How Walt Williams, Cory Davis and Richard Pearsey made a war game into something like art.
This article contains discussion of specific plot and story "spoilers" from Spec Ops: The Line. If you are the type of reader who prefers to experience these kinds of game moments first-hand, we encourage you to play the game, then come back. - Ed.
Walt Williams doesn't know why tornadoes target trailer parks. He's a video game writer, not a meteorologist. What he does know is that they do.
Williams knows that every once in a while the sky will turn green, the wind will go still, the birds will stop singing and people who live in tornado zones (typically trailer parks) will grab their kids, their dogs and whatever they don't want destroyed and hide in the bathtub to wait for it all to be over. And he knows that sometimes those people and their trailers will get wiped clear away.
Walt Williams is the lead writer of Spec Ops: The Line. It is a game about a city at risk of being swallowed by nature and a man at risk of being swallowed by the weight of his own horrible acts. It is a shooter in which the innocent bystanders are as much a part of the story as you are, and telling the good guys from the bad is practically impossible.
Williams - along with co-writer Richard Pearsey and lead designer Cory Davis - wanted to make a game in which a stunningly destructive force of nature would force the player to face decisions they could never have imagined. They drew on their own experiences with powerful forces of nature. They wanted to put players into scenarios where bad things could happen to good people, and in the game they imagined, the list of "good people" wouldn't necessarily include you.
As a game, Spec Ops is like many other games you may have played before. There is running and shooting. Explosions. As a potential work of art, however, it is one of the most ambitious military shooters ever made. And the process of developing it began over 2,000 years ago.
The army of Cambesys
In 525 BC, a Persian king named Cambesys II sent a massive army from Luxor to the city of Siwa. Cambesys was angry that the oracle at Siwa had rejected his claim to the Egyptian throne. He wanted the oracle destroyed.
According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Cambesys's army traveled through the desert of Egypt for seven days, then vanished without a trace. Herodotus believed the soldiers were enveloped by a massive sandstorm and perished, yet modern archeologists have been searching for the remains of Cambesys's lost army for a century, with little to show for their efforts. Many academics believe Herodotus's story is just a myth.
Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni disagree. They claim that Cambesys's army existed, perished exactly how Herodotus claimed and further, that they alone know exactly where the army lies.
Angelo and Alfredo, brothers and archaeologists, first discovered the trail of what they believe to be the remains of Cambesys's army in 1996, when they found a large rock formation in the high desert they believed would have been used by the Persian soldiers as a shelter from the storm. Further excavation and exploration led to the discovery, in 2002, of a mass grave in the sand complete with Bronze Age armor, shattered water vessels, and weaponry. According to the Castiglioni brothers, this was proof of Herodotus's story and at long last the discovery of the lost army of Cambesys II.
Many scholars remain skeptical, and, unfortunately, proof of identification is tricky with corpses 2,500 years dead. The truth is, we may never know what happened to those 50,000 Persian soldiers, or if they even existed outside of Herodotus's imagination. What we do know is that somebody's army got swallowed by the sands outside of Siwa. That this is a thing that can happen. That the desert can open up its maw and swallow people alive - thousands of them at a time - and not let them go for thousands of years.
This tells us that forces of nature are capable of ending life on a massive scale, and wiping away all traces in the process. That sandstorms, in other words, can be just as destructive as they are capricious - the perfect basis for a mystery tale.
A level of drama
Walt Williams grew up in Louisiana, where land is mostly swampland and nature has a hundred ways to make you dead. Entire communities have risen up there, only to be sucked back into the morass or blown into timbers by Gulf hurricanes. Next door, to the west, is Texas, where in addition to hurricanes and floods, wildfires, tornadoes, and literal plagues of insects have ravaged man's attempts at civilizing the wild spaces since the entire region emerged from the sea. The Gulf coast, in other words, is a place of constant danger and change, where the only permanence is entropy.
"I tried to get out of the South so fast," Williams told Polygon in a recent interview. "I went to college in Texas and once I got to New York I was like: 'I'm never going back.' And yet here I am."
Williams currently resides in Dallas, the tail end of Tornado Alley.
