Stepping into a Larger World: The Old Republic in Comics and Novels
I’m Alexander Freed, Senior Writer here at BioWare Austin. As a sequel to two video games which derived their setting from the Tales of the Jedi comic books, Star Wars™ The Old Republic™ is intimately linked to a slew of other tales. This web of storytelling stretches back over thirty years across mediums ranging from film and television to novels, to radio plays and even coloring books!
As part of this immense Expanding Universe, it's hardly surprising that The Old Republic would generate its own array of tie-ins. By the end of 2011, The Old Republic will have three novels, three comic mini-series, a handful of short stories and much more to its name. Being one of the largest projects in entertainment history, it's not as if there isn't plenty of material in the game that can be drawn from; it is, to put it mildly, a big game.
I've had the pleasure of working on The Old Republic as a writer for both the game and for two of its tie-in products--Blood of the Empire (first published as a webcomic then later brought to print) and The Lost Suns, a new five-issue comic book miniseries that is currently being published by Dark Horse Comics. For this Developer Blog, I'll be sharing a few of my thoughts on expanding the mythology of The Old Republic and laying down a few rules that any new tie-in should follow.
Make it Count
The first thing that any potential tie-in to Star Wars™ and The Old Republic should do is answer a series of questions: What does this story contribute to mythology of The Old Republic? What does a reader get from this story that changes the way he or she experiences the game? Does it give the reader a new perspective on a character? Does it explain a mystery that isn’t resolved in the game? Does it explore the setting and the timeline in new depth?
Once you are able to answer those questions, you've got a good starting point to create a story that's worth the valuable time of an both Old Republic fans as well as the larger community of Star Wars™ fans.
For the Blood of the Empire comic, we wanted to tell a story about the Sith Empire to explore that culture in a way no one had before. Our protagonist was Teneb Kel, an ambitious and clever young Sith at the very bottom of the hierarchy, scraping by and still retaining a glint of humanity. As a prequel to the game, Blood of the Empire serves to set up several major villains (players of the Jedi Consular and Sith Inquisitor classes are especially well served) and plot points.
Blood of the Empire: Penciled by Dave Ross, Inked by Mark McKenna and Colored by Michael Atiyeh
For The Lost Suns, we took a different approach. Instead of setting the story before the game begins, we decided to make it run concurrent with the game's plotline--to make it a "ninth story" that parallels the eight class stories within the game. This time, we made a Republic spy the star--Theron Shan, son of Jedi Grand Master Satele Shan (previously seen dropping a mountain on Darth Malgus in the Hope trailer, as well as graduating from Knight to Master in the Threat of Peace comic).
With a family tie to one of the setting's key figures and a career that lent itself to discovering the dark truths of the galactic war, Theron Shan--resourceful, jaded, and alternately suave and crude--worked perfectly as the centerpiece for a story revealing past (why did the Empire agree to a peace treaty with the Republic?), present (what's the Dark Council's master plan when the game begins?) and future (what are the threats players will be facing in later portions of the game?) of the Star Wars™ galaxy in and around the time of The Old Republic.
In Paul S. Kemp's novel Deceived, we witness the rise of Darth Malgus and the chaos surrounding the Sacking of Coruscant--one of the pivotal moments leading to the current events within The Old Republic. Drew Karpyshyn's forthcoming novel Revan manages the trick of being both a prequel to The Old Republic and a sequel to the original two Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games, describing the journey of the titular character and revealing the identity and past of the mysterious Sith Emperor. Unfortunately, I can say no more.
Of course, players who never read a comic or tie-in novel shouldn't feel like they're missing an important part of the story. Instead, the goal is to reward those who do read the tie-ins with a much richer understanding of the setting. This leads into the next point for readers who aren't necessarily fans of The Old Republic…
In addition to having connections to the game, a The Old Republic tie-in also needs to stand on its own. Not every reader is going to be intimately familiar with the game's background and characters (especially before the game has come out!). For that matter, some may only have a broad familiarity with the Star Wars movies--perhaps they've only ever seen the original trilogy and don't know Jar Jar Binks from Mara Jade.
