Spec Ops is critical of war and the players of war games: an interview with the game’s writer
Spec Ops: The Line is the rare game that presents armed conflict as something that is damaging to everyone directly or indirectly involved. The third-person, squad-based shooter may appear to be a stereotypical war game, but the cover and title hides a complex and moving experience. There is not a single character who goes through the events in the story and emerges on the other side as the same person, and the game’s ability to drive home the trauma associated with wartime environments is rare. I spoke with Walt Williams, the game’s lead writer, about how this was achieved, and the decisions behind the game’s narrative. Warning: there are some pretty large spoilers in here.
Playing what we're given: the case for nuance in video games
“If you look at other artistic mediums, they don’t shy away from uncomfortable truths,” Williams said. “As a species, we create and use art to explore our emotions. Games have no reason to be afraid of fragile, personal, or uncomfortable experiences. If anything, we are the best medium to explore these things because of the interactivity. It’s the difference between relating to a character and experiencing a character.” While the kind of story we see in Spec Ops is rare in video games, Williams is hesitant to blame the players or market forces. “I think the only reason there is little room for nuance is because we, as the creators, haven’t allowed it. We create the games we think players want, forgetting that they can only play the games we give them,” he explained. “When talking game design, you often here the question, 'What about the gamers who just want to blow stuff up? Will [insert anything other than bullets/explosions] turn them off?' And honestly, I don’t think this gamer exists. Yes, we all have moments where we just want to ‘blow stuff up,’ but we also want to be rewarded with deeper experiences.” In many cases, new experiences and stories come from the ability to give players a little bit of credit up front, something few developers are willing to do. “You have to trust your audience. That’s what we did with Spec Ops. We asked players to come with us on a journey. Then we just started walking and trusted them to follow.”Spec Ops often asks the player to make terrible decisions in tough situations, and in most cases the choices don’t present a “good” and “evil” option, but a choice between bad and worse. “We went over the game numerous times, making sure that every moral choice or possibly controversial scene was absolutely necessary,” Williams said when I asked if any were cut. “We were trying to make players question the morality of playing the game. This required the bigger moments to be organic and absolutely essential to the narrative/emotional path. We couldn’t just shock the player with something horrible—we needed them to feel partially at fault. If at any point in the game, the player came across a moment that felt simply exploitive, of their feelings or the narrative, then the entire game would fall apart. Everything had to have a purpose, and so yes, there were a few choices that were cut.” One of those choices involved a scene early in the game where you find a man wired to a bomb, with refugees trying to save him. Your choice in that situation consisted of saving yourself and letting some of the refugees die, or saving yourself and letting all of them die. It’s not much of a choice, and was ultimately cut for being too “gamey.” A better, more organic choice was substituted. “Instead, it was replaced with the rescue of Lt. McPherson. That choice was much simpler. You’re aiming a gun at a man who may or may not try to kill you. Do you pull the trigger or not? When you get down to it, all the choices in Spec Ops revolve around one simple idea: Make the player think about that trigger,” Williams said. The decisions in Spec Ops reject the binary choices in most video games, and the idea was to show how often people in violent situations have to bend their own morals or ethics to survive, or even help others. Keep in mind, the mess that you as Walker are trying to clean up was created partially by people thinking they were doing the right thing. “We are rarely presented with clean-cut, binary choices in our daily lives, and they almost never fall into the category of good choice/bad choice,” Williams said. “If there had been good options available in Dubai, then Konrad and the 33rd would have taken them long before Walker arrived. This was a bad situation for everyone, and they did the best they could with what they had.” The game also asks you to make a decision when you know that you don’t have all the data in each situation. What you think is the “right” choice could have horrific consequences. “Most games try to embrace the player. The story revolves around the character and the action exists simply for them to overcome it,” Williams explained. “With Spec Ops, we wanted the player to feel like an outsider. An intruder. The game needed to be in direct opposition to the player’s wishes.”
Spec Ops isn’t about war, but about the players of war games
It becomes clear as you play the game that Walker, the game’s protagonist, is an unreliable narrator. How he perceives the world around him and his actions isn’t always the reality of what’s going on. In some ways, this may lessen the emotional impact of the choices you make, but Williams disagrees with that assessment. “Spec Ops gets categorized as a war game because you play a soldier, fighting soldiers, in a military conflict,” he said. “But really, it’s about gamers: Who we are when we play a game, how we see ourselves, why we play them, and what we’re trying to get out of them. While that final moment does question Walker’s sanity and the validity of everything that came before, it’s also speaking directly to the relationship between gamer and game.” Pay attention to the hints the game gives you during the loading screen. They may begin as helpful tips for the player, but then begin to change into statements about guilt, doubt, and even condemnation. You’re going through these terrible things, and watching them happen, because you purchased a $60 product that’s meant to entertain. “During the ‘White Phosphorus’ scene, Walker buries his guilt and casts blame on Konrad and the 33rd, all in an attempt to keep going. Our hope was that the player would do the same—cast the blame on us, the designers,” Williams said. “That [the player] would have to bury their feelings of guilt and disgust to keep playing. And at the end, when Konrad reminds Walker that he was never meant to come here, we wanted the player to realize the same was true for them—these things only happened because they chose to play the game and keep going.” We learn that Walker has become increasingly mentally unstable as the game moves forward. The ending scenes work on a number of levels. “While the reveal of Walker’s instability runs the risk of losing some emotional ground, it’s ultimately meant to hold a mirror up the player’s actions,” Williams said. “After all, the player has been killing fake people the entire time.”
The challenges of marketing something that looks like another war game
I’ve been talking to gamers and other members of the press about Spec Ops since I’ve finished the game, and everyone tells me that they assumed it was just another war game, and not worth their time. In fact, the first hour or so of the game looks and plays like a stereotypical war game before the story and plot twists begin to yank the rug out from under the player. I asked if this was intentional. “It was,” Williams replied. “If players didn’t expect anything, because it felt familiar, then we could truly surprise them. It’s the same way Walker and his squad feel at the start of the game. To them, the mission is a joke, and not worth much thought or effort. We could have tipped the player off earlier… dropped small hints of strangeness to entice them, but that would have created an imbalance of knowledge between Walker/player. The narrative hinges on Walker/player being on the same page, because it’s a two-fold narrative: Walker vs. Dubai/player vs. game.” The problem is that it’s very hard to see what makes Spec Ops so special if you only play a short demo or see a section of the game away from the greater context. “I readily admit that this made the game extremely hard to promote/market,” Williams admitted. I had one last question: If you sent different people into the situations depicted in the game, could there have been a “better” outcome? Was this a criticism of the men in the game, or this sort of warfare in general? “The breaking of Walker, Adams, and Lugo [your squad of soldiers in the game] speaks to the situation, rather than the individuals,” Williams explained. “They are following in the footsteps of many other men and women, all of whom have crumbled under the weight of this situation. Konrad, the 33rd, the Radioman, the refugees, the CIA… no one escapes unchanged. In this world, it’s never a question of ‘Will they break?’ but rather how they break. And that’s where we learn who they really are.”