Gameplanet: In a narrative sense, what’s the goal for Spec Ops: The Line?
Cory Davis: I think as far as the narrative goes, what we want is to try and push this thing in a new direction, sort of the direction that film went after [the] Vietnam [war], when a lot of these heart wrenching and emotional stories came home from the soldiers that were there; a lot less of the “Go USA!” heroic types of stories that were being told. Films came out like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and The Deer Hunter. I think these films really changed the industry for the better. They didn’t necessarily portray war in a realistic sense, but they caught the essence of what people felt there. That’s what we want to do. We want to try and capture the essence of a lot of the stories we’ve found through our research and through discussions with our military advisor, and push that to the forefront of this game. You follow these characters as they go on a very difficult journey. But it also touches on themes that are very important to us as developers. We want to touch on those in a new way that hopefully gives people a new look at these things in an interactive medium.
So that to me is really interesting: in Spec Ops: The Line we have a chance to get our hands dirty with some of those situations that soldiers find themselves in on the battlefield, situations that don’t have a positive outcome either way, and a lot of times they’re situations that have to be made on the fly in the worst circumstances, and you have to live with those consequences. So I think it’s really interesting to use interactivity in a way that helps the player to feel what our characters are feeling, which film often can’t do – it’s a unique thing for us as game developers.
Gameplanet: Why don’t we see more games with narratives that challenge the player?
Davis: I think it’s an evolution that’s happening. A lot of things have happened, to tell you the truth. I think gamers have started to mature. I think as well the technology has matured in a way that allows us to do some of the things that really couldn’t be taken as seriously as before – even though I think as gamers we’re very good at projecting emotions onto characters that don’t often look for feel realistic. But that technology has come leaps and bounds in ten years. If you look back it was a whole different universe. So I think we’re beginning to scratch the surface of something new here, not just with Spec Ops: The Line, but I think a lot of gamers are really looking forward to that experience now, and I hope that this is a revolution that continues throughout the industry.
Gameplanet: What do you see as the main weaknesses of games as a storytelling medium?
Davis: I think to me, the biggest weakness that games inherently have is distraction. It’s one of the reasons that we chose to focus on a singleplayer campaign telling a personal journey that you go on as a player. It’s always very attractive to say, ‘let’s do it in co-op, you have three squadmates’, but when you play a co-op game, you’re focused on those things that are outside of the emotional impact. We really want to touch on those emotions that we feel capture the essence of these themes and these stories that we’ve heard from soldiers. So we’re constantly trying to build a base, a foundation for this story. It’s very, very easy to get distracted by things that can throw off the emotional experience.
Gameplanet: And in a similar vein, what do you think is games’ greatest narrative strength, or where do you think the greatest opportunity lies?
Davis: Yeah, I mentioned it briefly, but to me it’s the essential fact that this is an interactive medium. It has those elements that you see in films. We’re doing a lot of the same things and having a lot of the same discussions that I believe people doing films with this kind of subject matter are having, but at the same time we have this whole other element of interactivity that just allows people to have a different connection with those experiences. Something that’s always excited me as a game developer – I came out of developing a lot of horror shooters and things like that where you can really give people experiences that film tries to give people but the fact you’re there and experiencing it yourself makes it totally different and new. I would like to see much more of that.
Gameplanet: Are there particular kinds of narratives or narrative structures that you think work better in games?
Davis: Personally, it’s the journey. I think that works extremely well. I think far too often we just experience a sequence of action scenes that are strung together with light narrative. I think a game can portray a character’s journey in a way that’s very unique. Particularly for us as a [game in the third-person perspective], we have a visual evolution of the characters as they go further and further into the heart of darkness. We have an audible evolution of the characters, the way they react to squad commands, the way they speak to each other. All these things devolve and are very evident and present on the screen – even the way the characters move.
Gameplanet: On character: how do you create a character that can be both an avatar, and a husk for the player to fill and project themselves upon, but also an interesting portrait in itself?
Davis: One of the things we didn’t do was a hell of a lot of backstory. We sort of toss you in to this experience and let you start to string together the pieces of this puzzle. Another thing we don’t do: our main character isn’t particularly verbose. Compared to the other characters in the game, he’s sort of a blank canvas. He does go through a very interesting evolution, but we hope it’s one that’s accessible to a lot of different people, that they can project part of themselves onto that character.
The discussion as to whether to go for first-person or third-person is also interesting. A lot of people would say that if you want to be entirely immersed in a character you should go for the first-person. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I think you can relate to a character in a film – I’ve had some great experiences with that – and we want some of that here. It definitely is a challenge for us, it’s something we always have to keep in mind: knowing too much about this character could be a bad thing.
Gameplanet: Do you think that’s true across the board? Will there ever be scope for greater character development in games?
Davis: I certainly hope so! I think we all as developers are going to get better at it, I really do. I think more and more developers are taking these things very seriously. If you look around the industry there’s some wonderful things going on, and I’m constantly intrigued right now with [new] story-driven games. They’re not necessarily in the “AAA” space, but I really do see a lot of innovation, and as I said earlier, the technology has given us great tools to do that. I think the talent in the industry is really starting to pay attention to those things.
I think games have the ability to make someone feel like they’re in an environment a lot more than other mediums. I remember playing older games like Syndicate where I really felt like I was the head of this squad of guys that were in this really interesting cyberpunk environment. I remember as a kid writing down stories that were inspired by that. Games really do have the ability to inspire creativity and feel like you’re in new environment.
Gameplanet: So what do you see as the future of storytelling in games? Where do you see narrative in ten years?
Davis: I hope that we end up with even better technology. One of the things we’re really battling with on the technology side at the moment is how much memory we have to deal with, and something that we constantly have to keep in mind with regard to things like voiceover and animation, texture memory. We’re seeing people break through barriers, and I think that’s going to continue to happen. There’s really not a lot holding us back beyond perhaps what we all as developers do wrong. I feel that there’s things that I can do better, and the technology will allow me to do that.
Gameplanet: Do you think perhaps the audience has something to do with that as well? It’s expanding and maturing rapidly, but there’s still a sense – particularly with “AAA” core titles that you need hit notes that the perceived core audience is going to want. Is it a matter of time?
Davis: Yeah. I don’t want to pat [2K’s] back too hard, but they’ve really allowed us to do things with the game – especially with the ending – that most publishers wouldn’t allow us to do as a developer. It takes some really bold people to say, ‘we really want to do this and we’re willing to take the risk.’ I think that as games that do that are successful, it just opens up more and more doors for that to happen. So I hope that we’re successful and that we’re able to push this even further in the future.
But gamers have matured, gamers are starting to demand this sort of thing. I think people really do enjoy that popcorn action experience, but at the same time there’s a whole other side of it and people want it – even younger gamers seem to be more mature about that than I remember that I was when I was a kid.