"You get the crazy heat," he said, "but then we [also have] hail. Like, the weather doesn't even make sense here ... it does add a level of drama to your day."
Lead designer Cory Davis is also familiar with the deadly, fickle weather of the American Southwest. He spent time living in Lubbock, Texas, where occasional sandstorms would wash through the area, covering everything in fine, red dust.
"A few times I left my window down when I was at work," Davis told Polygon, "and I came back home and my computer had sucked up so much dust that it shut off. And my whole house ... was just covered in this red dirt.
"Sandstorms are something that I've thought about ... for years and years."
Davis has also spent time in Oman, where he visited family just before starting work as the lead designer on Spec Ops: The Line. The shifting sands of Oman struck a chord with Davis. Seeing massive new construction like the city of Dubai made him wonder at the wisdom of creating a modern metropolis in a land where, much like the American Gulf coast, the only permanence is impermanence.
Davis lived through a hurricane while working in Texas, and earlier, in his youth, helped clean up the streets of Houston after the San Jacinto River overtopped its banks, flooding much of Houston and the surrounding area. Experts have called it a "500 year flood." After four days of flooding and rain, the oil pipelines burst, setting the swollen San Jacinto afire and claiming 22 lives.
"I can think of moments of how fragile our existence is," Davis said, "and how many walls we put up to make us feel safe when really we are ... evolved monkeys that are on a spinning organic shape that's flying thousands of miles per hour through the universe.
"If you look in the imagery of Dubai from 10 years ago, it didn't exist. So being out there in the desert and realizing the expanse of this place and it was built solely because somebody wanted it there and they had the money to do it ... that place is fragile."
The idea of a sandstorm swallowing a city whole is at the center of Spec Ops: The Line. Davis and Williams wanted to create a game that would challenge the player, and bother them a little. They didn't want it to be necessarily fun. They wanted to say something. But first, they wanted to know if what they were describing could actually happen; if there could actually be a force of nature that could envelop an entire city.
Walt Williams was in Germany when he heard of the Castiglioni brothers' archaeological discovery. The idea of 50,000 Bronze Age soldiers being simply swallowed by the sands ignited his imagination. Yet despite the account put down by Herodotus, and the discovery of the Castiglioni brothers, the fate of Cambesys's army would still have been hard to believe if Williams wasn't at that precise moment living through a sandstorm of his own.
"ALL OF A SUDDEN, THERE WAS A BLACK WALL OF SAND AND THEN I COULDN'T SEE ANYTHING."
If you had asked anyone prior to April of 2011, if northern Germany could be struck by a massive sandstorm, they might have laughed in your face. Yet it can happen. It does happen. And on April 9, 2011, it did happen.
A freak sandstorm caused by dry weather and high winds enveloped a section of roadway near the town of Rostock, causing nearly 100 vehicles to collide in a massive traffic pileup.
"All of a sudden, there was a black wall of sand and then I couldn't see anything any more," said one motorist. Others said they had never seen anything like it. A truck carrying hazardous material caught fire, setting several nearby vehicles ablaze. Eight people died and dozens more were injured.
Just like the sandstorm that swallowed Cory Davis's living room and the one at Siwa that swallowed the army of Cambesys, the Rostock sandstorm was unexpected, violent and destructive.
"It's just something that kind of happens throughout the world at certain times," Williams said. "Like you had the dirty 30s with the Dust Bowl in America, when all of middle America was just ravaged by these sandstorms for nearly a decade. And the area in the Middle East, they do get hit by sandstorms that are rather large on a fairly frequent basis."
For Williams and Davis, this idea of a sandstorm as a chaotic and transformational force would form the core of Spec Ops. They wanted the player to be operating under a feeling of constant threat from the environment. The story they were creating involved a massive Middle Eastern city being swallowed up by a sandstorm, taking an entire army of American soldiers with it. It was a scenario that no one had written into a video game before, and would serve as the foundation for a game in which they could force players to confront the harsh realities of warfare and violence in ways that had never been done.
"It's not making a statement about climate change or anything like that," Williams said. "It just started off more as a metaphor of what the characters were going through; how it strips down all of the outer layers of who they think they are and what the city thinks it is, and tears it down to the bone."
