At first glance, 2K Game’s upcoming war odyssey Spec Ops: The Line looks like what you’d expect from a third-person military shooter, marked by desperation, betrayal, dark humor, and loads of guns. But there’s something hidden beneath the mountains of sand; something insidious bubbling within.
As Spec Ops unravels, players will be faced with choice, change and, as Lead Writer Walt Williams hopes, regret. We sat down with Williams at PAX East and discussed Nazis, what it means to be a game’s protagonist and bringing change to an exhausted military shooter genre.
GN: Walt, thanks for your time. 2K wants to make Spec Ops about the darker side of war and to experiment with the psychological rather than just another shooter. What’s your approach to that?
WW: We wanted to make a more personal story. When you get other military shooters, they’re about these big global conflicts. Sometimes you’ve got made up nations, made up terrorist organizations. It’s all about tapping in and making you think about the wars going on right now. We weren’t looking to do that. We wanted to tell a story that’s about the soldiers, that was more the personal horrors and turmoil of actually being in combat.
We were looking at it like war movies in the ’70s and ’80s. They went from being John Wayne punching Nazis to Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Apocalypse Now. And with games, we felt we were still stuck in that black and white, good-guy-versus-bad-guy entertainment. We wanted to do to war games what these films had done to war movies. Obviously, Apocalypse Now and [Joseph Conrad's novel] Heart of Darkness were big inspirations when we were beginning the story.
But rather than it be about the Kurtz character [from Apocalypse Now] and finding out about him, Spec Ops has always been about the soldiers you play as – Capt. Walker and his squad, Lt. Adams and Sgt. Lugo.
I’ve always seen the theme as being about what happens to good men when you put them into an increasingly bad situation. What are you willing to sacrifice to complete a mission or save people, or even yourself?
GN: The aesthetic of this game is a lot more colorful and alive than we see in the military shooter landscape today. Why’d you take that route? What made you want to do that with this game?
WW: From an artistic standpoint, we had gotten pretty bored of what was out there. When started this game, we said, “What’s the game we want to play but can’t because no one’s made it yet?” Military shooters had fallen into this category of being so similar. They weren’t vibrant. They weren’t narrative. They were none of these things.
Also, the game is set in Dubai. And Dubai is a fantastical location. Even though we buried it under sand, it doesn’t take the color and the liveliness and the soul out of the city. If anything, it only heightens those colors. It gives them that contrast next to what you’ve seen before. We want players to feel like they’re somewhat in a familiar location. Dubai has that familiarity of being almost like New York meets Disney World meets Vegas. But at the same time, when you put in the Middle East and the desert, you do have the familiarity of the sand and you have these other things in the back of your head. The gamer comes in feeling like they know this place, they know this game; they might know this story. Once they let that guard down, we can pull the rug out from underneath them. We can show them that they don’t know what’s going to happen. We can surprise them and give them a more emotional response.
GN: It’s kind of like a crescendo; it starts out with what you might expect and things then start to deteriorate. With the writing, what have you done to convey that?
WW: The characters. The characters evolve throughout the whole story to make a player feel like they’re on the same journey as them. These characters have to feel real, your squadmates in particular. They can’t just feel like tools with audio files attached to them. They’re not just someone to give orders to that will do whatever you want. They are real people. They have their own feelings about what’s going on. They have their own reactions to what you’re doing, to what Walker is doing. And they’re going to change in their own ways. They view the world in a different way than you. By the end of it, they are very different characters than who they were at the beginning. And they don’t feel particularly kind toward you either. You’re not so much a squad by the end as you are just three men still together because it might be your best chance of survival.
By having the characters that are with you evolve throughout the course of the combat, throughout the course of the game… we have these executions at the beginning. When you execute someone, it’s very quick. It’s brutal because it’s a more physical way of killing, but it’s more to the point, almost out of mercy sometimes. Towards the end, where [your squad has] built up all this anger and resentment, they’re just beat down and primal. They may shoot a guy in leg, in the knee or in the stomach before they shoot him in the head. They may knock out his teeth with the barrel of their gun. They are expressing their anger through their body language and action and also how they talk. Lugo at the beginning is very jokey and funny. They’re having a good time. By the end, they’re barely calling each other by their names.
