At PAX East 2012, 2K's Spec Ops: The Line surprised me with the nuance and personality of its characters and world, elements that can be directly attributed to the designs of one Walt Williams. A stalwart at the publisher, he's worked on everything from the Family Guy game to Bioshock 2, though Spec Ops may just be his best yet.
Set in Dubai months after the desert metropolis has been engulfed by a sandstorm of Biblical proportions, it follows three soldiers tasked with rescuing a missing US soldier and any potential refugees they find. Obviously, things don't go as planned, but you'll be surprised at how personal the story gets.
Here's what Williams had to say about it all.
You're the lead writer, but what else did you do on the game?
In development on the game, everyone kind of does a little bit of everything, but I was also a level director, an audio director, a musical director—well, designer, helper. The term director makes it sound like I'm in charge of our whole department but I'm not. But character design, level design, art design, sound design, music design. Lots of design.
I feel like when you're working with video game writing, you have to be a part of everything. Not necessarily in a command capacity, but you are, in many ways, you have to control—or at least guide—the tone of the game. You hold it. And so if like a scene in a particular room needs a character to feel a certain emotion, and maybe the room is bright pink, you need to go to the art team and say, "Actually, we need this to be more of a sadder room. We need to get this certain tone across."
So you do a lot of back and forth, sort of making sure that all the gears are running in the same direction. But my main role outside certainly, definitely lead writer was level director, along with the creative director and lead designer Cory [Davis], who is also here [at PAX East]. You split things up. Games take a long time to make and a lot of work, so it's kind of an all-hands-on-deck sort of thing.
You mention tone—what kind of tone did you want to establish?
Tone, obviously, shifts. If you want a really effective game, you have to have your tone evolve throughout, and the characters and the world have to evolve to match that. I mean, the tone, if you were to say there is an overall tone, bleak is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but that makes the game sound like we're just trying to make you feel depressed, and the thing is, with Spec Ops, we're not trying to make you feel specific. With Spec Ops we've created an emotional space for the player to inhabit.
There're going to be things that the player's going to bring: their own morals, their own baggage, their own experiences into the game, and they're going to come against scenes and scenarios and choices and characters that are going to make them feel something, anything. And whatever they're feeling, it's going to be very personal to them, and we're really wanting the player to be asking themselves, "Why am I feeling this? Why am I acting this way, making these choices?" Ultimately at the end of the game, if the player feels anything, then to us that's kind of a success.
That said, it certainly it is a bleak tone to the game because we're trying to paint war in a more realistic fashion. War is not "Hollywood blockbuster big explosions I'm always the hero." War is a very traumatic thing for people on either side of a conflict. It's interesting with games, because games view war different than we view war in our day-to-day lives. In the real world, whether or not you support a war, we have an understanding of the horrors that war can cause. And up to this point in video games, we have been very, this is kind of superficial in the way we treat it. Not necessarily saying that other military shooters before this have been bad. Honestly, if people didn't enjoy them, they wouldn't do so well.
But we're not trying to be those games. We never set out to try to be a Call of Duty killer. We set out to make a war game that we wanted to play that doesn't exist. There was a part of war that games were just not addressing, and that's what we were really wanting to do with Spec Ops is add more to the genre, elevate the genre beyond what it has been right now.
After playing the game for about 45 minutes, I did notice that the game felt different from other war games.
That's absolutely what we were going for. Games are weird in that it seems to be the only medium where we have a tendency to fight ourselves, and I don't see it that way. Games, we really do build on the shoulders of each other. Spec Ops is a game that we could make because no one else had made it yet, and these other military shooters had done things that we could build upon in regards to how we see war visually; the type of games that we could make.
You also have the narrative aspects of it. You turn to games like Bioshock, which we're able to bring a deeper, more thought-provoking, philosophical type of narrative into a first-person type of game. We're all constantly working with each other rather—I don't know why we fight each other so much. You don't see horror movie fans getting in line and making fun of people who like to watch comedies. You don't see people who read e-books bashing people who read normal books. Video games just, I don't know why we do this.
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Gamers are naturally competitive.
