One of the best things about Star Wars games is the writing. The storytelling. Sure, you can slap on all the combat you want, but ultimately, it’s the music cues, the gooey tropes, the soaring triumph of evil bested, which makes a Star Wars experience feel like Star Wars.
Star Wars games live and die on their writing, which might be why I was so excited to talk with Mitch Dyer. Mitch is a writer on Star Wars Squadrons, EA’s latest ambitious foray into the wilds of Star Wars game-making, and he also wrote the single-player campaign for Battlefront II, a rather wonderful entry into the Star Wars canon.
Star Wars Squadrons takes place largely after the fall of the second Death Star, so I started out by asking the effusive world-builder what it was about this era that appealed to him so much as a writer.
Star Wars Squadrons
‘Return of the Jedi always felt so final to me, so I’m fascinated by this particular era because it still feels like what happens after Star Wars. When you pull back and think critically about the state of the galaxy after that film, of course, it’s not the end of the war. So it’s interesting territory — the Empire is on the backfoot, the New Republic rises, and the rest of the galaxy rests on the tip of a knife. And it all maintains the pure simplicity of Star Wars’ good vs. evil and light vs. dark themes. It’s a strong mixture, with plenty of space to tell fun stories about different kinds of people. I think that’s why we see so many stories coming out of the post-ROTJ era from so many different types of storytellers, in varied mediums.’
If you played Battlefront II, you’ll recall how fond Dyer is of aliens – his roguish creation, Shriv, swiftly became a fan favourite. He’s certainly not speciesist. I asked him if he creates a character first then graft on species, or starts from the species and work outwards.
‘I like to start with character identity first — who they are, what their internal and external conflicts are, and what kinds of interesting decisions they might make in the grand scheme of a bigger story’, says Dyer. ‘With Gunny, Vanguard Squadron’s leader, Senior Writer Jo Berry knew we wanted a seasoned veteran, someone older and wiser and grumpier than your typical squadron commander. You don’t get to be that salty and that in-charge without going through some tough stuff, though. The Empire’s invasion of Mimban, which we see a bit in Solo: A Star Wars Story, shows a world affected by their occupation. A Mimbanese warrior, who’d also seen conflict during the Clone War, fit everything we’d built about Gunny as a character. “
I realized that coupled with his story in Battlefront II, Dyer was showing some strong preferences, specifically in regards to portraying the “normal” inhabitants of the Star Wars universe. What’s the appeal of writing non-force sensitive characters in the Star Wars playground?
‘I love writing non-Force-sensitive characters because they’re just regular people living in a wondrous galaxy full of extraordinary characters. This is the majority of people in the Star Wars galaxy, right? So finding ways to make them stand out as interesting teammates capable of heroic things — that’s a delight. I love seeing the Force through the eyes of everyday people in Star Wars. Some are aware of it, some don’t believe in it, some can almost touch it. But they’re still just regular people doing their best in a bad situation. There’s something special about everyone in your squadron being detached from the Force, because then you know every one of their achievements came from someone ordinary doing something extraordinary.’
So where does Squadrons spring from for Dyer, influence-wise?
‘The obvious answer is the obvious inspirations, Rogue Squadron and the X-Wing/TIE Fighter games. Not just because they’re similar games, but because they posed similar storytelling problems to solve: How do you tell a grand pilot story entirely from a first-person perspective? And we wanted to remain in first-person as often as possible, without breaking immersion, especially in VR. I love where we ended up with it. You fly out of your Imperial hangar, you jump to hyperspace, you spend time aboard your capital ship with wingmates, all in first-person. I’ve also spent a lot of my reading time in the past couple years reading Elmore Leonard novels, and his ensembles are made of such memorable characters and razor-sharp dialogue. The kind of stuff that’s too good to even attempt emulation, but that you can absorb and learn from while working on any creative project.’
Dyer thinks before continuing.
‘More abstractly, Outer Wilds had a profound effect on me in 2019. Not just because I love it as a superb exploration game, or that it’s similar as a first-person game where you fly a spaceship — but because so much of the time you spend in Outer Wilds is calm. The downbeats in Outer Wilds were as affecting to me as anything else, even when you’re with another character. Personally, I think that helped me understand that you don’t need banter at every moment to fill dead air. You can sit in your ship, sailing into the stars, and soak it all in silently for a moment…and that can be wonderful.’
