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?