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Company of Heroes Opposing Fronts ScreenplayThe play is a literary form that comes down to us from Ancient Greece intended for performance. Used as a production tool to create a perceived story space on stage, it consists of characters, dialog, action, and setting. It is a form that was adapted for motion pictures then called the “screenplay”. While not particularly different than its stage play ancestor, the screenplay is intended for use on linear theatrical productions such as film and television. I chose to adapt it to games for purposes of strengthening game story. While games have their design documentation, often a ‘bible’ of information or a presentation intended to communicate a cohesive vision, the screenplay acts as a method to create a common story vision among widely disparate development pipelines within game development, with the aim of creating a better user experience. While not a concept I claim to originate. It is a form that I have forged wholly on my own, with attention to what makes a game screenplay unique.

Part 1: Cinematics

Linear cinematic segments, while potentially
altered by the player, or selected in a meaningful non-linear fashion
via gameplay, are no different than traditional screenplays. As the
first screenplays did not veer too far from stage plays, with minimal
sets, and high caliber, sometimes over-the-top, characters. So to the
game screenplay is still akin to the screenplays of film. Example 1
(below) is from my first game screenplay for “Company of Heroes:
Opposing Fronts”.

Example 1: Game Screenplay Cinematic Sequences
Company of Heroes Opposing Fronts Cinematic Sequence

The Campaign Screenplays for COHOFThis is an overview of techniques I employed during the development of the award winning strategy game “Company of Heroes Opposing Fronts”. Publisher THQ’s first venture into narrative design, “Opposing Fronts” had to overcome interesting challenges and opportunities presented by storytelling in the Real Time Strategy game type and the COH franchise. This article will examine the writing techniques in the context of a mission based non-linear sandbox narrative bookended by a linear story. Writing for RTS tends
to be divided into system responses (MP) and storyline (SP). MP
speech consists of non-linear lines of speech which is associated with
structures and units. It is meant primarily for tactical communication
to the VUP, but
also as a means of creating narrative flavor. SP speech consists of all
campaign related speech, that is, linear scripted moments of dialog for
tutorial or story purposes.


Avalon Hill's

    In 1992 a game was released by a developer started by Louis Castle and Brett Sperry, then called “Westwood Studios” their game was titled “Dune II: the Battle for Arrakis.”  (see North American box art and gameplay video clip below) Taken from the epic styles of traditional war-games past like those of publisher Avalon Hill, specifically their game Dune. The game has up to six players, select a race, build a stronghold and attack your opponents for resources and power. The object of the game is to seize opponents strongholds. This is done with a player driven strategy of economics, military, religion, and treacherous diplomacy. The Dune video game had one primary difference. Rather than turn-based systems of the Avalon Hill games, the video game is meant to be occurring in “real-time”, that is, without turns. The core gameplay of Westwood’s Dune II involved picking a race, building a stronghold, and taking over opponents strongholds. The real-time elements centered around three major activities, building and upgrading units and strongholds, managing and gathering resources for military and industrial needs, and finally, combat with opponents and sand-worms.

Dune II the Battle for Arraksi US Box Art
    In a war-game the player is given vast agency, in the direction of armies on battle maps. In Dune II it was if H.G. Welles “Little Wars” had come to life for us not in the parlor but on the screen. This perspective is neither 3rd person, nor omnipotent, it is a multitude of perspectives, a strange space above men, but below gods. Without attachment to a central perspective the player is free to manage and direct a seemingly living war-game strategy system. Now called Real-Time Strategy Games (RTS) the video game type has been in constant evolution for the almost 20 years since it’s inception. Like the entire game industry itself, RTS has evolved from a graphics and cinematics standpoint, but RTS has seen a slow evolution in storytelling.

Litte Soldiers for Little Wars

    Let that not diminish the sheer genius of the collective iterative innovation of the RTS game type itself. Unlike other styles of videogames RTS puts the player in charge of an army of his/her own creation and sets them free in a virtual sandbox to play. Though “Dune II” did have one predecessor, a little known title called “Herzog Zwei” in which the player commanded individual units in an effort to destroy their opponent’s base. What is most interesting from a storytelling standpoint was the perspective, or seeming lack there of, the games seemed to have little to do with the stories of individual characters, they exist somewhere between 2nd person omnipotent and 3rd person and allowed the player to ‘command vast armies’. From it’s inception the stories for RTS where all seemingly war-based, even 1st generation RTS titles like Blizzard entetertainment’s groundbreaking 1994 fantasy game “Warcraft: Orcs and Humans” was nevertheless about war.

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Author Stephen E. Dinehart is a producer, designer, writer, and artist. You can find out more about him on his self-titled website.

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