Spec Ops: The Line Developer Interview

Simon Miller


We talk to Yager Development lead writer on Spec Ops: The Line and discuss Call Of Duty, BioShock with sand and emotions in video games.

Published on Feb 6, 2012

We catch up with Spec Ops: The Line's lead writer at Yager Developments, Walt Williams. Beforehand we had the opportunity to demo the game for an hour, here's what we thought.

Spec Ops: The Line has been in development for a long time without any real rhyme or reason. What was the reason for the extended delay?

Well, honestly, we’ve tried to do something with Spec Ops that hasn’t really been done with a military shooter before or even really other genres to the extent. We’re attempting tell a narrative that is a bit more emotionally driven, and not just in the sad or happy emotions. but the more questioning, darker, brooding emotions.

The fact of the matter is it’s still a game, though, so the gameplay has to be engaging and finding that perfect balance between the two is extremely difficult. So we took that time, and the things we learnt from that big E3 presentation, and basically went to refining the entire experience of the game and polished it.

And I don’t mean polish in terms of polishing a game, but more like polishing a stone – getting it to the best possible state we could. Once we felt like we finally hit that, then it was time to put it back out there for people to experience. Getting the quality when you’re trying to do something different takes time and everything’s got its own time to cook… and this one took eighteen months [laughs].

You’ve mentioned how important the emotional angle is, and from playing Spec Ops it’s clear you are trying something different. Did that shape the entire experience too, because even the controls, for example, aren’t following the trend?

There’s a little mixture of everything really. We wanted the player to feel comfortable when they came to the experience and they could go ‘Okay, I get it. I know these characters and I know this story’ and then let their guard down. When they get there, though, we’re gonna try and pull the rug from under their feet and at that point, the player has no idea where they are anymore and the possibilities are endless.

The word innovation gets thrown around a lot in this particular industry, almost to the point of innovating for the sake of using the word. There were certainly things in this game where people were like ‘Shouldn’t we try something really new?’ and, at least in certain ways, no.

If the game becomes too alien then no one’s going to be able to relate to it on any level. The journey we want the player to go on would end up being nullified because it would be too new. They wouldn’t feel they were themselves within this kind of story. So, yeah, it was definitely by design, but for a few different reasons than to your initial question. 

Choices are very prevalent in Spec Ops: The Line. Was this to push the emotional engagement you’ve been chatting about, or is it more to increase longevity and make players feel the need to go back and see what could change?

It’s for both. Much like the word innovation another word that gets thrown around a lot is replayability and, of course, that’s something everyone wants. In the end… the filmmaker Miyazaki, and I’m totally going to butcher this quote I’m sure, but years ago I read an interview where I heard him say ‘A film should only ever be viewed on the big screen and it should only ever be viewed once’ and I think there’s something to that.

You’re only going to experience a story truly the first time through because that’s the only time it can totally reveal itself to you. With Spec Ops, you do have these different branching moments and you won’t be able to experience the game with the same, I hesitate to use the word shock, but with the same shock of discovery that you would the first time through, but there are definitely things in the story that when you experience the whole thing you’re seeing and experiencing things you don’t fully understand until you go back and play it a second time.

The hope is that when they do go back to see what happens with the choices, those moments will be different for them but they’ll also start to notice things they didn’t the first time through; see how the paths of these characters went specific ways because of the things the player didn’t realise they were witnessing the first time through.

It’ll be more of a revelatory experience than necessarily a discovery experience. So, yeah… we’ll see [laughs]. We haven’t had any of you guys play through the whole game yet so we’ll have to wait and see if we’ve pulled that off. 

It's a shame this isn't original in video games, because the setting is quite interesting.

So you can miss/trigger significant events depending on who you save and so on?

What we wanted to do with the choices is not make a ‘you hit A to do the good thing or B to do the bad thing’. They’re more a moral tableau and sometimes they’re happening directly to you and sometimes they’re situations you can implant yourself into. Sometimes we let you know what the choice is. Sometimes we don’t. Most of the time we don’t.

Even when we do let you know we’re genuinely not telling you all of them because the characters that are coming into it, they don’t know all of them either. They’re looking at it from an outsider’s point of view. We very much wanted them to grow organically out of the narrative situation and to have consequences that would be more on the player than on the character.

Some of them do have branching lines and branch further into the game, but we were looking for more of an internal emotional branching in the player. You’re not going to get a better weapon for making one choice or get faction points; it’s just going to happen and you’re going to have to move on and live with it.

Sometimes shit happens and you may not like it or fight but you still have to get on with it. Sometimes these choices come at you fast when you’re in combat and you don’t even realise it’s a choice until you’ve got a few steps further down and then you’re like ‘Shit! I want to go back.’

But then you have these other kind of situations where not everything is a choice. You have those moments that just kind of broadside you. One moment everything was fine and then the next moment, nothing is fine and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Certainly your actions have lead to it; the character’s actions have lead to it, but it’s really no one’s fault and it’s just kind of something that happened and you have to go on living with it just as the character’s will.

I think people are going to be surprised by it at first and quite a lot of people probably won’t be able to digest it and maybe quite a few players will actually be pissed at us [laughs] that we forced them into something that ultimately we didn’t. These things unfortunately happen in war.

Our medium is very interactive and it’s really the only medium where you can literally put yourself into other people’s shoes and see things from their point of view that you would never be able to do in your own life.

We’re hoping with Spec Ops at the end it’s going to hold a mirror to the player and by the end they’ll be able to know a little more about themselves, and hopefully as a medium games we’ll be able to do more of this. 

