Cory Davis looks like he could be a roadie for Metallica. But if appearances can be deceiving, the humble lead designer at Yager is the perfect candidate to enthuse about Spec Ops: The Line. At first bob, Spec Ops is spectacularly unspectacular: burdened with an underwhelming franchise title, it's a third-person shooter featuring another squad of elite American soldiers puncturing the Middle-East with more high velocity rounds than a Rambo flick.
The player’s character, Captain Walker, is a stubbly-chinned American of European extraction voiced by Nolan North. North is an actor whose credits include Uncharted 3’s Nathan Drake, Arkham City’s Penguin, Black Ops’ Dr. Edward Richtofen, and Assassin’s Creed’s Desmond Miles. He is quite literally the digital everyman, this industry’s answer to Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise.
However, Spec Ops: The Line’s lukewarm first impression belies a game with staggering ambition, a game that, should it manage the ascent, will assume its place in gaming Valhalla. Or one that will falter magnificently.
“What we want is to try and push this [videogame] thing in a new direction,” begins Davis as he leans over a coffee table in the lobby of a downtown San Francisco hotel.
The Man Who Came To Play
Spec Ops: The Line is an interpretation of Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. Walker is dispatched to Dubai after a series of catastrophic sandstorms demolish the jewel of the Emirates, and contact is lost with a battalion of US soldiers under the leadership of the highly decorated Colonel John Konrad.
As Walker and company descend deeper into the sand-swept ruins of Dubai, they discover that the 33rd battalion have abandoned their duty and appointed themselves rulers of the wastes. The player, the walker, must traverse the sands and ultimately confront the riveting and repulsive Kurtz-come-Konrad.
But Spec Ops: The Line is more than that. It’s a game of its time. After the Vietnam War, film went in a new direction, says Davis. “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.”
Now, as then, American soldiers are returning from wars that remain unresolved, wars in which the merit of America’s involvement is still questioned both abroad and domestically in the US. Films such as those Davis references have helped to shape the world’s popular understanding of the soldier’s psyche, his conflict between morality and duty, his role on the battlefield and his civilian life after.
“They didn’t necessarily portray war in a realistic sense, but they caught the essence of what people felt there,” says Davis. “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.”
Dubai is Decadent and Depraved
Literature in the Vietnam era also reflects that search for identity at a time when America’s role in foreign affairs caused collective introspection. Spec Ops: The Line is about “the journey”, says Davis. It’s about what it means to be an American, and in that regard, also reflects – thematically – the works of contemporaneous writers such as Hunter S. Thompson.
Walker’s literal journey towards Konrad is, like Thompson's, a metaphorical journey towards enlightenment, even if, perhaps, what he comes to understand about himself is abhorrent. With Spec Ops: The Line the player is also to undertake that journey. Walker becomes numb to the horror just as we do, and if he's increasingly less shocked by the graphic scenes he navigates, that is in many ways intended to reflect our own ambivalence to videogame violence and sadism.
“I think a game can portray a character’s journey in a way that’s very unique,” states Davis. “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.”