The Line - gaming's darkest look at war yet?
Fri, 29 Jun 2012 3:42p.m.
By Daniel Rutledge
A game released in New Zealand today hopes to show players a darker, more brutal side of modern warfare than ever seen in the shooter genre before.
Spec Ops: The Line is inspired by Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness and its film adaptation Apocalypse Now.
Set in Dubai following a series of catastrophic sandstorms, players are put in control of Captain Martin Walker, leader of an elite Delta Force team ordered to infiltrate the devastated Middle Eastern city and bring home US Army Colonel John Konrad.
Developers Yager promise what unfolds is a deep, emotional narrative filled with challenging choices as Walker's journey pushes him to his very limits.
This week I spoke with senior game designer Shawn Frison.
3 News: Spec Ops: The Line is clearly tonally quite different to most other shooters out there. Describe for me your interpretation of those tonal differences.
Frison: More than anything that's come out of war movies and real stories from real soldiers. When you look at what's been done in other forms of media, they really show you the human side of war and the dark side of war. I think that's important and I think it's something that hasn't been done in games.
We saw that there was this opportunity there to show that side of things and do it in an interactive way, which has a different impact than you get from watching a movie. For instance, you may accidentally gun down a civilian in the middle of combat. It's a chaotic situation and you'll just see some movement out of the corner of your eye and swing to shoot it. The fact that you're the one that pulled the trigger, I think it gives you a little bit more understanding and a little bit more impact than you would get if you just saw it in a movie.
So I hope we're showing players that darker side of war.
Frison – Spec Ops: The Line senior designer
3 News: Is Spec Ops: The Line more based on Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now?
Frison: The game was actually originally going to be a direct interpretation of what Apocalypse Now was to Heart of Darkness. We wanted to bring it into a modern time and retell the story based on current events, and transfer it to a different medium.
As we progressed with the project we realised, although it was still inspired strongly by Heart of Darkness, we wanted to tell a lot more of our own stories. So it became a little more of something that was just inspired by research we had done, stories we had heard from our military advisor and other war films we had seen and that kind of thing.
So Heart of Darkness is still definitely a heavy influence but it's not the direct sort of interpretation that it was originally going to be. But I think it was a good decision in the long run as you can't top Apocalypse Now or Heart of Darkness. So I think it's better to forge your own path.
3 News: People love to throw around terms like "gritty" and "realistic" and I'm sure they will with Spec Ops: The Line. But obviously you're aiming for people to actually take the game seriously on a deeper level than they usually do. How much of a challenge is it to get a people to take a videogame seriously, especially when it's a shooter?
Frison: It's a strange thing because on one hand it actually helps us a little bit that there aren't a lot of really serious, mature games out there. I think it helps us stand out more because it's so unexpected. It has a little bit of extra impact.
But then there's a tension between making people experience this dark side of things and making a fun game. For us the key way to get around that was to play one off on the other. So we'll give you some fun moments, then show you the horrible consequences of that. And I think that helps undercut the fun you were having a second ago and makes you feel like a monster for enjoying it earlier.
3 News: That darker side of war is not just expressed in tonal differences but in the violence itself. There were a couple of moments of violence in what I've played of the game that actually shocked me - not in a fun, over-the-top Mortal Kombat kind of way, but in an unpleasant, nasty way. Did you intentionally make some of the violence un-enjoyable?
Frison: Absolutely. That was something we were always really conscious of and really, really tried hard to make sure that it was impactful. It's difficult to do that.
It's a fine line because there is that sort of Mortal Kombat violence which is fun and even becomes funny at a certain point. But then there's showing a similar level of violence with really gory moments, but doing it in a way that is very serious.
And then we also tried to do things that would get you to sort of fall a little bit into the shoes of the character. For instance, we have these executions that you can do in the game where someone might be bleeding after a battle with blood squirting out of their neck. You can go up and finish them off if you want. A gameplay mechanic we added to that was that you get a little bit more ammo and possibly a grenade for putting them out of their misery.
That gives people an incentive who normally wouldn't normally be bothered, you know, these cold ruthless killers going around in the battlefields taking people out like that. So they would realise like, 'holy shit! because the situation demanded it, I started doing terrible things in this game'. Because that's just sometimes what's necessary. That was really a thing that we wanted to get across.
3 News: Every generation has a war that seems more horrific than that of their parents. The sons of the soldiers of World War I fought in World War II, and their sons fought in Vietnam. Our generation has had the War on Terror and the Iraq War and so on. That awful horror we witnessed in Iraq seems to be fading from many of our memories now. But is it that very horror that influenced the dark nature of Spec Ops: The Line?
