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Spec Ops: The Line - 'We want players to feel something about pulling out a gun and shooting people'

Lead writer Walt Williams on making Spec Ops matter...

A woman lies with her face down in the dirt. Four soldier stand over her. One of them has his boot on her neck, and the barrel of his gun trained on her cheek. Two of them hold down another victim - a male military type. The last soldier in the group is the one in command and he is conducting an interrogation.

His tact is brutally straightforward: the military captive being held down has information he wants, and in order to convince him to talk, he's threatening to have the defenceless woman in the dirt tortured. He barks a question and gets no answer. He nods at the soldier nearest the woman, and he responds by firing an entire clip into the ground, just inches away from the woman's face. As his gun empties, her terrified screams echo around the enclosure.

The man in charge repeats his question. Once again he receives no answer, and so he nods at the soldier under his command a second time. This time the soldier fires one bullet. No scream follows it. The leader of the group admonishes his interrogation subject and then parades two more civilians in front of him. He says they will die unless he starts getting some answers.

Zoom

You - yes, you - are positioned a few feet away from this harrowing scene. As the civilians are frogmarched towards a nearby wall, you have the chance to save them. However, you need the same information from the interrogation subject as the sadist in charge of these proceedings does. Fire on the soldiers with the civilians and you lose your shot at getting it. Save the interrogation subject and the civilians are doomed.

Who do you save? Who do you abandon to their fate? Who lives? Who dies? It's not every day you're required to think before pulling the trigger in a shooter, but Spec Ops: The Line, 2K's upcoming riff on Heart Of Darkness by way of an obliterated Dubai purports to do just that.

According to its lead writer, Walt Williams, the game's dark narrative isn't just about building atmosphere and presenting smart set-pieces; the writers want to get inside players' heads and affect them artistically. As Williams would have it, Spec Ops: The Line is as much about being cerebrally disturbing as it is about the headshots...

Do you handle the entire plot overview or are you script supervision? Or are you wearing both hats here?

Oh, it's kind of everything (laughs). I lost count. Let's see, there's plot overview, summary, character creations, all the scripts, all the lines, main script, actor direction, actor direction... I was also a level director - putting the scripts aside - working directly with the artists and the designers and making the levels in such a way so they'd express the emotions the way we want.

I mean my title is head writers... (laughs) Well, it's my official job title, but I do a lot of other stuff.

Spec Ops: The Line takes players to some pretty dark places. Was that the brief when you started work on the game?

Well, from the get-go, we knew that Spec Ops: The Line was going to be a third-person shooter, but the story came from a couple of meets. I'm a 2K employee, so when I got given the assignment to come up with an idea, Yager also got involved and both sides came together to discuss the basic plan.

Zoom

We were basically shooting for something with more emotional punch. We didn't want to do a kind of 'Ooh-Rah' Captain America type of thing. From there, we started developing a structure in tandem with Yager. As we were coming up with characters and themes, they were coming up with levels in the game. As they come up with ideas for levels, I have to ask questions like, 'what could we do here that would work into the story and what does this say about the broader mission that these people are on'.

It's a lot different than writing anything else. You don't write a game just from start to finish and then hand it off and says 'well, I don't care if it's not possible - you're programmers, make it happen'. It's very collaborative and there's a lot of back and forth. In the writing process there were five months straight where I was I was doing a brand new draft of the whole game every month. But that's the process. That's where the writing gets good - in the rewriting. It's been a constant back and forth over the years to get to where we are now.

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