Considering how competition is such a big part of video games, it’s hardly surprising that there are rivalries between different games as well. But few rivalries are as feisty as the one between Battlefield and Call of Duty. Unless, of course, you’re writer Jesse Stern, who co-wrote 2007’s Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and 2009’s Modern Warfare 2 but most recently worked on Battlefield 4. While some might see this as a betrayal or as revenge — especially since he’s also helping the ex-C.O.D. people at Respawn with their upcoming game, Titanfall — Stern actually doesn’t see it that way.
You previously co-wrote Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2, but after the main people at Infinity Ward who made those games were fired, you decided not to write Modern Warfare 3. And now you’re co-writing Battlefield 4. How did that come about?
I had just left NCIS [where Stern was a writer and co-executive producer] and was actively looking for video game gigs. The first thing that happened was that I had a conversation with David Cage [from Quantic Dream] about writing some stuff for Beyond: Two Souls. But while that didn’t work out, it did get me excited about the idea of leaving the country to work on a video game.
Around that same time, a couple of the guys from DICE [who make the Battlefield games] ran into Jason West [Lead Game Director on Modern Warfare and Director of Modern Warfare 2]. They wanted something that was more linear for Battlefield 4, something more cinematic, and they asked Jason how they had done it with the Modern Warfare games. Jason’s always very nice to me, and always gives me more credit than I deserve, so he told them everything they had done, and then said, “And we had Jesse.” To which the DICE guys said, “Who the hell is Jesse?”
So I went and met with Tom Keegan at DICE, who directs all the performance capture stuff and voice acting, as well as one of the writers from Battlefield 3, and they told me what they were looking for. But then they said that there was one caveat: I’d have to go to Sweden.
Yeah. I was like, “Was that meant to be a deterrent?”
So I went over there for a week to see what they wanted to do and to get to know those guys. They were right at the beginning, they were still trying to figure out what the game was going to be, so it was a real opportunity to carve it out from scratch.
Did it ever come up, either in your head or in your talks with DICE, that you had worked on Call Of Duty and were now going to work for the enemy?
I don’t know. I don’t consider myself that much of a lynchpin of either series. I think they do exceptionally well without me.
The thing that got me past that was that, when I went to DICE’s offices, they had this wall of press clippings, and they had my picture on it. It was kind of startling. It was some interview I had done after leaving Modern Warfare and was asked if I would play Modern Warfare 3, and I said I would not, which was true.
Yeah, that was the interview I did with you for Electronic Gaming Monthly.
They had that on their wall. They thought it was funny. So I guess they thought they could trust me.
Was there every any hesitation on your part because you thought you might get sued by Activision?
For what? It never really occurred to me. When all my friends were being sued and were countersuing Activision, I was never involved. I was never deposed, I was never contacted.
When you told the Respawn guys that you had taken the Battlefield 4 gig, did they get a good chuckle out of it?
Y’know, I wasn’t aware that I had gotten the job because of Jason’s recommendation. So I was kind of nervous about telling them, especially since I had been talking to those guys about working on Titanfall. But when I did, Jason was like, “Yeah, I got you that job!” Oh, okay, I was worried for nothing.
In a general sense, is the work you did on Battlefield 4 analogous to what you did on the Modern Warfare games, where you helped them craft the story they already had in their heads?
That was the case with Modern Warfare. On Modern Warfare 2, I was more involved from the beginning. But with Battlefield 4, I think the guys at DICE thought I knew how to do a lot more than I really do. I think my resume implies that I knew how to take this thing from start to finish. So they entrusted me with a lot of responsibility in shaping it, and I ended up doing more on Battlefield 4 than I had on the Modern Warfare games.
At the time all that crap went down with the original Modern Warfare team, you guys, individually, had started to think about what the story for Modern Warfare 3 might be. Did you used any of those elements in Battlefield 4?
No, not at all. We started with scratch. Though because I was not a student of Battlefield up to that point, and I was concerned about being faithful to their universe, I went and played Bad Company and Battlefield 3. But then, their feeling was that Battlefield 4 wasn’t going to be a direct sequel to Battlefield 3 anyway.
Well, the Battlefield games are definitely known more for multiplayer than their campaigns. The single-player mode in Battlefield 3, for instance, wasn’t great.
I think it had great moments, and had some great feelings. My main problem with it was that it was a flashback within a flashback. And from a narrative point of view, I never knew what the present tense of the story was. Particularly in a video game, you always want to feel like you’re in the present tense. Like the moment you’re in is the most important moment…at that moment. Until the next moment. But playing Battlefield 3, I feel like I was playing moments that would take me back to the moment when the story was actually taking place.
So I understood when they said they wanted to make the story in Battlefield 4 more linear, because that’s what I wanted do, too.
You did not play Modern Warfare 3. But do you happen to know if they used any of the story elements that you guys had been thinking of using before all of the…unpleasantness?
I’d be shocked if they had. I heard they killed Soap. Ah, makes me sad.
What about Black Ops II?
Oh, I played Black Ops II. I told you before, I get addicted, so I try to stay away when I can. But Black Ops II stole about twenty-eight days. It hurt me pretty bad.
Does that mean you won’t play the new one, Call Of Duty: Ghosts?
Yeah, but not for any emotional reasons. I’m just really busy right now.