I remind Dyer of the crew he put front-and-centre in Battlefront II. He’s created some truly memorable characters before now. Is there a Dyer-verse springing up? He laughs at this suggestion.
‘Oh, gosh, this gives me far too much credit. Motive’s Jo Berry is the true mastermind of Squadrons’ superb ensemble — they all came from her mind, and I was lucky enough to help bring them to life. Unsurprisingly, as a former BioWare writer, Jo is a brilliant writer, and her characters are always rich, human, and believable. I am incredibly proud of how every character turned out, though, and it’s fascinating seeing which pilots connect with different types of people. And I’d love to see if any of them got along with Shriv Suurgav.’
Ahh, Shriv. The ultimate wingman. Which instantly brings to the fore flying in Star Wars, an avenue of real wish fulfilment. Why do people want to fly these vehicles so badly? Because people who are enjoying Squadrons – of whom there are many – seem to be talking as if they’re living out a lifelong fantasy. I am, and I can’t even drive in real life!
‘Man, I haven’t driven a car in probably five years’, replies Dyer. ‘This might explain a lot about my performance as a pilot. Honestly, I think a lot of the energetic enthusiasm for being inside a Star Wars cockpit comes from the films — you spend a lot of time inside the ships with the characters you love. Some of the most memorable scenes with iconic characters in the entire saga are inside the cockpit, and you’re always inside it with them. I love that kind of intimacy, so it feels natural that people connect with and want more of it.
‘Smashing TIE fighters is a fun concept by default, and the idea that you’d get to be part of your own squadron is as well. Like, what are all these pilots doing day to day when they aren’t attacking or defending Death Stars? Smaller missions with less galaxy-upending stakes, but certainly there’s a personal element to protecting your wingmates and making sure they all achieve victory and get home okay. Plus, my goodness, doing all of this in VR is tremendous. I worked on Squadrons for a long time, played it more times than I can count, and I still had a bit of a religious experience playing it in virtual reality at launch. That level of immersion married to a pilot fantasy that’s easy to get excited about? It’s a beautiful combination.’
We’re heading into spoiler territory here, but I ask Dyer, Dream scenario, what does he want to fold into this story post-release? He doesn’t even pause.
‘I’m going to be incredibly self-indulgent on this one. There’s a conversation with Havina Vonreg aboard the ISD Overseer where she tells the player what she plans to do after the war. She’s as loyal as they come and talks about hunting down traitors of the Empire. One of them she mentions is Iden Versio, our protagonist from Battlefront II. I don’t know what kind of game or story that is, but this raging Imperial loyalist meeting the Imperial Special Forces traitor who found her soul…I’d love to see what comes from that encounter. Especially because we know they both walk out of it alive and raise their own kids to be fighters. But in the end, honestly, I’d be thrilled knowing people love Vanguard Squadron, feel Titan Squadron’s fury, and want to see more of them.’
We need to wrap up, so I decide to throw a question I’ve been mulling over for a while now. I ask Mitch: What does he think Star Wars can give a world like the one we’re presented with in 2020, emotionally?
‘I’m not traditionally a huge fan of “escapism” as the default way we express enjoyment of entertainment. I think the media we seek out is always relative to where we’re at in our lives, and the things we enjoy are how we improve, enhance, and understand ourselves at a given point in time. Seeing Star Wars: Squadrons resonate positively with so many people tells me that this isn’t just a great game, but the right game for right now. I’ve been playing it with friends and family across the country, or living in other countries. And we find togetherness in our squadron, soaring across the same stars, celebrating victories we’ve earned together.
‘It’s not about escaping reality, it’s about defying our reality to come together. All I can hope for is that players who are safely isolated in their homes, missing their friends and family, get something similar out of this experience. And ultimately, Star Wars is fundamentally about light overcoming dark, and the unequivocal defeat of our oppressors. It’s the ending we need in 2020.’
Thanks to Mitch Dyer for his time.