Dining With Developers, Vol. 2: Haden Blackman, Part 2
Read Part 1.
Victor Lucas: Is George as lucid and fired-up as he's always been?
Haden Blackman: The characters that he's created, yes; and the timeline that he's created, yes. For sure. I don't know how involved he is beyond that. I mean, there are big things that he has to approve.
Lucas: The Force Unleashed would make an amazing movie. It was better than the last three films. And now we would like to see this as a movie.
Blackman: [Laughs] This is where I don't talk. You know, we could have gone and told another Kyle Katarn story. And we actually explored going back to the Knights of the Old Republic, and setting something there. And we looked at doing futuristic stuff, setting the game a thousand years after the death of Luke Skywalker or whatever, and we actually had some superhero elements to it. But one of the reasons we decided to set it in this particular time period is because we were told, "Hey, you guys are continuing the saga, George isn't working on any more movies, there's an animated series that tells some stories too; but your job is to find new ways to tell Star Wars stories." And we're a key part of that.
Lucas: I want to see the The Force Unleashed movie.
Blackman: I would too. As would Sam Witwer, I would think.
Lucas: Speaking of Sam, his performance is not voicework; it's a true performance. He's acting through the whole thing. I would guess The Force Unleashed is what he's most famous for.
Blackman: Obviously he's worked on "Battlestar Galactica" and "Smallville," but I'll tell you the reason why we cast him. I got his reel, and he was in an episode of "CSI" or one of the crime shows where he was being interrogated, and he actually cried on camera. He's kind of a tough guy, not that we were planning to make the Apprentice cry, but he showed a range of emotion. We thought, Well, we have to at least audition the guy.
He came in and did this scene where he's building a lightsaber with his mind. And he's concentrating, and he was doing this really weird stuff where he was twitching and furrowing his brow, and shifting around like he was really uncomfortable. We asked him why. He said that he'd given a lot of thought to the character. "I just figured that doing this exercise, and trying to find inner peace with this character, who has no real concept of inner peace, that he'd be visibly struggling." And I was like: He's our guy. Right there. That's him. He knew that character better than we knew that character in some ways.
Adam Kahn: On IMDB, they've got a listing for The Force Unleashed. They don't know how to deal with performance in a videogame, and the listing said, "Secret Apprentice: Sam Witwer V." Using the "V" to indicate that it's voice-over. So I had to go all up the chain at IMDB for Sam and Nathalie and Adrienne and Cully. I had to go all the way up and say, Look, it wasn't voice! This was performance. And, finally, if you look, there are no more Vs for those guys next to their names.
Scott Jones: I'd fallen out of love with Star Wars. I was heartbroken for years. With the new movies, it was, as my friend John Galvin calls it, "The greatest aesthetic disappointment of my lifetime." The Force Unleashed gave me something to believe in again. This gave me a character I could identify with again.
Haden Blackman will not succumb to the Dark Side.
Evan Narcisse: Let's talk about your experience as a comic book writer. Run down your resume really quick. Obviously you did the tie-in for The Force Unleashed.
Blackman: I was a creative writing major in college. I went to work for a literary agency right out of college. I'd just moved to the city, and I was living in my van for a couple weeks. I ended up ghostwriting a couple of self-help books; you know, spiritual stuff. At that time this agency was very focused on women's health issues and spiritual-type things. It's not that I have an aversion to those things. But I'm not a woman. And I'm not the world's most spiritual guy. So, for me, it was a big learning experience. While there, I also wound up writing two books: "The Field Guide to North American Hauntings" and "The Field Guide to North American Monsters."
But I didn't feel like being a literary agent was really going to do it for me. There was a job opening at LucasArts for a writer-researcher, and it was a nine-month gig working on Behind the Magic, this interactive reference product. I took a pay cut, just to see what the industry was like. I've been here ever since.
Narcisse: I know you've also written non-Star Wars comics.
Blackman: I did a Ripley's Believe It or Not series. I did a Hellboy story with a friend of mine named J.H. Williams. I also did this story for "Star Wars Tales," which was a bunch of short stories considered non-canon. We came up with this storyline: What if Han Solo met Indiana Jones?
So they never actually meet in the story. The Falcon crashes on earth, and Chewie and Han are exploring, and Han gets killed by Native Americans. Chewie gets freaked out, and that's where the Sasquatch legend comes from, because he's running around the forest. Then Short Round and Indiana Jones find the Falcon, and they find Han Solo in the pilot's chair, with all these arrows in him, but he's only a skeleton...
