Narrative designer Richard Pearsey charts the narrative development of Spec Ops: The Line, explaining how the team set out to twist the knife of shooter narrative, from the pre-production process through the way the game was developed and, in the end, how the game's conclusion is left open to interpretation.
2K Games' and Yager Development's Spec Ops: The Line set out to be different. It would be a third-person squad-based tactical shooter, making heavy use of cover mechanics, but the game's focus on the intensity and immediacy of both the combat and narrative design, coupled with a desire to throw players into a disturbing, morally ambiguous world, were intended from the beginning to set the game apart.
Creative and design lead Cory Davis gave narrative its charge in The Line's initial vision documents:
VISION (September 2008)
A realistic military shooter set in a unique, almost surreal world, Spec Ops puts a twist on an established genre. The decayed opulence of Dubai forms the intriguing stage for an intense journey into the heart of darkness, facing you with the horrors of war, to bring down a charismatic and haunting villain.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY (September 2008)
Spec Ops is an intense third person military shooter with a dark and mature narrative. [...] The narrative gameplay confronts you with the horrors of war, as you face choices between bad and worse in challenging moral dilemmas [...]
JOURNEY INTO DARKNESS NARRATIVE (September 2008)
Brilliant, but deranged villain lures you into a world perverted by his madness. Wartime scenarios that challenge your perception of morality. Mature, thought-provoking story, inspired by Apocalypse Now.
It was important the game challenge and eventually subvert player expectations of the shooter genre. BioShock was a key inspiration in this regard. It was also -- not coincidentally -- produced by 2K, as was The Line.
Obviously narrative was going to be front and center in The Line. To accomplish our goals, it would be necessary to meld the game's narrative aspects as much as possible into the gameplay.
We wanted to blur the lines between gameplay and narrative, focusing on the overall player experience, and hoped to create a seamless player experience where gameplay and combat informed us as much about character development and story as did traditional narrative elements such as cut scenes and expository dialogue.
The Narrative Setup
For this to work, the plot and back story would have to provide the necessary narrative space and emotional context for the team to achieve its goals. This meant the characters had to have room to grow and evolve over the course of the game. In addition, the story had to allow for player perceptions of the game to change.
The original plot called for the Delta Squad to be sent to assassinate a Colonel Konrad who had illegally led his battalion out of a war in Iran and was looting a recently destroyed Dubai. Konrad was more of a megalomaniac with messianic delusions than the rather sad and tortured figure he eventually became.
This is a perfectly serviceable setup, and a good shooter could well have been made from it, but for a number of reasons this setup was not compatible with our goals. It was overly complicated. Too much time would be spent explaining why there was a war in Iran; why Konrad mutinied; why he took his battalion to Dubai, as well as why they were looting Dubai. Konrad was the bad guy. We knew it; the squad knew it; and the job was to terminate his command. There was left limited room for our characters to grow or for player perception to change.
The decision was made to simplify the story, move thematically closer to Heart of Darkness (HoD), and have everything revolve around the storm, the game's proxy for HoD's jungle. "Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings." (HoD)
The final backstory became: Konrad and his men were in the UAE for joint training exercises when the storm hit. They volunteered to stay behind and help. Dubai is wiped out. All are thought lost. Months later, a stray radio signal escapes the storm, and the squad is sent in to investigate.
The idea was to start small, convincing players they are playing one type of game, and then pile horror upon horror until at the end the game is very different than the one they began.