Creative Director and Narrative Designer on fitting Fox into a new Ubisoft universe.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a tale of two games. There is the toys to life space exploration game on Xbox One and PS4, and there is the toys to life space exploration plus Star Fox game on Nintendo Switch. If you’re lucky enough to be a multi-platform household, the choice is easy.
After spending three hours with both the Switch and Xbox One versions of Starlink, I sat down with Creative Director Laurent Malville and Narrative Designer Joshua Mohan. We covered a great many things, and some of the highlights of those discussions are included in our more comprehensive Starlink preview.
I talked about Star Fox with both them, quite a lot as it turns out. Here is what they had to say.
(Note: these were two seperate interviews, but we covered some similar ground in regards to Fox, so I’ve put their answers close together where the topic was similar for your reading pleasure).
Stevivor: How did you ensure Fox remains true to his history while bringing him into an entirely new universe?
Laurent Malville, Creative Director: The collaboration started at E3 2017 when Nintendo came to see our game. To recap the story quickly, they came several times to see us at E3 and then we got invited to present Starlink and what a Starlink and Star Fox collaboration would look like, so we travelled to Japan to present this to Mr Miyamoto and the original Star Fox development team, which was really crazy.
After it was green lit, we worked really closely with Nintendo on the scope of what we wanted to do and the approvals from them and their recommendations as to how we should treat Fox. We put a team together to support that, and you’ll see in the quality of the Arwing and the story that we put a lot of care into it to ensure it stays true to what Star Fox is.
How does Fox’s story fit in with the Starlink narrative? Is it part of the main story or kept seperate, considering it’s not included on two of the three platforms?
Joshua Mohan, Narrative Director: Fox came in after we had really figured out our tone and our story. It was after the reveal last year [as Laurent explained].
So I developed a story pitch that showed this is how Star Fox could integrate into our world. He’s really there on his own quest. Luckily we have a rag-tag group of explorers and he’s part of a group of mercenaries, so he’s in Atlas on his own path, but the two groups connect.
You can play the entire game as Fox if you want. As Fox, you can help out the Starlink crew, and vice versa, the Starlink crew helps Fox accomplish his goal in Atlas. It fit really well, it fit the tone and the world really well and we were honestly surprised at how seamless it was.
Were you worried at all that putting such a well known, established character into an otherwise new IP would overshadow Starlink as its own game and put the spotlight on Fox?
LM: Yes, absolutely, but it was awesome, a great challenge to have. When we went to present what it would look like to Nintendo, we always thought it was a match made in heaven. We have the characters, our human characters and our alien characters, it would all fit together. We said those exact words in the presentation, that for us it’s a match made in heaven to have Star Fox in Starlink. The tone between the universes matches really well.
We did have lots of work to do and fun in the team to solve those challenges, whether they were narrative challenges or gameplay challenges, and it was fascinating to work with Nintendo on that.
Thinking ‘Fox is going to have a skill tree, so what does that look like and what are his moves?’ We came up with what we thought and then got Nintendo’s feedback and worked on that as we progressed development.
Considering the main story was complete when Fox was added, were you aware that his narrative could start to takeover?
JM: From the beginning of the partnership with Nintendo, we both wanted Fox to really be a guest star in the game. Like a lot of the other playable characters, as you collect more characters, you’re adding to the world that’s already there and Fox is one of those.
We feel like we integrated Star Fox in a way he adds to the story, he adds more variety, something interesting for fans of the Star Fox universe, but he definitely doesn’t overshadow the main story and he really is a guest star in the game and doesn’t step on our toes.
What were you focusing on when recreating this iconic Nintendo character, and is there anything that has happened in the Star Fox universe that clashes with what you’re doing in the world of Starlink?
JM: Hmm, I’m not sure. I don’t think there’s anything in Star Fox history that causes problems for Starlink.
We were looking at Star Fox as this iconic character, he’s been around for 20 years. For us it was about capturing the voice, not just in terms of the voice actor, but in the way he speaks and the way they speak to each other and transposing that into our world.
As writers it was super fun, you get to dive into the little catch phrases that they have. I actually got the chance to fly to Seattle and work with all the original English voice actors and to hear them read all of our lines was super cool.
The interesting thing with that is you can play as Star Fox throughout the entire game, so you can go through this open world and be Star Fox and play in any ship you want. We had to make sure we had dialogue and the right voice for all of that.
Is there any music from Star Fox?
LM: Yes, we’ve used some classic original music from Star Fox that we re-orchestrated to match with the type of orchestration we had for Starlink, with the approval of Nintendo of course.
I think that’s all I can say right now!
The Star Fox discussions arose at E3 2017, a little over a year ago, but Starlink has been in development for a lot longer. Were you influenced by the Star Fox series before he was in the game? Even on Xbox, without Fox, there is still a Star Fox vibe.
JM: Yeah, definitely. You could say the whole picture-in-picture thing when characters communicate is reminiscent of Star Fox.
If you’re making a starship-based game then it’s hard not to draw those comparisons. We are all huge Star Fox fans and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t brought up a few times during the course of development. We were looking to capture that magic we all remember as kids from the Star Fox games.
I played on Switch in docked mode with the toys on the JoyCons, but that’s not going to work in handheld mode and it isn’t easy to carry a bunch of toys around. Is the fact the Switch is a handheld that can be displayed on a TV, but is really designed to be portable, the driving force behind the digital option that doesn’t require the toys to play?
LM: As soon as we started to develop on Switch, it was in our mind that we had to do something for when I slide the JoyCons onto my Nintendo Switch and play in handheld mode on holiday or on a train or in a car. That was a big part of why we decided to develop a digital interface to swap ships and pilots and be able to leave the toy starships, pilots and weapons at home, but still be able to play and swap the different parts together digitally.
But actually, even before [starting to develop on Switch], we wanted to be flexible for players. We know that some players are going to love collecting the starships and the different pilots and expanding their gameplay strategies with that. But we also know some players are going completely digital now, they prefer not to collect the physical toys, so they can get the digital version of the game and then swap the weapons, ships and pilots with the digital interface.
That was something we always had in mind, it’s on all platforms, but we especially wanted to do it for the Switch version so it is able to be played on the go so that was the natural path to take once we were on Switch.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas heads to Nintendo Switch, as well as Xbox One and PS4, on 16 October 2018.