Former Helldivers 2 writer is astonished by the monster he helped create, as he describes how the game's approach to storytelling led to the community's showdown with Sony: 'We trained them to fight together. And then they fought together'

helldivers 2 operation swift disassembly
(Image credit: Arrowhead Game Studios)

When it comes to live-service storytelling, Helldivers 2 has pushed the concept into uncharted territory. Not only has it found a way to keep players constantly engaged without disappearing up its own lore-hole, its fiction is so effective that the story has spilled out into the real world. Earlier this month, when Sony tried to reinstate Playstation Network account linking for Steam users, the community united beneath the games' satirical banner of freedom and democracy to review-bomb it until the publisher changed its mind (which it did).

Now, former Helldiver's 2 writer Russ Nickel has gone on record to discuss how Helldivers 2's approach to storytelling led directly to this moment. Speaking to Inverse, Nickel described his amazement as the events surrounding the PSN controversy unfolded. "Just the last couple of days have been one of the most exciting parts of the experience for me. The whole community came together to say 'There are players in other countries who aren't going to be able to play the game. We're all going to stand up for each other and be this united front.'

"It's just like, 'Oh, we trained them to fight together. And then they fought together.' They were standing up for something good, which was their fellow players."

The interview delves deep into the methods and reference points used to build Helldivers 2's world, themes, and live-service storytelling structure. Regarding the game's satire, Nickel says the game's tone was "pulled from real life" as much as it was Verhoeven's film. "I kept trying to look at what's happening now. What are the actual problems in society. How can we start to fold those into the game and little tiny ways and pull them out?" This is something Arrowhead still considers for the game's 'Major Order' story beats "It's easy to tell a cool sci-fi story, but it's hard to make sure that story is constantly reflecting real-world problems in a satirical and important way."

(Image credit: Arrowhead Game Studios)

Nickel is reluctant to detail specific instances of this, as he believes writers should "let the audience find the inspiration and the parallels", but he points out that the original game was "very much inspired by the weapons of mass destruction, George W. Bush-era stuff. So I was looking to update that."

When it comes to the more nuts & bolts aspects of Helldivers 2's storytelling, Nickel is more open. For building worlds, Nickel says his "go-to person" is Brandon Sanderson. "I think he's a world-building master and that's why he's so successful. I've watched so many of his lectures on how to world-build."

As for Arrowhead's approach to the game's live service-story, Nickel cites D&D as the main touchstone for telling a story that ebbs and flows with its players. "It was built from the beginning to have the players involved and for us to react to what they do." Nickel also points out that he's a Dungeon Master himself, and this has been "so helpful" in his approach to game writing. "You build the sandbox with plans, but you have to be able to let go of those plans. I love how collaborative it is. It's so crazy to me right now there's a dungeon master who is playing a game with 10 million people, and they're all collaborating on a story."

Nickel makes a few other interesting points in the interview. He states that the live-service concept for Helldivers 2 emerged "about halfway through development" with the preceding years spent "just building the game to be playable." He also says that the (fictional) in-game advertisements and the voiceover work was "snuck in" as there "wasn't enough time for there to be oversight" with those elements.

You can read the full interview here. While the Helldivers 2 community did convince Sony to walk back its plans for PSN integration, the community's problems aren't over yet. Many players in regions without PSN availability are still unable to play the game, with three more countries added to Sony's blacklist over the weekend in what game director Johan Pilestedt referred to as an "administrative error correction".