Helldivers 2 came out guns-blazing, catching us all by surprise. While the first game was a low-key moderate success after launching on the PlayStation 3, its sequel has quickly become one of Sony’s biggest hits, one that will likely change the way PlayStation releases its games.

One of the main reasons for its success is its incredibly witty and timely writing. The believable and tactile world of Super Earth, and its fascist, imperial escapades across the galaxy is what has kept hundreds of thousands of players locked in months after its launch, with no signs of slowing down.

Much of that narrative charm can be credited to Russ Nickel, former lead writer for Helldivers 2. Because developer Arrowhead switched to the live service model halfway through making the game, Nickel got ample time to get creative. An obvious fan of popular works of satire in pop culture and literature, Nickel saw the subject matter of this game as an opportunity to pull players in the same way some of his favorite novels did when he was a kid.

“I loved a lot of dystopian stuff since I was a kid,” Nickel told Inverse. “Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and V for Vendetta, were all formative for me. Even the trashier stuff, like the film Equilibrium, all of those sci-fi dystopias that try to dissect how this dystopia came to be are very much a part of my DNA.”

Combining his childhood wonder with his love and appreciation for comedy and improv turned out to be a winning formula, one beyond his wildest imagination. In a short amount of time, Helldivers 2 has become a cultural phenomenon. The Helldivers 2 community has been truly unique, in that they’ve banded together to squash bugs, dismantle evil robots, and quite unexpectedly, rise up in real life against Sony.

“It’s just like, ‘Oh, we trained them to fight together. And then they fought together,’” Nickel said. “They were standing up or something good I think, which was their fellow players.”

We spoke with Nickel about the fun of working on Helldivers 2, whether generative AI can replace the work that he and other writers do, and the upcoming Fire Emblem-inspired tactics RPG he’s working on with some of the folks from Arrowhead that he says in some ways is a response to his hellacious commitment to making Helldivers 2 perfect.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Influences of Helldivers 2

Aside from the obvious ones, like Starship Troopers and Robocop, what were some unexpected inspirations for the writing and tone of Helldivers 2?

Russ Nickel: I pulled from real life because we had this awesome satire available to us. Being able to try and change the world in a way where people can start to realize the problems that happen and stand up to them like they did this past week.

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? That’s something that the writer, Stephen Flowers and I still talk about for the Major Orders. 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.

Any specific aspects of the real world?

Nickel: 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. As a writer I do believe that you should just put the work out there and then let the audience find the inspiration and the parallels and stuff. I was very much against a JK Rowling “Dumbledore was gay” kind of thing. Let the work stand and then people can digest the themes. I think it’s better when people come to it on their own.

Any works of fiction on that list of inspirations?

Nickel: For world-building, my 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.

You’re still in touch with the lead writer on Helldivers. What do you two talk about?

Nickel: One of the big ones is satire. Right now he’s the only writer on Helldivers 2, so he’s surrounded by people adding gameplay features and making sure the orders are exciting. He’ll bounce ideas off me about turning gameplay into something that comments on society or something funny.

The other thing we talk about a lot is player agency and trying to make sure that what the players do as a community actually matters, sort of in the way of a good dungeon master.

You mentioned Stephen Flowers, your co-writer on Helldivers 2 who’s still working on the game. Does he have the same sense of humor? Or do you feel like you have to transfer your sense of humor to him as the jokes aren’t quite the same and vice versa?

Nickel: We have very similar senses of humor. We were roommates and did improv together for a long time. So we have that ‘yes, and’ background. In games, I think there’s a lot of improv, being fast on your feet, being able to see what someone else does and ‘yes, and’ it and go forward from there.

How did improv or elements of it inform work on Helldivers 2?

Nickel: Yeah, Malevolen Creek. The players just made it up. I don’t think anyone was expecting Malevolen Creek to be a thing, and the game had to very much “yes, and” that. And we did talk about how to ‘Yes, and’ Malevolen Creek in a way that wasn’t the game communicating with Reddit. It was still an in-universe thing.

It wasn’t like, “oh everybody loves Malevolen Creek so here’s a fun Malevolen Creek thing.” It was, “this is a place of heroes, so we need to go memorialize it.” It’s about finding ways to see what the community is up to and “yes, and” it in a way that doesn’t break the immersion. Where it’s a little bit of a wink.

When you say that, I can’t help but think of Westworld, where every season got more and more convoluted because they were so busy reading Reddit threads. How do you maintain your author agency and what your vision for the game is while still taking player feedback into account?

Nickel: Where we get to succeed over Westworld convolutedness is the fact that it’s more like Dungeons and Dragons. It was built from the beginning to have the players involved and for us to react to what they do. I think also the fact that it’s not trying to tell specific stories, right? Westworld has character arcs that go from A to B. We get to be the sandbox. So in terms of agency, we haven’t lost any agency. We’ve just gained inspiration.

“Right now, I’ve seen good writing from AI, but only at the surface level.”

Some gaming companies are peddling AI with the hopes that generative AI will give them a living game. One that can interact with players immediately. Do you feel like AI can do this job for writers?

Nickel: The thing that I don’t know about AI is its ability to communicate themes. The satire, the fact that we’re trying to teach people important lessons about the modern world and what it is to be human. If AI generates text, will the themes actually be in there?