"For me it's like taking your setting and then just trying to express it as strongly as possible," Davis said. "It's all about being able to identify where you're at and making a very intriguing location. The sand avalanches and everything else we did, they were meant to be a part of the setting and a deepening element of the setting."Sand is everywhere in Spec Ops."
"SAND IS EVERYWHERE IN 'SPEC OPS.'"
"It was very risky," Williams said. "I'm still blown away that 2K was willing to go in this direction."
From the beginning, publisher 2K Games wanted to make something different. It wanted to revitalize the Spec Opsfranchise. So it put out feelers to various studios, looking for pitches. Cory Davis worked with the team at Yager to answer that call.
"I put together a pitch for something that was much more sci fi," Davis said. "It had sort of a future soldier element to it, but it did take place in Dubai and it did have some of the elements we were playing with."
Davis then went to Monolith, where he spent just under two years helping with Condemned 2: Bloodshot. After putting that project to bed, he took a week off in Mexico. That was where 2K found him. It wanted to talk to him in the San Francisco bay area about Spec Ops and Yager's pitch. About making art. Davis got on a plane.
"They wanted to do something that was a very serious and dark and mature take on a war story," Davis said. "So I became very, very interested."
Spec Ops: The Line tells the story of a small squad of Delta Force operatives sent to the shattered city of Dubai after a massive sandstorm has rendered the city uninhabitable. You play as Walker, the leader of the Delta squad. Your mission: locate the survivors of the 33rd Brigade led by the mysterious Colonel Konrad.
"We wanted Walker to be the average guy," said Cory Davis. "It was really tough for us to do that and also have special forces training and do all this crazy cool stuff that he's able to do, but we really wanted him to be somebody that the average person could relate to ... we needed a blank canvas from which we could evolve.
"So basically we wanted to shred your average guy ... and by the time you get to the end we really wanted to express as strongly as possible what can happen to the psychological state of somebody who goes through these horrible events."
Co-writer Richard Pearsey describes it as a mystery story.
"Yes, it's a shooter, but these guys don't know what's happened in [Dubai]," Pearsey told Polygon. "The job is to go out and find survivors, and their perception is evolving of what's going on. It's a rescue mission that's gone as bad as it could possibly go because you kill everyone that you rescue."
Pearsey used to be a lawyer. Now he writes games.
"There's a reason a lot of lawyers become writers," Pearsey said. "[Legal training] is basically brainwashing to change your thought process. It lends itself well to writing which is all about logical progression, especially the doctrine of proximate causation ... it's a nice way for keeping loose ends from creeping into your work."
After attending law school, Pearsey tried his hand at screenwriting, earning some Hollywood credits doing grunt work. He supplemented his income practicing law for a medical instrument company until one day he decided he simply had to make a change.
"IT'S A RESCUE MISSION THAT'S GONE AS BAD AS IT COULD POSSIBLY GO BECAUSE YOU KILL EVERYONE THAT YOU RESCUE."
"I quit my job, and I had no idea what I was going to do," Pearsey said. "I just quit it and became my son's soccer coach."
Pearsey had always enjoyed games, and enjoyed writing, but never thought to put the two together. Not, anyway, until a company called TimeGate Studios offered him a job crafting the narrative for its game Section 8. Pearsey "enjoyed the hell out of it."
At TimeGate, Pearsey would start more than just a career; he would eventually found a friendship with designer Cory Davis.
"We've been working together since 2010," Pearsey says of Davis. "And we're huge horror fans. Really Spec Ops is a horror game in a lot of ways."
In 2008, Davis called Pearsey out to Germany, to work with him at Yager applying his legal-trained narrative skills to helping craft the story of Spec Ops.
"We wanted to ... see how much we could push the horror end," Pearsey said. "We really wanted to add a surreal element and a horror element. Really the most terrifying thing in the world is what we do to each other."
RICHARD PEARSEY ON CONTEXT
"People are not going to get mad at you ... if what you do is consistent with the game world. If what happens ... if the shocking moment is adequately prepared ... for you to understand that this type of game that you bought into, it's going to get progressively worse and we're going to talk about whether or not your actions are appropriate or not. Your characters are going to talk about it - the game talks to you. We completely break it down with game screens and load screens and whatnot. We talk to you about it. I think it has to be consistent.
