No mortal man can sway the Fates from their editorial course. Endless debates about whom to talk to for a mythology issue rang through the halls, but the winds of fortune carried us endlessly toward one man: Stieg Hedlund, Design Director of Gods and Heroes at Perpetual Entertainment. His credits include the [/i]Diablo[/i] games, as well as StarCraft and an unreleased Lord of the Rings game, and then there’s his current project, which consists of gods and heroes in combination. Preliminary conversations with an unnamed source revealed, “Stieg has probably forgotten more about mythology than most people ever know.” And the course was set, as we are acutely aware of the consequences of defying Fate.
With his background in mind, I asked where he saw himself on the team, since Design Director is a rather vague title. “I guess I relate to guys like Stanley Kubrick,” he answered, “in that he’d grind lenses instead of being content to sit in the director’s chair. I’m from the old one-designer school and went on like that even after it became fairly unworkable.” He’s a very hands-on guy, he says. “I work directly in our tools and feel that I need to know how to do anything that anyone on my team can do. I’ll also intervene on any level I feel I need to, to get the right experience in the game; my team respects how hardcore I am, and I try not to step on too many toes.”
Asked about his reputation as a mythology guru, he quipped, “That’s hard to say specifically; you should just understand that I’m impossibly wise,” before getting more serious. “The books that I still own and have had from a very early age – as far back as I can remember – are D’Aulaire’s Norse Gods and Giants and The Monkey King. Sure, I had Dr. Seuss as well, but myth was where my head was at growing up. That never changed, and by high school, I was into some pretty esoteric stuff, especially since a good friend of mine’s mother was a Jungian analyst and got me interested in Joseph Campbell, among other aspects of Jungian psychology.”
While he didn’t have much to do with the story aspects of StarCraft and the first Diablo, he did work his background and love of history into Diablo II. “In the story for Diablo II, I made a lot of references to real-world things in any case, albeit on a symbolic level. I drew a lot of source material, from Sufism to the Albigensian Crusades. It’s both relatable as well as more meaningful. If you create something that’s entirely novel with no relationship to reality, it probably won’t resonate with people. There needs to be some level of the familiar with a twist.”
Gods and Heroes, then, is a logical progression, though it’s an “Inspired by … ” rather than a “Based on … ,” because “the worlds of history and myth are really very separate, except in the context of myth as justification. … Right away, our goal was to blend the two in a seamless way in our world, so that what the ancient Romans believed became real and present, instead of at some other place or time.” While they enjoyed using the myths and history, they did have one constant goal in mind, he says. “We were always very clear that our main goal was to entertain, and we’d bend the timeline or pantheon if we needed to achieve that.”
To rebuild Rome, they turned to the classics. “In the case of Gods and Heroes, I referenced The Aeneid and Metamorphoses pretty heavily. As far as the translations, my concern tends to be more for accuracy than anything else, and I’ll consult the original texts if I have any questions about that.” Since he’d mentioned Joseph Campbell earlier, I asked him for his thoughts, figuring Campbell was a mandatory stop for anyone dabbling in classical mythology. “I have tremendous respect for Joseph Campbell,” Hedlund said. “And his work is timeless. Some people have tried to reduce the hero’s journey into a formula; like the hero needs to meet his mentor here, and now he should be reconciled with the father. But I think like any other formula, this can end up being pretty empty. Campbell has discussed mythic themes in the context of great writers like Cummings, Mann and Joyce … but he isn’t offering a roadmap, just pointing out the ways these guys tapped into that material.
“Really, Campbell was just a cultural anthropologist who started to see similar themes cropping up across diverse groups and began to question the reasons behind that,” he continued. “18th century philologists did very much the same thing and developed the now widely accepted notion of Proto-Indo-European. Campbell could find no such socio-linguistic thread, and so was led to conclude that the materials of myth were inherent to the human experience; so long as the human experience is relevant, so is his work.”
While Campbell is a valuable resource, he shouldn’t be the only one. Hedlund says, “Additionally, I don’t think the world of comparative myth begins or ends with Campbell, and the broader study of anthropology and ethnography also interests me. I have a whole bookshelf at home, [and] while it contains nearly everything by Campbell, [it] is also full of Frazer, Levi-Strauss, Dumézil and Malinowski, among a great many others. [But] I really think I am where I am today because of Campbell. While it sounds a bit new-agey, his advice to ‘follow your bliss’ was meaningful to me when I was deciding what to do with myself, and games are certainly that for me.”
