(Warning: This article contains spoilers about important story beats within Spec Ops: The Line.)
A devastating, clipping drought has gripped the midwest the last few months. While driving through Illinois farm country this weekend, a store selling farm equipment propped a telling sign out front: “Do a rain dance, please!”
Many players would share a similar sentiment about video game storytelling. Whenever a not terrible game story comes along, the world lavishes it with praise. Sometimes it’s water in the desert syndrome, and sometimes it’s because a game is truly daring, provocative, or, at the very least, interesting.
Spec Ops: The Line has been at the center of this conversation since it launched last month, a shooter that most, myself included, had written off after poor press showings that suggested a promising setup that spent too many years in development, only to lose its way and be pushed out the door by a publisher hoping to recoup costs.
We were wrong, and we have, in part, Walt Williams to thank.
Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard the name Walt Williams before. Even though Williams has been a producer at 2K Games for more than seven years, it’s only with Spec Ops: The Line that 2K Games granted Williams the opportunity to take a starring role and become the game’s lead writer.
Spec Ops: The Line, easily this year’s most surprising release yet, is the first game Williams had all to himself. He’s been assigned to story development on several other 2K Games projects, everything from Civilization V to XCOM to BioShock 2, but he was given a mostly blank canvass this time.
“I’m not a guy who plays shooters terribly much, to be honest with you,” said Williams during a recent phone conversation. “When I started on the project, one of the first mindsets I had on it was, ‘How do I make a shooter that someone like me would want to play?’”
Williams is one of the few individuals that’s been part of the Spec Ops reboot since the original conversations happened within 2K Games around five years ago. Spec Ops was originally a two-soldier focused realistic shooter series from Zombie Studios, and the first few games were published on the PC by Ripcord Games. Sequels continued and were brought to consoles (PlayStation era) by Runecraft and Take-Two Interactive (the parent company of 2K Games). The series went dormant after 2002, and while Rockstar Vancouver was assigned to begin the franchise anew, that project didn’t go anywhere, and the series stayed dark.
German independent developer Yager, a studio only known for an aerial dogfighting game with the very same name, was given the tough assignment five years ago. Williams was there on day one, too. Williams and Yager were tasked with developing a squad-based military shooter set in Dubai in the near future.
“That was it,” said Williams. “That was literally the box that we were given to play in. Outside of that, we were left to do whatever we want. I mean, the story has changed drastically over the course of the production. It’s always had the same characters and the same basic arc of where you were going, the drive of what was getting you there, but the intricacies of the story, the purpose of it, the subtext, what it was all pointing to, all of that has changed so many times over the course of this trip.”
The fact that players found Konrad dead at the end of the game, for example, was a recent change.
Even though 2K Games is based in Novato, California (previously, it was New York) Williams works out of Dallas, Texas. He was forced to leave 2K Games' headquarters for personal reasons, but 2K Games kept him on board. He regularly flies between his home in Dallas and the location of whatever developer he’s working with at the time. For Spec Ops, that was Germany. Williams had an apartment in Berlin he’d spend half the year in, typically staying in Germany for a month-and-a-half, and come back to the states for two weeks, then do it all over again.
The decision to explore the untold psychological tolls of war came from Williams’ own boredom with the shooter genre, and despite the game seeming to imply our obsession with shooters and killing is worrisome, there was never any pushback from the corporate side. Williams said it was on board since day one.
“There was always a part of me that thought, in the back of my head, that eventually the shoe is going to drop and they’re going to go ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, what are we doing? Go back and make this thing what people are expecting out of a military game.’” he said. “But they stuck with it the entire way, and were extremely supportive of the direction that we wanted to go.”
The role of a writer varies on each project. There is no standard process, which prompted me to wonder how much influence Williams really had. It’s not uncommon for a writer to submit a script, dialogue, and other plot details early in the project, only to have most of it disappear by the time the game ships. Conversely, games often leave story to the last second, trying to jam as much context into the game after the gameplay and levels have been locked.
To ensure consistency, Williams was not just a script guy, but his fingers were everywhere: level design, voice over sessions, cut-scene and animation development, environmental storytelling, and art design.
Five years later, Williams finally stepped away from the game about two months ago.
“There’s a certain part of working on a game,” he said, “when you’ve played the game 30 times or read the script 30 times, you start to...it’s like when you write a word out and stare at it for too long, you go ‘Is that spelled right? I’m not sure anymore.’”
No one at Giant Bomb was impressed with Spec Ops the last few months, compounded by a poor showing at PAX East, in which players experienced the game’s opening scenes. Nothing about the game’s shooting mechanics stood out, the game’s much talked about moral decisions were nowhere to be found, and there was an awfully Nathan Drake-sounding performance by Nolan North as Captain Walker. It wasn’t until the final disc showed up and Jeff started playing through the game. He started telling us to pay attention. A similar chorus appeared from other critics.
