The Narrative Design Exploratorium™: War-games Archives

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Haris OrkinThis is a new NDE series featuring interviews with Game Writers in the Trenches™.  The game industry is riddled with the unsung heroes of interactive storytelling.  As game developers are increasingly looking to create meaningful virtual narrative experiences, listening to the real-world wisdom of these writers can help everyone on the development pipeline understand their trials, tribulations, and needs, in hopes of enabling them to do their job as they know best. Today’s game writer is Haris Orkin.  His experience as writer runs the gamut of media types, with a most recent focus on games.  I’m hoping to see what we can learn from his knowledge and experience.

Stephen Erin Dinehart:  Haris thanks for taking the time to interview with the NDE. Your most recent project was Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, can you explain your role and duties?

Red Alert 3 Box ArtHaris Orkin: I was hired to work with the team on the story for the game and write the script for the live action cinematics.   The story was collaboration between Mical Pedriana, who functioned as the narrative designer, Jason Torres, the lead game designer, Mike Verdu, head of EALA, and me.   We wanted the tone and the concept to be a continuation of Red Alert 2, which came out about seven years ago.  Mical was the audio lead on RA2 and wrote all the unit responses. I was a big fan of that game and the Command and Conquer series in general.  So I knew the tone and the story and the characters and was thrilled to be included.   A bare bones outline of the basic story was already in place by the time I was brought on board.   But I suggested some changes, fleshed out the existing characters, came up with some new ones, and created the relationships and conflicts and many of the specifics.   I also wrote and/or rewrote what we call the “Talking Heads”; live action head shots of various characters that appear in game that help steer the player in the right direction vis-à-vis game play.  I helped Mical on unit responses and co-op commander responses and barks as well.

SED: Is that a full-time or contract position?

HO: Contract.

SED: Was there a significant change in the format of your solely the cinematics versus writing for an entire game as you did on Call of Juarez?

HO: I wrote the cinematics for RA3 with Final Draft, a screenplay program.    But all the unit responses and barks were written in Excel.   COJ was written entirely in Excel.   While RA3 has clearly delineated cut scenes (and the talking heads), COJ has fewer cut scenes and more scripted events, so you’re still within the game world.  (Much like Half Life 2.)  All the cut scenes used in COJ used Techland’s proprietary graphic engine, so it was easier to keep a feeling of seamlessness between the game play and the story.  We also told a lot of the story with artwork and audio monologues while the levels were loading.   RA3 uses the same story-telling mechanic that Command and Conquer series has always used.  I think it still works for an RTS game, since we’re cutting from live action scenes to a top down RTS view.   To cut from a live action scene with real actors to a first person view with CGI characters could be pretty jarring and possibly pull you out of the narrative.  RA3 does use CGI cut-scenes that show off the units and big story moments and I contributed ideas for those as well.

Hobby War-games I
like simulating war, at least, as a hobby. As a child I marveled at
Axis and Allies, and games like Risk.

Having started my computer strategy gaming on a Sega Genesis with Westwood’s Dune 2, working on a realistic computer war-game, or
a Real-Time Strategy Game (RTS), as it is more commonly called, became for me an item of particular interest.

In graduate school @ USC’s Interactive Media Division I had the pleasure of working with the Westwood team at EALA on The Battle for Middle Earth II. Not
long there after we even had a course under Professor Chris Swain which
focused on RTS game design. It was a blast, and really provided a
deeper insight into the process and history associated with the design
and production of the genre. By the time I got to writing and doing
narrative design with the
award winning team working on Company of Heroes it was the fulfillment
of a life long dream for me.

Working on the war-game franchise made me ask questions. Deeper
questions than I asked in grad school, about where my fascination began, and when this form, RTS,
came to be. The roots of RTS, are war-games. Even if the
setting has fantasy influences, the core combat systems of all RTS is
that of a war-game: Multiple Player Units, Resource Management,
Building, and Command level strategy.

In investigating the roots of
war-gaming in my family I found, to my surprise, that my family began
war-gaming as a result of involvement with the military in WWII and the
Korean War.  They played ‘war’ as students, soldiers, and officers, to
study military strategy. Asking my retired Air-Force officer of an
uncle, he mentioned it rising into a hobby status in the 1950s. Just
about the time Charles Roberts was getting started designing what would prove to be a ground breaking  game system.

Tactics IIHis 1954 game Tactics, and the follow-up Tactics II are generally credited as the first board war-game. Tactics pioneered many game mechanics which became standard in
the board wargame industry, including cardboard counters representing
individual military units with separate values for movement and combat;
the odds-ratio combat results table; and variable movement costs for entering squares (later hexes) containing different types of terrain.[1] Roberts knew the game had tremendous educational value. [2] It was serious, serious war-gaming. But I knew it had to go deeper, even those table-top games had to owe what
they are to the ideas of their predecessors. Where did it come from? My uncle was wasn’t sure.

TacticsWar-games are most
certainly serious in the current age, some of the best strategy game
makers alive work for Uncle Sam creating war simulations.  While at
first the notion may seem odd, the reality is war-games have become
tools for military training and

strategists.  Serious war-games are
teaching tools, practical for professionals in the field and students
of military strategy. With the models created by war-game systems the
military argues it saves lives.  Any training we can have in lessening
the taxes of war is most certainly a worthy endeavor. Game
makers have been driving for realism in war-games for a long time, even the original Tactics box claims “The Original Realistic Land Army Wargame”. At some point hobby games became tools of learning for
strategists. Where did this fascination come from, and where is the
line where hobby crosses into serious war-gaming? When did military individuals start expecting the
playing of strategic game systems, specifically war-games, to create
narratives which can be used in real life?  As
a narrative designer and game maker I can’t help but wonder.

 Putin, Bush, and Cheney play a War-game in the parlorAccording to The Department of Defense a war game is “a simulation, by
whatever means, of a military operation involving two or more opposing
forces, using rules, data, and procedures designed to depict an actual
or assumed real life situation.”[1]  It seems that Russia, the European Union and the United States of America, are in a very real war-game about the future of new Europe.  Grabbing “living-space” for Russia in Georgia must be a move made with a greater strategy.  Certainly it must be part of a larger campaign, but what is the goal? 

Not long ago, ‘total annihilation’ had the United States and the former USSR both engaged in war-games to determine the outcome of such a scenario should it escalate to “World War III”.  Thanks to war-game strategic studies by the likes of Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), only three outcomes where determined to be possible in the confrontation between the two powers: “1. Loss of Command and Control 2. Unleashing Tactical Nuclear Weapons 3. Gas or Biological Attack“. [2]

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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This page is a archive of recent articles in the War-games category.

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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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