Yeah, and I don't know why. Because we're all in this together. This is a fantastic, transcending medium. This is the only medium that isn't voyeuristic. The only one where we can actually get in the shoes of another person, to experience something we may not ever experience in our day-to-day life. And I think that can make us more emphatic, more sympathetic people. That doesn't mean purely entertainment is bad because, frankly, I could use as many Batman games from Rocksteady as they have in them, and I will play them until I die.
But we felt with war there was so much we weren't saying. So much that we weren't letting ourselves experience. I think we're afraid to feel bad, or we're afraid to think people will feel okay feeling bad when they play a game. But the fact is, as a people and in our cultures, we explore our emotions through our art. Like, movies, books, especially music; we spend so much money making ourselves feel sad or feel angry or feel happy because that's how we're able to safely feel emotions or these thoughts about ourselves without necessarily having it occur in our real life and experiences.
I think we're ready for that in games. I think it's time to move beyond simply "I'm the hero, I'm the cocky hero," or "I'm a little scared Japanese girl." There's so much more we can do emotionally with games, and I think people are waiting for that. That was a long answer to one question!
It was great though. Describe the overall premise—what is the deal with the sandstorm?
We didn't want Spec Ops to be a global conflict. To be totally honest, we're not making a statement about anything currently going on in the world or anything that's happened in the past 10 years. We're not trying to make a statement about any Middle Eastern conflicts. This is a personal story about people when they are in combat, when they are in war.
So one of the ways to get around doing that is deciding not to tell a global conflict story. You are not fighting another country. You're in another country, but the main enemy that you're facing here are American soldiers, working as a metaphor, for this is this is a personal tale. This is soldiers fighting soldiers, whether it be externally or inside themselves. What you have to do when you face an enemy that is someone you went to save, someone that under any other circumstances you would call a brother in arms. We had to make it more personal, so by taking it out of that global conflict and no wars or anything allowed us to be able to do that.
At the same time, setting it in the Middle East kind of keeps all that stuff in the back of your head. But it's not Baghdad. It's not Afghanistan. It's Dubai, it's a place that's totally peaceful as far as any kind of American action or really any military action at all.
The quick story overview of the game is that Dubai has been ravaged by these apocalyptic sandstorms. Coming out of Afghanistan—[Colonel] Konrad and the 33rd—Konrad volunteers the battalion instead of going home. He says, "We'll help with the evacuation. We're near. We can do this now." And as they are caravanning the last of the refugees out of the city, they're hit with a massive sandstorm that essentially leaves the world considering them dead. Those who survive it are able to escape back into the city and believe that there is no escape for them.
Six months later, the Department of Defense picks up kind of a torn up distress signal coming out of Dubai that sounds like Konrad. So, not knowing how long ago it was recorded and started broadcasting, they don't know if there's still people alive. They send in a three man team just to go in and look around, just to see what's going on. If there are people alive, they're meant to leave and call in a larger evacuation team.
This is who you play as: Captain Walker, with your squad Lieutenant Adams and Sergeant Lugo. But when they get in, they find out that not only are there people alive, these people are fighting each other. Dubai has gone into complete chaos and that the 33rd is in trouble. Their lives are in danger. So rather than leaving, Walker and his squad make the choice to go further in and try to find out what's happening, and most importantly, try to find John Konrad and figure out what's going on here and save him in particular. So that's where we start off at the beginning of the game.
I read (on a loading screen) that Konrad and Walker also have a history together?
They have a small history, yes. For Walker, this is a personal mission. Walker was in a mission in Kabul a few years back and, while there, had some interaction with Konrad and ultimately Konrad saved Walker's life. They weren't necessarily friends; this is not a father/son dynamic kind of a thing, but Walker feels that he owes this man a debt. So when it came time for someone to go see if he's alive, Walker in many ways wanted to pay that back by—if Konrad is alive—going in and saving him. Returning the favor.
So this becomes very personal for him, and in many ways Walker—again, it's about expectation versus reality. Walker sees Konrad one way, he sees this mission one way, and then he gets there and everything is different than his expectations, and he has to readjust himself. He has to try to face the reality, which he wasn't prepared for.
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So, why Dubai?