Williams believed people would better understand Spec Ops after playing it, where the story had room to breathe, and he was right. Much of the game’s eyebrow-raising came from being unaware of the several revelations, including the infamous white phosphorous scene, in which the player accidentally torches dozens of civilians hoping to leave the crumbling city of Dubai. This pivotal scene was almost part of the marketing campaign.
“[We] ultimately decided that would completely kill everything that we wanted to do with that moment in the game to the player,” he said.
The white phosphorus scene is where Spec Ops puts its cards on the table, and it's clear no one is coming out of this mission a better person. You technically have choices during this moment, such as fighting the opposition with your stock weapons, but respawning ammunition buckets were specifically deleted from this scene to force the player to eventually use the nearby mortar. Upon picking up the mortar, the player is transported to a scene awfully familiar to the AC-130 mission from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. You see a white dot, and blow it up. Unfortunately, some of those white dots were innocent men, women, and children. How were you supposed to know? You weren’t.
“We wanted the player to be stuck in that same kind of situation, even to the point of maybe hating us, as the designer, or hating the game for, in many ways, tricking them, making them feel like we had cheated the experience and forced them to do this thing,” said Williams. “They would have to decide whether or not they could choose to keep playing a game like this after this moment, or if they would be pissed to the point of putting the controller down and saying ‘No, this is too much for me, I’m done with this. Fuck this game.’”
Williams knew the team was onto something when focus testers had to take a break after viewing the scene for the first time.
One theory around the office was that this scene was, at one point, a moral choice for the player that was cut due to budget constraints. Williams claimed this was not the case, arguing it would have cheapened the impact. This prompted Williams to wax philosophical about his own approach to game design.
“There’s a certain aspect to player agency that I don’t really agree with, which is the player should be able to do whatever the player wants and the world should adapt itself to the player’s desire,” he said. “That’s not the way that the world works, and with Spec Ops, since we were attempting to do something that was a bit more emotionally real for the player. [...] That’s what we were looking to do, particularly in the white phosphorous scene, is give direct proof that this is not a world that you are in control of, this world is directly in opposition to you as a game and a gamer.”
It’s this moment when it felt like Spec Ops was trolling the player, subverting traditional expectations of the designer-player relationship, especially for a game ostensibly about “choice.” This becomes especially uncomfortable as the game continues, Walker and his crew begin to unravel, the enemies become aware they’re dealing with insane, bloodthirsty soldiers, and one begins to wonder whether everything that’s happened in the past eight hours was a prelude to asking the player to consider whether they should be enjoying and celebrating this kind of video game.
Williams didn’t shy away from this idea.
“I actually consider that to be the real story of the game,” he said.
Spec Ops does not seem to make a definitive statement. It’s certainly playing devil’s advocate, but Williams doesn’t want players to come away with the impression that Yager, Williams, or 2K Games was out to advocate a particular stance. Rather, by the end, hopefully you’ve raised your own set of questions.
“Whether or not violent video games have an effect on us was not really the question that we were asking,” he continued, “but we were certainly saying ‘If we are going to say that we’re art, art has to affect us, and what does it say about us that these are the types of art that we chose to partake in? How does it really effect us to disconnect with that mentally?’ Because we have.”
One of the more surprising ways the game plays with expectations are the loading screens. “This is all your fault,” reads one. These messages are traditionally meant to convey helpful hints or reinforce game mechanics important to the situation at hand. Though Spec Ops does have that early on, as madness surrounds Walker’s crew, even the usually handy tip screens turn against you. Williams said Microsoft and Sony never raised an issue with the decision to use the screens in this way, and it’s incredibly effective.
“In many ways, Spec Ops hates you, and it’s reacting to you, in the sense that, yes, we may have designed the game to work this way, but none of this would have happened, in the context of your experiencing it, if you had not put the game inside your system and played through it,” he said. “You are, within the context of you playing it, the cause of everything because you chose to play that game, and it is reacting back at you.”
The emotions weighing over the player when the credits roll are heavy, mixed, and contradictory, especially so if you experience the epilogue. I do feel bad sometimes for liking shooters, especially today’s awfully realistic ones, and Spec Ops was a useful outlet to explore these complicated questions. We know there is more at work than indulging in senseless violence, but Spec Ops forces us to ponder whether we’re pretending it’s not an issue at all.
“We shouldn’t be afraid to question our own medium,” he said. “It is ours to do with as we see fit. There is no problem in questioning what is your own and asking what it is that you want to do with it, and are we necessarily doing the right thing with it? I mean, that’s the other great thing about mediums, is that there is no right thing.”