"If it came out of nowhere, and I don't want to be critical of another game but the [airport] scene inModern Warfare ... people were pissed off about that. It took you out of the game and jarred you, because it doesn't fit that game world. And not only does it not fit that game world, you don't get to react like the characters you were playing would. I think that if you're going to set up something like that, you have to be ready for the possibility that people will go through the shooter as the main character and continue with the mission, but you need to allow them to feel like they have some moral agency in a situation like that.
"So by taking that away in that particular situation in the way that they did, like when you played that it seemed like it was from another game almost, and we are going to get away with it more because our whole game is as horrible as that and it makes sense for the world we created. If it didn't make sense ... it would ruin the whole experience, because you would be like: 'Where the fuck did that come from?'
"But attacks on US soldiers? That kind of fits. Or 'I'm going up the penthouse and Konrad is painting' ... yeah that's weird, but it's not inconsistent with the experience that you've been having, and so you can be a bit stranger and get away with [those] things.
"Had we done a Modern Warfare-style game, no way. I think if someone had stuck a mortar attack with white phosphorus in the middle of a MW game and [not dealt] with it, then you've got a big problem with the game context. It makes it odd."
"IT'S ABOUT PUTTING YOU IN A HIGH PRESSURE SITUATION WHERE YOU HAVE TO MAKE A DECISION."
Do you feel like a hero?
In Spec Ops, you don't simply play by numbers, then watch a movie about your heroic actions. Instead, the game forces you to confront situations of startling personal horror, and then offers you the choice of how involved in that horror you want to be.
One example is a scene near the end of the game, after things have gone horribly wrong. Your helicopter has crashed and your mission is to locate a fallen squad mate. You can hear him over the radio as he is fending off a mob of angry civilians. They blame the soldier for the damage done to their community. The deaths. The destruction. They surround him while you attempt to fight your way to his rescue. And all you can do is listen. When you finally arrive on the scene, you, too, are surrounded.
"We did it in a pretty brutal way," said Pearsey. "Now you've got civilians set up who are unarmed - they're rock throwers - who are streaming up and then they're getting physical with you, and so what do you do? We don't tell you what to do.
"To me that is what the game is about. It's about putting you in a high pressure situation where you have to make a decision and we're not going to tell you what the absolute right answer is."
Walt Williams wanted the game to start off feeling familiar to players. A military shooter with identifiable characters. A game similar to those that players may have played a hundred times.
"Just because you think you're the hero, just because you want this particular thing to play out this way, just because you made this decision doesn't mean that it's going to," Williams said. "There are other characters in this world. They are going to react to the choices that you make, but they are going to react not as if you are the center of their universe. They're going to react in their best interest, not yours."
One of Williams's major inspirations is Fallout 3. He describes a scene in the game in which the player is confronted by the main character's friend and the friend's father. The scene between the two characters plays out in front of the player, yet the player is left free to act if they so chose. They can watch, interact or kill. The choice is left lying in front of them, with very few clues as to which choice - if any - is more appropriate.
"HE PAUSED THE GAME AND TURNED TO US AND GOES: 'WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO?'"
"It's at the end of a vault in the beginning of the game," Williams said, "and you're sneaking out and you come across the Overseer, and he's talking to his daughter and I remember I was crushed behind the door and I've got the crosshairs on his head and I was like: 'they're not going to let me kill what's obviously an important character.' And then I blow his brains all over his daughter.
"They didn't tell me that it was a choice. They didn't tell me that it was going to branch out into the game, and in a lot of ways the choice of pointing a gun at someone and pulling a trigger - guess what? - they die."
Williams wanted to build on that feeling of choice with consequences. He wanted to create a game where the moral choices offered by the game's story were less of the "do thing A, get reward B" variety, and more tied into the narrative that itself would be continually evolving based on the choices you make.
"I remember when we did the first press demo of this and did the first hands on," said Williams. "I think it was the second or third guy who sat down to play the game. [He] got to the choice that's in there, and he paused the game and turned to us and goes: 'What do you want me to do?'"And that was the first moment that it really clicked in our heads: We knew we wanted to do something that did the moral choices differently ... but we hadn't realized how ingrained we had all become."
