It would've been a day like any other at the San Francisco offices of IGN — meetings, emails, the endless clatter of keystrokes. More meetings. But that day, in February 2016, editor Mitch Dyer got an email that would change his life forever. Some acquaintances from EA's Motive Studios happened to be in town, and wondered if he might want to grab a coffee.
"And I said no," Dyer recalls. His schedule for the day was jam-packed; maybe he'd catch them another time. Then he reconsidered, shuffled some things around, and finally emailed them back.
"I didn't realize until after I was done and went back to work that it was a job interview. Because it was so casual. I met with our game director, Mark Thompson, and I met with J.F. Pourier, our producer, and a couple other folks. We just kind of sat down, had coffee, and talked about Star Wars. Mark asked me, 'Blank canvas, what do you do with a Star Wars story?' And then I just started vomiting out all of these ideas, most of which ended up in the game. It was very much about an Imperial loyalist, and the breaking point of that person, and about looking at the war from both sides. The point-of-view of the Empire was a story I'd always been fascinated by, and I thought Claudia Gray had done a great job with in [the young-adult novel] Lost Stars."
That same evening, Dyer called up his longtime friend Walt Williams, a veteran games writer who had worked on Mafia II and the acclaimed shooter Spec Ops: The Line, asking if Williams would be willing to offer advice on the scriptwriting process and maybe look over a draft once he'd finished one. Williams, knowing Dyer was a lifelong Star Wars fan who'd never written a game before, was thrilled.
"Fast-forward two months," Williams says, "and I get a call from Motive." They asked if he had any interest in possibly writing a game for them. "And I'm just like, 'Oh, no. I hope Motive is really big, and they're making two games. And not one game.' I was like, 'I'd love to talk to you guys. I think I may know what your project is.' And now I'm getting worried, because if this is the same project, it's Star Wars. And if it's Star Wars, and it's the same position, then I want it. But I also want Mitch to get it. Now I'm facing a moral dilemma; I'm in a terrible situation. Do I destroy my friend and take the job? Or do I let my friend destroy me, and let him have the job?"
Luckily, weeks later, Dyer and Williams both received the same good news: they'd be co-writers. They had both gotten the gig, and they were going to be writing an all-new, original Star Wars story under the guidance of the Lucasfilm Story Group.
Star Wars Battlefront II, the sequel to DICE's 2015 Battlefront, would feature the first new Star Wars single-player campaign in almost six years. The game tells the story of Inferno Squad, an elite Imperial special-forces unit — part Stormtrooper, part TIE pilot — during the aftermath of the Empire's defeat at the Battle of Endor. Inferno Squad is made up of three soldiers: Iden Versio (Janina Gavankar), Del Meeko (T.J. Ramini), and Gideon Hask (Paul Blackthorne). After the loss of the second Death Star, they remain under the command of Admiral Garrick Versio (Anthony Skordi), Iden's father, as he begins to carry out Emperor Palpatine's final orders.
Over the course of the story, Iden comes face-to-face with Leia Organa, Del has a fateful encounter with Luke Skywalker, and Gideon, betrayed by his two beloved comrades when they have a sudden change of heart, ultimately remains loyal to their fallen Emperor.
Whatever hesitations they might have had in the beginning, the pair of friends-turned-co-writers worked exceedingly well together. "We were on the same page every step of the way," Dyer says. "And it was always Iden, always this Imperial story. I periodically dig up the first draft of ideas that Walt had ever sent me, and it's really shocking how much of that made it into the game." When they were told, for instance, that they'd have to incorporate some of the major legacy characters, like Han Solo, into the narrative, they both had one request: Lando Calrissian.
"I instantly was like, 'Give me Lando,'" Williams remembers. "That was the one that I jumped on, because for me Lando's always been the most amazing character."
"People weren't planning on doing Lando stuff for a while," Dyer says, "but we were like, 'No. This has to happen. We need Lando — we need to see the Rebellion through his eyes. We want Billy Dee.' We fought really hard for that. We got it."
Imagine the horror they felt, then, when Motive considered cutting Lando's entire mission from the game. "I was having none of it — oh, no," Williams says with a laugh. "I wasn't even on-site when we found out it might get cut. I think I got Mitch on the phone, and kind of politely yelled my opinion at him to then politely yell at everyone at the office." In the end, the Lando-centric factory sequence remained in the campaign, but mostly as a credit to how passionately Dyer and Williams felt about the character.
