Sponsored By

A Line in the Sand: The Spec Ops Interview

Lead designer Cory Davis takes Gamasutra on a ride through the design decisions behind Spec Ops: The Line, explaining how he hopes to bring a new aesthetic and storytelling heft to the military shooter genre.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

April 2, 2012

20 Min Read

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.

Those choices ultimately are about shooting people still though, aren't they? When you say that they're not used to making these choices, they're used to shooting people. Isn't the choice who to shoot?

CD: Well, like I said, the player's able to use whatever tools are at his disposal there. And yeah, it's a shooter game, but often the choices between a very ambiguous scenario, and you're not sure how the outcome's going to turn out. And we showed a scenario where there was a civilian and a soldier hanging from a billboard, and actually Konrad is speaking to Walker, and testing him in this moment, and demands that he chooses one of them to execute.

And the story behind that is that the civilian had stolen water and the soldier had gone to apprehend him, and killed his family in the process, so this is one of those moments where a gray area is there; there's really not a good or happy choice to be made.

And then, at the same time, it's not a binary choice; there's a lot of other things that you can do in this environment that you wouldn't expect. You don't necessarily have to shoot one of those soldiers; there's other ways to approach it.

For example you could leave, you could attempt to shoot the ropes and save them both, you could shoot one of the soldiers, you could shoot snipers that are aiming down at you at that moment. So there's a lot of different ways that you can interact in this scene that maybe you wouldn't expect; if you're looking closely you're going to see some options.

And going back to those story sequences again, I'm wondering if we'll eventually see a better way to do that. Because while trapping players -- for lack of a better word -- while you tell them something important has been in the game industry forever and there are different ways of doing it. Like in Left4Dead, obviously, you've got these safe rooms and people are inclined to re-up their ammo and stuff in there, so they're going to hear some story.

CD: Yeah, I mean, it's actually a really good debate. It's all sort of a philosophical debate as to how often we should do that, and when we should do that. And as well, technology is becoming better and better, so like you said, I hope there's one day, a time where we don't ever have to do that.

But at the same time, right now, we're streaming a lot of time, and we're trying to fit as much as we can into the memory, so that we can have an awesome scene coming up. And sometimes you can't just jump into that; you have to wait. I think experiencing some narrative is more fun than watching a loading screen, or something like that.

In addition to the explicit storytelling, you are also attempting environmental and gameplay-based storytelling, based on what you the player versus you the character are doing and seeing, and how you're interacting with that. So how much did you plan that out, and how did you envision players interacting with this world on a visual information level?

CD: Well, at its core, the setting, I think it tells a great story. Because the way the sand is piled up against the buildings, even the way the buildings are constructed, say a lot about the civilization that was there before the sandstorms hit.

But at the same time, each of those locations that are in the game is shown to have specific events happen, and because they're important to the story. I don't think we'd go any place that we're just going because we like the way the environment looks, or something like that.

So each of those areas, it's actually pretty easy for us, when it comes naturally out of the story, to understand how we can tell little stories with the visuals and the atmosphere that's in those environments.

When you were talking about making the choice between shooting one character or another, or figuring out another way, one of the things I noticed from playing and also from the trailer, is that it feels like the game has very moment-based design, where you're playing up to certain moments, or certain moments happen, emergent from gameplay.

CD: Yeah. The pacing that you're experiencing was definitely very deliberate. It was something that we definitely did; it was derived directly out of our story that we're telling.

But you can sort of garner a lot of emotion and certain atmosphere for the player through different types of pacing, and I think a lot of games sort of focus entirely on this really fast paced "bang bang bang" type of action sequences strung together. But here, we also have some slower moments as well, where the player can reflect on the narrative and the things that the squad is doing, and also look around and get to know the environment and check out the environmental storytelling.

And I think that those moments where that atmosphere is really thick, those longer moments, are unique and they're very, very strong, and that's something that's really important to me when I'm telling a story -- is that the gameplay sort of compliments it.

As we develop each of these details, there's been a lot of debate about how the combat scenario should play out, how many enemies there should be. But even the environments those things take place in -- whether or not you're in a corridor, or you're in a big lobby, or you're outside in sand dunes -- can strike certain emotions, and even change the pacing a lot. And so those things are definitely deliberate -- deliberate, and they're very interesting to me.