Haden, receiving his 2009 Writer's Guild Award
Lucas: Can I ask about Indiana Jones?
Kahn: That depends.
Lucas: What happened there? Just couldn't get it together?
Narcisse: Yeah. We saw the demo for the Indy game at E3, what, three years ago? Then poof, nothing.
Kahn: I think we should probably avoid that topic.
Jones: Thanks again for sitting down with us.
Blackman: Oh man, I'm having a great time. I don't think I've had the chance to talk about that Indiana Jones-Han Solo crossover story ever.
Lucas: Haden, your background is really different from most people we talk to in the industry. People in this business who just get out of school and start making videogames, they have no life experience. They don't know how shitty other jobs are...
Blackman: I worked on fishing boats just out of college. I grew up in a little town in Southern California. I thank God every day when I come to work now.
Narcisse: You guys just won a writing award at DICE.
Blackman: We were up against Fallout 3. If you were to ask me beforehand, I thought Fallout 3 was going to win. Fallout 3 had one of the most amazing moments I've had in games in 10 years. I was in the Vault, still creeping around with my gun, when I hear the girl who's supposed to be my best friend. She's all upset, and I see these guys dressed like the guards I've been killing all along, and without even thinking I kill them both. And she's losing her mind. And I realize I've just killed her dad. The fact that it can tell a story about our different perspectives is a huge success.
Lucas: What was the last Star Wars story that we cared about in a videogame?
Kahn: Shadows of the Empire? Jedi Knight II?
Lucas: Shadows, yeah.
Blackman: Knights of the Old Republic.
Kahn: TIE Fighter was not horrible. TIE Fighter was a pretty cool story.
Jones: The old Dark Forces games. Those were great games. One thing I remember from the original game is the Easter eggs. You know, the "Ewoks suck" graffiti. Or the Stormtroopers bathroom. There's none of that, at least from what I can tell, in The Force Unleashed.
Sam and Nathalie banging the plastic toys together
Blackman: That's more of a factor of time than anything else. We basically told the team, "Look, we can put Easter eggs in, but they're the last thing to go in." Some of it, too, is the nature of the industry and the way things have changed, and the ESRB. Here's an example: In the TIE fighter level, if you explore enough, there's an area that we thought nobody could actually get to. But you can actually get to it. We put a Clone trooper helmet just sitting there, in the middle of nowhere. When I saw a screenshot of that, I lost my mind.
Because I was like, You guys have to tell us every single thing you put in. Because the problem is, we've got a wide range of ages, some guys just out of school, people who don't always understand that if I put in something like "Ewoks suck," that might actually raise eyebrows with the ESRB. The ESRB doesn't want us to put in anything that they don't know about. We were hot on the heels of Hot Coffee, and we were really paranoid about that stuff.
It's funny you brought this up, because just yesterday I was having a conversation with our lead environment artist from the first Force Unleashed, and we've told all the level artists that they can [include] two Easter eggs per level. I have to approve them. But you can do two. We'll give you a little bit of leeway. We'll build that into the schedule and everything, because we love this stuff, too. The restroom in Dark Forces is hilarious.
Lucas: [To Evan and Jones]. I just want to make sure that you guys write into the written work here that he said "the first Force Unleashed." All right?
Blackman: Well, there's DLC, which is 1.2, or 1.6...
Narcisse: What's your favorite moment from the films?
Blackman: The carbon freezing.
Lucas: "I love you." "I know."
Blackman: And I'll tell you why. "Empire" is one of the greatest films of all time -- not just among Star Wars films; it's one of the greatest films of all time.
Lucas: That and "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
Blackman: Oh god, yeah. And the thing that's so awesome about the carbon freezing scene is, there are six or seven characters; there's Leia, C-3PO, Chewie, Boba Fett, Lando, Han, right? And there's a meaningful interchange between all those characters.
Chewie was my favorite character growing up. Then, when I rediscovered the films in college, Lando became my favorite character, because I actually thought there was complexity there.
Lucas: Lando deserves a game. We don't know anything about him.
Blackman: He makes a really hard choice, right? It's his people versus his friend. And he redeems himself for it.
Narcisse: Follow that up with your least favorite scene.
Blackman: Least favorite scene? [Mocking voice] "Oh. I loved them all."
Kahn: The line about sand being "coarse"? From "Episode II"? The love scene?
Narcisse: You don't have to say anything...