WALT WILLIAMS ON WALT WILLIAMS
"The first game I ever worked on was Family Guy: The Game. I worked with level design and the developer on writing the narrative, integrating it more with gameplay, and then working with theFamily Guy writing staff ... they took our script and ran off with it and made it their script. So working with them to keep it in line with the game. It was kind of an assistant producer-y/narrative kind of a role. That's the thing with game jobs; you have a title but you do like 10 other things.
"After Family Guy I moved onto BioShock where I was an assistant producer and ... worked with Ken Levine [and did] the PR stuff and really just providing feedback and watching them do their thing.... Just watching Ken Levine do anything for a year and a half is like a great masters class on anything in games, to be totally honest with you. Just watching him work and how they approached the type of game that they were wanting to make with BioShock, both the passion and the attempt to make it narratively and viscerally something deeper for the player, was in a lot of ways a really big inspiration for me going into Spec Ops. Seeing how they did it and what they were setting out to do artistically made me want to strive for the same level of quality in what I was doing.
"It's something that a lot of people don't get to see; you don't get to see the day-to-day. How do you still get up in the morning and go to the office and say 'yes, I am still excited about this.' And watching them bring it all together was very enlightening. Especially coming off of a game like Family Guy, where it was a completely different experience of crafting a game.
"So in a lot of ways Family Guy was a rough game to do. There were a lot of cooks in that kitchen. So coming off of that game and saying 'I can do this; I can get through it,' and then seeing the BioShockteam put that team together and seeing what you could build if you had the passion and the drive to shoot for something special ... it was absolutely a big drive for what we wanted to do with Spec Ops, especially on my end on the narrative side."
"There aren't many games that change the end user experience," Pearsey said. "They want you ... to come out there like a hero and a badass and they do it and that's fine. That's one type of entertainment product. Another type is 'hey, let's convert players and let's [turn] things on their head.' Not in a malicious way I don't think, but we want to establish the ground rules that we're going afield of your normal shooter in terms of how you experience it."
On Spec Op's loading screens, the game taunts you, asking "Do you feel like a hero yet?" and suggesting that shooting people for entertainment is less morally defensible than waging actual war. Williams wanted the player to feel as if everything they knew about shooters might somehow be wrong, and in the process, feel more emotionally connected to the mental state of the game's main character.
"They tell you when you're in dangerous situations: 'Don't be a hero. Being a hero gets people killed,'" Williams said. "There's a reason that you're training so much into muscle memory, so that when shit hits the fan that training kicks in and everyone knows what other people are going to do. They know who to follow, what choices to make because of all of this training, and being heroic has a tendency to go outside of that training to do something that is unexpected that is possibly going to do more bad than good. And that's this big theme within the game.
"Konrad comes to rescue these people [in Dubai] because he wants to be a good person. He wants to be a hero and again the sands and the desert turn it back on him and it changes him and it breaks him in a way. And then you have Walker come in following Konrad's footsteps trying to do something good, trying to be the hero."
Risk and reward
Every time Yager felt like it'd pushed too far, 2K surprised it by giving it a green light to push further. Still, there were limits to the publisher's patience.
"They were very supportive," said Williams. "But at the end of the day you are getting to make a game or art with someone else's money and that other person is going to ask from time to time 'hey, what are you doing with my money' and you have to explain it to them."
Every few months, the creative team would sit down with its publishers and review what had been built, asking each other if people would play and enjoy what it'd had created so far. It was aware it was creating a game that would test boundaries, presenting players with choices and situations that would make them feel uncomfortable.Essentially, they knew it wasn't always fun. The question was: Did they care?
CORY DAVIS ON QUALITY
"We're dealing with things that we all really care about, so there was ... some friction from time to time. Like we would battle with each other and argue with each other because we're calling into question people's world views and obviously on a team we're not all going to think alike.
"And the international perspective ended up helping a lot as well. If the game was just 'Cory's direction' when I came into it, not having lived overseas, not having had a lot of these experiences and discussions with people who had different opinions than me, then the game would have come out differently. And I think it would have been much more one-sided, and less well-informed.
