With Spec Ops: The Line, Yager Developments aims to deliver a game narrative that challenges existing notions of how play and story should co-exist. That was the message I walked away with last week after my generously involved 90-minute hands-on preview tour through the first half of the spring 2012 release.
The game time was immediately followed by a deep-dive chat with some of the key players on the dev team, including lead designer Cory Davis, lead writer Walt Williams, Yager producer Tarl Rainey and 2K senior producer Lulu Lamer. The foursome seemed genuinely excited to hear my thoughts on what I'd seen, no surprise given the 18 months of near-silence that followed The Line's E3 2010 reveal.
It's the narrative that sticks out the most, I told them, as critical moments continued to linger in my head during that post-preview haze. The connection between the game's story and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness have long since been established and are very much intentional, but Williams revealed that it was real-life experience that shaped the initial kernel for this narrative.
"I personally spent a very small time in the military [and] my family and a lot of friends have made careers out of it," he said. Williams recalls the initial everyday flavor of being a soldier -- "relatively normal guys just doing their jobs," as he put it -- and how that attitude evolved with time and on-the-battleground experience.
"When my friends and my brother came back [from their tours in Iraq], they still had that semblance of normality to them," Williams continued. "We'd be hanging out and things would be fine. I'd look away to someone else or something and come back, and you could tell that, in their head, they were somewhere else. They had that far off stare and were remembering things that none of them ever really talked about."
Spec Ops: The Line players will see a similar sort of evolution for Walker and his squadmates Adams and Lugo. It was certainly evident during the preview session; the three-man Delta team is all jokes and bluster when they first hit the sands outside of Dubai at the start of the game. As the bigger picture reveals itself, there's definitely a tonal shift in both their behavior and their chatter.
"When we started talking about the idea of doing a modern military shooter, [I wanted to] explore what that might be like, since video games, unlike any other medium, really allow you to get into the shoes of another person and experience something," Williams said.
"Each of these characters, they start off in this strong, close-knit group, but by the end they've all splintered off into three very separate people because of how they're dealing with what they've come across over the course of this story. That was the real world inspiration of trying to tackle a story like this."
Rainey elaborates on that evolution a little bit. "You kind of see, as sh*t gets worse, you see how [Walker and his squad are] reacting to it. I think that helps tell the story and I think it also helps put the player in a certain mindset. There are times when you will have those interactions with your squad, and that definitely changes as things go wrong."
Williams also cites plenty of fictional sources for his inspiration, including films like Jacob's Ladder, David Cronenberg's Spider, and the war films of the '70s and early '80s, many of which were heavily informed by returning Vietnam War veterans. Williams compares most modern military games with early John Wayne films, the sort of stories where the hero brings down the bad guys and singlehandedly wins the day.
"We thought that it was about that time for our medium to make that same kind of jump with the genre," he explained. "For years now, we've been standing up and kind of proclaiming outwardly, 'We are art. Accept us as art.' We kind of felt that if that was the case, then it was time we made a similar statement about what we can do with this medium. For the most part, yes, it's kind of new and we expect that some people will be shocked, some will accept it, but we think this is the kind of narrative that gamers are ready for, whether or not they know that they are."
Choice plays a tremendous role in that narrative, though not in any way that is typical for games of this type. The preview session featured one such moment in which Colonel John Konrad, the game's antagonist, presents Walker and his men with a test.
Two men are strung up by their wrists, with sniper rifles trained on each. One is a water thief, a crime which qualifies as a capital offense. The other is the soldier tasked with arresting the thief; he bungled the assignment badly, and the result left the guilty man's wife and children dead. Konrad wants you to choose which man should die and then carry out the execution.
It's important to note that, while this is presented as a one-or-the-other scenario, players aren't simply left with a binary choice to make. You can shoot either man. You can shoot the snipers. Or the ropes. You can even just walk away. There's no "right" answer, no reward for "gaming" this choice. You aren't even altering the narrative in any dramatic way.
Davis recognizes that some will be confused by this. He's witnessed it firsthand as outsiders have been brought in to look at Spec Ops for the first time. "I think, as gamers, we've been sort of trained to ask ourselves, 'What does the game want me to do right now? How can I behave the best in this scenario?' We want people to stop asking that question. We want them to ask, 'What do I want to do?'"
"One of the reasons we've kind of been silent for 18 months after E3 was... we've gone through the game over and over again, attempting to balance these more emotional, thoughtful, sometimes graphic portions of the game to make sure nothing in there is gratuitous or simply there to shock," Williams added.
"With the choices, we felt that if we attempted to put some kind of reward system into [the game], it takes these moral situations and it makes them gratuitous. We think gamers will be more surprised at how our game, in certain ways, does feed back on their choices, and in other ways, doesn't feed back on their choices."
I had been puzzled earlier in the day when Davis made a point of creating a new profile for my hands-on session so that I could see the Xbox 360 Achievements as they unlocked, but suddenly his thinking became clear. I earned Achievements for advancing the story, chapter to chapter, and for weapon-specific challenges, but nothing relating to the choices the game presented me with.
"There's a number of those choices, and each of them have a different range of impact," Davis told me. "The one you were playing right there more involves that particular situation and the combat right afterward, and more involves a lesson that Konrad's trying to teach you about his life in Dubai and where he came from to see how you compare to the decisions he made. But there are other decisions that have longer consequences. There are multiple endings in the game, as well."
Williams and company want to be clear about this too: Spec Ops: The Line tells a singular story. Your choices -- not all of them, but some of them -- can influence the outcome of that story in specific ways, but it's not for the purposes of achieving a "good" or "bad" ending. Just a different one. None of the gathered interviewees were speaking in specifics, for fairly obvious reasons, but it seems like Walker's relationship with his squadmates helps to shape the game's various outcomes.
"We really wanted the squadmates to feel like real people to you, these fully fleshed out characters with their own personality. I think this is one of the reasons, right off the bat, that we wrote off the concept of having this be a co-op campaign. You don't have that disconnect in playing a video game between you and your friends," Williams explained.
"It is a fully friendly thing from beginning to end, for the most part. No matter what narrative is happening, the full extent of the emotion you might share is 'Oh, that's f*cked up.' The same thing you might be doing if you were watching a movie with your friends."
"By having these squadmates be entirely of their own design and control, you create a more realistic connection to them that you would possibly have with a real person in combat."
Williams credits the talented voice cast for maintaining that narrative impact, particularly the core trio: Nolan North, who voices Walker, Chris "Kid of Kid 'n Play" Reid, as Adams, and Omid Abtahi, as Lugo. "They just really brought these two characters to life," Williams continued. "Chris Reid in particular brings in a fantastic performance as Adams, especially as he evolves over the course of the game."
"It's pretty awesome to be able to look at a single-player campaign and not just start off with our default characters and end with them, but with different characters," Davis added. "We follow these characters through a series of heart-wrenching events, and so the way they look is much, much different from the way they look at the end; the way they move is different, the way that they act, even the executions [finishing moves] change. The way that they react to their squadmates change."
"That was something that really took us a lot of time and effort to make sure that evolution happened as naturally as it could and that it was apparent to the player and that, hopefully, you felt some connection to them, and that connection brings you closer to them. And as that connection changes and devolves, essentially, that effects you in some way."