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Narrative Design For Company Of Heroes: Stephen Dinehart On Writing For Games

How do you design complex storylines for games? In this exclusive interview, Relic Entertainment's narrative designer Stephen Dinehart talks about his work from USC's Cloud to the upcoming Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts, explaining a writer's struggles to create a meaningful, suitable WWII-based plot.

Wendy Despain, Blogger

August 3, 2007

13 Min Read

All the recent talk in this industry about the place of story and violence in games has Stephen Dinehart doing some deep thinking about his job. He's directing the narrative for one of the most highly-charged games to be released this year, and we got him to share some of those deep thoughts with Gamasutra readers. He spills the beans on how he got where he is, where he's going with it, and why Leisure Suit Larry is an inspiration for his work on real-time strategy games.

Let's start with the basics. Where do you work (company/division), what's your current job title, and since it's not always obvious from job titles, what is it you do on a day-to-day basis?

Stephen Dinehart: I work for THQ’s Vancouver studio, Relic Entertainment. My title is “Narrative Designer.” It’s a position I worked with Relic and THQ to create on the initiative of Tarrnie Williams, General Manager, and Owen Hurley, Cinematics Director. The core of my job is to champion the story and narrative production pipeline for an entire product.

Which product are you working on right now?

SED: Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts

Did you go to a game design program? Do you have any informal training that helps as well?

SED: I’ve been a professional designer for 10 years now. I began running my own media firm at age 16, doing graphic design. I was trained in the fundamentals of design in Detroit, at the College for Creative Studies. After my time there I began running multimedia departments for tech firms in Chicago and Detroit. After the crash of the economy after 9/11 I began teaching Interactive Media courses at high school and college level, before deciding to attend Graduate school at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, Division of Interactive Media.

What kinds of projects did you work on there? Any favorite classes or professors?

SED: It was there I was trained by the likes of Scott Fisher, Marsha Kinder, Tracy Fullerton, Chris Swain, Peggy Weil, Bruce Block, Bing Gordon and more. Being exposed to these amazing people, and their perspectives on games, cinema, storytelling, the future of entertainment, and interactive media blew my mind. It really did bring me to a new level of thinking. During that time I was able to work at Activision, EA, and WB Games.

It taught me a wealth about the industry; it was a 3-year crash course in manifesting the future! Cloud was a project funded by the “EA Game Innovation Grant” an award given by the division for student project proposals. Jenova Chen and I propose two games together, Cloud was selected as the winner, and rightly so. Jenova’s simple idea of playing with clouds was very compelling. When we started, we talked about aliens controlling weather systems. I’m glad to say we pulled it in another direction! We really wanted to make something special, a game that touched the hearts of people, one that encouraged them to dream and imagine.

Nonviolent student game, Cloud

So you helped make Cloud - possibly the least-combative game out there - and now you're writing game story arcs from the point of view of the 3rd Reich. How did that happen?

SED: While in graduate school, I studied plenty of game design theory, but not necessarily non-combative. That said, there was a general feeling that games can be more than over-glorified remakes of Mortal Kombat or Grand Theft Auto. Flagrant carnage within a system that is supposed to be “fun” is kind of sick. Does society need more of that stuff? I don’t think so. It’s been hard, really hard, to wrap my head around creating a narrative within a system that is intended to simulate interactive WWII battles. Josh Mosquiera, lead designer on Company Of Heroes, is very adamant about the fact that the franchise is about the soldier level story. I took his tenant and ran with it.

My grandfather and all of his brothers fought in the War. For their memory, and the sake others, I have done my best to tell the stories of the soldier, a man caught between the not so black-and-white battle of morals. I did study the real time strategy genre for a number of years while in school and at EALA; learning from the likes of Louis Castle and Mike Verdu on what RTS was, is, and where it is going. We actually had a workshop course at USC, taught by Chris Swain, that directly dealt with RTS and its future. Slipping into the shoes of an RTS storyteller and gamemaker at Relic has been a comfortable transition for me. Is that really answering your question?

Well, let's break down how you actually do your job. First of all, how can you stand to think about these intense issues day in, day out?

SED: I love it. My creative self feeds off problem solving. I analyze and rationalize the situation, and move forward as a professional. I have the luxury of thinking about what comes next, and I dream of a future where entertainment, specifically games, have diversified to cater to different audiences, reducing risk for developers and publishers alike, and creating a more mature entertainment platform. One, which I hope, will be akin to film and literature.

How do you justify working on a title like this? Isn't it pretty much the definition of making violence gratuitous?

SD: No; ok ok, yes. The internal struggle continues! I have done my best to craft an innovative RTS story that treats the soldiers as more than mere commander fodder. The idea of some kid, who shouldn’t be playing this game in the first place, ripping apart virtual representations of WWII heroes is rather repulsive to me. We make this material for adults, hence the mature ESRB rating, and as such I assume they are at a maturity level where they can analyze the game and narrative system as presented. In that, I hope they see a story there of struggle, a battle of morals and nations that shed the blood of the common man in an effort to save Europe.

Aiming this at a mature audience is one thing, but is anything being done - other than the ESRB rating - to make sure kids who shouldn't be playing this game, aren't?

SED: That’s up to retailers and parents. Though, I suppose we could always use the “Leisure Suit Larry” method, I was always a fan of that one.

The Leisure Suit Larry method? Is that a technical term?

SED: Just joking; There was a "Quiz" the player was given at the beginning of the original game which tried to determine how old you where. As a 12 year-old I always thought the 30 year-old settings had to be the really "adult" settings. The game would present me with questions about Nixon, I was clueless.

