"Nazis are basically human demons," says Walt Williams, writer of the critically-acclaimed Spec Ops: The Line, at the Game Developer Conference. "Killing them is no big deal."
The enemies in Spec Ops: The Line, however, were meant to have character. Killing them was supposed to feel weighty. It was intended to be a thing which would give you pause, even if you were enjoying it.
Williams says he considers Spec Ops:The Line to have been an experiment, and one that he's still a little surprised by. What Williams and developer Yager set out to do with Spec Ops was prove that violence could be used as a core component of a game narrative, but not necessarily as an end to itself. They wanted to give the violence meaning.
"It was a hard game to get out the door," he says. "[But] the reaction to it was quite wonderful."
In most games, violence is the principle method by which a player interacts with the world. Shooting solves problems, whether those problems are puzzles or enemies. Williams believes that the effect of this use of violence not that game violence creates or desensitizes people to real-world violence, but that it desensitizes them to the violence in the game, rendering the acts themselves meaningless.
"When you sit down to play a shooter, you're signing up to hunt hundreds or thousands of people," Williams says. "In a game, we've allowed hunting to become not simply mundane, but run of the mill."
Williams grew up in Louisiana, where hunting is a a popular pastime. But he says that while he and many people he know can remember every time they've killed an animal in the world, the sheer volume and essential meaninglessness of kills in most videogames leave virtually no impact.
"You have to view your enemies as characters; they are the victims of your players' violence."
For Spec Ops: The Line, Williams says the trick to making kills memorable was tying the acts of in-game violence to the story, and giving the player reason to question whether or not solving problems through violence was a good thing, even if they had no choice.
One example from Spec Ops is the infamous "Human Cost" level, in which the player is forced to use a brutally powerful weapon and then later learns that a group of civilians were caught in the cross fire. The following level then forces the player to walk through the aftermath of their actions, witnessing the destruction first-hand.
"There's nothing the player can do to change this," Williams says. "It has to happen."
The result is that the player then feels a party to the main character's degradation.
Another trick: character evolution. Williams says that even the enemy characters were treated as main characters, and the actors speaking their lines were directed to perform as if they were the leads.
"You have to view your enemies not as obstacles, but as characters," Williams says. "[They are] the victims of your players' violence."
The enemy characters in Spec Ops exhibited three stages of evolution, just like the main characters. First they were confident, then cautious and finally frightened. Williams wanted the enemies to see the amount of violence you were capable of, as the player, and learn to fear you. By the end of the game they'd be running from you, and you, having devolved into madness, would be chasing them, just like they chased you in the beginning.
"When they see you they see a force of nature: They see death," Williams says. "And they are frightened."
As for what his next steps may be, as a game designer, Williams refused to speculate. But he does hope that the experiment of Spec Ops encourages other game makers to take more chances.
"I think we need to get to a point where we maybe get to writing about characters that are not so bloodthirsty," he says. "It's up to us as writers to make a game with more options."
Williams says he knows that the community of game developers is, on the whole, politically progressive and intelligent and generally believes that the blanket use of violence is a bad thing. Yet to play the games they make you would never suspect it. But it's not the violence in video games itself that bothers him, it's what the violence says about the lack of creative choices being made by the people who make the games.
"I would like to see less violent games out there," he says. "Because they're too easy."