Is theme something that just happens accidentally underneath the surface, or is it something that has to be heavily thought out and written toward? Because that’s the thing that I think we’re constantly doing and pushing so hard for. If it can do that, then maybe. But right now, I’ve seen good writing from AI, but only at the surface level.

Building Narrative Around Players

How has D&D influenced how you think about game design?

Nickel: I’m a dungeon master, and I think being a DM has been so helpful for 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 that right now there’s a dungeon master who is playing a game with 10 million people, and they’re all collaborating on a story.

What are the origins of Helldivers 2 becoming this evolving role-playing experience, with players taking up the role of fascists?

Nickel: This feels like what live service was born to do. For a while, Arrowhead [Game Studios] didn’t know if the sequel was going to be a live-service title. But as we talked about it more, it was clear that this would make for such a cool live service experience, one where the story can change constantly so it really does feel alive.

At what point was it decided that Helldivers 2 would be a service game, and that the writing would be a major part of that service?

Nickel: It was about halfway through development. For a long time, they were just building the game to be playable. So that was the first focus.

When I joined, there was already a game that was fun to play. And then the back half of development was adding in the narrative and figuring out exactly what that playable prototype would become.

What do you make of players role-playing the fascism of Super Earth?

Nickel: It’s amazing. I hope most of them understand what we’re trying to say and don’t just see it from the surface level. 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.

What is your favorite bark (line of dialogue) you wrote for players?

Nickel: I think one of the ones that cracks me up is one of the ones that cracks everyone up: “Sweet liberty, my leg!” I just love all the ones where the voice actors are losing their minds and realizing they’re in real danger.

We talked so much about having evolving levels of voiceovers. So there’s no danger anywhere, then there’s danger, but we’re superheroes, and then there’s the “oh my god, we’re not superheroes. I’m in real pain, and this is scary.” All of those barks are at the top level of what cracks me up the most.

“Oh, we trained them to fight together. And then they fought together.” They were standing up for something good, which was their fellow players.”

Are there any weird things or easter eggs you were able to sneak into the game’s script?

Oh my gosh, so many. I feel like I snuck in all of the ads. We just made some in secret and we’re like, “Look at these ads” to the rest of the team. And then everyone was like, “Oh, those are great.”

I feel like with a lot of the voiceover work, there just wasn’t enough time for there to be oversight because the company was growing so fast. So pretty much all of the ship announcements, I don’t know if anyone ever saw those. Gosh, pretty much the whole thing feels snuck in, to be honest.

What’s Next

Since Helldivers 2’s release, you’ve spun off with some of your old colleagues to work on a new game. You have a background in screenwriting and other pieces of fiction. What made you want to stick with games?

Nickel: Games have a unique ability to impact people because of the level to which they can self-insert. For our upcoming game, it’s sort of the same thing where we want to not just create a game that’s fun, but create something that changes the people so that by the end they have a different worldview. It doesn’t have to be huge, but just a little bit of a shift.

I think that’s what all art is for. And I think games have the potential to do that more strongly than any other medium.

Can you talk about your next project?

Nickel: Yeah! We don’t have a publisher yet so no NDAs or anything like that.

We just decided to spin off into our own company and we’re making a tactics strategy RPG like Fire Emblem. But it’s very narrative-heavy, so Fire Emblem if it were published by Annapurna. So a deeply indie, emotionally poignant tactics game, that’s also of course very funny with character-based comedy.

The idea was the medium has to reflect the narrative and vice versa. Helldivers 2 does a really good job of that. But for a tactics game, what does that really entail? It’s so much thinking, so much moving the pieces to be this master chess player. I’m someone who has OCD that I’m very medicated for, so I’m like an extreme perfectionist, and I’m constantly fighting against my perfectionism.

So I thought a tactics game could be really cool because you’re constantly trying to do the exact right formulating with all your pieces. So just like a silly little example, in the game when you replay a battle you can’t just hit replay battle, because what does that even mean? Those people are already dead. That doesn’t make any sense. So what replaying a battle actually is, after the battle, it’s the main character just sitting at camp being like “Oh my God, what did I do wrong? I messed that up so bad, can I do better?” The whole thing is about perfectionism, OCD, and overthinking, and maybe learning that that’s not quite so good.

“…my upcoming game is actually a response to Helldivers and what I learned there.”

Just to be clear, there is no live service aspect to this upcoming project?

Nickel: It’s just six of us right now so we don’t have the capacity to be a living game.

Are you going to miss being able to update your game?

Nickel: I definitely will miss that feeling.

An aspect of live updates is trying to keep up with the player base. Were you able to manage your workload in a way that helped you avoid burnout?

No, I burned out hard. But it was my own fault. Again, that’s part of why I’m making this current game. I wanted Helldivers 2 to be so perfect that I absolutely destroyed myself. I abandoned my friendships, I pulled all-nighters. The company wasn’t asking me to do that, it was just I cared so much about making a good that totally consumed me. So I think my upcoming game is actually a response to Helldivers and what I learned there.

Speaking of Fire Emblem, is there going to be romance?

Nickel: I definitely want the game to be horny. [laughs] Everyone’s talking about that lately. Baldur’s Gate 3 was so incredible. The Hades 2 character art is insane. So yeah, I hope there will be romance.

Shannon Liao contributed reporting.

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