BAFTA Breakthrough interview: Star Wars Jedi Survivor’s Cheyenne Pualani Morrin on Cal’s dark descent
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Featured Image Credit: Monica Schipper/Getty Images for BAFTA, EA
Cheyenne Pualani Morrin has had quite the year. Star Wars Jedi: Survivor released to rave reviews, delighting fans with its sweeping story and improved gameplay. Released four years after its predecessor, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, it’s clear that devs listened to the requests of fans when crafting this sequel. With new stances and weapons, the combat was vastly improved, while the introduction of a town-like hub in the form of Rambler’s Reach added a refreshing sense of heart into this sprawling tale.
Jedi: Survivor is, compared to Fallen Order, so much more narratively richer - and much of that is thanks to Cheyenne Morrin, a senior writer on the game. Morrin has been selected as one of this year’s BAFTA Breakthroughs. Supported by Netflix, BAFTA Breakthrough is a talent initiative designed to accelerate ‘extraordinary people working in games, TV and film who are on the cusp or in the midst of a breakthrough moment or year’. Those selected are connected with BAFTA’s global members, key industry figures, while also given access to coaching and career development.
Take a look at our interview below.
This year, the programme celebrates its 10-year anniversary, having supported over 200 creatives to date. Morrin is just one of this year’s 42 nominees, all of whom have made major waves with their latest projects. Garnering a Best Action/Adventure Game nomination at this year’s The Game Awards, it’s clear to see that Jedi: Survivor hit the mark. We had the opportunity to sit down with Morrin to celebrate both her BAFTA Breakthrough recognition and the experience that was crafting Jedi: Survivor’s enrapturing narrative.
You may think that penning a Star Wars story is a task that comes with enormous pressure, and you’d be correct but while there are certain expectations to fulfil, Morrin rose to the challenge. “There was that pressure of how can you best represent such a beloved franchise,” she began. “You’ll talk to someone on the street and they know Star Wars. It’s a fixture of our public imagination but once I started developing with the team and working with Lucasfilm, it became a really exciting opportunity to see how you can work within these audience expectations.”
Morrin continued, “You want to expand them, subvert them, change [the audience’s] mind in interesting ways, and really just build out that universe.” One of the ways in which Jedi: Survivor did indeed build out the universe is through the inhabitants of the larger-than-life Pyloon’s Saloon. Packed with “wacky relationships”, Cal’s cantina recruit missions became a way for Jedi: Survivor to “bring the player back to slice of life moments”. After all, Cal heads down a pretty dark path this time around.
“The trials that Cal has to go through in Survivor are harrowing, and yet also bearable. We used systems to ground the player and give them that pacing break, like the [saloon], and I’m proud of how many types of experience we served the player depending on what you’re in the mood for,” Morrin said. “You can pop in [Pyloon’s Saloon] and have a really strange conversation with someone like Turgle, or you can spend your time on optional content trying to immerse yourself in the broader environment and world.”
Jedi: Survivor is certainly a game that kept fans on their toes. I personally was surprised when in one of the game’s later acts, we play as Cere instead of Cal. I was intrigued to learn from Morrin about when it became clear that the story demanded this perspective change. “We really wanted to make sure that we landed Cere’s mission - the way she was trying to bring her fight and carry her legacy. To show her standing up for what she believed in.”
“It’s something we decided on pretty early on. We’d been working on that moment for quite some time to really honour that legacy and make for a fantastic send off.” Such a sequence begins by putting pen to paper - or fingers to keyboard, although that’s not quite as poetic. But it takes an army to craft a game like Jedi: Survivor, with writers and level designers working hand in hand. “We were in pretty close collaboration,” explained Morrin. “As soon as we know that a sequence is going to happen, it’s a critical moment.”
“In terms of the Cere sequence, both its level design and writing, we’re working [together] from day one.” Morrin highlighted the game’s bounty hunting system and Cal and Merrin’s kiss as further examples of moments in which writing and game design worked hand in hand. Of the latter, she said, “We had been working on that moment for years. We understood and coalesced around larger player fantasy and the experience we wanted to deliver, so we had a pod of different developers who were each feeding in their own perspective.”
