Spec Ops: The Line writer says making violent games is 'too easy'

"We wanted to see if we could make a game where the moment-to-moment violence was meaningful," Williams said of Spec Ops: The Line. "If violence was going to be meaningful, we needed to plant a seed of doubt."

3

"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."

From The Chatty
  • reply
    April 5, 2013 12:00 PM

    Andrew Yoon posted a new article, Spec Ops: The Line writer says making violent games is 'too easy'.

    "We wanted to see if we could make a game where the moment-to-moment violence was meaningful," Williams said of Spec Ops: The Line. "If violence was going to be meaningful, we needed to plant a seed of doubt."

    • reply
      April 5, 2013 2:41 PM

      It's the core mechanics of fps (shoot people), rpg (kill people and take their stuff) that are the problem.

      Immersive Sim has already solved this issue in 1998 by letting people kill no one.

    • reply
      April 5, 2013 3:27 PM

      I need to play this. I like games that try to do interesting things within the mechanics of how video games works. I've heard it's not the best ever, but it sounds interesting, and that is enough.

      • reply
        April 6, 2013 10:46 PM

        I highly recommend it. From a "pure gameplay" perspective, it's good but very standard, which I think explains the lukewarm reception. However, in the way it uses gameplay as only part of the overall experience, it's very intelligent, perhaps visionary. The best thing I can say about it is that playing through it reminded me of the first time I watched certain challenging films, like Akira, Taxi Driver or (obviously) Apocalypse Now. Just be warned, it's more than "dark." Apocalypse Now is dark. This game is pitch black.

    • reply
      April 5, 2013 6:07 PM

      Spec Ops is an amazing game. The story is one of the best ive played. The ending blew my mind. It gave me chills at some parts and had me sad at others. It wasnt just a shoot em up game. It was worth the money.

    • reply
      April 7, 2013 5:40 PM

      I want to enjoy this game. Really, I do. However, I think I've experienced just enough of what it must be like to "pilot a grown man with a stomach full of Shrimp Fest, wearing socks of molasses and shoes of iron" in a combat situation.

Hello, Meet Lola