What is left to do in the military shooter genre? Spec Ops: The Line hopes to bring a new aesthetic and storytelling heft to the medium by going back to literary source material, and adopting a hyperrealistic art style that's subtly shifted from the norm.
But probably the most important thing that happened to the game is that publisher 2K Games gave Berlin-based studio Yager Developments extra time and resources to work on the game and hone its narrative, says lead designer Cory Davis.
In this extensive interview, he discusses how the team approached moment-to-moment design for the game, how it infuses moral ambiguity into its scenarios and then allows the player the freedom to explore them, and why the main character is deliberately visually generic.
So let's begin by talking about how it's inspired by Heart of Darkness. And even to the extent of the not-so-subtle nod to Konrad being the guy that you're chasing around -- although it's spelled with a "K" instead of a "C". How did it come about, and how and when in the process, and to what extent is that informing your vision?
Cory Davis: I've spoken about in the past that the story was really something that we wanted to make, a very sort of unique stab, and a new direction for this genre. And we wanted to make sure and focus on that almost entirely with everything that we're doing. So that was sort of the start of that.
But then it's always a debate between a number of different people that have a stake in what we work on. And you know, that's what game development is, to me -- it's like a lot of really in depth conversations about how we interpret different things.
And for us, one of the things that we wanted to do differently than a lot of games in the genre is we wanted to tell a specific story about specific characters that were on a journey. And we knew that we wanted to have a more unflinching take on some of these dark themes that we're interested in portraying in the game.
Heart of Darkness has just always been something that inspired me; in previous games that I worked on, it's something that I've been excited about as well. It's sort of this journey in itself... this dark journey that caused us to reflect upon who we are and what is the soul of man.
So sort of these are really important themes to us as developers, and that story really struck home with, I think, a number of us. And it's been portrayed in a lot of different ways in different time periods, the same Heart of Darkness-type story -- Apocalypse Now is one of those that does it quite well in a different environment than ours. So we wanted to do a modern take on that, and so that's where we ended up.
So with your story, obviously you have certain points that you want to get across, and in those most important sequences you take it either to a cutscene or a scene where you can't run and you can't shoot. Can you talk a little bit about the mentality behind that?
CD: Sure. Obviously there's a number of cutscenes in the game where you don't have control of the character, and there are scenes where you have sort of partial control. We want to put the player in the position where he can have control as often as possible, but at the same time we're telling a story, and so there's a number of devices that we use in order to portray that as strong a way as possible.
Some of these things have to do with making sure that the player understands a certain scene that's coming up that's really integral to the plot lines. And then also introducing a lot of choice scenarios because, as you mentioned, sometimes we take away control, but then right after that wegive you control in a way that a lot of games wouldn't. We play out a number of these scenarios that the squad finds themselves in on this journey, simply in the open, for the player, so that he can choose to interact with all the tools that he has at his disposal.
And so I think a lot of the themes that a number of other games would put into a cutscene, we let the player engage in, and it's actually really interesting watching people react to that. I'm not sure if I mentioned it, but I've had a number of journalists, for example, that turned to me and looked and said, "What am I supposed to do here?", because they're just not comfortable with the idea of having those options at that point in a game like this; it's usually about shooting people. Basically, the element of choice usually isn't part of the discussion.
So, yeah, there are times when unfortunately we have to take away control, but at the same time I hope that the story's strong enough and it comes across to the player in a way that's meaningful to him; that those things don't distract, and they don't turn you away.