A Force Unleashed Interview With LucasArts' Haden Blackman
We’re thrilled to have LucasArts’ Haden Blackman here to answer a few questions with us at GalacticBinder.com. Haden’s the Executive Producer and Project Lead for the upcoming video game Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and was pivotal in bringing us the Star Wars MMORPG Star Wars Galaxies. He’s also written dozens of Star Wars comics and books in his “spare” time.
The Force Unleashed basics: The game is designed for next gen gaming consoles and is set in the dark period after Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and before Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. The game re-images The Force, amping it up to insane new levels. The central character is Darth Vader’s Secret Apprentice, a mysterious and powerful Force wielder.
GB: Many people might not know this, but you’ve been described as an avid “monsterologist”. In fact, your website, HadenBlackman.com isn’t focused on Star Wars or gaming at all – but on your love of monsters. You’ve even written a book titled “The Field Guide to North American Monsters: Everything You Need to Know About Encountering Over 100 Terrifying Creatures in the Wild”. Where did your love of monsters come from and how has it aided you in your Star Wars work – specifically on the The Force Unleashed?
HB: When I was a kid, we used to go on long family trips that entailed hours of driving. To keep us quiet, my dad would buy armfuls of comic books without ever looking at the content – so we ended up reading everything from Richie Rich to Conan. On one trip, I discovered Swamp Thing, which really captivated me and I think started my love for monsters – he’s this wonderfully tortured character who exists in a very horrific world, but manages to remain heroic. I was also a big fan of the old Universal horror movies as a kid – I loved that the films engendered a certain amount of sympathy for some of these characters, especially Frankenstein’s monster and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. When I first saw Star Wars, I knew that Darth Vader was a villain, but because of my fascination with the Universal horror icons, I always imagined a backstory to Vader that made him more sympathetic to me. I think that’s carried over into The Force Unleashed, especially in the character of Vader’s apprentice: he’s technically a villain, but he’s really just this damaged kid.
GB: It seems art director Matt Omernick and his group did an amazing job at visualizing The Force Unleashed in a style that harkens back to the roots of what Star Wars is all about. Can you give us a specific example of how something cool in the concept art altered your development of game play or opened an unexpected door to a new character? And by the way, of all the games you’ve been involved with, did TFU have the most concept art created for it? The breadth and volume of the artwork appears amazing!
HB: We definitely did a ton of concept art for The Force Unleashed – probably as much if not more as was done for Galaxies, which is a huge MMORPG with a lot more content overall. From the outset, Matt Omernick and I agreed on a few core goals:
A number of the characters you’ll meet in The Force Unleashed started out as quick concept sketches. This is particularly true of the Force wielders. As soon as we knew that you’d be hunting down the last of the Jedi, our senior concept artist Amy Beth Christenson began producing dozens of characters, and their postures and weapons really dictated a lot of the gameplay. For example, from the outset Maris Brood had these really cool “lightsaber tonfas,” and that evolved into her unique fighting style and special moves in-game.
Another example of art influencing the final design is the crashing Star Destroyer. In a meeting, someone asked me “how powerful is ‘unleashed’?” and I responded with something like: “Powerful enough to use the Force to pull a Star Destroyer out of the sky…” It was really an off-the-cuff comment meant to push the designers to think big, but the image stuck in Amy’s mind and she did an amazing concept piece for it. That became a centerpiece of our pitches and, despite not knowing exactly how we’d pull it off, eventually became a major moment in the game.
GB: We’ve seen glimpses of what you’ve referred to as “Play Blasts” in several video clips on the net. Can you talk more about these and their role in moving from concept to the finished product?
HB: We did an initial “pre-vis” video that was all pre-rendered in order to capture the look and feel of the game, and really define what it meant to be “unleashed.” It was fairly polished, with full audio, great VFX and lighting, and detailed environments. This rallied the team around the central concept, and was instrumental in explaining the game to our internal greenlight committee and ultimately George Lucas. Later in development, when we were trying to lock down player metrics (movement speed, jump height, etc.) and wrap our heads around the different types of combat in the game (including combat against big enemies, like a rancor, and Force wielders) we did a series of “play blasts.” These were done very quickly, with in-game assets but no concern for the level of “polish.” We were just trying to get a feel for how we wanted the game to ultimately play. It also allowed us begin prototyping UI, finishing moves, and other elements of the game. The pre-vis captured the overall vision for the Force and our target look; the play blasts focused on mechanics and the nuts-and-bolts of each encounter.
GB: Game designers have called the Secret Apprentice “Vader’s attack dog”. But we’ve got a sneaking suspicion he ends up being much, much more. Can you tell us about how important it was to develop this new character (played by Sam Witwer) with as much depth as possible – but not so much that gamers can’t get inside of him to project themselves into the game. That must be a really tough balancing act.
HB: This was very difficult. As you point out, we wanted a character with some depth, but wasn’t so rigidly defined that the player would have a hard time inhabiting the character or projecting some of their own emotions and motivations onto him. We also wrestled with the fact that, while he is Vader’s apprentice, we didn’t want him to seem irredeemably evil or so vile that you couldn’t connect with him. We tackled this by giving you some of his backstory, and then introducing some unexpected relationships; his relationship with PROXY, for example, is much different than I think fans and players will expect. At the same time, we really avoided trying to explain too much – we didn’t want him constantly pontificating or explaining how he feels at every turn. Instead, we tried to let a short line of dialogue or a look carry a scene or a moment, and let the player interpret what the Apprentice is really feeling or what he really means. Finally, we cast Sam Witwer, who brought a lot of new ideas to the character and a real sense of humanity. He can go from being very angry and villainous to showing compassion. There’s a moment early in the game (and in the demo) when Vader tells the Apprentice to wipe out everyone he meets on his next mission, including any Imperials, in order to protect his anonymity. The Apprentice pauses for a moment, almost questioning the order, and then just accepts it. Sam brought little touches like that to many scenes.
