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Spec Ops exclusive: The story, New Game Plus, next-gen writers and a sequel

What was your favorite part of the Spec Ops story?
What was your favorite part of the Spec Ops story?

Spec Ops: The Line debuted this past June and it was a game that went where few others have gone before.

From its daring, emotional story to its action-packed gameplay, The Line takes gamers on a journey to Dubai where the main character Walker starts off believing him to be a hero as he works his way through the city trying to save as many people as possible while taking down the enemies that stand in their way.

But as the story progresses with each intense moment, Walker loses his intent and ambivalence rules him as he ends up taking innocent life after innocent life.

Once the story is finished and the truth is revealed, Walker is nothing but a broken man who has not only destroyed countless lives on his deadly journey, but he has also destroyed himself.

Spec Ops: The Line Lead Writer Walt Williams took some time with to discuss the game, its story, a game mode that was left out, the adjustments game writers of today should perhaps make and whether or not another installment in the Spec Ops franchise is a possibility.

Williams said the goal of the story was to create a character-driven story and when they were creating it, there were few examples to reference for inspiration because this was new ground they were breaking.

"We wanted to create a character-driven, military shooter that spoke to the action of playing it. There weren’t many games we could look to for inspiration.

"As we got further into production, we found the most difficult obstacle to overcome was marrying the narrative to the gameplay.

"This works for most video games, because their stories tend to follow a traditional 'hero’s journey' model. But Walker’s story in Spec Ops isn’t a hero’s journey. It’s a hero’s downfall," Williams said.

He said in order to make this whole thing work, they had to inject narrative and context into the combat, so even when the player is winning, they feel like they are losing. The best way to achieve this was to make the player face the consequences of their actions.

Williams said what happens after the war is over, is something we don't typically see in a military shooter and this game brings a very visceral presence to everything that has happened.

"The aftermath of combat is something we don’t usually see in military shooters. It’s the uncomfortable reality of war that we don’t necessarily want to think about when sitting down to enjoy a game.

"When faced with the human cost of victory, you don’t feel like a winner. That’s what happens to Walker, and the player, the further they get into Dubai," Williams said.

He felt they discovered the balance between the gameplay and narrative, which resulted in the story becoming a success, based off of how reviewers and gamers reacted.

"By the end of the game, Walker has killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people. He’s a broken man because of it. It seems many players felt the same upon reaching the end. It feels weird to say it, but I consider that a victory," Williams said.

Walt talked about how the ending of the game changed over the course of development.

"Originally, Spec Ops: The Line focused on Konrad’s story, with the player uncovering it piece-by-piece, as they moved further into Dubai.

"To be honest, it was exactly what you’d expect from a videogame—overblown and unbelievable. So, I tossed it out and tried to tell a smaller, personal story using the same characters and events," Williams said.

Walt said Spec Ops: The Line really is about someone who goes through the five stages of grief and that by the end of the story he has completely lost himself amidst all of the death and destruction.

"If you strip away the outer layers of the story, you’ll find that Spec Ops: The Line is about a man going through the 5 stages of grief.

"Denial: He didn’t do this. Konrad did. Anger: He will make the 33rd pay for what they’ve done. Bargaining: If he can evacuate the remaining survivors, it will all be okay. Depression: When the evacuation fails, he becomes haunted by visions of the dead. Acceptance: When there’s no one left to blame, he has no choice but to face the truth.

"At the start, Walker believes himself to be a hero. But when he loses himself in a moment of thoughtless destruction, innocent people die. Walker’s inability to reconcile his actions with how he sees himself leads to destruction," Williams said.

Regardless of what you thought of the game, Spec Ops provided one of the most real, intense and mind-twisting stories that anyone has seen in quite some time.

He said at one point during the development process, they had the idea of adding another mode called, "New Game Plus," where players would go back to the beginning of the game, once they've beaten it, and play through it with all the weapons they gained the first time around.

"With Spec Ops, we had the idea of it being a narrative 'New Game Plus.'

"The 2nd time you played the game, it would all be occurring in Walker’s mind, during his final moments of the game. Walker is looking back on everything he went through, imagining to himself what might have been, if things had gone well.

"Things would have been much simpler in this play-through. Walker and his Squad would be portrayed as classical heroes.

"On the other hand, The Damned 33rd would be evil to the point of appearing cartoonish. The Refugees would love you. You’d evacuate the city, kill all the bad guys, and go home a hero. Essentially, it would be Spec Ops, if written as a normal military shooter," Williams said.

He said the design of this mode was to provide a stark contrast between the two experiences and help provide new perspective for gamers to view what they played through the first time, differently.

"We felt this mode would paint a very stark contrast to the normal game’s story, to the point where the 'New Game Plus' would feel obscene and offensive for trying to 'rewrite' the terrible events the player had experienced.

"In the end, we decided not to add the 'New Game Plus.' It didn’t feel like it added anything to the overall experience, other than a few more hours of gameplay.

"By the end of the game, Walker has had a chance to reflect on his actions. When the credits roll, it’s the player’s turn to think about what they’ve done. 'New Game Plus' would have taken away from that," Williams said.

Walt said nowadays, games are hardwired to be hero/player-centric and an interactive fantasy where players inhabit an impossible body in an impossible world.

"In this way, a videogame’s story is always about the player. Now, factor in that at the end of the story, the player has to 'win.' As a writer, that’s a tricky box to work within.

"'What if I’m not a hero?' With that one question, we were able to take players somewhere
they’d never been within the military shooter genre.

"Walker tries to save the day using nothing more than a gun. But shooting your way through a city full of people is not bad ass or heroic. It’s inhuman—and by that, I mean it’s both impossible and monstrous," Williams said.

He spoke to how the narrative aspect of gaming is still in a growing stage and there is a lot gaming writers have yet to explore.

"This medium is still relatively new, especially in regards to narrative. As gamers and creators, we are growing alongside it.

"I think we spent this current console generation discovering what can be done with narrative. We’re braver now. Also, a little bored. That’s a great combination for creating something new," Williams said.

When asked what he hopes people will take away or learn from Spec Ops, Williams said he hopes people think more about the types of games they play, and what they are simulating truly represents.

"When you play a shooter, you simulate the act of killing someone. You physically pull the trigger on a controller. Your character pulls the trigger on a gun that gun kills a person.

"Yes, it’s a game. No one actually dies. But as gamers, it’s an action we will perform probably a million times or more in our life. It’s easy to disconnect from it, emotionally and mentally. But as games strive to be more visceral, I’m not certain that’s a good thing.

"Right now, we are the creators. For this moment in time, we define the medium. But our moment will pass. There’s no reason to not push the limits of our medium. No reason to not be amazing.

"I’m not saying we should stop playing shooters. I’m saying we should expect more from them. Consoles are about to enter the 2nd 'next gen.' As players and designers, I think it’s time we join them," Williams said.

Finally, Walt did speak about the possibility of a sequel within the franchise, but squashed any potential of a sequel directly stemming from this last game.

"Will there ever be another game in the Spec Ops series? It’s certainly possible. The Line is the 9th installment in the franchise. Knowing how much the games industry loves a franchise, I imagine there could be a 10th installment someday.

The Line was always envisioned as standalone narrative. It’s a tragic, cautionary tale. At the beginning of the game, Walker believes himself to be a hero.

"But he’s not a hero—he’s a man with a gun. Are Walker’s actions justified? That’s for the player to decide. But justified or not, his violence begets violence, until eventually, there’s no one left to kill.

"There can never be a sequel for this world or these characters, because for them, war was not a game," Williams said.


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