Blackman: Yeah. You know, I try to find things that I love about all six films.
Narcisse: Fair enough.
Blackman: Good thing this is only my second beer. You should have seen me at DICE. I would have answered that question at DICE.
Blackman: People are hard on "Return of the Jedi," but I love the first half of "Jedi." Even Jabba's palace, some people have a problem with that. I love it.
Kahn: Luke is so bad-ass.
Narcisse: [To Khan] Thank you!
Lucas: But Boba Fett's jetpack goes crazy and he winds up in the Sarlacc pit? And the Ewoks. That was just too much.
Jones: I don't mind the Ewoks. I think the Ewoks get a bad rap.
Lucas: Come on.
Blackman: I love all the Death Star stuff in "Jedi," and Luke and Vader, and the Emperor being there, and Lando blowing up the Death Star.
Narcisse: And you see Luke being tempted. I think he's tempted in that scene.
Jones: Man, I was tempted. I'm watching the movie and thinking, What about me, Vader? Take me! Take me!
Narcisse: I want to talk about the comic books again.
Lucas: That's Scott's favorite subject.
Blackman: I am a huge comic book geek.
Narcisse: If you had to make a game out of a favorite comic book, what would it be?
Blackman: That's good question. "Preacher." "Preacher" is an amazing comic. "Fables" is a great comic. One of my favorite characters is "Swamp Thing," but I'm not sure how you make a game out of that.
Narcisse: You work in the sci-fi realm. What do you think of the new sci-fi franchises, like Battlestar Galactica?
Blackman: I kind of missed getting on the Battlestar boat. And I don't know what's going on with the Encore channel these days, but it has been showing "Aliens" every day, it seems. It's one of those movies that I can't just turn on and walk away from. I'm really excited to see the new Star Trek [film]. But I think this is maybe the first in my life I've ever been excited about Star Trek. I think it's really true: You're either a Star Wars fan or Star Trek fan. I've always been Star Wars fan.
Lucas: Why do you think that people are either Star Wars and Star Trek fans?
Blackman: I think that Star Trek doesn't always -- for me, personally -- hit on the same mythic themes that Star Wars does. And I was always confused about who the good guys and bad guys were. You could always sort of understand the Romulans' point of view, you know?
Narcisse: Gene Rodenberry from way back was like, "We can all just get along."
Blackman: Right, and that's not all that exciting to me. This is a really geeky story, but the moment in "Star Trek II" that really stuck with me is when Spock died. I went home after the movie, and I would play out moments where Chewie died. Because Han Solo and Chewie were my Spock and Kirk. Every time I played with my action figures, Chewie always ended up dying; he always ended up sacrificing himself...
Narcisse: There seem to be lots of chainsaws popping up in games these days -- Gears of War, Madworld. Is the chainsaw the lightsaber for a new generation?
Blackman: The brilliance of the lightsaber -- no pun intended -- is that it's so iconic. And a chainsaw? I look at it, and it's like, "OK, is it Ash from Evil Dead?" But when you see a lightsaber, you think, That IS Star Wars. I got asked this question earlier today: Why did we decide to have the Apprentice hold his lightsaber backwards? Initially that was a total art foul. The art director said, "I want something in the game, where anytime you look at a screenshot, you see it and go, that's Star Wars. The lightsaber accomplishes that. As much fun as the chainsaw is in Gears of War, it's still a chainsaw.
Jones: Time for a little turnabout. Are there any questions you'd like to ask us?
Blackman talks shop
Blackman: I want to ask to ask you [Evan] -- because you were at that initial story press conference -- how different the initial pitch was from the final game. And be honest.
Narcisse: I hate to beat a dead horse, but using the Force to bring down the Star Destroyer is ridiculously hard. And, to be honest, it's just plain ridiculous.
Blackman: I've got a funny story about that. I think I can tell the story about the Star Destroyer and how that came about, right?
Narcisse: "Pull it out of the sky!!!!"
Blackman: We were in a design meeting one day, and I kept saying, "Force unleashed, force unleashed, force unleashed." And the designers were getting frustrated with me. And I was getting frustrated because I didn't feel we were thinking big enough, and they were getting frustrated because I don't think they were thinking how far they could go. So finally, they got really angry with me, and they were like, "OK, so how big is too big? What do you really want this guy to be able to do?"
