(Warning: this article contains massive Spec Ops: The Line spoilers.)
Spec Ops: The Line, more so than any other story told in the medium to date, shows us how people can change over time.
In Spec Ops: The Line, Captain Walker’s journey into madness is punctuated throughout the game by stuff that’s just glossed over by a lot of other companies.
Aesthetically, of course, this is old news. We’ve seen Batman’s ratio of cloak to holes change dramatically as he descends into the darkness of Arkham. We’ve been subjected to Max Payne’s fall from grace and his accompanying hairline fluctuations. But Captain Walker’s journey into madness is punctuated throughout the game by stuff that’s just glossed over by a lot of other companies, slotting neatly into areas segmented off for lip-service.
It’s clear that Walker looks a right mess by the end of the story. Gone from the blue-eyed military rescue leader, the madness of Dubai has cast him anew. His uniform and insignia are tattered and covered in sand and blood and ash. He’s no longer a soldier; Captain Walker has become a warrior. A killer, even – he’s waded so far through blood that he may as well keep going until he reaches the other side.
But the character model isn’t the important bit. The important bit is everything else.
Getting the story into a state where that change could happen organically proved more difficult than you might imagine. Richard Pearsey, writer and narrative designer on the project, weighed in: “Originally, the story was much more straightforward and called for the Delta Squad to be sent to assassinate Konrad who had illegally led his battalion out of a war in Iran and was looting a recently destroyed Dubai.
“The set up left all of our characters with very limited room for growth or for our perceptions of them and the game scenario to change, which was something we very much wanted. Konrad was the bad guy. We knew it; the squad knew it; and the job was to terminate his command.
“In the final version, the story is a mystery. What happened to John Konrad? The environment is central to plot and character development. The squad is not there to kill; they volunteered for a rescue mission. Konrad and his men are good guys, heroes, and so is the squad. Now, we have somewhere to go. We can now play with player expectations, especially with the expectation that in a military shooter we are the good guy and that anyone who gets in our way needs killing.”
Everything changes. Take the barks, for example – the phrases shouted back and forth between characters during combat. Initially these wouldn’t sound out of place in any standard by-the-numbers war shooter. They’re clean, crisp orders and warnings, stuff like “flash that bunker” and “hostile eliminated.”
Military jargon like this exists for two reasons: firstly, it’s kind of long-winded to shout out “throw an explosive device at those men in the bunker and then shoot them” in the middle of combat, and saving time saves lives. But also, less obviously perhaps, they take the edge off killing. They reduce it to an act of cleansing, of negation, of a problem that has been solved. It’s only as the situation in Dubai worsens that we can see the gruesome reality.
Pearsey speaks up. “The writing process was mainly iterative. We planned for three full sets of barks for each squad member, each representing a specific phase of a character’s arc. Each bark, of course, is intended to provide either feedback or information to the player – the trick is to avoid too much repetition. Variations are written for each bark. Then, they are written. Over and over.”
The process behind making this all happen, called “Thin Slices” by the development team, is revolutionary enough to warrant a talk at this year’s GDC Europe . An action as benign as healing a wounded teammate starts as an encouragement to get up and work through the pain, moves into desperation at their situation, and ends in screamed orders to get up and keep moving because Walker needs them to keep killing people.
What was once an act of compassion has been rewritten as an act of aggression, triggered by the player. Things that started out as violent – for example, highlighting a target for your squadmates to shoot – are stripped of euphemism, as “Take out that sniper!” becomes “Kill him.” Same act. Different words.
That’s the strength of Spec Ops: the mechanisms never change, but the perception of them and framing devices surrounding them do. The Execution mechanic, for example, starts out as a vaguely novel way of performing close combat attack. A tap of the melee button knocks an enemy to the ground, where they can be shot as normal or killed automatically with a second press.
Look at how well you’ve done, the game starts to say. You’ve killed a human being. You killed him in one shot because you’re good at shooting people. Watch him die as a reward.
Initially, this seems like payback for being assaulted – it isn’t an instant kill button, but a desperate struggle to stop someone shooting you in the face by shooting them in the face instead, or punching them in the head so hard they pass out. But the visceral, up-close nature of the kills lends a certain satisfaction to pulling them off.
It’s only when they get more up close visceral, do they start to become unpleasant. As Walker’s condition degrades, his executions get dirtier; shots are pumped into enemies with an almost casual disregard. Guns are jammed into mouths and heads are smashed into paste with rifle butts. Where Captain Walker’s actions were once the subject of the 2-second cutscene that plays out, now the victims take center stage. Their eyes widen, and they shake their heads in fear, and the camera zooms in on their sweat-drenched faces in their last moments.
The player never does anything other than tapping B (or Circle) twice, no matter what the execution entails. They don’t unlock a cerebral bore or a chainsaw launcher or learn how to disembowel people thanks to wise distribution of experience points. The option has always been Execute, and the action often ended in the same result, but they get to see it from another perspective. They see their character as the killer, not the soldier.
Richard continues: “To be honest, I was concerned when Execution Moves were put on the table. I thought they had the potential to undermine our character arcs. A ‘curb stomp’ at the beginning of the game would have spelled doom.
“My apprehension lasted all of 10 seconds, though, because that wasn’t what the design team had in mind at all – the move was intended to bolster the evolving character mental states, and it’s very effective in enhancing this aspect of the game.
“In fact, one of the aspects of The Line that I think is often overlooked is how well the design supports the overall narrative approach and vice versa. The narrative and the mechanics were designed in tandem with narrative being part of the core design team – kind of like a UN Observer – so each group’s efforts complemented the other rather than competing against one another “
It doesn’t stop there. The slow-motion bursts earned by performing headshots seem par for the course, as far as the genre is concerned. You’re rewarded for your skill at shooting by getting a second or so of breathing room, allowing you to size up the fight and act more decisively. But something became apparent the longer I fought, and the more headshots I achieved.
I wasn’t using the slow-motion to perform better as a player; I was watching the headshot, instead. And with that, I started to get uncomfortable about what the slowed time meant. At the outset, it’s a thumbs-up for doing well, a confirmation that you have performed well at the challenges the game has set you. Look how small these heads are, it says. Look how well you’ve done by shooting them.
And then, suddenly, it’s not. Look at how well you’ve done, the game starts to say. You’ve killed a human being. You killed him in one shot because you’re good at shooting people. Watch him die as a reward.
Unlike the Executions or the barks, nothing changes aside from the player’s interpretation of what they’ve done. I was shooting people in the head because I liked watching the second of slow motion, because slow motion is cool. I didn’t think about what it meant in real terms, outside of the game.
And that’s the heart of the matter. You both change. As Walker staggers through Dubai, turning a rescue mission into an act that will kill a whole city, he transmutes into something horrendous – a terror, something that good-natured men and women (like you!) would be rightfully scared of, free from notions of glory, a killer put under your control for entertainment.
The player, changes, too. Changes from someone having fun playing a game to someone questioning why they’re playing it, what they’re doing in-game. They are the force that keeps Walker killing, and the game makes no qualms about underlining that fact though tone, style and even some chillingly direct messages on loading screens, which let the author speak directly to the reader without the medium of third-person shooter getting in the way.
Spec Ops: The Line is disturbing in the purest sense of the word, in that it messes up what the player feels and believes like someone kicking up the silt at the bottom of a clear pond. Walker’s change mirrors their own and forces them to realise the facts of their actions underneath the skin of civilization.
Grant Howitt is a freelance videogame journalist with regular bylines in The Guardian, PSM3, and FHM. If you’d like to read other things that he’s written, have a look at his portfolio.