"So I was really happy to be able to have an international experience on top of the sort of standard experience that you have in the dev process. We had 16 nationalities on this team, and a lot of these guys come from a completely different contexts than I did. And that caused a lot of debate and argument. The debate that was really healthy for the project ended up pushing us into an interesting direction that I'm really proud of.
"A lot of the ways that you experience things in the game come out of a ... I would say turmoil between the feelings of the team on these really difficult subjects, and if there wasn't that really strong turmoil we wouldn't have pushed ourselves to do these things the way we did. We would have done them in a much cheaper way.
"Maybe we would have saved some money or sold some more games, I don't know, but I really like what we did because hell, to be honest, most of us developers are not benefiting other than having a job afterwards from the sales of our games, and the fact that 2K to me really puts quality first and really puts this debate that we were having on meaningful topics first, was pretty unique for a publisher.
"It was a huge risk and I hope, I really hope that people get to do that again in the future and the industry doesn't tell us that they aren't ready, that gamers aren't ready. Because I think they should be and they are. But money is a part of this equation and that's the world we live in."
"When you think about the books we read, the movies we watch, the music we listen to," Williams said, "we use [art] to explore our emotions faithfully that we may not want to feel because something has actually happened in our lives. We had the freedom to explore a game like this because there were no other military shooters attempting to do that. Absolutely it's risky, but risky isn't a bad thing.
"We think we've made a game that people are going to respond to fairly strongly. We don't want them to feel a specific thing. It's not designed to make you feel bad. The goal that we had going in was that you would just feel something.""I thought for sure, throughout development that 2K was eventually going to force us to cut the ending and change it," Davis said.
"WE WANTED TO KILL WALKER. THAT WAS SOMETHING THAT WE REALLY, REALLY WANTED TO DO."
The ending would prove to be the biggest narrative risk of all. Several endings were created, but the team worked until the 11th hour choosing exactly how to end the game. Pearsey, who left Yager before the game was finished, didn't even know for sure how it would end.
The team knew it didn't want a happy ending, but there was little chance of that. In a game where the main character literally physically degrades before your eyes, with his actions - your actions - becoming less and less defensible, a tidy conclusion that makes everything all better isn't in the cards. But what Davis wanted to do with the ending raised eyebrows even with his most supportive producers at 2K.
"We wanted to kill Walker," Davis said. "That was something that we really, really wanted to do."
Killing the main playable character in a video game isn't unheard of, but it is extremely rare. Most games (especially big-budget action games) are not created in a vacuum. They are created with the expectation a sequel could be made, even if one never materializes.
"Once you've invested so much money and time into making the character as believable as possible," said Davis, "and making him likeable and interesting and somebody who you want to continue to learn about, and then basically [sticking] a gun in his mouth ... it's something that I expected [2K] to not allow us to do."
2K once again surprised Davis by going along. The "sequel discussion" never happened, and the team at Yager was given the green light to make the game it wanted to make, even if that meant Walker must die.
"Richard [Pearsey] had proposed two different, similar takes that we ended up with for the final version," Davis said. "Walt [Williams] was heavily influential as well, as far as making it ... It was Richard and Walt and a mutual desire to do something that expressed Walker's journey and not the possibility of a future journey because that's not what we're focused on."
Both writers (one of whom, Williams, was a full time employee of publisher 2K) wanted to give the player the option to do harm to the main character. They wanted to create the most logical conclusion to Walker's downward spiral, even if that meant committing the unpardonable sin of not leaving room for a sequel.
Yet in spite of unparalleled support from 2K to make a game that stretched the boundaries of the modern shooter, there were moments when the entire project might have been derailed by caution. The darker and more subversive the game's narrative became, the more Yager's higher-ups at 2K began to question just what it was they had unleashed.
"THE CITY IS BURNING ... "
Richard Pearsey describes one such moment, where the team had created a scene in which the player would be encouraged to pick up and use a massively destructive weapon against his enemies, and then learn of unexpected consequences by literally wading through the aftermath of destruction.
"I think that's a huge breaking point for Walker," Pearsey said. "A lot of [players] at that point - they can't watch what they're seeing ... which puts [the player] and [Walker] in an identical psychological state ... because that's what you're doing and that's what the player is dealing with to a degree. The city is burning and you're the ones who burned it."