Getting into the wider appeal of mythology, he continues: “Myth resonates in a lot of successful works by people who have internalized it. Baz Luhrmann‘s Moulin Rouge is an awesome example. Christian is drawn into the Bohemian world by Toulouse-Lautrec and a narcoleptic Argentinean. Now, this is very entertaining and engaging on the surface level, but it also really works well on the symbolic, mythical level: The dwarf is small physically because his power is not of the physical world, and the narcoleptic spends more time in the subconscious world of dreams than he does in this one.”
One of the problems that materializes when working with 2,000-year-old myths is the contradictions and elaborations inevitable in the millennia of telling and retellings. I asked if Perpetual tried to focus or unify the narrative at all. “Yeah, there is a lot of really disjointed stuff in the myths, and even some direct contradictions.” He cited one example in particular, saying, “My favorite example is that Juno bore Vulcan by herself to get back at Jupiter for giving birth to Minerva alone, and Minerva was born when Jupiter developed a massive headache, so he called for Vulcan to chop his head open to relieve the pain.” Contradictions enough to give a designer a headache of his own.
“One of the things you need to take into account about the myths is that there are regional differences, as well as changes through time.” He mentioned the many different cults of each deity before continuing, “Every goddess is a goddess of fertility somewhere and at some time. The gods of Greco-Roman myth are additionally very ambivalent with their good and bad aspects.” His job was winnowing that all down, and also taking into account cultural considerations on this side of history. “People just expect the domains of each god to be clearly defined, as well as that whole crazy ‘good and evil’ thing.” Hearkening back to our earlier conversation, he said, “One of the reasons I referenced The Aeneid earlier is that Virgil unifies with The Illiad and, to a lesser extent, The Odyssey to make a continuous narrative of gods and mortals that runs right up to Imperial Rome. That’s why Virgil was Dante’s idol – he took a bunch of unconnected incidents and turned them into a single cohesive story of the mythical justification of the Roman State, and Dante tried to do the same thing for Christianity with his Divine Comedy.”
Building the character classes for the Roman world is no less challenging. “Essentially, we wanted to create character classes that people could understand on the level of an expectation of a certain type of gameplay and then make sure we pay off that expectation,” he began. “This sounds simple, but I think it’s important: I can’t tell you how many games I’ve played and had to restart repeatedly because I had to play the game for a while to figure out that the character wasn’t what I had every reason to think it was.” I sympathized here, being a member of the You Re-rolled Again? Club. He continued, “Although we’ve done a Roman spin on all of the character classes, tying their abilities closely to things from the source material, the Gladiator is easily the most uniquely Roman class. What’s great about the Gladiator is that everyone has an image of him.”
When it comes to getting the gods into the world, he says, “There are various ways that we do this. If Pluto is walking around in the world, then he becomes just another character. Instead, we wanted to keep the gods interesting, mysterious and otherworldly, and there were plenty of ways to do this that are suggested through the source material.” He mentions the numerous ways gods talk to mortals in classical mythology, such as “through their priests and oracles, through their attendants in the animal world as well as creatures of myth and through natural phenomena – flames, cloud, rain. Additionally, lesser gods appear in person sometimes, and there are plenty of those. Eventually, a player might see a god, but we want to make that a moment with a lot of impact when it does happen.”
I was curious about that source material he mentioned, asking him if the team buried themselves in the myths and legends of Rome, or if they just took what they knew and winged it. “We have piles of books and DVDs, as well as plenty of frequently-visited websites,” he says. While Stieg himself was the initial “font of knowledge for Roman culture, Greco-Roman myth and myth in general,” he soon found challengers for the title, though he retains a trump card. “I do continue to be the dead language expert of the bunch, however, since I’m not sure how many people in the world could write dialogue in Etruscan.” When they have to wing it, the team “often [makes] decisions based on the fact that our main goal is to entertain, and then go back to the myth, history or whatever, and try to marry what we’ve invented with something appropriate from these sources. Often, we’ll read or see things and say, that’s just cool and we need to use it; so there’s really a lot of back and forth between those two methods.”
The willingness to submerge himself in myth isn’t something mandated by Perpetual, he says. “I’ve always felt duty-bound to know the subject matter inside and out. But I think even more important than that is to understand people and the world. I’ve studied philosophy and psychology extensively, as well as pop culture, which I think is one of the most important ways of understanding people, as the ultimate context of the games as well. People sometimes think it’s weird that I’m as likely to quote NWA as Shakespeare, and it’s not by accident.”