"It should not surprise you to learn that that mission is very expensive," Dyer says. "You know, no other mission has rising lava and exploding factories. A lot of things that happen in that mission are really distinct, and they cost a lot. And it gets to the point where you're like, 'Well, you know, if we need to ship this thing on time and we're looking for things to get rid of — narratively, this is a mission we could maybe do without.' And people were trying to figure out where to make these changes, and we were like: 'No. Lando? Over my dead body.' "
Luke Skywalker's inclusion, however, was their biggest surprise going into the project. What figure in all of Star Wars could be more off-limits, in the years between the release of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, than the last Jedi himself?
"Luke is pure and kind and caring in a way that no other character in Star Wars really is," Williams says. "Just crossing paths with him, and seeing him be Luke, could be enough to make someone begin to doubt everything that they believed about the Empire." The Jedi would be the perfect catalyst for getting Del Meeko, a career military man loyal to his cause, to question his worldview and, in time, turn to a life of nonviolence and spirituality.
"That ended up, for us, being the way into that character — the way into explaining to Lucasfilm why we wanted to use him in the story," Williams says. "Because, you know, unsurprisingly, of all the characters, they are the most protective of Luke." When pitching a legacy character like Han Solo, Leia Organa, or Luke Skywalker to the Story Group, you'd better have a good reason. "So we developed the whole story around Luke crossing path with Del, and having it just change his life by having these two characters being forced to work together."
On day seven of the project — Dyer's second day as a games writer — the pair found themselves seated in a conference room at the center of Lucasfilm's San Francisco campus, surrounded by ten members of Story Group. This was their first time meeting with any of them, and Dyer and Williams had to do a high-level pitch of the game's entire storyline, including their intentions for the saga's most sacred heroes.
"I say the name 'Luke Skywalker,'" Williams recalls, "and I see ten faces turn to stone. Every one of 'em is like, 'Oh, here it comes.' And I just am like, 'Don't look 'em in the eye — just keep going.' And I start talking through this level, and the story of Luke and Del, and really digging into the emotional responses that the characters are having and why we need Luke in particular. And I start seeing these faces soften. By the time I'm finishing this little chapter description, they're all just kind of nodding to themselves. And I'm thinking, 'Holy s***.'”
Once the meeting had ended, the pair walked out of the conference room, turned to one another, hands trembling, and both of them said: "I think we got Luke."
"They were shockingly on board," Dyer says. "We knew that we wanted him to discover something important there that would set up new stories for Luke Skywalker in a meaningful way. And the compass that he finds in the vault [on Pillio], which ends up on film in The Last Jedi, didn't come about for a while."
In The Force Awakens, it's believed that Luke Skywalker is missing because he'd gone in search of the first-ever Jedi temple. That temple turns out to be located on the planet Ahch-To, where Luke is in hiding at the start of the latest movie. Once the game's development was well underway, and after filming had commenced on The Last Jedi, Dyer and Williams were told they had a conference-call meeting scheduled with Lucasfilm to discuss the developing story for Battlefront II.
Halfway into the call, Williams says, "They're like, 'Okay, next point. This is kind of an exciting thing that maybe y'all are interested in.' Just playing it totally nonchalant." The Story Group had discussed Luke's mission to Pillio with Rian Johnson, who liked the suggestion that something in the game had eventually led Luke to uncover Ahch-To's location — "the most unfindable place in the galaxy," as Luke says in the film. Dave Filoni, executive producer of Star Wars Rebels, sketched a concept for the design, and the Last Jedi props team 3D-printed the final star compass overnight. The artifact appears in the finished film right before Chewbacca busts down Skywalker's door; it's the main focus of a brief shot of the Jedi's few possessions.
"I wish so much that you could've been in the movie theater with Motive," Dyer tells Williams, referring to a private screening of the film with the studio that made the game's single-player component. "I wish you could've been in the room just to see that moment. Because Walt and I expected this device to be in the background. It would just be on a shelf; we'd never see it; it would get pointed out in The Visual Dictionary, maybe. But then there's that gratuitous shot right in the film, and the whole room — all the air leaves our theater.
"Every single person who worked on the game saw it at the same time, and it was phenomenal. It was just a perfect little moment that meant so much to 150 people."