Are Military Shooters Finally Getting Their Apocalypse Now?

A game writer once explained to me how his development team did its best to “otherize” the enemy in the story it was trying to tell. Military shooters direct a terrific level of violence at more obviously human subjects than other genres of games. If people have any natural aversion to shooting one another—and many theorize that we indeed do— then a game has to convince you that killing these people isn’t just acceptable, but desirable, even enjoyable. So the animators did the best to conceal the faces of your enemies even as they charged at the player, he explained, and the story piled on their atrocities that you witnessed.

In so many fields of culture, we are trained cynics. Not so much yet with videogames. I was led to wonder if games could ever take the opposite approach—humanizing an opponent until the thought of standard videogame violence is terrifying in and of itself.

At face value, the upcoming Spec Ops: The Line seems like any other military shooter, with a lot of trash-talking American soldiers stranded somewhere “out there” in the desert—that mysteriously apolitical spot of land in the Middle East where all fictionalized military conflicts go awry. Then suddenly, in the confusion of a sandstorm and misleading communications, you find yourself gunning down these same American soldiers with the same finesse and zeal Modern Warfare fans usually save for Russian terrorists. One scene has your character, Captain Martin Walker, lobbing white phosphorous mortars across a barricade while your squadmates shout in protest. The screen shows the reflection of Walker’s face as he’s shouting new coordinates, and the aftermath—walking over burnt and writhing corpses as you continue to make your way through a sand-swept Dubai—is sickening. A man lies at your feet, face charred beyond recognition. Walker tries to shrug him off, but I’m not sure if I can.

Tarl Raney, a producer on Spec Ops, explained to me that this kind of dark and decidedly non-jingoistic work is “a piece that the industry is missing that exists in other entertainment mediums.” I caught up with Lead Designer Cory Davis about their combination of inspirations: horror games, American war films from the 1970s, and the surreal nature of Dubai itself.

/ / /

Where did the idea of setting the game in Dubai come from?

We didn’t want a setting that was connected to any of these conflicts that are going on right now. It really is unlike any other place on Earth, and unless we were going to do some sort of sci-fi or fantasy location, Dubai was the place to tell this story. 

A lot of our competitors’ games portray other Middle Eastern locations pretty well, but those areas are very different than Dubai. First of all, they’re much older as cities, so the culture there is distinct. And those other cities are more connected to the themes that we weren’t very interested in exploring, such as religion and politics. 

Dubai is a very international city. It allows us to focus in on these characters that are important to us, and the theme of survival. We feel like if there’s going to be a location that could theoretically be cut off from the rest of civilization, this is the place to do it. Because it’s very new. It was built straight out of man’s ambition to make something shiny and pretty in this particular location.

And because of that, I think it symbolizes this incredible opulence and decadence for a lot of people.

Yeah, it’s sort of a mirror of Western culture and civilization interpreted in a different way. It has this Western familiarity to it with a lot of the buildings, but at the same time it has this completely foreign element to it. People are just starting to realize how unique it is—look at Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, for example. 

I want to tease out the connection with Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. You’re saying you chose Dubai because of its distance from contentious political issues, but I’m wondering how you reconcile that with the original stories. Apocalypse Now is obviously a work of fiction, but it’s very much steeped in the culture and history of the Vietnam War, the same way that Heart of Darkness is steeped in the atrocities that were taking place in the ivory trade.

I wouldn’t say we’re an exact rendition of Heart of Darkness in a modern setting. I think what the heart of darkness is is an exploration of self. Part of this is the battle that man goes through as he explores his inner workings, and the things he does to survive as a human being. 

Soldiers on the modern battlefield find themselves in really difficult scenarios, where they’re forced to make decisions that they’re going to have to live with the rest of their lives. But they’re not directly involved with the political nature of the conflict. And think of the collateral damage that surrounds these conflicts—those people just happened to live there.

Think of Apocalypse Now, films like Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter, Jacob’s Ladder. These are not realistic movies that try to be a perfectly accurate rendition of what happened on the battlefield. But they are authentic to the emotions that soldiers felt on the battlefield. The most traumatic moments in wartime are often very surreal for the people who actually experience them. 

“Fun isn’t necessarily blowing things up and laughing.”

Was this what inspired you to turn the events on American soldiers as well?

An important aspect of the war films I mentioned is how they depict the savagery of humanity in these depraved situations. We wanted you to hesitate to pull the trigger. We wanted you to think about who these people are, how much like you they are, how they’re just trying to survive the same way you are. 

There’s been a criticism leveled against games like Modern Warfare and Battlefield for they way that they trivialize conflict—there’s not a lot of blood, the conflicts aren’t disturbing in the way you describe. How do you make a game that is trying to be disturbing and still make it fun enough that the person wants to keep playing? 

In order to have an emotional experience you have to have these subtleties, these slower moments; you need to have moments where you can really get close to the characters and get to know them. A lot of our competitors’ games switch the player’s perspective constantly. That makes it really exciting, but it doesn’t get as close to an individual character.

We think that there are a lot of different types of fun. Fun isn’t necessarily blowing things up and laughing. It’s fun to be emotionally engaged, especially when you actually have a controller in your hand and you have to think about the things that you do. 

I think gamers today are going through a lot of the same evolutions that occurred in film. You remember the old John Wayne war movies? There’s always going to be a place for those. But when people are shocked and horrified and angry about what we do, that’s also an interesting response. We want you to think about the bloodlust that you might have naturally, as you approach this game after playing so many other games. We wanted to put it right in your face.

What types of games did you take cues from when designing for this? The games that bring out this type of visceral response are horror games, rather than shooters—the Silent Hill-type game where you have to keep cracking down on this one monster, and it becomes a really extended, gross process to actually defeat them.

Both Tarl and I came from Monolith—horror games are basically what we’ve done in our careers up to this point. Horror is interesting because—for good horror at least—it’s psychological in nature. When it’s used effectively, the creator of that is very, very aware of the decisions he’s making, especially with regard to pacing. Horror games are one of the most deliberately constructed genres of games. You mentioned having to do something that’s just … [mimes swinging an ax at me] really fucked up [laughs] without backing away from those darker and disgusting moments. But it’s also important to build a sense of dread, really letting that sink in. 

How do you tell that kind of story while still using standard military weaponry in the game?

“We wanted you to hesitate to pull the trigger.”

We do take some liberties in the way we portray the weapons—we want it to feel like a real weapon, but at the same time we want to express the brutal, physical nature of these modern military weapons. Because they really are extreme tools of destruction. For example, we play with this white phosphorous, which is absolutely horrific. I heard these stories during our research of white phosphorous grenades being popped and then stuck on top of a car. They’ll just melt the car. And the smoke is toxic. 

So we didn’t want to just give you violence for violence’s sake—the incredible violence here is a theme in the story, as it is in a lot of war cinema—this weaponry causes a rift in the relationship of the squad. The way that the characters speak to each other throughout the game, things as seemingly tiny as the tone and wording of squad commands, the way the three of you move, the way that they look, all tells this story. 

You keep talking about how you want the player to have a genuinely emotional experience with this game, so let me ask more specifically: What do you want players to take out of this game at the end of their experience with the campaign?

First of all, I’d like gamers to reflect on themselves and, well … being a citizen of this global community that’s in some way affected by the things that we as Americans are going through. Whether or not we’re paying attention to it, it is happening, and these conflicts are something we’re involved with because we live here, we take advantage of the circumstances that are here, and the things that keep our nation in the state that it’s in. 

And then the second thing that I’d like is for them to quit asking, “What does the game want,” and to start asking, “What do I want?” I hope people will start to think a little bit more as they play.