Contreras, who was hired after that decision, quickly became the bridge between the developers and the Lucasfilm Story Group, the Jedi Council-like committee that determines the boundaries of the Star Wars universe under Disney.
“We needed to understand how to work inside Star Wars, and I think they needed to understand what we need to do to make the most fun game possible, and they’ve been with us every step of the way," Contreras told The Post. “We were throwing ideas out, and they were tweaking them or shooting them down. A thousand dead ideas were left on the side of the road for this game, but that’s a good thing.”
One idea that stuck? Telling an underdog story with an ensemble cast. The last significant Jedi-based video game, the Force Unleashed series from the early aughts, mostly featured the hero sulking, alone.
“People expect a ragtag crew experience from a Star Wars story for the most part,” Contreras said.
The game tells the story of a surviving Jedi Padawan, Cal Kestis, played by Cameron Monaghan. He’s on the run from the Empire, having lost his connection to the Force during the traumatic events of Order 66, the Empire’s directive to hunt down and kill every Jedi. After being discovered, he’s recruited by fallen Jedi Knight Cere Junda, played by Debra Wilson, and her affable galactic chauffeur Greez. Soon they’re off on a galactic hunt for a list of names of Force-sensitive children. Cere’s own trauma becomes a driving force for the narrative.
“Much of the internal change within Cal we show externally through his interactions with his crew members," Contreras said. “Cere’s story is so important, it was difficult to balance her involvement with everything else going on with Cal, they’re almost like generational mirrors. They’re quite similar and end up being the real vehicle the other needs to solve their own internal trauma.”
Another early challenge: Force powers are too much of a power fantasy and would make the game dull (a problem which plagued the aforementioned Force Unleashed games).
“How does he learn and engage with the Force? It’s unknowable and magic, and we’re trying to distill that into a video game mechanic,” Contreras said. “One of the most challenging things of marrying storytelling and gaming, there’s a very specific way that progress feels good inside a game, and we needed to realize that in a Star Wars story.”
The team eventually landed on a solution that satisfied both the demands of the story and players’ expectations. Cal starts the game having lost most of his powers, suppressing them to conceal himself in the wake of Order 66. The game takes place five years after that event.
Spoiler Alert: The rest of this article will discuss events that happen later in the game, including the ending. If you haven’t finished the game, or want to keep those story beats a surprise, we recommend saving this article and returning once you’ve finished the game.
Late in the story, we’re given the opportunity to actually play and live through part of Order 66. For the first time since the last George Lucas film, “Revenge of the Sith,” we’re seeing the pivotal moment on screen.
The decision to write it late into the game was agonizing, said Contreras, and it continued to haunt him even after the game was released.
“I wondered if we had done it in the opening in the game, if it would’ve been a very satisfying drop into the Star Wars world, and I started second guessing myself,” Contreras said. “I was talking to two people in my team afterward. It happens deep enough in the game that there’s a risk it doesn’t have impact.”
Contreras said it was even almost cut out of the game since there isn’t much happening with gameplay. But it’s the “emotional heart” of the game and Contreras was glad it was kept in.
“I think it worked out, and some of the weight that it carries is because you’ve come to know Cal by that time,” he said. “We wouldn’t have had that late-game acceleration in a personal sense.”
Two planets shown in the game, Dathomir and Ilum, factor heavily into the overall Star Wars lore. Dathomir is the origin for much of the galaxy’s villains, including Darth Maul. It’s also a planet that had been written about extensively before Disney decided to cull the previous Star Wars Expanded Universe (now called “Legends”) from the canon.
“Originally it was introduced in Legends content, and there’ve been different versions of Dathomir,” said Contreras, who added that the team had to balance appeasing hardcore fans who would recognize the planet from the books, and fans who only watch the films.
Ilum was a sacred place for the Jedi. But the game also confirms something fans have theorized since The Force Awakens: Ilum is where Kylo Ren and the First Order construct the ill-fated Starkiller base.
“If you really know your lore, the map where they showed Starkiller base was a giveaway, and people noticed that,” he said. “I love that they never made the connection there. That’s another generation, and people don’t know about the planet’s history.”
But the moment Disney and Respawn most agonized over was the game’s surprise ending, which introduces Darth Vader into the narrative and demonstrates just how much more Cal has to learn about the Force.
“It came a bit off the cuff,” said Contreras, adding that the idea came from Lucasfilm. “And our game director said, ‘yeah that might be cool.’"
The moment is only the second on-screen display of Vader’s unbridled anger and power, after Rogue One’s crowd-pleasing closing scene. The sequence was meant to portray Vader as “this inexorable, unstoppable force that Cal needs to get away from. He is as inevitable as death.”
"There was certainly an immense amount of work on getting that right, clearly the most scrutinized part of the game, and hopefully it paid off.”
Contreras’s background had mostly been in level design, focused on moment-to-moment scripting in games. Writing a full-throated and consequential Star Wars story has been the most rewarding project of his career.
There’s more multimedia synergy in the works. Contreras noted how the new Disney show “The Mandalorian” uses the Unreal game engine to power its visuals, as does Jedi: Fallen Order.
“I know quite a few folks who [are] working on these stories now,” he said. “I can’t wait to see where Star Wars goes in the future.”