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Spec Ops: The Line - This Changes Everything

Grant Howitt | 26 Oct 2012 17:00
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(Warning: this article contains massive Spec Ops: The Line spoilers.)

Spec Ops: The Line, more so than any other story told in the medium to date, shows us how people can change over time.

In Spec Ops: The Line, Captain Walker's journey into madness is punctuated throughout the game by stuff that's just glossed over by a lot of other companies.

Aesthetically, of course, this is old news. We've seen Batman's ratio of cloak to holes change dramatically as he descends into the darkness of Arkham. We've been subjected to Max Payne's fall from grace and his accompanying hairline fluctuations. But Captain Walker's journey into madness is punctuated throughout the game by stuff that's just glossed over by a lot of other companies, slotting neatly into areas segmented off for lip-service.

It's clear that Walker looks a right mess by the end of the story. Gone from the blue-eyed military rescue leader, the madness of Dubai has cast him anew. His uniform and insignia are tattered and covered in sand and blood and ash. He's no longer a soldier; Captain Walker has become a warrior. A killer, even - he's waded so far through blood that he may as well keep going until he reaches the other side.

But the character model isn't the important bit. The important bit is everything else.

Getting the story into a state where that change could happen organically proved more difficult than you might imagine. Richard Pearsey, writer and narrative designer on the project, weighed in: "Originally, the story was much more straightforward and called for the Delta Squad to be sent to assassinate Konrad who had illegally led his battalion out of a war in Iran and was looting a recently destroyed Dubai.

"The set up left all of our characters with very limited room for growth or for our perceptions of them and the game scenario to change, which was something we very much wanted. Konrad was the bad guy. We knew it; the squad knew it; and the job was to terminate his command.

"In the final version, the story is a mystery. What happened to John Konrad? The environment is central to plot and character development. The squad is not there to kill; they volunteered for a rescue mission. Konrad and his men are good guys, heroes, and so is the squad. Now, we have somewhere to go. We can now play with player expectations, especially with the expectation that in a military shooter we are the good guy and that anyone who gets in our way needs killing."

Everything changes. Take the barks, for example - the phrases shouted back and forth between characters during combat. Initially these wouldn't sound out of place in any standard by-the-numbers war shooter. They're clean, crisp orders and warnings, stuff like "flash that bunker" and "hostile eliminated."

Military jargon like this exists for two reasons: firstly, it's kind of long-winded to shout out "throw an explosive device at those men in the bunker and then shoot them" in the middle of combat, and saving time saves lives. But also, less obviously perhaps, they take the edge off killing. They reduce it to an act of cleansing, of negation, of a problem that has been solved. It's only as the situation in Dubai worsens that we can see the gruesome reality.

Pearsey speaks up. "The writing process was mainly iterative. We planned for three full sets of barks for each squad member, each representing a specific phase of a character's arc. Each bark, of course, is intended to provide either feedback or information to the player - the trick is to avoid too much repetition. Variations are written for each bark. Then, they are written. Over and over."

The process behind making this all happen, called "Thin Slices" by the development team, is revolutionary enough to warrant a talk at this year's GDC Europe . An action as benign as healing a wounded teammate starts as an encouragement to get up and work through the pain, moves into desperation at their situation, and ends in screamed orders to get up and keep moving because Walker needs them to keep killing people.

What was once an act of compassion has been rewritten as an act of aggression, triggered by the player. Things that started out as violent - for example, highlighting a target for your squadmates to shoot - are stripped of euphemism, as "Take out that sniper!" becomes "Kill him." Same act. Different words.

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