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

August 3, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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.

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