Spec Ops: The Line is littered with such ambiguous scenes. Walker looks on from a concealed position as an officer of the 33rd stands over a kneeling CIA operative, and orders his soldiers to line some of Dubai's citizens against a wall for execution. Walker’s squadmates, Adams and Lugo, urgently whisper to their commander, reminding him variously that the operative has vital information and that their secondary mission is to protect the civilians. There is no right answer here, depending on the player’s choice, the game will play out differently – Walker and his comrades will respond differently and the player, Yager hopes, will learn something about their own sense of morality.
“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.”
I See Dead People
If games are more capable than other media at helping us to project ourselves into a world, they’re also bound by convention. Games, we’re told, must present the player with challenges that can be overcome; players need to win, to have resolution, to be rewarded with a bigger gun and a princess.
Yager’s irregular approach, then, is audacious. Game developers and game publishers aren’t particularly fond of pushing the envelope, of rocking the boat and risking offence among consumers – particularly those consumers in America.
Much of Yager's freedom has to do with 2K, believes Davis. “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.”
Certainly 2K’s track record shows a greater proclivity than almost all of its peers to dabble in the greyer areas of morality. The company’s flagship franchise, BioShock, hinges on sending up the notion of player autonomy and begs the player to consider just why they’re performing the tasks they undertake in the game.
“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.”
Yager’s willingness to shock and perhaps even offend is evident throughout. Here, uniformed US soldiers use white phosphorus, a weapon outlawed by many international conventions including Geneva. Walker picks his way through the smoking remains of civilians and soldiers alike as particles of hot human ash linger on a light breeze.
The Better Angels of our Nature
Each sampling of Spec Ops: The Line raises far more questions that it answers. It is, in a very real sense, an important game. Whether it meets the full measure of what it has set out to achieve is in some ways less pressing than the essential fact that it has set out to achieve such a goal at all. That in itself is worthy of mention: it’s a product from an industry that’s overwhelmingly concerned with maximising intellectual property, with sequels (why this game bears the "Spec Ops" name is confounding), with iteration.
Is there an audience for games with more abstract subject matter? Do game developers have the talent and the technical ability to deliver it? Do games publications – us adolescents of the fourth estate who consider a feature entitled “The Best Videogame Boobs of 2011” to be legitimate journalism – have the critical credibility and proficiency to judge it?
“Gamers have matured, gamers are starting to demand this sort of thing” believes Davis. “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.”
“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.”
Spec Ops: The Line is coming to PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in the coming months.
You can read the full transcript of our interview with Cory Davis, lead designer on Spec Ops: The Line at Yager here.