“We love these characters like our fans love these characters.”
Spoiler warning: This interview discusses major plot points in Star Wars Jedi: Survivor.
Cal Kestis isn’t the only one who learned a lot when he took his first steps into a larger world.
Growing from a team of less than 20 when 2019’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order started development, to almost 200 when it shipped, Respawn Entertainment grew and explored the galaxy far, far away alongside their brave hero. For the game’s 2023 sequel, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, the galaxy and the characters were now familiar territories and new questions drove the team.
“How do we take this blueprint and these foundations we've laid, and elevate them to the next level?” technical design director Brandon Kelch tells StarWars.com. “How do we really leverage everything we had done previously to realize the full potential of what Respawn could do with Star Wars Jedi games?”
In an exclusive interview, the team behind Jedi: Survivor, recently named IGN's Best Action Game of 2023, tells StarWars.com how they did it.
Much like the development team at Respawn, Cal Kestis didn’t start over from square one for Jedi: Survivor. In a rare move for a video game sequel, the fugitive Jedi Knight kicks off the game with all the skills he’d picked up in his first adventure. “That was a conscious decision by the design team,” Kelch says. “It was a major design challenge, how to add new abilities into Cal's repertoire when he already had so much.”
“You’ve become a Jedi,” senior game writer Pete Stewart adds. “Why would we take the skills away from you? You have to move forward.”
The game’s first level, set in the dazzling neon-lit alleys of Coruscant, has the vital task of re-teaching those skills and reacquainting the player with Cal Kestis, all while introducing new characters and getting Cal started on the next part of his journey. “The team's really proud of how Coruscant turned out because there's just so much going on,” lead writer Danny Homan says. “I think it speaks to the collaboration at our studio that designers, writers, and everyone were in sync to be able to land a really challenging opening sequence that I think players really loved.”
Do you trust me?
The escape from Coruscant’s Level 2046 isn’t the only action scene that’s a standout in the galaxy-spanning sequel. Later in the game, Cal Kestis and Nightsister Merrin tag team against massive Imperial machinery in a blockbuster-worthy battle. But before the fight begins, something even more earthshaking happens: Merrin kisses Cal as the winds of Jedha whip around them. “Merrin is about to pull some pretty wild Nightsister magick that we haven't seen on screen yet,” says senior game writer Cheyenne Pualani Morrin, “but [this moment is] also the culmination of their relationship and how they have been learning to trust each other after these years apart. And to trust the ways that they've grown, and to lean into each other.”
“It's so telling that Cal asks, was that [kiss] for luck? And Merrin says, no, that was for me,” Homan adds with a laugh. “That's such a Merrin line. Merrin is so wonderfully independent, and she knows what she wants.”
Before Cal can recover from the surprising show of affection, the Empire launches its attack. Visually similar to the Trident drill war machines used by the Separatists during the Clone Wars, the mechanical monstrosity deployed by the Empire roars like a creature as it claws at Cal and Merrin. Principal sound designer Oscar Coen wanted to play up the drill’s animal-like qualities while making sure it feels like it belongs in the Star Wars galaxy. “I used heavily processed sounds of horses to make metal-screeching types of sounds that resembled harsh roars,” Coen says, “then blended in low pitched sounds of an RX-7 sports car for a low rumble. [I] would modulate the pitch and volume to resemble growls.
“For the spinning up and winding down of the drill, I mainly used the sound of balloon friction pitched down — it had this nice whiny kind of quality that reminded me of howling apes. Usually before or after any kind of major movement, I’d use a big air release pneumatic-type sounds to act as a sort of ‘inhale’ and ‘exhale’ that still felt like a machine.”
Crafting Star Wars moments
The menacing Imperial drill is just one element in the massive scene. There are also environmental obstacles, howling winds, wild rides through Nightsister magick portals, and friendly banter highlighting the relationship between Cal and Merrin. Oh, and don’t forget the TIE fighter! It all comes together to build what the Jedi team likes to call a Star Wars moment, Kelch says. “[It’s] a short sequence of 10 to 15 minutes where everything is happening,” he says. “We have the player on an emotional intensity graph, and it's the highest point… There are explosions, the path is very clear, and the player's going forward, so they shouldn't have to think about very much. They're moving ahead on a roller coaster.
“The drill moment in particular is, I think, our best version of that that we've don," says Kelch. "The response that the players had to it has just been incredible.”
Morrin credits the entire team for bringing all the moving parts of these unforgettable scenes together. “We were in a pod of some really brilliant level designers who are fantastic at delivering on these high-octane moments,” she says, “while also keeping in mind player bandwidth, as well as pacing. We also had an incredible cinematic designer, Dan Carey, and two other level designers, Jamie Uhrmacher and Rob Bloss… [We] knew that this had to be a moment that matched the exhilaration of that kiss.”
“It’s really a moment where every single department is contributing,” Kelch adds. “We all have our hands across narrative and design and audio and art and music and cinematics. All those pieces are across the game, but those moments are the time to put everything on the table.”
An emotional ride
The Jedi: Survivor writers also recall the less explosive — but no less impactful — parts of Cal’s adventure that stand out to them personally. Homan cites the relationship between Cal and his friend-turned-enemy Bode Akuna as one of his favorite elements of Jedi: Survivor. “This wasn't just another villain or a monster,” Homan says. “This is someone who genuinely loved Cal, which makes Bode’s decisions and Cal's relationship to Bode all the more tragic. These are two people that really shared a kinship… They shared their Jedi past, and they shared some perspective, but they differed enough that, ultimately, they couldn't stay together.”
Stewart agrees and says the speeder chase on Jedha that follows Bode’s betrayal is another memorable scene to experience, as both a designer and a player. “The speeder chase is a really weird mix of emotions,” Stewart says. “I remember watching one of my favorite streamers doing it… They were like, ‘I'm so upset.’ And then they're like, ‘This is great, though!’ The combination of really high emotion, where the player is bewildered and upset, but also driven — you’re right inside Cal's head at that minute. You’re all over the place. I think that's why that feels so good to me when I play it.”
“It was absolutely wonderful to see that all of these really big story moments that we had been critiquing, iterating on, and really trying to refine – like the drill sequence, the Cere siege, the Bode betrayal — I think our fans felt the delivery we were intending,” Morrin says.
“A little catharsis”
If you’re one of the players who have completed Cal Kestis’ fraught-filled journey to Tanalorr, you might be surprised to hear that there’s a little more for you to discover after the main story ends. For instance, listening to new Force Echoes scattered across the galaxy uncovers Bode’s true state of mind during his time with Cal. Kelch says he particularly enjoys the hyperspace conversations between the Stinger Mantis crew now that the young Kata is on board. (Did you know Kata is a fan of Trandoshan funk music?)
Homan reveals the Jedi: Survivor team, aware that players experience a range of strong emotions throughout the game, wanted to set aside some space for them to unpack those feelings after the credits roll. “We love these characters like our fans love these characters,” says Homan. “Knowing that the player might be looking for a little catharsis, we wrote tons and tons of conversations where you can talk to your friends back at the cantina and you can kind of process what Cal has gone through… We wanted to go the extra mile and make sure that fans had some time after the game has ended to go back to explore, or talk to their favorite character in Pyloon’s. Which, of course, is Turgle — but might also be Skoova.
“I think that [effort] speaks to what we hold most valuable, which is our fans and our community.”
For more on Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, check out StarWars.com's launch interview with game director Stig Asmussen.