More than story-based moments, what about gameplay moments?

CD: We have sort of a blend of scripted, high-impact scenes, and scenes that are more organic and let the AI make decisions in more wider, open spaces, and things like that. But it's important to me to really have not too much of one or the other, because I think that they're both important and can be impactful.

But it's really important to spread those things out correctly, and not ram one type of scene down the player's throat too many times in a row. Yeah, all these debates are constantly going on, especially during pre-production, as we get into level design.

What is your philosophy of pacing as far as that goes? How many new instances and moments do you need to give players per amount of gameplay time?

CD: Well, I'm not the type of guy that really thinks so formulaic in basically anything that I do, but definitely we focused hard on the setting and the narrative.

And you notice at the start of the game it's quite slow, actually, and we let the player sort of get into the mood and start to grasp some of the overarching sort of plotlines and things like that. And then at times we sort of break those rules and throw you into something that's super energetic and full of action.

But I think the best thing for us has always been just to focus test and also to make sure that the story is in the driver's seat in all of these scenarios.

There's a sandpit you're about to fall into, and you have to hold on to something. This is a minor gameplay moment. Will it come up again?

There are obviously some that you'll do once, and some that will happen again. For instance, shooting out a window that has sand behind it, that comes up again later in a grander scale, but does it come up again in a minor scale? How do you attack that issue of newness versus expectation?

CD: Well, it's a couple of different things; it's a discussion of product value. You want to make sure, at the right time, that you're infusing some of these really exciting events into the combat. Things you don't expect, making sure that there's enough variety.

But as far as the way we do those things, and if we choose to do them again, I always like to do them more than once. But sometimes you can afford to do something that's really exciting just once, and that can be a cool thing, as well, depending on what it is. But like you mentioned, the hanging and shooting, yeah, we do do that again.

And then the scene with the avalanche, that's one thing where we wanted to provide as many opportunities for that as we could. And then we have these sandstorm moments where we fight in these brutal sandstorms, which we've really packed a hell of a lot of product value into. And those are landmarks throughout the experience that we hope people will remember.

Yeah, it does seem like there's a theme of sand as a weapon.

CD: I think the sand is pretty tied into everything we're doing. But just because of the way that it's transformed the environment, and that allows it to tell the story that's you're in a location that's cut off from the world. But at the same time, yeah, we've looked for every opportunity that we could find to integrate that into the gameplay as well.

Landing on a roof that looks like sand that's actually a glass roof, and you fall through. This notion of unsure ground is really interesting, especially with this architecture in Dubai. And then the way that it changes faces, the fact that you could be walking up near the ceiling next to these crystal chandeliers.

And then in the gameplay, too, kicking sand up into the eyes of enemies with frag grenades. There are objects you can shoot that are kind of dripping sand, that can cause sand to fall down on enemies and stun them. And you see the sand avalanches and the sandstorms as well.

Speaking of Dubai, have you been there?

CD: Yeah, actually. My parents lived in Ajman, which is only a three hour drive from there, throughout the whole project -- not because of the project, but it was kind of a happy coincidence. And also our military advisor is located there, which I had the chance to be with him a lot and fire weapons in the desert and things like that. And we've got our art team there doing a lot of research and things like that, too. Dubai is just crazy.

Yeah, it does seem entirely plausible that it could become a sand wasteland of giant, hulking dinosaur structures in the near term. [laughs]

CD: Yeah, I mean there isn't another location like that on the planet, I think... It's sort of off on its own. It's at least a few hours' drive from any small town, and it was built just simply because of the will of man, saying, "Let's just do the biggest, most awesome thing that's imaginable." I do a lot of thinking about architecture, and level design, and I'm just constantly amazed at the projects that they're starting or that they're even completing over there in Dubai. It's unbelievable.

There definitely are some strong correlations to like the Tower of Babel and all that kind of stuff over there.

CD: Definitely. Those themes are definitely interesting, and ones that inspired us as well. So it's sort of a monument to what man can achieve, and in Spec Ops: The Line, we see how fragile that is.

Can you talk about the sort of light stylization that you guys did on on the characters and locations, and what the thinking was behind it?

CD: Well, talking about just the overall setting in the way that we work, first of all, we wanted to make sure that we didn't just have another one of these brown shooters. I think that it's pretty common these days, to sort of just show this really dirty, grungy brown environment, and we wanted to avoid that pitfall.

