Spec Ops: The Line was one of our favorite games at PAX East back in April, and we even got a chance to get away from all the hustle and bustle and have a lengthy chat about the game's story with its lead writer, Walt Williams.
After playing the game for almost an hour and speaking with Williams, it was abundantly clear that The Line is not your typical war game. It's set in Dubai six months after a massive sandstorm, and three US soldiers (Walker, Lugo, Adams) are sent into the ruins to evacuate a soldier named John Konrad, who it turns out doesn't exactly need extraction.
Riffing off of Joseph Konrad's novel Heart of Darkness (or if you prefer, the Vietnam film inspired by it, Apocalypse Now), Spec Ops: The Line is going to ask a lot of players, and it's not going to give them much hope in return.
That's exactly what we talked about in this new interview with the game's senior producer, Denby Grace.
Complex: Tell me about the choices players will be making in Spec Ops: The Line.
Denby Grace: Ultimately the big push is on you as the player in sort of creating an emotional moment that maybe tweaks you in some way. So allowing you to sort of make a choice—or pushing you to make a choice actually is better—none of the key moments that we have in the game are actually nice moments. They're kind of choosing between something that's bad or something that's probably worse. The easiest way is probably for me to give you a couple of examples.
One of the examples that you encounter at one moment is you're walking down this sort of destroyed freeway and there's these two guys hanging from an overpass or signage. They're hung, basically, from their hands. So they're strung up, they're alive, and Konrad, over the voiceover radio says, "Hey, Walker, you have to choose who lives and who dies in this moment."
The guy on the right, he stole water, which basically under the martial law in Dubai at this moment in time is a crime. It's a big, really heinous crime because water is really, really scarce. The guy on the left is a soldier from the 33rd, and he was actually sent to reprimand this guy. Now this soldier turned up and murdered this guy's entire family.
The way Konrad frames it is he's like, "Look, I'm forced to make these sorts of choices every day." This is like, you're in. It's sort of like this situation is not nice, it's not good, but you have to choose one guy. Who lives? Who dies? There's like four different outcomes from this moment. You can shoot one guy, you can shoot the other guy, you can shoot both guys. Or you can take—on the sides of the freeway are a bunch of snipers basically. So you're made to—the snipers are targeting the guys that are hung as well. So you're told to make a choice.
It's a really hard situation, but ultimately it's winnable.
Is it always obvious which is the best choice?
The really really huge goal that we had was we didn't want these to feel gamey in any way, shape or form, so you get the +5 Respect or anything like that. It just purely is an emotional thing, and a sort of small narrative. And the other thing that we really wanted was when you have these things in front of you there's no clear binary yes/no answer. Just so I'm not riffing on someone else's game, I'll choose Bioshock because it's one of our games. In Bioshock it was like harvest or don't harvest the Little Sister, right?
And that was a really binary experience. So we create these moments where maybe you only have two choices, but it's really like we're playing with the mechanics of the game, you know? You're given a gun and shoot them.
Another example that we have later on in the game is there's a guy trapped under a burning truck. You've been in this massive crash, and you come out and you find this magnum on the floor. This magnum's got one bullet in it. He's like begging you to put him out of his misery. And you can do that, and obviously there's—I won't announce this quite yet—there's a narrative thing that comes into this. These guys really fucked you over in some different way. So narratively you're like yeah, I want to kill this guy, but at the same time, surely it'd be more painful to let him just burn to death. And also then I could use the bullet.
We're expecting to see a big "A/B" UI come up on the screen and like, "Harvest this guy, receive 1,000 gold!" You're expecting these gamey moments. And then it doesn't. It doesn't pan out like that. You're just like alright, I have a gun in my hand, and I have the mechanics that I've been playing the game with for the last three hours, is someone going to tell me what to do here maybe? And it's really, it's a little bit unnerving. But then it really connects you and it really leaves you in the moment. And that was the really key thing that we really wanted to do, was really not remove that sort of immersive moment, and really let you sort of feel you are Walker making this decision.
Have you tried to emphasize the emotional impact of having to kill people?
Absolutely, yeah, absolutely. There's a moment in the game early on where you realize your squad sort of questions the fact that you are fighting US versus US soldiers. You come across these guys and they're like, you shoot at them because they shoot at you. The natural response is to defend yourself and shoot at them. But then straight after this combat sequence is finished your squad are like "What—what the hell's going on? These are US guys, why are they attacking us?"
