David Collins on The Force Unleashed II

Forcing the agenda

David Collins is the lead sound designer and voice director at LucasArts, and has a wealth of experience when it comes to voice acting in video games. I pick his brains about his work on The Force Unleashed and its upcoming sequel, and discover that, despite the so-called rivalry, Star Wars can take a bit of inspiration of Star Trek - in odd ways.

In your role you're obviously working with a lot of people involved at all kinds of levels with the Star Wars series. What kind of a challenge is it to bring the Star Wars feel to a video game?

You know, it starts with the writing, and we're really lucky that Haden Blackman is such a good writer and really is passionate about Star Wars. I mean, we all are. I think the key is to be very passionate about what makes something feel like Star Wars. We're also very lucky to have Sam Witwer, who is the actor who plays Starkiller. He sets the tone in terms of actors that are really passionate about Star Wars as well. We have a lot of conversations about what makes something Star Wars-ish. How much of this character is like Luke Skywalker? How much of this character is like Hans Solo? How much of this character is like a Sith assassin? Talking about these kind of balances are really key. The first thing that we did was we sat everyone down to do a table read after we got through the audition process - this was the beginning of 2007 - and we just had a lot of discussions about tone and how things would come out, and it worked really well. Finding the right actors is really important. They say 90 per cent of directing is casting, good casting - you know, roughly. It really is about collaborating with the right people and the right talent.

Is it unusual for a video game to go through such an extensive casting process?

Yes and no. All video games have to go through a casting process, and certainly when games cast the right actors it's just a match made in heaven. I could rattle off a million games where I think, "Oh God, thank goodness that they had this actor or that actor in this part because it makes such a huge difference." What is unique about The Force Unleashed is that we actually did more than a voice capture; we did a likeness capture. In the case of our primary characters - Juno Eclipse, Starkiller, General Kota, even Maris Brood from the first game - we did that, and did some likenesses of some other people as well. In that regard it was very unique to me. A big part of Sam getting cast was that he had the right look, and that's why it's his likeness in the game. Casting is very important to any creative project, and we definitely took it very seriously.

So with that reading with all the actors round the table, do you use the same process when you record? Do the actors record their lines with each other or do they do their lines on their own?

It depends on what phase we're in the game. For the most part we had them record together, particularly for the big story moments in the game they were together. When it comes to bringing in someone from pick-ups, you know, there's a lot of auxiliary dialogue - I hate to even call it auxiliary dialogue because it's incredibly important dramatically, but it's mechanical in a certain sense in that you're not performing a scene, you're going down a list, a script. In other words, I need 10 really great sounds of you getting hit by a blaster. I need 15 great sounds of you getting force ripped and hanging off a ledge - that kind of stuff. You have to go through thousands and thousands of those. Those aren't necessarily recorded with all the actors working together because it just doesn't make sense. You have to find actors skilled in that regard as well. But when it comes to the big story beats, yeah, they did it together. And you can hear it, and I'm actually really proud of that in The Force Unleashed 2. You can really hear when Kota and Starkiller are talking, you can hear the overlap, you can hear them reacting to each other, which is nice.

Talking of Starkiller, we've been introduced to his early story in The Force Unleashed 2 and all these difficult changes with his memories and so on. How did you try to bring that to his performance?

He's very frightened. He's been through hell and he doesn't know who he is. He is very careful about admitting these memories, these flashes to Vader. In fact, Vader notices it first because he mentions something about Kota and suddenly he's watching Starkiller have this vision. It was treated very seriously: it's tough, you know, he's kind of tortured now. It's a tough road for Starkiller in this one, but fortunately he's surrounded by people who believe in him and know him, and that helps out quite a bit.

The first game won so many awards for its story, awards that really made people take notice. Is the pressure on second time around to deliver again?

Yeah, absolutely, especially in a game where you leave your main character presumably dead! It presented a huge creative challenge, and the other thing is that it had to happen much faster. Haden was the one who came up with the idea for The Force Unleashed 2, and wrote the story very, very quickly, but not after a lot of torturous pondering. Not torturous - I'm putting words in to his mouth, I'm sure he had a great time! But, you know, these are decisions that are not made lightly. They are made very carefully. But everyone just knew instantly that the idea of cloning was a great one to explore because it's such a mysterious part of the Star Wars universe. What happened to that technology? Can you or can you not clone a Jedi? And what kind of implication does it have dramatically - and gameplay wise too? So yeah, it does put a lot of pressure on, but I'm just really happy with where this one is going. It's so wildly different in some regards but at the same time it feels like the franchise, it feels like Star Wars, it feels like The Force Unleashed. We know the framework now.

You mentioned Starkiller getting cloned. I don't know if you've been keeping track of the fans' response to that news because it filtered out quite quickly. Do you think they're going to be accepting about his coming back, or excited? Like you said, it did seem very conclusive that he was gone at the end of the first game.

Well, I think that as long as you tell a good, compelling story, then people will enjoy it and accept it. In the sci-fi or fantasy genre, this kind of stuff is pretty common. In fact, one of the things I said to Sam - because I was the one who called Sam - I said, "Hey, we want do another one. We want to do it with Starkiller coming back." He said, "Well, what happened? I mean we did this thing, we killed him off, and all this other stuff." I said, "Well you know they killed off Spock at one point too!" (laughs)

That's a pretty good argument!

And I'll tell you something: that was one of the most satisfying story arcs in Star Trek. And that's a true story, that's exactly the line that I used! Good characters are good characters, and as long as you present a world that has its own story, and its own logic, people will suspend their disbelief, I think, if you give them a good story to do it with. Ultimately, Starkiller was a very compelling character and driven by a wonderful performance and a great gameplay experience. Everyone wanted to revisit these characters, no one wanted to let go of Starkiller, but they did want to tie-up the games. We'll see what happens with these characters, and his origins and what they truly mean remain to be seen.

It's been three years since the Force Unleashed hit. Voice acting in video games has taken a huge step forward in that time. Do you think it's going to continue improving?

I hope so. There have always been great voice actors. I think there's more of an awareness of what it can do for your game now, stylistically. There are just some incredible games out there now, and I couldn't be pleased to see where the games industry is going in terms of great voice acting. I would hope that The Force Unleashed could be counted as one of those that have good voice acting in it. We've proud of the work we've done. We always think that there's more we can do. It comes down to time and what you're trying to achieve in the game. Story's been really important, Haden Blackman's been really important, and I think the reason why the first game was so successful was that people were longing for that hero's journey, and a great Star Wars story that they could interact with. It resonated with people. It won awards for that and I think that was because it was characterized by great performances. There's always room to improve. The first game wasn't a perfect game. To say it was perfect would be to say there's no reason to do a sequel. You always want to do the next big thing.

So what's your favourite kind of moment or scene in The Force Unleashed 2 that you can tell us about?

Hmm... my favourite scene - well, I always enjoy the PROXY scenes because I do the voice for that character. But really, I think my favourite moment while working on The Force Unleashed 2 was seeing when the story elements come together with the gameplay because you start to see the seamless experience. That's always my favourite part in the project. You go into a story moment into a scripted gameplay moment into some badass gameplay, and then you see it resolve and you reward the player with another great story moment. When that all starts to flow together, it's great. To get specific about The Force Unleashed 2, I'm really excited about how much dialogue we've added to the AI characters. If people stop and listen, they're going to hear some very funny moments and see some very funny things. Like the Jedi Mind trick, I'm kind of enamoured with that right now!

Thank you so much, David.

Thanks - I really appreciate it.

E3 Trailer