Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is The Empire Strikes Back of video games, a sequel with plenty of high-stakes and bombastic action, but, more importantly, an emotional story to tell. The second step of Cal Kestis’ journey is a deeply personal tale that feels poignant and relatable, despite taking place in a galaxy far, far away. And while there’s no shortage of great Star Wars video games, the follow-up title from Respawn Entertainment stands neatly at the top of the pile because of how effortlessly it meshes its gripping narrative with the fantasy of being a Jedi.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t think I’d be able to play a game where I was a Jedi and really feel like it, not just from the storytelling but being able to wield a Lightsaber and hear that quintessential sound, or force push someone,” lead writer Danny Homan tells Inverse. “There’s just something that works for the Jedi franchise, between gameplay and story, that people just keep coming back for more, myself included.”
Cal’s journey in Survivor feels so relatable because it’s one of growth, overcoming grief, and learning how to stand on your own feet when your teachers are gone. As the year draws to a close Inverse had the chance to talk to Homan, along with design director Jason De Heras and senior combat designer Kevin Tsu. The trio shed light on the key moments of Cal’s narrative arc — and why his journey stands out among a rich history of Star Wars stories.
A Jedi’s Journey
Jedi Survivor has an undeniably memorable cast, from the gruff but kind-hearted pilot Greez to the devilishly charming mercenary Bode Akuna. Those unique characters and the drama that unfolds around them are key to the game’s success. There have been dozens of Jedi-centric stories in video games, but according to Homan, it’s not necessarily the Jedi themselves that make a memorable story.
“A Jedi story is only as good as those who are a part of that story,” he says. “Working on Survivor, you’ve got such a reservoir of not only acting talent but this rich tapestry of potential conflict and camaraderie. Cal’s story is unique because of the people that are with him on it.”
Found family is a major theme of both Survivor and its predecessor Fallen Order. Without the guidance of the Jedi Order, Cal learns to lean on the ones he loves. But when they’re stripped away, his world comes crashing down.
“Vader doesn’t do a lot of tricky acrobatic stuff, he’s just straightforward. Even being next to him feels intimidating.”
The moment Cal’s arc comes into focus is in a shocking section where you’re suddenly forced to play as someone else. While Cal races to save his mentor Cere, Survivor has you play as the powerful Jedi Master. This came about after the team decided they wanted to “do something crazy,” but adding a second playable character to a tightly-designed action game is no small task.
Cere feels integrally different from playing Cal, and that was important to Respawn, as the team wanted to represent her personality through the gameplay. De Heras notes that whenever the studio creates a playable character it’s a “collaborative and evolving” process, with back and forth based on both writing and gameplay mechanics.
Playing as Cere is a key turning point in Survivor’s story, capped off with the game’s most unforgettable boss battle against Darth Vader himself. For Hsu, who worked on the Vader fight, one of the things he’s most proud of is that fans “felt” what the team was trying to do with the boss.
“Vader doesn’t do a lot of tricky acrobatic stuff, he’s just straightforward. Even being next to him feels intimidating,” says Hsu, “One of our priorities was to make him feel like an unstoppable force coming right at you, and you’re just trying to survive.”
Beyond making it a thrilling battle, however, the team wanted Cere and Vader’s duel to be a key turning point in the story, something that embodied the game’s core narrative themes.
“The embodiment of this fight isn’t, will Cere defeat Vader, it’s will Cere become a Jedi Master who will live and die on her own terms,” Homan says.
In that moment, Cere accepts her fate, much like Obi-Wan did in his fight against Vader. But that’s not the same case for Cal, who’s sent spiraling and is forced to face his hardest challenge yet: overcoming the Dark Side.
Throughout both games, Cal grapples with what being a Jedi means in a universe with no Order, and how his morals can guide him forward. For Respawn, the moment Cal embraces the Dark Side was huge, but there were cues leading up to it, specifically in his encounters with Dagan Gerra, a High Republic-era Jedi who wakes up hundreds of years later in Survivor and finds the universe a completely different place.
“Cal has always sought mentors ever since his was slain during the Clone Wars, and he’s seen different representations of Jedi. The High Republic for him, and for us as fans, feels like this golden age with the highest amount of power and control for the Jedi,” Homan says. “For him to see Dagan Gerra as a fallen Jedi is an incredibly disturbing thing. Through the lesson of Dagan and seduction of ego and drive for power, it helps Cal reflect and prepare for his fight against the Dark Side.”
Designing this moment was huge from a story perspective, but also required a ton of work in terms of what Respawn was able to do with powers and violence. According to De Heras, there was a constant back and forth with Lucasfilm to determine how much the team could show Cal brutalizing his enemies.
“We had to go back to the drawing board a little bit and think about, how can we take his existing powers but dial it up 10 levels,” notes De Herera “In those moments you’re still doing what you’re used to, but they’re mechanically easier now. We added more effects and sound so you feel the leap from something you’ve previously done, to where now you can feel the rage or emotion going through Cal the minute you press any button.”
Leaving a Legacy
Cal’s struggle may be internal, but Homan says the importance of Survivor’s story is how the Jedi learns to lean on others and break free from his shell of self-reliance. The connections that Cal forges are what give meaning to his story, and the clues seem to suggest whatever the next game is will carry that idea forward.
Cameron Monaghan, the actor behind Cal, previously confirmed a third entry is in the works, and there are some fascinating details at the end of Survivor that seem to hint about the future of Kata, the daughter of Bode Akuna and the final villain of Survivor after his shocking betrayal.
Cal sees a shared experience with Kata, who also now has to grow up without any parents or guidance. The ending and post-game of Survivor strike an emotional note as Cal and his companion Merrin attempt to bond with the young girl, and Homan says this is one of the story moments he’s most proud of with Survivor.
“Something just felt like it was missing, and I didn't know what it was.”
“When I joined the team, I remember thinking how difficult it would be to land this ending,” Homan says. “This complex betrayal and meeting Bode’s daughter so late in the story and getting so little time with her. Something just felt like it was missing, and I didn't know what it was. Then I was in one of the performance capture shoots and I happen to play guitar and piano, and I said, Oh my gosh Kata needs to sing something.”
This thought led to the “Ghost Star” lullaby, a haunting melody that Homan calls “one last chance to give this child a small moment to stand out.” The song resonated tremendously with fans, even leading Homan to upload an original version on YouTube in May.
In just a short amount of in-game time, Kata managed to become another vital member of the Mantis crew, and one fans have already built an attachment to. This leaves Cal’s journey to eventual Jedi Master open-ended. Of course, a Jedi Master needs an apprentice, and many fan theories point to that being Kata. While the developers at Respawn couldn’t confirm anything outright, they hint Survivor brings a sense of finality to this step of Cal’s journey.
“In the final moments of Survivor, as Cal kneels by Cere’s pyre, it's kind of all there,” Homan says. “He now no longer has a mentor, Cere is gone. He's not sure if he's ready for the next steps, or who will guide him, he’ll probably have to guide himself.”
“That's a wonderful turning point in all of our lives where we realize that we have to chart our destiny, and we have to figure out our own way in the world.”