And it would be a real shame to show Dubai to you without showing off the super shiny, glass, marble, and gold, and crystal, all this crazy stuff that they're building there. It really is a colorful place; it's a very over-the-top place as well. Like, all the architecture that we've been inspired to emulate is definitely not your typical architecture that you're going to see in a Middle Eastern city, for example. So that's definitely something -- Dubai itself inspired us a lot.

And then when it came to the characters... I think, for us, the characters needed to be a foundation to tell this sort of dark journey with. And so we needed characters that the player could relate to quite well, but at the same time could -- especially Walker, the main character -- project their own emotions onto.

So, you notice Walker's not constantly saying what he's thinking, but as far as the way he looks, that same principle applies. I think we have sort of this mix of realism, if you could say that, with just a little bit of a hyperreal take on that, as far as the way the colors are, and the way we stretched the imagination as to what the sand can look like, and the architecture.

How would you say this desire to let players project onto him applies to Walker, in terms of his look?

CD: He doesn't have like a bunch of tattoos or earrings. I don't think any of those things are negative in any way; it's just I think that those can be things that where you distantly say, "That's Walker, and that's who he is", and it sort of can make it harder to relate to him. So he's a pretty, I guess you could say, "Shepard-ish". They've sort of done the exact same thing with the Mass Effect games. And so it's a character that I think a lot of people can relate to, simply because he's a bit of a blank canvas.

It's interesting to kind of purposefully make a more generic character, visually. I mean it's very common in games to do that, but it's not always necessarily with thought behind it.

CD: Yeah, I think it's really common, as well, to go super over the top, too. I don't know -- I think, for the story that we're telling, we sort of needed that. What we saw is sort of the common American soldier guy, and I think if you look at the protagonist in Apocalypse Now, it's that way, a little bit, as well.

Talking about the stylization, it's believable but not realistic. Uncharted doesn't try to present you with an actual, real-looking character; it's just off enough that it could be a caricature.

CD: Yeah, I like that it's realistic enough that you can sort of imagine being in that environment with those characters. But at the same time, we take some liberties with making sure that the environment is even more beautiful than it could be in the real world. And then the characters have this almost realistic look to them. You're right.

It can be useful in terms of story and projecting things onto people. Because if you think that they're supposed to really be real, you'll try to project actual real life scenarios onto them.

CD: Yeah, like, "That guy wouldn't do that thing." But yeah, in order to drive home a lot of the emotions that we're trying to portray here, the characters are in some scenarios that are hyperrealistic; they're over-the-top, you know? And I think if everything looked extremely like photoreal, that it wouldn't quite work.

What do you personally, as a designer, like about squad combat?

CD: Personally, there are things that I like about it as far as the way it's been developed in the past. But I think the thing that enticed me the most about it is the way that it can become a storytelling device, as far as the way that the squad is constantly speaking with each other, and then giving commands to them. and hearing their reactions and things like that; that's really interesting to me.

I think I like squad commands the most when I feel like I give a command and something very powerful and interesting happens because of that. And I really don't like, as a gamer, giving them seemingly useless commands all the time, just to keep them in line; that's something that I'm not a big fan of.

But I know that there are people that are really into those tactical shooters, and this was sort of an evolution that we went on, as a developer, as well. Trying to find out where our target was, and that just wasn't something that was something that we could do and still tell the story in a way that we wanted to tell it.

This game was announced in a previous iteration, but then was delayed. Did you guys go back to the drawing board?

CD: Well, we definitely learned a lot of things as we were developing. When we did that, that was really because we realized that we had an opportunity, and 2K allowed us to really focus test what we had done, and come back and try and hit a lot harder on the story. That was the thing that really was invested in the most during that time period, was focus testing the story that we had, and then really, really polishing after that, as far as the voiceover and all the things that we were doing with the characters.

That's a pretty rare opportunity.

CD: Oh it is, definitely. I've been on plenty of projects that just don't get that chance, and -- you know what happens to these projects. They either get kicked out the door and you're disappointed, or they get cancelled. And we ended up with a publisher that saw potential and really, really, really wants to tell a story, and that's important to them, so we lucked out.

Read more about:


About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like