And I said, "I don't know! Maybe he could pull a Star Destroyer out of the sky." And there was a concept artist in the room. She went away and painted that image. And before I knew it, everybody had seen that image, including the president at the time. And he had it blown up and had it put on the wall of his office, because to him that captured The Force Unleashed. And I was like, "Hey, I don't know how we're going to do that in-game."
And the Star Destoyer battle? That changed four times during development. And the version we have in at the end, we didn't actually start working on until we'd hit alpha. So, you know, that version is the best version we came up with in development. But do I think that we could have done a better job with it? Probably. Yeah.
Kahn: We should never have given that all away at that press conference. [Blackman and Kahn look at each other.] At the time, we thought people wouldn't believe that we had a story that they would actually care about. We didn't think anyone would buy it. Looking back now, we really shouldn't have done that.
Jones: Speaking of things you shouldn't have done. Soulcalibur. Yoda. Vader. Was that weird at all for you guys?
Blackman: It was actually really exciting for us. A bunch of guys on the team are Soulcalibur fans. So [the Soulcalibur team] came out to see us. We met with them for two days, and the animators were over the moon, because the Soulcalibur people were asking, "OK, so how would Vader fight? Describe it. Act it out. Is he more like this or this?" So, from a development standpoint, these guys were meeting some of their idols, and they're treating us like with great reverence and respect.
Jones: Do you feel that it cheapens the franchise? I mean, who's next? The Burger King?
Blackman: If we felt it cheapened either franchise, I don't think we would have done it. [The Soulcalibur thing] wasn't a money thing, all right? We saw it as an opportunity to work with guys we like and respect, and to maybe get Star Wars into an area where it hasn't been seen before.
Jones: Are there any in-jokes around the office about Kyle Katarn?
Blackman: What about Kyle Katarn?
Lucas: [Looks at Jones] Some people really like him.
Jones: He's got that terrible beard.
Blackman: I've never heard anyone make a joke about Kyle Katarn. We get letters all the time from fans bring back Kyle Katarn. All the time.
Jones: Are you kidding me? No one has less gravity, to my mind, in the Star Wars universe, than Kyle Katarn.
Lucas: I want to talk about voiceover work again for a second. When are we going to get Harrison Ford playing Han Solo? Doesn't a game like The Force Unleashed prove that this is a viable way to bring these characters back to life? We saw Sean Connery as James Bond again. And Clint Eastwood was working on some voiceover work for Dirty Harry. I want to see Harrison Ford as a young Han Solo. I want to hear Mark Hamill in that world again. Is it tougher to get older actors to see the light here?
Blackman: Maybe it is generational thing. Sam was really excited to be in the game. We didn't have to sell Sam on the opportunity to be in a game. He understood that it was just as cool to be in a game as it is to be in an animated feature, or a movie or TV show.
Kahn: Don't underestimate the fanboy nature of Sam. He would just stop by the office, just to hang out.
Blackman: He'd stop by randomly and we'd say, Are we doing voice recording today? Nah, I'm just here to hang out. Nathalie [Juno Eclipse], I wouldn't say is a huge fan girl. But there were a couple of moments where she had a feeling about the line. I think she says, "May the Force be with you." She's the only one who says it in the game.
Kahn: She also says the line about jumping to lightspeed.
Blackman: She got all the geeky fan lines. And I'll tell you the other best moment in all of The Force Unleashed. We got Jimmy Smits to play Bail Organa. And we actually had a lot of cast members in the studio together. Sam, of course, was there for every recording session that anybody did, even if he wasn't in the scene. So Sam was there when Jimmy Smits was there. And when Bail Organa/Jimmy Smits has to read the line about forming the Rebel Alliance, Sam is standing right next to me, and he grabs my shoulder, like, "Oh my god." Hairs are going up on the backs of both of our necks. It was amazing.
Lucas: Do have you have a favorite environment from The Force Unleashed?
Blackman: I love the Death Star. One of the early ideas we had was to let players be able to go to the Death Star and Force Push guys into the Death Star laser, like it was a big subway train coming. And you can do that in the game. It's not required, but you can do it.
Lucas: Killing all the Wookies on the first level. As a Chewbacca fan, did that break your heart?
Blackman: We were actually worried about that. We had people on the team saying, "You can't kill Wookies." So we tried to make [the Wookies] as bad-ass as possible. We gave them these cool weapons. I was worried that people would instantly get turned off by killing Wookies. Thankfully, that didn't happen. But what I kept saying was, we're not making the Wookies any less bad-ass; we're making them even more bad-ass. Which makes Vader even more bad-ass.
