Spec Ops: The Line wants players to feel bad for shooting people. Can it work?

Shooters are so saturated in videogame culture that you can almost imagine how a whole game will play out based on a few short glances. A military shooter in a sand-swept Middle-Eastern city: this will be familiar turf for a lot of people. Spec Ops: The Line wants to unseat a lot of those predictable reactions. Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Spec Ops wants players to wriggle in discomfort along every step of the way. Cory Davis, creative director and lead designer at Yager games, wants players to end the game not feeling like heroes but wondering whether or not they’re actually villains. 

You’ve taken some risks with the empowerment formula in a way that will probably leave a lot of people feeling bad about what they’ve done more than empowered. Are you worried that audiences will accept that kind of sacrificing of “fun” for the sake of a more nuanced theme?

I’m really excited about it actually. We’ve already had some great focus tests. I never set out to make a game for every single person. I really think that’s a pitfall for developers in a lot of cases, watering down our systems for the largest possible group of people. 2K gave us the opportunity to do something a little different. Our morality systems are a lot different than you’d see in other games. We’re not rewarding players with any sort of item rewards, and it’s not a choose-your-own adventure either. You’re not going to be switching sides or anything like that. You’re on this journey with our protagonist, Captain Martin Walker, and it’s a dark journey. The types of decisions you’re making are a lot closer to decisions we’ve heard from modern soldiers on the battlefield. It’s not do this thing on the left to be “good” and get this type of gun or do the thing on the right to be “bad” and get another kind of power-up. 

It’s really about making decisions that are tough, where you can’t tell what’s good and bad at that moment, and a lot of times the outcomes are not what you’d expect. We like to play with that throughout the campaign. We designed a lot of setpiece decisions where you’re making decisions that the squad probably disagrees with. Then there’s a lot of little decisions along the way, like how do you deal with this soldier you’ve mortally wounded and is lying on the battlefield bleeding out? Do you put him out of his misery? Do you really brutalize him and make him suffer. Just watching people in our focus test react to those moments differently–I’ve seen some people have to really collect themselves after those moments. We really wanted people to feel like they were in those moments, cut off from command and out on their own with some really hard decisions to make. 

How did you deal with characterizing people in Dubai? That seems like it could have a lot of potential for just making a blanket “terrorist” kind of caricature.

My family’s actually lived in Dubai throughout most of the development. I’ve spent a lot of time there. The military advisors we’re working with on the game have spent a lot of time there. A lot of guys on our team had personal experiences with Dubai. It’s really a place that strikes the imagination, it’s an amazing place. There’s also an underbelly there that’s coming through in a lot of news stories that have come out recently. But really, it’s a super international city. It’s not a city that’s just full of Middle-Easterners, it’s full of people from all over the world and it’s not really home to anyone. It’s a city that just sprung up in the middle of this desert in an oasis. If you look at satellite imagery from 10 years ago it’s basically non-existent. So that really provided a microcosm for us to tell our story in. We surrounded it in sand storms, cut the squad off from command, cut the location off form any sort of political surroundings on the global level, and that really allowed us to focus on our characters themselves rather than what’s happening in the surrounding region.

The game’s inspired in large part by Heart of Darkness. Did having that as a reference point add any limitations to what you could do with the story?

Heart of Darkness really was one of our first inspirations for the project, and it really brings up a lot of themes. What is the soul of man? Who are we when we make certain really difficult decisions? How do we navigate through those? How do we evolve as human beings because of those decisions we’ve made? You can tell a lot of different stories within those confines. We didn’t follow the plot points of Heart of Darkness exactly. You’ll see how we splinter off from that quite a bit as the story goes on. But it was a nice thing to be able to go back to for the tone of the writing and the types of evolution that those characters went through. 

You’re asking players here to begin with an experience of the single player mode before trying out the co-op demo here? What added insight does that give you?

Every single aspect of development went into making sure that this journey our main characters go on was as emotional impactful as it could be. It also eases you into the setting of Dubai that we’ve created so that you’re not trying to just spring through a map looking for objectives to aim for. It helps players get a sense for the pace we wanted to establish with the game and make sure people picked up on it not just being about shooting people.