So if it was being made by Treyarch instead of Infinity Ward, you still wouldn’t play it?
No, I’m trying not to play anything right now. After the hole I fell deep into with Black Ops II, I’m trying to take a break. I can ether write or I can play video games. I find it’s hard to do both at the same time.
One of the differences, I think, between the Call Of Duty games made by Infinity Ward, especially the ones that were made by your Respawn pals, and the ones by Treyarch, is that the Infinity Ward ones tell better stories, but Treyarch guys are better at telling their stories. And part of the reason for that, I think, is that the Infinity Ward guys don’t want there to be cut scenes, they just want action, action, action. As a result, the story sometimes gets lost. In working on Battlefield 4, were you able to not just craft the story they wanted to tell but also how they tell it?
I agreed with that philosophy about single player campaign at Infinity Ward. I don’t like cut scenes, either. I think it goes to the tempo you like to play at, do you want to start and stop? And when I play single player, I don’t ever want to be more than, I don’t know, a few seconds away from shooting somebody. I know a lot of people like games where you sneak around and play stealthy, games like Metal Gear Solid, or games where it’s more emotional and you’re making choices, like Heavy Rain. But I just want to turn the machine on and be going very quickly. You remember starting Super Mario Bros.? You were running, jumping, and shooting fireball in like fifteen seconds. That’s about my level of patience.
So when we were making the Modern Warfare games, and it came to telling an emotional and intricate narrative within that, we would find ways. Slow-mo was a big one. When you get Price out of the gulag, it goes into slo-mo…but you’re still interacting. I never want to stop people from interacting.
With Battlefield, the thing that they do that I love is the banter and the camaraderie. Like in Bad Company 2, where you hear the guys talking and messing around with each other. I was hard pressed to figure out how we’d get that feeling without stopping you from playing. So one of the things we looked for was, if we were going into scripted sequences, where things are going to take place, things that advance the narrative, we want the player to feel engaged. So they would initiate those sequences, whether consciously or unconsciously, and thus you would never feel like the control was taken out of your hands and there was a level of tension that keeps you engaged.
That reminds me of the first Terminator movie, the scene where Reese explains everything to Sarah Conner in the middle of a car chase. Usually, exposition in action movies bring the action to a standstill, but in that movie it was, “I’m going to explain why you’re being shot at, while you’re being shot at.”
Yeah, Die Hard did the same thing. Those are two of my favorite movies.
Do you play either game? Do you have a preference?
I play both, but I’m more into Call Of Duty because I’m more into single-player than multiplayer.
Oh. So this will be interesting. The single player that we made is pretty sweet. We tried some things, man, we really did try some things. The mission on the ship, when I saw that, that was the one that did it for me.
In the years since you worked on the first Modern Warfare, have you been approached to write other games?
Oh yeah. I should check about what NDAs I signed because I signed a lot of them. Because I’ve worked on things for a month, two months, three months, and it hasn’t felt right or the deal didn’t work out so I walked away, but I’m not sure what I can and can’t say about them.
At the same time I started Battlefield, I was hanging out at Respawn, talking about helping them get Titanfall off the ground, and did about a month and a half of just story work, trying to come up with the world they were building. At the same time, I was working with another company on a game that would’ve been this intricate, long-term project that I ultimately couldn’t commit to, it was too much time.
And then there were a bunch of tie-in games, where they wanted me to do dialog or final polish on something, but I don’t want to do those kinds of things.
Speaking of which, around the time you were working on NCIS is when they were making the NCIS video game.
Yeah, they came to me. And I directed them to someone who had more time to help them out. There’s limitations to tie-in games, there’s massive creative limitations. And I’ve been spoiled: I’ve worked on Modern Warfare, I’ve worked on Battlefield, and I’ve worked on Titanfall. Triple-A level games.
But I would think, as someone who was working on the show at the time, that you’d want to make sure the tie-in game was good.
If I thought there was any possible to make that game good, I would’ve done it.
Now, as you mentioned, you’re also working on Titanfall. But my understanding is that Titanfall doesn’t have a story mode.
There’s no single-player mode, yeah. But I’m not allowed to talk about it just yet. It’s still early.
So aside from Battlefield 4 and Titanfall, what else are you working on?
I sold a half-hour pilot to NBC, so I’m writing that, and I sold an hour-long drama to CBS, and I’m writing that.
What happens if they both get picked up?
God bless you. What are the chances?
I don’t know.
I don’t know either. But, at this point, they’re both just outlines. But by Thanksgiving they’ll both be scripts, and by the end of the year I’ll find out if either of them will be shot.
Part of why I took all the video game jobs is that I was fascinated by the world of video games. I was fascinated by all the creative people involved. I wanted to write a show about it, one set in the video game world with all these insane lunatics who are capable of creating these incredibly realistic worlds, but they rarely leave their offices. So I wanted to see what was unique about my experience with Infinity Ward, and what was universal.
And then you see a show like Dads….
Yeah…. But that show isn’t about a video game company, it’s about those guys and their fathers.
But why does it have to be set at a video game company that’s completely bogus? Of all the complaints levied against that show, I haven’t heard anyone make that one. Except me. Where’s the interesting, fun side of it? There’s certain level of creative weirdness that goes on at a video game offices all the time. Where else are you going to see someone walking around an office with a gun and a camera?