Spec Ops: The Line Interview: Crossing the Narrative Desert With Lead Writer Walt Williams

Spec Ops: The Line, which takes players on a military operation inside Dubai after a post-apocalyptic sandstorm, will be available in stores tomorrow. We recently had a chance to talk with Walt Williams, the game’s very verbose Lead Writer at Yager Development.

During our interview, we got him to open up about what inspired the team at Yager and how moral choices play into the narrative , as well as Dubai’s status as a “city that shouldn’t be” and how that made it the perfect place to set a game.

Take a walk into the eye of the storm with us after the break.

John Scalzo, Warp Zoned Editor-In-Chief: The main bad guy is named Konrad and he’s holed up in hostile territory surrounded by “natives,” more or less. I’m guessing that’s an Apocalypse Now reference?

Walt Williams: A little bit, yeah. I mean, admittedly, Apocalypse Now was a big inspiration when we started making the game. In a lot of ways because we were looking to… basically, war video games had kinda stalled out at just being visual action spectaculars and we were taking a lot of inspirations from 70s and 80s war films the way they had kinda changed war from being John Wayne coming in and punching Nazis to Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket… where they were making war films more realistic, like war actually was.

We wanted to do that with the genre. So there is a lot, you’re going to see a lot of inspiration of that. That, I think, is the easiest one to see because of the name Konrad. Spelled with a “K” though, because everyone knows that K’s are cooler. But also the basic conceit of the story. I don’t actually think K’s are cooler, I promise.

But whereas Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now are very much the stories of Kurtz, and peeling the layers back on that character, Spec Ops was always meant to be the story of the soldiers. This is a personal story about Walker, Adams, and Lugo, the squad, and seeing what happens to these good men when you put them in an increasingly bad situation.

When you are able to play the full game and really get into it, it becomes a lot more apparent how quickly the full game is a very different story. But yes, obviously, you are correct in saying that that definitely was an inspiration on us, along with other things, such as Generation Kill from HBO was a very big inspiration for me in setting the dynamic of the squad. Jacob’s Ladder with Tim Robbins… so scary… and so many people have never heard of it!

There’s a lot of inspirations, from everywhere, which I think happens a lot now when you get into games that are trying to do something a bit more different.

WZ – John: Going back to the story of the soldiers, the execution moves seemed kind of brutal. Are you going to get into that, like what it means to kill somebody?

Williams: Absolutely. The demo that you played was more focused on broader narrative moments. We didn’t want to spoil big things. That’s the problem when you’re doing a game like this. You usually would sell a game on the big moments, but the big moments here aren’t going to be big if you know it before you go into the game.

Nicole Kline, Warp Zoned Senior Editor: You don’t want to be like a crappy comedy movie where you only show the funniest parts of the movie in the trailer.

Williams: Exactly. I mean, when you’re writing a game like this it definitely helps working with design. I was also Level Director on about a third of the game as well. The characters need space to digest things sometimes. And you saw the execution moves in the earlier levels of the game. We have our characters really evolve, especially the squadmates, having them be on their own path and experience things differently from Walker. They react to Walker’s action, the player’s actions, and really, by the end, all three of them have splintered off and are only still in a squad unit because it’s their only way to survive. They’re extremely different characters by the end. And the execution moves, they may look brutal at the beginning, but they’re nothing compared to the end.

If you’ll notice, when you can see the full range of them, the stuff at the beginning is very fast. It’s actually an execution, and it’s brutal, but it’s quick and to the point. As they get more cruel, as they get more beat down, maybe they start adding things that they don’t need to. That are a bit more painful, unnecessary… because they have this anger that’s built up inside of them. They need to take it out.

WZ – John: It’s a good way to tell a story. To show it in the gameplay like that.

Williams: Honestly, I felt like God of War, years ago, did this so well. In just really allowing the animations of the character to express so much about Kratos, just through the gameplay. I mean you get this guy who just doesn’t give a ****. I’m sorry, I try not to cuss in interviews.

But yeah, when I was first getting into games, God of War had just come out and I was watching it and I was like, you can do so much. You can just tell so much about tone and make the player feel the character more through really adding small things in the animation and making them more visceral. Which is one of the great things about doing this in third-person instead of first-person. A lot of people think first-person’s more immersive because you get into the eyes of it. But with Walker especially, because we’ve written him in such a way where he’s vague enough, he keeps a lot of things internal because he’s the commander of a unit, he has to stay professional.

So the player can project themselves onto Walker in a way, but at the same time, through his physicality and the way he’s physically reacting… his body language, his tone of voice… he’s then projecting back on the player. So you have this excellent constant cycle and it’s turned out really well. We’ve had focus tests and people playing it have had some very strong reactions.

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