Well, Dubai is very interesting for a couple of reasons. One: it's almost, it's like a real-world video game level, when you think about it. I mean, it almost shouldn't exist. It's like a real-world Rapture. These men just said, "I will build something here where there should be nothing. I don't care if it's practical. I don't care if people are able to use it. I'm going to build it because I have the money and you can all whatever, I don't care." And that's very intriguing on a level, because in Spec Ops our Dubai has been completely retaken by the desert, and this kind of hubris of man is something that's a big theme in our game which is that goes down through all the levels, which is Konrad, who went in the Damned 33rd to help evacuate these people, and he's like, "These people need my help. I can help them." And he fails. He doesn't complete his mission. And him and the people are trapped in the city. He's like, "Well, I can bring order to this chaos. I can make these people safe." But in doing so, only brought more suffering to the people in the city.
And then you go down further and you have Walker, who comes in later. And he's supposed to look for survivors and leave, but he sees the 33rd, he sees that Konrad might be in trouble, and he says, "No, I can go in. I can make a difference here. I can find out what's happening, I can make a difference." And it's all just a mirror of this same kind of expectations versus reality. And it's really one of the things we want the player to be thinking about when they play this game, or at least at the end of the game. What are the expectations of who I am when I sit down to play a video game? How do I see myself? And then, at the end of the game, who am I actually?
Because we can inhabit the shoes of these characters, we can become these characters, but at the end of the day, we're still controlling their actions. When we pull the trigger on the controller, that's the only reason the character in the game pulls the trigger on that gun. It may not be real, but we're still choosing to fire that gun, to kill that person, whether they be a combatant, whether or not. But we still want players to think about that expectation of who they are and who they really are, and how it relates to the games that they play.
There are plenty of games that destroy those deeper questions and immersion by having enemies constantly taunt and threaten you but there was very little combat banter during what I played. Was that a conscious decision?
The thing is—and it really depends at what point of the game you're in—because we were trying to make the characters really evolve. As the squad and the player character—Walker, Adams, Lugo—get further and further into the game and they've done more things, they've seen more things, they go from being these very casual, fun soldiers who are friendly and think they're just on an easy mission, to each of them go on their own path. Walker gets more demanding as the commander, much more abrasive, doesn't care much about his squad's opinion. Adams kind of pulls into himself and becomes much more about rules and about being a soldier. And Lugo—he's at the beginning the most jovial of the three—really just kind of shuts off. Like goes inside himself completely, not really able to deal with the things that he's seeing.
And the same thing happens with the enemies. At the beginning, they can be more professional, more quiet. Towards the end, you've wiped out a lot of them. They're now scared of you. The way that they do talk when you do hear them is going to be a lot different at the beginning.
Also, I mean, you're in combat. You're in a big open area. Guns are firing everywhere. You're not going to hear everything. When you just have people constantly yelling, it's much more obvious that you're playing a game, and we wanted the player to be thinking less about hearing enemies just screaming at them and thinking more about the squad and where they are and what they're doing in that moment and hearing the tone and the shift and the change in the people around them, and connecting to their squad and feeling kind of lost in all of this.
In the second part of the demo, it jumped forward in time a bit, and I definitely noticed Lugo making a lot less jokes.
Yes, definitely. This is Lugo's first mission as a Delta operator. Adams and Walker have worked together for a while, and Adams recommended Lugo for this mission and it's a good one to cut your teeth on. Just get out there. And none of them—I talk about them like they're real people now, that's so weird. I feel strange. But they weren't expecting what was going to happen there. Lugo, because of all that, he comes across as very abrasive. He deals with stress through humor and being sarcastic, and when things get bad, it doesn't work for him anymore. He's trying to figure out how he's supposed to deal with all this. What's his place in the world?
And that's a big thing that we want to do with all the characters is give them some way—because we as people, we have our defense mechanisms. How do we get through the real dark times? You've got the character the Radio Man who wasn't even a soldier. He was a civilian journalist embedded with the 33rd when all this shit went down and now he's trapped in the city with everyone else. He's built up this makeshift broadcast system which can help send orders to the 33rd, it can warn people of incoming sandstorms, but also he broadcasts music over these things, and for him playing a song over the speakers, pretending to be a DJ for a little bit, he can close his eyes and for two-and-a-half minutes think that everything is fine and escape just the shit that's around them.
