Spec Ops: The Line takes its cues from Heart of Darkness, the seminal 1903 novella by Joseph Conrad, and Apocalypse Now, the Vietnam-set movie that it later inspired. Players are pitched into a post-apocalyptic version of Dubai, turned from billionaire's playground into sandy tomb filled with horrors. The third-person shooter focuses heavily on narrative, and also pulls no punches with its content, as Delta Force Captain Martin Walker must fall down the rabbit hole in pursuit of the decidedly AWOL Colonel John Konrad. We caught some time with Cory Davis, the lead game designer on Spec Ops: The Line, to discuss this dark tale in the desert.
What particularly drew you to take inspiration from Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now? And how hard was it to transfer the narrative elements into a video game? "Heart of Darkness was an early inspiration for us as we began crafting the narrative for Spec Ops: The Line. The intriguing, dark journey that the protagonist takes into the unknown is a great starting point for an exploration of what it means to be a human in difficult, trying, and unpredictable times. While our plot diverges quite strongly from Heart of Darkness, however, the questions we want you to ask yourself as you experience it are similar to the ones Joseph Conrad wanted you to ask yourself while reading his novella.
"Apocalypse Now is a particularly good reference because it explores these same themes from the perspective of a soldier. The unrelenting focus on the emotional and psychological aspects of these conflicts and what they do to a man being forced to experience them is a huge inspiration to us."
How exactly has Dubai been consumed by the sand? "Dubai has been struck by a series of cataclysmic sandstorms. Starting with a few freak storms and solidifying into a full-scale, recurring natural disaster, the storms were far stronger than anything that anyone had predicted. They cut off Dubai from communication and the relief effort, turning it into a no man's land. The city was entombed with millions of tons of sand and was transformed into a twisted, haunting view of what nature can do to man's creations. "
Due to the dark themes and narrative focus, the shooter has been described as 'BioShock in the desert'; would you agree? "I wouldn't say that Spec Ops: The Line is 'BioShock in the Desert,' but it does have some similarities. Like in BioShock, our focus has been on building a strong atmosphere for an intriguing journey into the unknown. There are also plenty of parallels between Rapture and our destroyed utopian Dubai in Spec Ops: The Line.
"Also, BioShock really gave you the feeling that water was an ever-present element of nature threatening and engulfing the characters and environment. In our game, sand becomes that element and the player experiences it quite frequently in the gameplay. Spec Ops: The Line also takes place in a very unique environment, which is Dubai after it has been cut-off from civilisation by monstrous sandstorms. The sand creates a very surreal visual environment, and also many interesting possibilities in terms of gameplay."
Quite a few shooters seem to struggle with pacing - how have you gone about ensuring the right blend of story, tension and action? "Pacing in video games is a very interesting topic because it is a collaboration between many different competing factors. These factors include (but are not limited to): The story and plot points, the combat or other gameplay needs, and the technical aspects of level design. Each of these factors have needs that if left unfulfilled will cause a gap in the experience, and will hurt the enjoyment of those sections of the game. When a strong collaboration between these different elements takes place, because the developers in charge of them respect each other and have common goals with a shared vision, great things can happen."
The player is accompanied by two Delta Force operatives for most of the campaign, so why did you decide not to support co-op play? "Spec Ops: The Line is first and foremost a narrative experience. We had to make a number of tough decisions along the way in order to facilitate that, and this was one of them. After a lot of debate, we felt that a single player journey was right for the type of story that we were telling, and for the type of emotional experience that we wanted the player to have.
"We touch on a number of very difficult and dark themes in Spec Ops: The Line, and it is absolutely important to us that we are able to treat them with care. Having them as a light background element would detract from the overall experience and would have removed focus from the journey these particular characters are on. There are plenty of games that provide a lighter narrative experience which is perfect for co-op gaming. Spec Ops: The Line however, is a very personal journey which explores dark themes in a single player game."
Can you tell us about the multiplayer? "I would like to, but unfortunately we are not revealing new information about multiplayer currently. We hope to have some new info for you regarding this in a few weeks."
About those 'dark themes' - the game features mutilation, torture, burned bodies; how far did you feel comfortable to go with this? "As game developers, we feel that we have the right to explore themes which are important to us. The scenarios in Spec Ops: The Line were chosen in order to provoke some specific questions and emotions in the player. We invite the player to encounter some of the more horrific experiences that we hear from soldiers and the stories they tell as they come home from modern conflicts. These are not happy or heroic scenarios, but we feel they are important because they cause us to question ourselves, our way of life, and our way of thinking. We feel that it's extremely important to treat these themes with care, and we use them as an emotional tool in our narrative, rather than for shock value."
It seems the relationship between Captain Walker and Colonel Konrad will be a key component of the story, similarly to the relationship between Captain Willard and Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now... "Colonel John Konrad is a haunting and disturbing broken mirror into the soul of Captain Martin Walker. Similar to Colonel Kurtz, Konrad causes Walker to maddeningly reflect on his own actions and thoughts; learning things about himself and the human condition that evoke dark realisations and understandings. That said, the similarities end there between the characters Konrad and Kurtz. I won't spoil anything for you here, but the plot points, motivations, and ultimate journey of these two characters are quite different."
Spec Ops: The Line will be released later this year on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.