One of the problems with building characters to be god-powered heroes seems to be, well, they’re god-powered heroes. I asked him how they compensated for the fact that their player characters are blessed by the gods. “That’s certainly the challenge of characters who are demigodly,” he answered, though he turns to mythology for an example of coping with that dilemma. “If there’s a snaky-haired gal whose gaze turns folks to stone, you need winged sandals and the cap of Pluto to deal with that. Typically, in the myths, there’s more of a one-to-one relationship between magical challenge and magical solution, and the gods either provide the solution or at least tell the hero where to go to get one. That’s what really changes – instead of Perseus nicely handing the sandals and cap back to Mercury when he’s done harvesting heads, in a game, he’s going to continue to use that stuff anytime he likes.” In planning for their demigodly players, they “needed to keep escalating the challenges: There are always larger and more powerful obstacles in your way. Looking at myth, we’re really looking at epics, the tales of Hercules and Jason, The Odyssey and The Aeneid in particular, as the source for this. So when Jason yokes the fire-breathing oxen by using an ointment, he still has to figure out how to defeat the Sparti, get past the Sirens and Talos, and so on.”
Moving from the people to the Roman culture itself, I figured it just wouldn’t be Rome without murder, poisonings, politicians and fiddling while the city burns. But I was curious, and asked how far they were going into the dark side of classical civilization. “I think those are the kinds of things that a lot of people expect in a game about Rome, so we brought as much of it in as we could. We’re shooting for a T rating, so obviously, we couldn’t go fully HBO or anything like that.” However, he cites the Rogue class from the game as the embodiment of the darker side of Rome, saying, “Now, sure, plenty of RPGs have a Rogue character, and we certainly named the character so that people could get an idea of what he is about, but this is one of those cases where we really spun the class based on our fiction and setting. Just looking at the lexicon of Latin, you’ll find a large number of ways to speak of thieves, bandits, assassins and other shady characters. I think this, together with various literary sources, paints a picture of Rome as a dangerous place. There is this marginal population that is unwilling to fit into Rome’s structure of laws, classes, taxes and order in general, and so they live outside of the accepted society, but [are] still very real and present in the culture.”
Adapting that culture could be tricky, especially as most players would be unwilling to learn Latin to play a videogame. Fortunately, “My basic take on adapting Roman culture to the videogame setting is that it’s important to not have any pain involved for the player,” he says when I raise the issue. “We as the game developers will take the pain: We’ll learn Latin, we’ll read Roman cookbooks, we’ll study classic architecture, and then we’ll take all of that stuff and marshal it into an experience of pure entertainment.” No learning of dead languages will be involved, but “you can sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor, which come in the form of a consistent and highly detailed world that’s flavored by all the research we’ve done. There are a lot of things in the world that people will recognize – that’s one of the great things about the subject matter: Everyone knows something about it. And we will include things that bare out of our time frame because they are so iconic. The Flavian Amphitheater (better known as the Colosseum) is a good example: Our timeframe is well before this structure was built, but it’s so emblematic of Rome and so cool that we’ve included it anyway.”
The physical world of Roman-era Italy has gotten similar treatment. “There’s certainly a lot to explore,” he says, though it’s not quite Google Maps-accurate. “Our world map is pretty far from a satellite picture of modern Italy. Instead, we present the world as the Romans would’ve recognized it: If you go a few miles, differences in terrain, architecture, and color palettes are exaggerated to reflect how close to home people would remain throughout their lives in those times, and how different things would seem to them if they left their homelands.” Continuing the “Inspired by … ” theme, he adds, “There are certainly locations that are based on historical places, but they are not linked in a ‘real world’ way, and the [way] places themselves are presented is similarly fantastic.”
Drawing the line of when to go historical and when to go legendary proved “difficult at first,” he acknowledges, but “we had the general sense that we wanted the actual city of Rome to be fairly historical, since its glory comes not from being mythical, but the reality of this magnificent metropolis. And then, the lands farther away from the city would be increasingly given over to the creatures of myth. This also made sense to us as matching the world view of the ancients – far away from home, strange things exist.”
While there is a lot of material to work with in Roman history and myth, there’s so much material that I wondered if it was a hindrance. While the Romans had a god for everything – making it easy to figure out who is in charge of what – they also had a god for everything, which I assumed would make it difficult to flex creative muscles. Stieg responded, “I think it’s essentially similar to other creative endeavors: I think the ‘nothing new under the sun’ saying is true, so really creating comes down to the choices you make about which material you include or don’t include, and how well you frame and present it and use it to get across your own stories and ideas. The great thing about our source material,” he said, “is if you’re going to borrow from something, this is some pretty nice stuff to borrow from.”
In 1972, Shannon Drake was sent to prison by a military court for a crime he didn’t commit. He promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, he survives as a soldier of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire Shannon Drake.
Perpetual Entertainment is a client of TAP Interactive, a division of Themis Group.