Our story really is, as much as it's Walker's journey, it's about how war and the impact of these decisions that you're making and the impact of killing all these people and—who is right, who is good and who is bad ultimately in this situation? The story and the way it's set up is obviously Konrad's guys have gone off the map, and they're operating outside of the command of the US Army, but you're sent in to kind of rescue them. That's set up. And then all of a sudden you're killing them. But you're defending yourself.
And we play with how this sort of stresses the relationship between the squad. And then it culminates quite nicely again toward the end as things start retching up a bit more and you uncover more of the story and we do really play with that Heart of Darkness.
Does that make it more immersive?
I hope so. Yeah, I certainly hope so. I think it's a little bit more intriguing because it's a little bit unique. And I think the one thing that we point toward when we talk about Spec Ops in terms of the narrative experience and the experience on the whole is the war movies that inspired us to make this game. And I think things like obvious references such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket and Platoon, they kind of did, in the late 70s early 80s, for war movies—they kind of changed war movies from being John Wayne, good guys versus bad guys, very clear, black and white (literally black and white), these are the good guys, these are the bad guys, good guys win, great.
And then you started seeing like this whole wave of movies coming out which were "Hey, this war, and this is how this war affects these people." And then you also look at the big recent movies, Hurt Locker and things like that. The reasons why we like these movies is just it's telling a story about the individuals and the impact that war is having on them. And that's what we hope we can sort of take some sort of—even just make people move in that direction a little bit in games, then we would be really, really happy with ourselves.
I think we'd be very pleased that we managed to achieve just to make people think about it a little bit more, rather than like, "Hey, I'm the good guy, and clearly the other guys are the bad guys." We want people to stop and think a little bit more. And who knows, you know, we all know that war impacts people very, very much in very, very different ways. But I think that there's often quite a disconnect between gamers that play games very regularly, in terms of their interpretation of "Isn't war great?" It's very, very emotionless in a lot of games in terms of, like, you're just like "Hey, this is great. Let's kill all the baddies."
Is that why it's a smaller story? Maybe smaller isn't the right word, but you know, nobody's got nuclear weapons and there's no world domination or anything.
It's like a local conflict, yeah, you're right. We tailored it to the fact that we wanted it to be about a small squad, you know? You could probably do it if you were like a captain of a battalion or something like that. We wanted in terms of the narrative, yeah, we wanted to be able to set it in something where the player would feel in a little bit of an alien world, for sure, and also cut off from civilization to a certain amount. So it kind of allows you to be—it allows you to sort of believe that these guys are in this situation and they have to go through it. There's no sort of—there's no medevac out at any point and again it's just focusing singularly on these three guys.
I like some of the other stories in terms of the way that it does feel like a huge dramatic conflict, and you're saving the universe, and isn't that brilliant, yeah blah blah blah blah blah. That's all good and well and that's got its place for sure, but yeah literally it's—you're right, it's the reasons why we set these things very locally and very small in terms of scale of conflict being just local to Dubai.
Why do you feel it was important to start making this type of game now specifically?
I don't think now is the right time specifically. I think it's just something at 2K we hold very dear is just doing heavily narrative-based games. We like doing mature games. We want to tell stories that people want to be interested in, and also we're willing to do things a little bit differently I think. That's the first starting point for us. And then obviously at 2K we were like "Hey! We probably should be in the military shooter genre, right? Because I think those Activision guys and those EA guys are making quite a bit of money."
So you kind of start out there, and then you think—military shooter is a very interesting genre to make a game in as well, you know, in terms of the actual pure gameplay experience. It's very interesting and it's very good fun and everything. We're all big fans of Gears, Call of Duty, Battlefield and all that sort of stuff anyway. So once we get into that space, then it's like, well, what is the 2K slant on that? How do you do a strong narrative experience? And I think you're quite quickly led to where we got to in terms of telling a personal journey and not doing this sort of big conflict.
In terms of do we think the industry's ready for it, or why now? I think we're just naturally seeing that mature sort of narrative games, they have their place now. They do, and I think people connect to them. Gaming just for pure gaming is never going to go away and I think that's the great thing about games, is you can just pick it up and jump right in. You don't have to worry about the stress of, like, the narrative being on you for some games. But I absolutely do think as the audience is getting older, we're asking to become more engaged with the character we're portraying, and sort of more engaged in the stories.
Thanks to Denby for chatting with us, and don't miss Spec Ops: The Line when it hits Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on June 26. This interview was edited for brevity and readability.