GN: You pull in some influences from older games. For instance, Konrad is a character in the game as an homage. Do you think this type of gameplay can be transitioned into shooters?
WW: Absolutely. We limited ourselves as an industry into how we think certain types of gameplay can be used. A shooter can be very emotionally affecting when you think about the actual visceral aspect of shooting. You’re not playing on a Super Nintendo anymore. You’re not hitting “A”. You’re pulling a trigger. When you pull a trigger, your character is pulling a trigger and at the end of that gun someone’s dying.
One of the things we wanted to do with Spec Ops was make you think about the connections of what you are doing to your character. You may never in real life consider firing a gun, let alone firing in anger at another person. But we’ve allowed pulling that trigger on a controller to be unaffecting to us. We’ve allowed seeing it as nothing but pure entertainment. We haven’t let ourselves think about what’s going on. We haven’t let these kind of games deal with a story and narrative scenarios that force us into looking at the actual, whether real or not, consequences of our actions.
There’s a tone, a mindset, in games that says you have an audience for games that just want to play the games. They don’t care about the story. This is a mindset we’ve made up. People are smarter than we give them credit for. Gamers are more open to new experiences. [I'm] not saying every game has to be this way. That’s the thing is that some days you want peanut butter and jelly, some days you want steak. It’s the same with games. Some days you want to play something that’s just mindless action, some days you want to sit down and actually feel like you’re invested in the story. And I think that’s with any genre.
GN: There’s an argument in this industry that gamers are tired of saving the world. They want something more grounded, more focused. Why did you want to make it like this?
WW: With games, we need get stories that are on a smaller level. Let’s be honest, none of us are going to save the world, not in our day-to-day lives. You want the epic, but every now and then you want something that will speak to you a bit more. With Spec Ops, it’s an extremely personal story. This might be the most personal work I’ve ever written.
Obviously, I’ve never been in combat or a war torn Dubai, covered in sand. But if you look at the themes and the emotions that are in the game, you can see how they correlate to our day-to-day lives. One of the big themes is expectation versus reality. Who do we see ourselves as? Who are we really? And in particular, in games, how do we see ourselves when we sit down to play a game and who are we at the end of it? We may like to think we’re Nathan Drake, but we’re not. Nathan Drake is a puppet that exists solely for us to control him. What does it say about us that we choose to inhabit this character? What does it say about how we choose to play that character?
Not every game, obviously. Uncharted I was just pulling out of a hat. With Uncharted, you don’t have these moral choices. But with Spec Ops, you have these bigger moral moments where [the player] has to make choices. And he may not even know he’s in a choice. He may not realize until after he’s acted and now he’s facing his consequences. These choices don’t have “A” or “B”, good or bad. They’re not calculating up to an ending. You’re not going to get a better gun or faction points. You’re going to do something. Something is going to happen and you’re going to have to live with it. And that’s it. Because that’s how the real world works.
GN: When you say choices, is it like Mass Effect?
WW: They grow out of the narrative. They use the gameplay mechanics. There’s one choice in particular where you’re presented with two people, one to kill. You’re told what they did and someone wants you to judge them. They’re hanging in front of you by their wrists on rope. You’re told kill one or the other. That’s what the characters in the world are telling your character, Walker. But there are eight choices you can do because the question we’re asking the player is different than what we’re asking the character. The question we’re asking the player is: Are you the type of person that’s going to do what a video game tells you to do or are you going to do you’re comfortable with? Are you going to do what you want to do?
We’re not going to tell you all the things you can do. We want you to think outside the box and say “Well I don’t want to kill one of these guys, can I do this?” And then try it. Do it.
As gamers we’ve been trained to look at a choice and go, “What do they want me to do? What’s the option that gives me the best ending?” We’re not doing that in Spec Ops. We want the choices to be emotional. We want people to have regret if they choose one way or the other because that’s how the real world works. We have this tendency to feel like, in a video game, “Well, I’m the hero. I wanted to do the good thing. It should work out that I’m the hero.” Tough shit, man. That’s not real life and that’s not Spec Ops. Not saying all games should be that way. But that’s not this one. This is one to make you think about what you’re doing, think about the consequences of your actions.
Spec Ops: The Line releases June 26, 2012 on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.