"I'd like to see less violence games out there," Walt Williams, writer on last year's Spec Ops: The Line, told an audience at GDC last week. "Creatively, they're too easy. I think we're better than that."
Inspired by Heart of Darkness, Williams and the team at Yager Development attempted to tell a story of a man that slowly degenerates from hero to an "unhinged killer." And although Spec Ops was a rather standard cover-based third-person shooter, Williams says that embracing the genre allowed the team to create a more challenging narrative.
He told the audience to "embrace Ludonarrative dissonance," essentially the disconnect between the playable and non-playable portions of the game. In a third-person shooter, the core mechanic forces the player to kill hundreds of men--an act that only can be questioned in non-interactive parts of the game. The disparity causes characters to be inherently hypocritical, something Williams wanted to focus on. "Your main character will never be more righteous than the core mechanic allows," he said.
If you don't kill, you die in Spec Ops. The game ends. So players are forced to justify their bloodthirsty actions in the game. However, Williams says this allows the game to introduce "silent judgments." For example, a random civilian may appear in Spec Ops that you may mow down. While you could have the game directly punish the player for that action, it becomes less interesting because "the transaction is complete." Instead, by not having the game acknowledge that action, it allows players to internalize that choice.
"We wanted to see if we could make a game where the moment-to-moment violence was meaningful," Williams said. "If violence was going to be meaningful, we needed to plant a seed of doubt."
Ultimately, The Line ends in a "direct judgment," where players get to decide what path they'd like to take. "You can't pick an ending for the player," Williams reminds the audience. He says that the judgment must use the core gameplay mechanic, and "ask players to judge themselves." As players of The Line know, "this is not how you get to a feel-good ending."
With video games in the crosshairs in the ongoing gun violence debate, Williams says that he doesn't believe "violent games make violent people." However, he does believe that "violent games desensitize people to violence in games" and that "we allow killing to be mundane in games."
"My grandfather can remember every man he's killed in World War 2," Williams told the audience. "I think we need to get back to making characters that aren't as bloodthirsty."