“For months and months, we really just tried to make that [kiss scene] as cohesive and unified as possible so that everything was synergising - and that we’re really hitting that primary fantasy.” Cal and Merrin’s kiss did certainly provide a much-needed groundedness to Jedi: Survivor’s galaxy-spanning hunt for Dagan Gera and Tanalorr. We see throughout the game Cal’s willingness to open himself to the Dark Side, with Merrin acting as his main tether to all that is good within him.
“Survivor is a rather dark chapter in many regards, but our development team knew that we needed to give the player opportunities to change the pace and ground themselves in something that feels a little lighter, maybe a little bit more human. The Merrin relationship became one that would recentre Cal and help him prioritise the relationships that keep him fighting this war.”
One thing I’m almost certain fans are fantasising about is the possibility of a third instalment in the series, particularly given the open narrative strands Jedi: Survivor’s conclusion leaves us with. “We always try to deliver the best standalone experience,” Morrin said. “We want to make sure that whatever we deliver in something like a sequel can stand by itself and has its own unique message,” careful not to touch on what those leftover questions may lead to.
I shouldn’t think we’ll see Cal totally shake his relationship with the Dark Side anytime soon though, if and when a third instalment is to manifest. “I really wanted to push Cal to the edge,” Morrin elaborated. “We threw him a lot of challenges. We subverted some of the expectations about the relationships that he makes. [...] I’m really proud of the way that we built it up so Cal reaches this boiling point and unleashes this momentary darkness.”
“It's a good insight into where his character really is. He tries to be the Jedi for everyone, but he’s also just a human who’s trying to exist in a very dark chapter. To see that human moment I think was very resonant for our player audience.”
On the completely opposite end of the spectrum, we have a character like Turgle. The kind of character meme-ers dream of. “Our froggy boy,” Morrin laughed. “We had no idea how much the players would love him but our writing team loved writing for him. He morphed and went from a little unhinged to a bit more grounded and relatable.” She recalled the table reads as particularly fun, as the writing team tried out some of the saloon scripts.
Turgle isn’t the only memorable character though. Jedi: Survivor felt like far more of a solid ensemble piece compared to Fallen Order. “Monk was a really fun droid to add to the larger galaxy. He has this almost philosophical bend to the way that he has insight into what’s really going on under the surface for Cal,” Morrin told us, noting Caij Vanda as another highlight. “She had a fantastic performance and really helped carry that bounty hunter system to a place where we could deliver a really exciting cameo.”
We can’t move on without mentioning Skoova: “Our little aquarium fisherman guy. The undefeatable scotsman. He was great fun too.”
If you’ve played Jedi: Survivor, you’ll know that it’s a gripping experience. With each act, the pace kicks it up a notch before we’re sprinting through the thrilling story at breakneck speed. But what about the play experience of Morrin herself who’d spent years working on the game? “It’s very surreal,” she reflected. “Everyone else in the development team helps evolve the concept into something that is dynamic, multifaceted and more compelling because of its realisation across different disciplines. It’s very cool and magical.”
We once again congratulate Cheyenne Morrin on her BAFTA Breakthrough recognition. Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is out now.
The full BAFTA Breakthrough 2023 class is as follows: Adjani Salmon, Bella Ramsey, Cash Carraway, Charlotte Regan, Cynthia De La Rosa, Ella Glendining, Funmi Olutoye, Georgia Oakley, Holly Reddaway, Joel Beardshaw, Kat Morgan, Kathryn Ferguson, Kitt (Fiona) Byrne, Michael Anderson, Pete Jackson, Raine Allen-Miller, Rosy McEwen, Samantha Béart, Talisha ‘Tee Cee’ Johnson, Vivian Oparah, Amanda Kim, Aminah Nieves, Apoorva Charan, Cheyenne Pualani Morrin, Edward Buckles Jr., Gary Gunn, Jingyi Shao, Maria Altamirano, Santiago Gonzalez, Shelly Yo, Sing J Lee, Vuk Lungulov-Klotz, Abhay Koranne, Abhinav Tyagi, Don Chacko Palathara, Kislay, Lipika Singh Darai, Miriam Chandy Mencherry, Pooja Rajkumar Rathod, Sanal George, Satya Rai Nagpaul, and Shardul Bhardwaj.