Making violence meaningful through narrative in Spec Ops: The Line

We start of our new series GDC Gems* with writer Walt Williams, who at GDC 2013 explained how he critiqued the use of violence in games by making the violent game Spec Ops: The Line.

*) GDC Gems are micro mortems based on some of the most fascinating GDC-talks our editorial staff has witnessed over the last couple of years.

“In real life killing is an impactful act, it sticks with you. My grandfather remembers every life he took in World War II. In a game we have allowed killing to become mundane, run of the mill.

So we set out to make a game where the moment to moment violence was actually meaningful. We needed to write the narrative in such a way that the player believes that the violence is driving the story. We did that by using what I like to call The Illusion of Causality. We can distinguish four steps:

    1. Embrace Ludonarrative Dissonance

      When the narrative and the core mechanic are at odds with each other, that means your main character is a hypocrite. We need to accept that and we need to write them as such. Because your main character will never be more righteous than the core mechanic allows. Walker is called in to save people but he’s doing that by killing enough people to fill six hours of gameplay. Let’s be honest, hypocrisy is good drama! We don’t have to make the main characters likable.

    2. Always Be Evolving

      With Spec Ops we wanted to make the players feel as if character growth was occurring because of combat and we wanted to draw their attention to that. We wrote at least three lines of dialogue for every character at any given occasion. Each set of lines matched a certain tone, emotionally and mentally, for where they were at that point in the game. At the beginning of the game Walker was a professional, after that an authoritative commander and ultimately he ended up as an unhinged killer. The same action in all three stages go: “Target down” to “He’s done!” to “Cocksucker!”.

    3. Choices should Reflect Gameplay

      What we did with the choices in Spec Ops was take the combat and slow it down, allowing it to focus on one specific moment where the player really had to think about using his gun and killing a person. We wanted to reinforce the power of the gun in their hands. Make the choice morally grey.

    4. Let Players Judge Themselves

      In Spec Ops we had two ways of letting players judge themselves: Silent Judgement and Direct Judgement. In Silent Judgement the player does something inarguably wrong but there is nobody to witness it except for the player himself. It has to be optional and you shouldn’t punish the player for doing it. Let guilt do its work. With Direct Judgement the choice is clear, it’s right in your face, presented as a choice. At the end of the game the player is handed a gun and told to shoot Conrad or shoot himself. Don’t pick an ending for the player. This is his moment, he has to judge himself. It should give a unique outcome and above all closure.

This does not lead to a happy ending. To be honest, once you’re done you probably feel really bad. And that was the point we were making with Spec Ops: The Line. I would personally like to see more non violent games out there. Not because they’re bad, but because they’re creatively easy. I think we’re better than that.”

[divider] Extra: The Human Cost [/divider]

“The above scene is called The Human Cost. Walker orders his squad to use white phosphorous on the enemy. As a result 47 innocent people are killed. There is nothing the player can do to change this. It had to happen for two reasons. To make the violence meaningful we had to plant a seed of doubt in the player’s mind. To make clear that violence is not a ‘safe’ act in this game. The story was not a hero’s journey, but rather a tragedy. It’s a personal story of one man’s crisis of self.”

Eric Bartelson
Eric Bartelson
Bartelson is a freelance writer, and former Editor-in-Chief of everything Control. He’s been writing about games, internet, movies and music since 1993.

Related articles