Frison: You know, I wouldn't say the Iraq War specifically. It's more - as you were saying - for generations back you can look at any major conflict. Before World War I, you look at the literature and there's a lot of stuff about the glory of war, and how it would be honourable to die in battle.
But I think something changed at that point with just the sheer mass of casualties you can have with the modernisation of weaponry. And since that point you see the literature and movies that look at war seriously, they're all about how dark it is and how horrible it can be.
So I wouldn't say it's about the Iraq War it's about a more universal thing about how war will change a person, and how brutal it can be.
3 News: And despite all this serious talk about the dark brutality of war, as you said earlier, you've got to balance that stuff with gamer joy and kick ass moments. So how difficult is it to find that balance between the fun and the serious stuff?
Frison: That was probably the hardest thing we dealt with. No one's going to play through a game where they spend eight hours feeling terrible about themselves! It still has to be a good shooter too.
Even purely just from a mechanical standpoint, I mean there's so many military shooter games that have the mechanics really down pat and they really are just solid shooters. So you have to live up to that expectation.
But just in terms of balancing the two, there's no special trick that you use. It's just really a matter of thinking hard about it. And doing a lot of play testing and kind of seeing how it felt for us, how it felt for other people who weren't involved with the project and then just working our asses off to get it right.
3 News: Can you tell me more about why you came to the decision to set it in Dubai?
Frison: It's a really unique, awe-inspiring location. It has very distinctive architecture and it's sort of a monument to what human beings can accomplish, but also this hubris that people have and how that can go wrong.
At the same time we wanted to take the setting and flip it on its head a little bit. So we wiped it out with these giant sandstorms.
It also gave the opportunity to have a lot of really different environments while still keeping its really strong sense of place. So you know, one moment you'll be on top of these giant sky-scrapers and looking out over this insane post-apocalyptic horizon, then you’ll be inside a building that was totally untouched by the sandstorms and everything's pristine and beautiful.
And it’s mirrored in what happens with the characters who also started out very pristine. The sandstorm slowly broke down society and wiped out this civilization, the characters go through similar transformation. They start out very clean very proper, trying to do the right thing, and then the situation just totally breaks them down.
3 News: When Uncharted 3 came out Naughty Dog talked about the troubles of animating sand. Can you tell me about having sand as such a crucial part of Spec Ops: The Line?
Frison: More than anything it was a very straight-forward technical challenge. From the beginning we always wanted to have it as both a part of generic gameplay and for it to have gameplay consequences.
So there's things like when you throw a grenade in the sand it won't bounce, it just lands, rather than bouncing around like it does on concrete. But also enemies that are nearby who aren't close enough to get killed by the grenade will still get blinded by the sand. They'll be coughing and that'll give you an opportunity to take guys them out.
We also wanted to have these big moments like the big sand avalanches. At times you can shoot out a window and you tonnes of sand can come down and like engulf people. There's another moment where you think you're on solid ground and an explosion knocks it out and it turns out you're on the roof of a building, you know, it’s just all covered in sand and falls away beneath you.
3 News: Because you've concentrated on giving the single-player such a strong narrative, consumers may be concerned that it might detract from the multiplayer. Is the multiplayer as strong as the single-player?
Frison: I think so. I actually wasn't super involved with that, that was actually another part of the company. But honestly, I'm really excited about the multiplayer.
It was one of these things where I think that the fact that I wasn't directly involved with it only increases my appreciation of it. Because when it's your baby, you only see the warts and when it's something else you can appreciate it in a little bit more of a clean way.
It was really exciting watching that take shape and getting to play it from a fresh perspective you know, almost as an outsider. I think it's really cool.
3 News: The single-player has squad-based shooter mechanics. Will multiplayer cater for both people who like strategic teamplay and also the more lone wolf run n’ gunners?
There are definitely modes that accommodate both kinds of people. If you're a lone wolf you can play free for fall mode. Of course, like in any game, if you're good enough you can just kind of go your own way.
But we really actually wanted to stress the importance of sticking with your squad and squad-based mechanics. So we had some stuff in place to try and promote team play such as special abilities. There's an officer character for instance that boosts the stats of the characters around him. We were really trying to get people to stick together in an intimate smaller squad for teamwork focussed multiplayer.
3 News: I’d like to end by getting you to summarise why people should be excited about Spec Ops: The Line.
Frison: More than anything it's that it takes the darker, more mature side of what you'd see in war movies and war literature and brings that into an interactive format, while still maintaining kick ass shooter elements.
So for anyone who loves military shooters or anyone that loves really mature, deep stories, and especially for anyone that loves both - this is the game for you.
Spec Ops: The Line is released in New Zealand today for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.
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