Narcisse: There always has to be somebody more bad-ass.
Lucas: So where do we go from here? This game doesn't end with a cliffhanger ? la "Empire." Where do we go?
Blackman: Well, there you go. Decision made. I'm going to go work on Full Throttle or something. [Laughs] Let me ask you: Where would you guys go? Would you want to stay in the same time period and look at it from a different point of view?
Lucas: I want the Apprentice, only he's not the Apprentice anymore; he's Starkiller now.
Narcisse: I want Han Solo.
Lucas: Yeah, if we're not getting our Indiana Jones, then I want Han Solo, too.
Blackman: As we talk about what might be next for the team, the problem is that we killed off Starkiller at the end of the game.
Lucas: So Starkiller's dead.
Blackman: Well, he's not dead in the non-canon Evil Ending, right?
Lucas: He's dead in the ending I got.
Blackman: In the canon ending, you go in to save Kota and you fight the Emperor. And in that ending he seemingly dies, allowing the Rebel Alliance to escape. In the other ending, you kill Vader, and betray the Emperor. And the Emperor tells you, "Now you're my new apprentice." And you betray him, and then he pulls down the Rogue Shadow, and crushes you [laughs a little] with the Rogue Shadow. And he kills Juno, Bail, Proxy, Kota; you're still alive, but you wind up as this crazy cyborg assassin.
Narcisse: You know what your end-around is to bring Starkiller back?
Lucas: It was all a dream?
Narcisse: Force Ghost. Enter somebody else's body.
Jones: What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
Blackman: I'd probably be writing full-time. I love to write. Comic books or screenplays. I'm a huge movie fan, and one of the things that's a little depressing about working in the games industry is that the platforms change so quickly. You can go back and play the old games again on the new consoles, but you still don't get that excitement of flipping channels and going, "Oh, 'Gremlins' is on; I'm going to watch 'Gremlins' again!" So, you know, if I wasn't doing this, I'd love to make movies.
Lucas: Did you write a movie script for The Force Unleashed?
Blackman: The Force Unleashed's cinematic script was written in Final Draft; it was written like a movie. The original draft, I'm embarrassed to say, was 120 pages long. We had to cull it, because we couldn't make 120 minutes of cinematics.
Jones: Was there a sex scene that got edited out?
Blackman: No. We had the kiss scene. That's it.
Lucas: If someone said, "OK, Haden, we're pulling you off games; we want you to write the Force Unleashed trilogy."
Blackman: That depends. What are they paying? [Laughs] Everybody's got a price. I've got two kids and a mortgage. OK, my guilty confession here is, I'm a Star Wars fan, but until I started working at LucasArts, I'd seen the movies, but that was it. I was not a hardcore Star Wars fan. So Star Wars is exciting to me still. But the thing that keeps me at LucasArts is the team. Like, all the people who made the game so great -- if somebody said, You could leave the games industry and leave that team to go sit in your office alone for three months and write a screenplay, I don't know if I'd do that or not. The team is such a big part of why I stay.
Lucas: Are you itching to birth another creative baby like this again?
Blackman: I am, or else I would have left. The Force Unleashed was different, and special, in the sense that everything we did -- I talked about this at GDC last year, right? New tech, new engine, new tools, new platforms, new team, new concept, all that stuff. It was like having octuplets or something. Yes, I'd like to have another baby -- maybe not octuplets. Because every game is really hard. Which is what sucks about getting bad reviews or releasing a game that doesn't do well. No game is easy to make. Bad games aren't bad games because people took months off, or ... maybe they had too tight of a development schedule and didn't have the right concept. I don't think it's because the people in the industry don't work really hard.
Narcisse: One last question. Who are the developers you admire?
Blackman: Todd Howard. I love all the work he's done at Bethesda. And Fallout 3 was great. So he's one. I don't know many of them by name. But Crackdown. I loved Crackdown, and I'd love to know more about the Crackdown team. You know, how that game came about, what struggles they went through to make that. And the thing that I really admire about Crackdown was that it was really the first open-world game that came out where the reviews didn't compare it negatively to GTA. It was great.
Jones: [To the waiter] Check, please. Thanks, Haden. We appreciate you sitting down with us tonight.
Blackman: My pleasure. This has been great. And I came with the octuplets line, which is like my best line ever.
Read Part 1 of the interview.
Don't miss our first installment of Dining With Developers, with Wanted: Weapons of Fate creators Pete Wanat and Nick Torchia.