And the same goes for the refugees. You see this art and graffiti in the world. Like, this is their way of expressing this horror that they're in, of getting it out there, which we do in all sorts of circumstances. Art is one of the most communicative things we can do as a species when we find ourselves entrapped in things. Everyone has their way of escaping, and it comes out through the world in the way they interact with each other. And it's a very real kind of emotionally true experience when you look and think about why all the characters are doing what they're doing. It's really cool.
Head to page four for the final part of our interview!
What that you've written in the past do you think has influenced this the most?
Well I've worked on everything from Family Guy to the Bioshock franchise, XCOM, Mafia, Civ, pretty much everything in the 2K lineup at some point in time. Family Guy was my first game, seven long years ago, and I haven't brought that up ever since then, but it's kind of funny now when you say "Family Guy and Spec Ops, look how I've grown!"
I don't know that anything that I've written before has necessarily—I try that everything I write, my goal is if everything I write is better than the last thing I wrote, if I'm continuing to grow as a writer, then I feel like I've succeeded. I would say more personal life experience for this game in particular has been the most inspirational and of driving it forward. Every game has a long process. I know for me personally, living over in Germany for so many years, being far away from family and friends—not that I don't have friends on the dev team that are my best friends now—but life happens. Life doesn't just stop for the duration of the development time.
And when you're so far away from the city and in a country with a language that you don't really speak and you have this sense of isolation and not really knowing if the outcome of all your work is going to pay off, it's an incredibly, if you break it down, it's an incredibly personal story. And I think it's an incredibly personal story for anyone who's ever been in a long-term creative endeavor. You have to cut off from your life so much, and you don't know how it's going to pay off in the end, if it's going to work out. You don't know if you're going to be successful in your mission. You can only move forward and keep going.
You want to say that every game development was a good time. I think most of them are not. I think most of them are bad times. But at the end they were worthwhile times. You make something that you can stand beside and say, "Yeah, that was a really shitty however-many-years, but I can hold this. This is real. This is something I can stand proudly beside and say I was there when that was made. With all of these other guys, we came together and at one point in time we made this." You look back on all the pain and suffering that you got and had to go through to get there, and sometimes it was worth it, sometimes it's not.
With Spec Ops, absolutely worth it. I would go through it again. I say that now because it's over, but I think I would. I think I would go through it again.
Where does the subtitle "The Line" come in?
Oh gosh. "The Line" means a lot of different things, but I think it's the line between the man that you are and the soldier that you choose to be. It's the line between order and chaos; what you consider moral and what you consider necessary. I've said it a few times here: for me, I think it's the line between expectation and reality. Because that's really, I think, ultimately the largest theme in the game. Who do we think we are versus who we actually are? So the line is—it feels cheesy to say the line is whatever you need it to be, but it really is. There is ultimately, in life, there's one or another. The line is that gray area in the middle which really most of us tend to actually inhabit.
It's interesting, because most subtitles are like "Retribution" or "Revengeance" or "Execution." "The Line" is a writer's subtitle, for sure.
We joke about the sequel. Spec Ops: The Liner or The Lined or The Lineder—that's a horrible world. It's true, we wanted to go for something a bit more interesting. Something that makes you wonder, "What is this?" Because the thing is, with Spec Ops you see, "Okay, military, I got that. And we did. For a little bit, we want people to come in feeling, "I know this game. I know these characters. I understand where I'm at. I know the story here." And then the line is the part where we get to pull the line out from underneath you and they realize they actually don't know what's going on here and they don't know what we're going to do and what's going to happen next and that this is something they weren't prepared for. Expectation versus reality.
It's interesting. It's an interesting, admittedly, a bit experimental in trying to do something like that, because it's hard to sell a game when you want people to be a little confused in the beginning about what exactly it is. You don't just want to tell people, "Oh, it's just really messed up the whole way through. Buy it!" Because it's not the experience [we want them to have]. We want them to have an emotional journey. It's not just about making you feel bad, it's about making you think. It's difficult that way.