had a lot of stories coming out about the culture at studios, about the treatment of women at big studios. What was your reaction at the time coming into the industry, and hearing those stories, and what is your reaction now when you think about them?
JR: My reaction at the time was definitely the gut-sinking “Oh” moment.
I think that things are getting better gradually. But I think there’s always a sense of, well, “Now, now things are good.” Like, “Now we’ve done it!” Even though these things are systemic problems. A lot of it is related to the people that are leading teams and the environments that they create. I definitely have had really negative experiences. I don’t know if I would necessarily describe them as “sexist” experiences, but I’ve definitely had really negative experiences that were bad. I know people who have had opportunities denied to them because of this stuff, and how awful, frustrating, and painful that is, whenever really talented people are being looked over.
I also think that we’re kind of entering another new era where, you know, since the pandemic, now everyone’s remote, hybrid-remote. I’m a full time remote worker. Our team’s really able to make that work for people, which is awesome because I do not want to live in L.A. ever again. But with that comes new ways that people can be discriminated against, consciously or unconsciously. Because now a lot of conversations happen in private, in Zoom rooms that people are unaware of, and that can have an an adverse effect on people’s visibility and understanding of their trust among the team. I’m happy to say that my experience on Survivor, and this narrative team, has been really positive, and really great. I love these people, and I am super proud of the game that we made. But yeah, I am aware that it’s a new era. There are new habits that we need to learn in order to make things better for everybody.
AVC: To some extent, Jedi Survivor is a game about how you effect change against a very, very entrenched system. In that spirit, how does the industry change? What are the steps?
JR: New blood, honestly. The march of time itself, baby. People who are bad age out eventually, because they can retire. (My generation will never retire.) But, you know, more people coming in that have a better understanding about this stuff. We’re also pretty conscious about team diversity. I think that everybody at Respawn has really bought into the idea that good games need to have a lot of different, interesting voices that have different opinions.