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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