Nice! But getting back on track, I'd like to know more about how you make the mental switch from playing with clouds to wearing Nazi jackboots.

SED: I think you mean, ‘from playing with clouds to playing with a Panzerkampfwagen IV’. Now that’s a good question. I’m a design professional and not simply an artist. As such, I am willing to explore a range of topics and emotions, sometimes those that are outside my chosen palate. I always find challenging myself to work outside my own creative box a valuable experience. Cloud was not the pinnacle of my creative self, as a graduate student project producer developing a game in the USC EA Game Innovation Lab, I had 20k, 6 months, one semester, and 6 people; the game had to be simple.

We looked at children’s books for inspiration, and decided if we could capture one emotion we would be successful. I’m glad to say we did, even more so, we may have defined the cusp for a new generation of games. The AAA-title, Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts, needless to say has a much larger budget, and is developed at Relic Entertainment. As Narrative Designer, I am allowed the luxury of focusing purely on the narrative and flow of the game.

We have a team of 60 plus people working under Shane Neville and his production staff. The scope is epic. I have been able to work with this incredibly talented team to craft a custom cast of characters for each campaign. We have been able to create a level of emotional drama that would not be seen in a smaller student game, like Cloud.

We are breaking new ground for the RTS genre. It’s a tip-toe dance to get the content right, but we are doing a great job. The best kind of art allows a Viewer/User/Player to look within themselves and find their own stories, connections with the emotions presented. For Opposing Fronts I’ve had to look into World War II and it’s causes, to find a new angle besides the one I had known and been taught. I grew up in Chicago in a very Jewish community; the message “Never Forget” is forever ingrained in my mind.

How do you make decisions about what goes and what stays, during the writing process?

SED: I read and visualize my writing. When it clicks, I know it. Like everything at Relic, we bounce ideas off each other. I ask people what they think, and hope to receive honest criticism. It’s a very team-oriented, collaborative environment. I work with an extremely talented team, and I value their opinions highly; from QA to GM. When reviewing material written by some of the additional writers I have managed, I do my best to listen to their opinions, and review the material in context of the overall narrative I seek to craft.

How do you make decisions about the violent themes coming up in a game like this? Concentration camps, for instance?

SED: We don’t give the player violent motives, or allow any representation of atrocities, war crimes, or Nazi Concentration Camps. I hardly think 3rd Gen RTS would be the place for handling such heavy issues. Maybe 4th Gen will. Opposing Fronts brings an “Apocalypse Now” flavor to the RTS genre. Sure we don’t have the Doors, Brando, or the emotional depth of a Coppola film, but we are telling a dark tale of men, blood, steel and fire; hell on earth. The story is the likes of which has not been seen in video games to date.

Are there company/publisher/producer mandates that also have to be taken into account?

SED: Yes. The biggest issue is the problem localizing this material to various territories where the hypersensitivity to the subject matter is especially poignant.

Can you give me an example of a specific localization issue you've had to deal with? How do you solve the problems of multiple points of view with such a sensitive topic?

SED: The hard thing is, we do the same material for all territories, in that, all material, be it for North America, or Germany, must be localized for the sensitivities of the global market. It’s a hard reality to deal with; some places have understandable issues with the content. As much as the artist in me wants to portray factual reality, I understand why certain perspectives prevent us from doing so. The Swastika for instance, that’s a no go, the German market wouldn’t allow it, hence it’s not in the game, and that means globally. It’s a big can of worms, for obvious reasons.

Do these day-to-day considerations conflict with what you learned in those classes about violence in games? How do you reconcile that?

SED: No, it doesn’t. I grew up playing games, and as we all know, real world violence is all too common. All people are susceptible to the woes of evil. Violence is part of being human; perhaps through these representations we can find its cause and carve the root out of society. Scorsese’s film “Mean Streets” is a great example of violence used to examine violence. I am doing my best to mature the medium, and I suppose the proof is in the pudding. When the game is available, please play and let your opinions be known. I like to think you may be rather surprised.

So you're hoping this game can help examine violence at a mature level?

SED: Yes. I’m hoping that the work I’m doing breathes more life into COH and the soldiers represented on the battlefield. I hope the player walks away with a window into the hearts and minds of the soldiers. The stories for both campaigns look deeply at the price of war. I am confident we are pushing the medium to new heights. You’ll have to finish both campaigns to see what I mean, and yes that is a big commitment.

Medal of Honor and similar games have recently been criticized as reinforcing an inaccurate view of historical wars. How are you handling this issue in your work?

SED: Our stories are different. We are telling fictitious soldier level stories. Though we do our best to base our work on historical fact, creative license is used as always. I find the talk of historical, or documentary, games very compelling. It’s an issue I’ve thought and blogged a good amount about. I’m not so sure that there is anything that could be called a “documentary game”.

That said, while playing MOH: Rising Sun with my WWII Vet Grandfather he said to me, during gameplay I might add, “Is that real footage? “; he is anything but senile. While we played through the missions he’d bark out facts. It was real enough for him. He was there. That means a lot to me.

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About the Author(s)

Wendy Despain


Wendy Despain is a multimedia writer who has worked primarily on television shows, although she has recently begun writing for and about videogames. Wendy started her career writing and doing editorial work for science magazines, with some technical writing and fiction on the side. Then she took a left turn into the Internet and started writing and designing Alternate Reality Games for television shows. For seven years she worked with major Hollywood distribution companies. Now she writes dialog and does narrative design for video games through International Hobo and occaisionally does science and video game journalism. Wendy is a key member of the IGDA's Game Writers Special Interest Group, and a contributing editor to the book Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, published by Charles River Media.

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