GB: We love the idea of PROXY, the Secret Apprentice’s holodroid sidekick. We understand that PROXY can change appearance to “become” other characters. Can you tell us a bit more about this and how it will integrate in game play?
HB: We really struggled with PROXY initially as well. We didn’t want him to bee too similar to C-3PO, or the other extreme, the villainous droid HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic. It was actually very hard to write his dialogue without slipping into one of those two characters’ voices. Instead we focused on this rather naïve and (mostly) friendly droid who just wants to please his master, but who doesn’t realize how dangerous he really is or how his central programming might be at odds with what his master really wants. In terms of gameplay, I don’t want to give away too much, but we use PROXY for a few surprise cameos throughout the game…
GB: We’ve heard how George Lucas sent in the fax telling you guys he was onboard with using such characters as Princess Leia and Bail Organa in the game as characters. That must have been a hugely rewarding moment. Did you feel it was critical to still use a few familiar faces to “ground” the game in the universe we all know and love?
HB: Absolutely. Given the time period, the story we wanted to tell, and the themes we wanted to explore, we felt we really need to have Leia, Bail, and the Emperor play pivotal roles. There are a few other characters who make appearances as well in order to ensure we’re staying true to the existing continuity.
GB: At this point we’ve heard a lot about your partnerships with Pixelux Entertainment and NaturalMotion Ltd in creating the new technologies of Digital Molecular Matter, Euphoria Biomechanical AI and Havoc Physics Systems that will make this gaming experience like nothing we’ve ever experienced. Do you feel the technical achievements of the game will overshadow the storyline when people look back on it ten years from now?
HB: Hopefully, they’ll both be viewed as key milestones in the history of LucasArts. This is the first time we’ve ever told a story set in this time period, and the first game that is really a new chapter in the Saga – it’s inexorably connected to everything that’s come before it and everything that comes after it. At the same time, we did invest heavily in some new technologies – but all in service of the gameplay we wanted to achieve, which necessitated a lot of interaction with the environment and characters.
GB: The game is scheduled to be released on Xbox 360, the PS3, PS2, PSP, Wii and Nintendo DS. We understand that each version is a bit different and offers people a slightly new angle on the gaming experience. For instance, we know that Robert Walsh and the gang at Krome Studios in Australia brought new characters and locations to the Playstation and Wii consoles that no other consoles have. Without playing favorites, what are a couple of your favorite added or unique console features that you think make the TFU experience go to even higher levels?
HB: The Jedi Temple is a fun environment to explore on the PSP, Wii, and PS2 versions of the game, and there are two Sith-inspired characters who show up there that I think are really well-realized and memorable – I’d love to be able to tell some stories featuring one or both of them. I also really like the historical missions on the PSP – just the idea of being able to relive some of the classic movie moments, but with “unleashed” powers is really cool. From a control scheme standpoint, we had two very interesting challenges: using the Wii remote to capture the feel of a lightsaber without making it so hardcore that only Olympic fencers would be able to play the game; and finding new and innovative ways to use the stylus on the DS. I think we did both fairly well, and learned a ton along the way.
GB: Is there anything you can reveal to us about a multi-player dimension to the game? We know there will be a multi-player angle, but what can players expect?
HB: Along the lines of making sure that each platform had some unique features, we really reserved multiplayer for the PSP, DS, and Wii. On the Wii, we have a robust duel mode that allows players to go head-to-head.
GB: From day one, you made your whole team repeat the premise of this game - which is, “Kicking someone’s ass with The Force!” Okay, so with all the amped up Force powers (including insane Force chokes, Force push, Force grip, lightsaber combos and even injecting Force lightning into characters to use as Force bombs)… what is the coolest – most “Unleashed”, kick ass move you’ve seen in game play so far? You must have seen something so off the hook you couldn’t believe it!
HB: My favorite move in the game is “lightning grenade,” which allows you to charge up a gripped enemy with Force lightning, then throw him into a group of enemies, where he’ll violently explode. I’m excited about the game because I see something new every time someone plays it – someone grabbing a TIE fighter zipping past them and smashing it into some early rebels, or using Force Grip to batter through a metal door – using a stormtrooper as the battering ram. I also think that some of our finishing moves are quite cinematic and unleashed – I’m particularly fond of the final moments in the fight with Shaak Ti. And finally, there are a handful of combos you can chain together for really dramatic kills – stuff that I can’t pull off but that some of our designers and testers have mastered – such as a move that launches an enemy into the air, where you can slash him a few times before slicing through his body and slamming him into the ground (all without blood, gore, or limbs flying off in order to maintain our Teen rating, of course).
GB: Finally, here's a question we're asking to everyone we interview at GalacticBinder: If you were transported into the Star Wars universe... what era, location and/or setting/situation would you want to end up in, and what's the first thing you'd do and with whom? (Keep it somewhat clean, Blackman!)
HB: I think I’d go to the Jedi Temple and stop Anakin from running off to join the confrontation with Palpatine, just to see how the galaxy would be different if Anakin had stayed behind and never become Vader. Or, I’d just go to Cloud City and hang out with Lando.
Kickin' it with Lando is a great call. Haden, we can’t thank you enough for taking the time out of you very busy schedule to chat with us. We’re counting down the days to TFU’s launch date on September 16th. We wish you the best of luck on all your upcoming projects and hope to chat with you again down the line.
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