"People were focus testing [that scene] and ... they were pausing the game and they were leaving the room," said Williams. "Some people were playing through it, waiting for it to be over and they were being very, kind of, upset that this had happened. That we had put them through this particular moment. It was affecting people very emotionally."
Seeing players put down their controllers, get up and walk away from the game raised alarms with 2K producers. They were signed on to creating a powerful experience, but how powerful is too powerful? Someone asked "Are we comfortable with this?"
"This is where the characters have to look at the consequences of their actions and say: 'Should we have gone further? Should we have left? Should we leave now? Is it right to keep going?'" Williams answered. "And if the player is thinking about seriously putting down the controller at this point, then that's exactly where we want them to be emotionally.
"The producer on the game at the time turned to the head of product development and said: 'That's good art. The question is: Do you want to make a game that is art in that way?' And she posed that question ... and 2K was like: 'We get that. Yeah, let's do it.'"
The dark period
In spite of the strong support for the Spec Ops vision, there was, in 2010, what Cory Davis describes as a "dark period," when it didn't seem at all a certainty that Spec Ops would see the light of day. Not specifically because of the twisted narrative he and Williams and Pearsey had concocted, although that certainly played a part. Scarier to 2K than the thought of a game without a sequel was the thought of a game that no one wanted to play.
Yager had poured a significant amount of resources and time into creating a standalone demo and teaser videos to show off at E3, the annual consumer expo in Los Angeles. Unfortunately those demos and videos weren't exactly representative of what would become the final game.
"We announced it really early, which was probably a mistake," Davis said. "We had some really great looking footage. It looked like final game footage, in our announce videos, and really that was just a teaser. It was built as that little little thing to show what we would like to do and people got excited about it for a while and then it was like: 'Oh, the game doesn't come out for two years?'"
"WE ANNOUNCED IT EARLY, WHICH WAS PROBABLY A MISTAKE."
The resulting audience confusion became a growing concern. 2K wanted to be sure that players would be willing to give the game a chance at all, much less, after playing it, understand what the team at Yager was trying to accomplish.
Focus testing from around the same time only heightened the concerns. Players were asked to play through single, linear levels, which wasn't enough gameplay to showcase the evolving narrative that would become the hallmark of the game, and drew unfair, albeit inevitable, comparisons to Call of Duty.
"It's just natural in this generation for a shooter game about soldiers to be taking its cues from the most successful games in the genre," Davis said. "It may be tempting for developers to copy their formula ... attempting to replicate their massive sales success. I never wanted to do that, and neither did Yager, or 2K. We felt like there was something missing from those games, and that we had an opportunity to do something more meaningful, more mature, and more single-player focused."
Nevertheless, Yager was asked to try to close the gap between their shooter and the competition. The slow-paced gameplay was tweaked to be more intense, more approaching what consumers would expect from a modern shooter. More like Call of Duty.
"I would say that if you were to rank Spec Ops on intensity compared to a Call of Duty game," Davis said, "overall it's not as intense as a COD game. It's a little slower paced, and it lets you get closer to the characters, and that's intentional. But before [the change] it was much more that way. There were long sections of a lot of different things that were not big impact moments and so we really needed to filter down to the things that we thought were strongest and then connect those events as strongly as possible. So when you see a woman getting sand boarded, it has context behind it."
When asked if the team ever worried that shifting the intensity of Spec Ops more toward that of Call of Duty might result in players expecting one type of game, then feeling duped when they realize they've gotten another, Davis laughed.
"For me that's awesome. That's exactly what I want," he said. "Maybe I'm an asshole, but I think there are plenty of CODgames out there, and if you want one ... I'm sorry we didn't give you one, but I'm glad that some players went into [the game] and realized that it's something more.
"Seeing gamers go into the experience hoping to have a fun, shooty bro-romp through a middle eastern environment ... killing soulless, villainous enemies who are difficult to relate to (and thus easy to pull the trigger on), and then slowly finding themselves falling down the rabbit hole into a darker, more contemplative, more surreal, and character-driven experience has been amazing for me."
