We interviewed Haden Blackman, the Project Lead for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed video game from Lucasfilm. He told us what it’s like to write the screenplay for a game and how his vision translated into novel format–all from a gamer engineer’s perspective.
Question: Can you first tell us a little bit about your role in the creation of the FORCE UNLEASHED video game?
Haden Blackman: I was the project lead, which is basically a hybrid between creative director and executive producer. I was responsible for setting the overall vision for the game, and rallying and managing the team throughout the development. I directly managed all of the leads, worked very closely with the design staff, and wrote the “shooting script” for the cinematics.
Q: As the lead writer of the game story, how much input were you able to give Sean Williams while he was writing the book?
Haden Blackman: He was on a pretty tight schedule, and I was deep in crunch on the game, so we only had a few opportunities to talk and exchange notes. Fortunately, he was able to use the game’s shooting script as his starting point, which I think gave him a strong foundation. After he finished his first draft, I was able to take a few days reading it and providing notes, most of which he incorporated into the final draft. A great deal of my feedback was centered on keeping the characters true to the way they are portrayed in the game. This was really important because, in the game, we can’t get into the characters’ heads the same way a novel can, and there were thoughts and feelings expressed by the characters in the first draft that weren’t always true to our vision of the characters. Juno was probably the toughest character in this regard: The novel spends a lot of time exploring her character, and I really wanted to make sure that it was aligned with our take on her personality, motivations and psychology, even in areas that aren’t explored in depth in the game.
Q: How would you compare the different experiences–playing the game versus reading the book?
Haden Blackman: They are obviously very different – but hopefully complementary – experiences. The game is a very visceral, interactive experience that puts you in control of the Secret Apprentice. Everything is from his point of view, because as the player, that’s the character you’re inhabiting. Hopefully, the level of interactivity allows players to connect with the apprentice and even impart some of their own personality onto him. We’ve found that different people interpret some of his actions and decisions in different ways based on who they are and what they bring to the game. This feels very true to the Star Wars films, in which everything isn’t always explained and some things are left up to the audience to interpret. I think that the whole notion of the Force truly “unleashed” also comes across very well in the game because you can see it in action and it feels like an extension of you, the player: you push a button, and something dramatic happens, enemies go flying, stuff blows up… We have the benefit of audio, visual effects, even a controller rumble to help bring the experience to life. By contrast, a novel isn’t an interactive experience, but it does provide the opportunity to explore themes, subplots, and characters in more detail than we could in a game. The novelization for The Force Unleashed devotes a lot of space to getting into the heads of some of the characters, especially Juno, which we just couldn’t do in the game. This is great for fans because I think it will absolutely give them a better understanding of who these characters are and what they represent.
Q: It’s common for a movie novelization to flesh out and expand some scenes from a film. Could something similar be said for the novelization of the FORCE UNLEASHED game?
Haden Blackman: Absolutely. Again, the game is mostly from the Apprentice’s point of view, but the other characters are still doing things in the background. The novel can bring those activities to life. The novel also includes some scenes and interactions that we cut from the game because we didn’t feel they really helped move the gameplay or the Apprentice’s story forward; having these “restored” for the novel again helps to develop some of the characters even further. For example, we wrote up a detailed backstory for Juno that included the fact that, as a child, she was very interested in alien species and planned to become a xenobiologist when she grew up. Eventually, her career aspirations changed and she joined the Imperial Academy to try to connect with her father, an ardent supporter of the Empire. But she always retained that fascination and even respect for alien flora and fauna. Some of this is included in a databank entry on Juno in the game, but there are only a few exchanges in-game that really explore this part of Juno. The novel has the opportunity to explore it in much greater detail. There are also a few big differences that will be important to fans: in the game (and the comic book adaptation), we never name the Apprentice, beyond his codename of Starkiller. We did this because we really wanted to keep him somewhat mysterious (in keeping with some direction from George Lucas that we shouldn’t explain everything). In the novel, he has a name, which should be a neat factoid for fans.