So how do you write for an audience of casual fans along with the hardcore? You assume no foreknowledge on the part of the reader and you introduce everything he or she needs to know--and you make sure that you have characters and situations that resonate regardless of how they interact with the game.
Does a reader of The Lost Suns need to know that Theron Shan's mother is a Jedi? Absolutely, and seeing Satele Shan in action during her youth (as we do in both the “Return” cinematic and The Lost Suns issue one) helps establish Theron's identity and the setting as a whole.
The Lost Suns: Penciled by George Freeman & Dave Ross, Inked by Mark McKenna and Colored by Michael Atiyeh
Does a reader of Blood of the Empire need to know that Exal Kressh is the latest child of a Sith bloodline going back to Ludo Kressh (a character established in Tales of the Jedi comic series)? Absolutely not! Knowledgeable fans will spot the reference and infer its impact on Exal's character, but it's an extra--not an integral part of the plot.
There is one exception to the rule, however, and that is to always assume that your audience is smart. Give readers a strong story with characters they care about, and they'll figure out what matters. There is no need to spoon-feed people. Simply make sure everything they need is there and they will put it all together.
Make it True to the Setting
This shouldn't surprise anyone. After all, who wants comic or novel based on The Old Republic that doesn't resemble the setting of the game? But keeping the story true to the setting is about far more than just keeping track of the timeline and spelling characters' names right.
For the comics, it's our job to make sure the designs you see on the page match the designs you see on the screen. Every artist has his own style, but to make sure that everything remains true to the established aesthetic of a project like The Lost Suns, BioWare supplies hundreds of pieces of reference art. Between all the screenshots and concept art of different outfits, species, weapons, abilities, environments, and characters, the amount of source material used to make sure the artists keep the comics feeling accurate to the period adds up fast.
This also means that there are designs which you'll see in the comics before you see them anywhere else. For that matter, there are designs you'll see in more detail in the comics than you'll see in the game - not because the detail isn't there, but because when you're actually playing you tend to be too busy fighting the ancient monsters to admire the color of their scales.
Give Back As Much As You Take
One of the reasons people have come to love Star Wars is because it's fantastic and full of wonder. A cantina full of bizarre aliens is exciting and fresh, and unexplained references to the "Kessel Run" and the "Battle of Tanaab" suggest a galaxy that is full of strange places and events. When these places and events are fully explored - when every alien species is named and every square kilometer of Kessel is mapped - they can become the focus of stories in their own right instead of remaining on the periphery.
In this case, what's true of Star Wars in general is true in The Old Republic as well. Mysteries are there to be solved and characters, with their own unique backstories, can make for a fascinating read. In return, a good tie-in throws new characters, new settings and new mysteries back into the pot to maintain a sense of freshness and wonder.
Every piece of literature for The Old Republic to date, whether it be a comic series or a novel, has shown something new and unexplored in the game--something that genuinely adds to the setting, instead of detailing what's already there. And when the writing team finds something new and exciting in a tie-in, it can be explored further within the game itself, thus continuing the cycle.
Tell a Great Story
None of the other rules matter if you can't apply them to a great story with an engaging plot and memorable characters. This is also the hardest rule to follow. Usually you won't know whether you have succeeded in telling a great story until it has been published and is in the hands of the readers. Those readers, from the ones that are knowledgeable of Star Wars lore to the most casual fan of the movies, will be the ones who ultimately cast judgment on whether or not the story you told was great.
So tell us how we're doing so far. Tell us what you're looking forward to, as well as what you'd like to see in the future.
In the meantime, we have more stories to write both for the game and beyond. After all, with a galaxy as large as the one that’s far, far away, The Old Republic gives us plenty of material to work with.