Williams believes that breaking away from the traditional shooter pack is more than just good business sense - he genuinely believes it's the future of the genre, and a way for creators to express artistic points of view.
"If you pay your 60 bucks because you want to shoot something," Williams said, "and at the end of that game you feel bad for shooting something because I've taken you through a narrative journey to that point where you're kind of regretting having gone through it, not because of you but because of the actions that you've taken part in, I think that's something to make people rejoice about the emotional impact of games.
"We didn't set out to make a Call of Duty killer. We're not trying to top anybody. They do what they do very well, and sometimes people want that experience. But people want this experience too."
"MAYBE I'M AN ASSHOLE, BUT THERE ARE PLENTY OF 'CALL OF DUTY' GAMES."
As of the time of this writing, Spec Ops: The Line has a Metacritic review score of 75, and has sold, by one estimate,fewer than a quarter of a million copies. Publisher 2K has acknowledged the game has sold "less than expected," in spite of critical acclaim.
Just prior to the game's release in July of 2012, Walt Williams acknowledged the possibility that Spec Ops might not succeed, financially, but refused to let that possibility bother him.
I FEEL LIKE WE'VE MADE A GAME THAT WE CAN ALL STAND BEHIND AND BE PROUD OF."
"I feel totally calm," Williams told us in June. "In a way, it's out of my hands at this point and it's been out of my hands for a while. We have a boxed game downstairs and it was very: 'Here's a game! We made a game! I'm holding it. Cool!' At the same time, I try not to think about it. There's a certain part of it that's nerve wracking.
"This is my first game as lead writer. I feel like we've made a game that we can all stand behind and be proud of. If people really really enjoy it I don't necessarily need - my ego doesn't necessarily need to read a bunch of people saying that. And if people didn't enjoy it, I can respect that they didn't enjoy it. I would like maybe the highlights, like for the next game ... that's good information to have."
Cory Davis is less sanguine about the experience.
"While overall, I'm really satisfied with the reactions since the release of Spec Ops: The Line," Davis said, "just like anything in life ... there are a few things I wish we could rewind the clock and do differently."Most on Davis' mind: multiplayer. Davis believes that 2K should have allowed Spec Ops: The Line to stand as a single-player experience, in spite of market studies and sales expectations pointing to "the necessity" of a multiplayer component.
"The multiplayer mode of Spec Ops: The Line was never a focus of the development," Davis said, "but the publisher was determined to have it anyway. It was literally a check box that the financial predictions said we needed, and 2K was relentless in making sure that it happened - even at the detriment of the overall project and the perception of the game."
"THE MULTIPLAYER IS A CANCEROUS GROWTH."
Against Davis' wishes, development on the multiplayer component proceeded and was farmed out to multiple studios before ending up at Darkside Studios. The result, according to Davis, was a "low-quality Call of Duty clone in third-person," which "tossed out the creative pillars of the product." "It sheds a negative light on all of the meaningful things we did in the single-player experience," Davis said. "The multiplayer game's tone is entirely different, the game mechanics were raped to make it happen, and it was a waste of money. No one is playing it, and I don't even feel like it's part of the overall package - it's another game rammed onto the disk like a cancerous growth, threatening to destroy the best things about the experience that the team at Yager put their heart and souls into creating."
Davis feels sorry for the developers who were tasked with creating the "tacked on multiplayer" for Spec Ops ("bullshit, should not exist ... there's no doubt that it's an overall failure"), and is still, months after finishing development, frustrated at publisher 2K. But overall he believes it did a good thing allowing Yager to make the game in the first place.
"They took a hell of a lot of risk with the project that other publishers would not have had the balls to take," Davis said. "I'm proud of what we were able to achieve, and it was not easy."
Said Richard Pearsey: "I don't want to second guess [Spec Ops: The Line]. ... It succeeded at what we wanted it to do.
"You can always say: 'Oh I wish we could stage that scene a little differently.' But I don't see the point in dwelling on anything like that. It was the game that we wanted to make. It was the game that when I was interviewing and they were telling me what was going on, and they were telling me what they wanted to do, I certainly helped to bring that to fruition and I'm proud of it.
"I wouldn't redo anything."