As you hinted at, videogames are still in their infancy, and some of the scenarios Spec Ops presents could be seen as quite controversial. Call Of Duty, for example, created a storm for depicting a family getting killed in the middle of a warzone. Do you worry people won’t understand what you’re trying to do and is it hard to find that balance?

Absolutely. This one particular scene is one of the most controversial we have and upon writing it I honestly was a little uncertain if it would make it through all the way to the final game. There was a definite discussion and everyone had their own feelings about it but ultimately one of the reasons it stayed in was because we all looked around the room and everyone had a strong personal response to it and that’s exactly what we wanted out of this game.

I think with the Call Of Duty stuff… we tried very hard to make sure nothing in this game was done strictly to be exploitive. It all has a purpose and it, like this one particular scene, starts all the way back in chapter four when these civilians are captured from the nest.

At the time you don’t really know [what exactly is going on] and it’s just everything coming together at the wrong time and you not having the information to know things that are happening because you’re an outsider. It’s my personal belief and hope that people are very smart and very reasonable and when the work is experienced as a whole I think it speaks for itself and it’s not exploitive and not there just to shock.

Whether other people who don’t play the game choose to take one moment and blow it out of proportion… I have no idea! I’ve certainly thought about what if that does happen, but honestly… I didn’t want it to be a ‘No Russian’ kind of thing… It’s not skippable and I think it’s also one of those moments when you’re playing the game and it really shakes you and means you don’t want to go on, that’s kinda what the moment was meant to be.

Just for you, like it is the characters, this is a moment where you have to ask yourself ‘is what we’re doing worth it?’ and again you have to live with the consequences of that choice, even if it’s a slightly meta-choice. I don’t know, though. We’ll see. I’m really excited for people to experience it, though. 

Can we care for men in army fatigues?

You’re in a market that’s clearly successful, especially the very linear, gun-ho approach. Considering Spec Ops is a little more thoughtful and considered, do you think you may alienate some people or go the opposite way and bring shooter fans back who may’ve tired somewhat of the genre?

I hope so because, I’ll be honest with you, when I started on the project, I was not a third-person, military squad-based kind of guy. If I’m going to sit down and play a game it either has to be Batman or a role-playing game.

That’s essentially us…

[Laughs]. But yeah, they’re essentially the two things you can put me down for. So going into it I approached it with the mindset of what would be this type of game that I would want to play. What would make me without a doubt sit down and play this game?

Hopefully it’ll bring some people back to the genre. Hopefully it’ll bring people like me to the genre who are like ‘What do you mean it’s not an Asian guy with a massive sword and a weird haircut? Why would I want to play that?’ [laughs].

You always hope that your game will perform well in terms of sales, but on a more personal level, sales or not, I would just like it to be experienced by as many people as possible because I do think we’ve designed something that, while being a game, is also a great experience to play and to make people think about things.

From the hour we’ve played there is a very obvious balance between ensuring gameplay is exciting but that the story is always prevalent and in the players’ head. That’s not easy over an entire game. Is it difficult to stretch that out and make people feel the confusion of the characters but then switch and make it enjoyable when gun is in hand?

Yes! That’s what those eighteen months were. The thing is with the gameplay, Yager has done a tremendous job in making every encounter feel very unique and keeping the player constantly on their toes. And you haven’t even seen the best stuff yet. There are three levels at the end that I’m thinking of that are just gorgeous in how they look in action.

When you mix that with the narrative that pulls you in at the start of the game and connects you with these characters… I mean Adams and Lugo are these very well realised squad members and going on their own journeys.

You don’t get to hear their internal monologues or get to know what they’re feeling until they decide to tell you. You’re seeing them change as you’re changing as well and when you’re able to put all of that together, the hope is you create an experience that is so compelling it’ll drag you through to the end.

And I mean, what is it, like only 40% of people finish a game? I would be particular happy if we could push that to 60/70% with Spec Ops: The Line, strictly by creating a situation where you care about these characters.

I’m thinking of one internal focus test we had done, and one guy played through the whole game and made the comment to me that they didn’t care about a specific thing that happened later in the game but they were pissed because Adams’ cared and they liked Adams.

So I was like ‘well, actually, technically, you do care!’ You cared enough about this character and he’s not even real but you felt his emotional pain and it upset you. So, yeah, we’re hoping it works on the whole as this functioning entity to pull people through.

I think we did it and it’s realised better than I ever thought was possible. I’ve never been as proud as a project as this and I know people say that all the time, but I mean it [laughs]! 

Gears Of War in Dubai? It's a hard stigma to wash off.

Before we let you go, one final, off-topic question. When Spec Ops: The Line first came around, a comparison many people made was ‘BioShock with sand’. Sand obviously still plays a major part, but how do you respond to that idea?

I think one of the reasons that came around is that when you think about it, in a way, Rapture was inspired by Dubai. It’s a city that shouldn’t exist and people with money just went ‘F**k it! I want my city here and no one can tell me what to do. I don’t care if it may fall apart because I want a tower that tall. I’m going to build it because I can!’

So we never meant to evoke BioShock but looking back at it to people who made that comment, and if they meant it literally, it’s almost creepy how much Dubai and Rapture have in common in terms of Rapture existing in this world, but, to be fair, Dubai was here first [laughs].

Of course, it’s certainly not BioShock in the sand. There was that and the comparisons with Heart Of Darkness, and this isn’t 2K’s attempt to adapt that either. While there are certainly things that feel familiar, as I said earlier, that’s because they’re meant to be.

As you get into the story, though, it’s going to quickly reveal itself to be different from all of the things many people may seem to think it is. It’s meant to be a personal story of what happens to three good men get put in a bad situation and even where their attempts to do something good go wrong. What do you do when no matter what you try, everything seems to be getting worse? So yeah… it’s not BioShock with sand [laughs]!



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