The Force Unleashed: Pushing Star Wars Over the Top

“Many of us had already worked on a number of Star Wars titles, so we knew some of the pitfalls and design challenges,” Haden Blackman, project lead for Star Wars The Force Unleashed: Ultimate Sith Edition, told me. “Getting a lightsaber to feel right is very difficult, for example, because it’s portrayed as so powerful in the films.”

To that end, he and his team set out to, as the title of the game implies, give players Force abilities more powerful than they had previously seen. While the Jedi Knight games, for example, let you use Force grip to throttle enemies and throw our lightsabers to eviscerate foes from afar, you never had the opportunity to pull a spaceship out of the sky or charge a lightsaber with Force lightning. That’s the territory where Mr. Blackman headed.

“In general,” he said, “we were really trying to re-imagine Star Wars in a very dramatic way and show gamers something they’d never seen before. We looked back at other games and asked: ‘What’s the biggest, most over-the-top moment or power in this game? Okay, now how do we push that even further?’”

He added: “In the films and previous games, a Force push might knock an enemy down, but in The Force Unleashed, you hit that enemy with an invisible cannonball that sends them flying backwards and smashes into anything behind them. And we allow you to combine different Force powers in new and innovative ways. For example, you can super-charge a gripped enemy with lightning.”

Fertile Ground

The Force Unleashed takes place during the largely-unexplored terrain between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, which George Lucas had kept off-limits until he completed the prequel trilogy. A few novels and comic books have since stepped onto that turf, and a planned live-action TV series is supposed to dive into it too, but that didn’t stop Mr. Blackman and his team from taking a long, hard look at Darth Vader’s relationship to the Emperor and wondering “What if?”

Mr. Lucas revealed to Mr. Blackman that the Emperor viewed Vader as “broken” after the events of Revenge of the Sith, because of his defeat at Obi Wan’s hands, and that inspired the idea of a secret apprentice played by you. Vader grooms his apprentice – named Galen but also referred to by the code name “Starkiller” (many fans will know that was Luke Skywalker’s surname in an early draft of Star Wars) – as a hedge against the Emperor deciding to toss him aside. If the Emperor made such a move, he would have to contend with two opponents, not one.

“We found a way to [explore that] through Vader’s relationship with the Apprentice, and ultimately his choices relative to both the Apprentice and the Emperor,” Mr. Blackman explained. “We were also able to make PROXY (Galen’s protocol droid) serve the traditional role of ‘the Fool’: he seems disconnected, but he actually has some great insights, especially into Vader.”

He added: “In terms of keeping with continuity, we were fortunate because we were really the first story allowed to explore this time frame. There wasn’t a lot that was off-limits, and we were always cognizant of making sure than the end of the game didn’t jeopardize the events in the original Star Wars movie.”

Mr. Lucas, of course, offered his insight too: “He gave us a quick history lesson on the state of the galaxy at the time, with emphasis on what all the main characters are doing,” Mr. Blackman recalled. “In particular, he provided us with his view on the relationship between Vader and the Emperor. Once we had a rough plot approved, we just did periodic check-ins to show him the gameplay as it was evolving.”

The game actually begins with you in control of Vader, storming across the surface of the Wookiee planet Kashyyyk as he hunts down a Jedi Knight in hiding. “We actually agonized about that for a while,” Mr. Blackman said. “Some people on the team were really worried that no one would want to run around lightsabering Chewbacca. But the Vader level was a huge hit.” At the end of it, Vader discovers the Apprentice, who is a child at the time, and then the game fast-forwards to Galen’s adulthood.

Like An Animated Film

Mr. Blackman revealed that the game’s story developed over a period of two years. “We started with a lot of brainstorming meetings, with a big focus on the types of content we wanted in the game: the locations, characters, and story beats we wanted to include,” he said. “We then spent a few months figuring out the order of all the big beats and the level flow.”

From there, the team moved into the casting process, which he described as “rigorous,” complete with a special script written so that the auditioning actors would have to call upon certain emotions. “I remember thinking ‘What the hell is he doing?’” Mr. Blackman said of the audition of Sam Witwer, who voices the Apprentice. He described the audition as “tormented,” which turned out to be the perfect way to play that character.

“The recording sessions were very exciting because we treated this like an animated film in some ways,” Mr. Blackman said. “A few days [after the read-throughs], we had Sam, Nathalie Cox (Juno, the Apprentice’s pilot and love interest), and Zeb Stamos (the Apprentice as a kid) in our motion-capture studio for a few hours of likeness capture – basically, sitting in front of a camera with all of these dots on their faces, doing a wide range of expressions.

“Sam was great with Zeb, and there was a moment when all of us were running around with lightsabers like little kids. The cast really clicked: there was already a sense of camaraderie, and the recording hadn’t even begun.”