Walt Williams, lead writer of last year's subversive (and flawed) shooter Spec Ops: The Line, began his talk at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco with a bit of flair: "It's going to maybe sound like I'm being critical of violent games," Williams said, "but I want to say right off the bat that I don't believe that violent games make violent people, and I don't believe that violent games desensitize us to violence. I do, however, believe that violent games desensitize us to violence in games."
He then went on to give a fascinating talk titled "We Are Not Heroes: Contextualizing Violence Through Narrative," which was one part Spec Ops post-mortem, one part critique of video game violence. In the end Williams suggested that despite the fact that he'd written one of the most violent video games of 2012, perhaps it's time to move on to other things, if only because game developers are ready for new challenges.
In Spec Ops: The Line, players control a soldier named Walker who leads his three-man squad into the post-sandstorm ruins of Dubai in search of a missing deployment of U.S. soldiers. Things go horribly wrong, and eventually Walker loses himself in the darkness of what's become of Dubai. It's an exciting game if only because it's so ambitious, but it's also got some maddening problems. I recommend playing it, despite all that—Spec Ops is the rare game that tries to do something different and succeeds as often as it fails. Some story spoilers follow.
Over the course of the talk, which Williams gave yesterday afternoon as a part of the GDC "Narrative Summit," his primary focus was the idea that any game is defined by action, and so the actions you undertake in the game will define the game's meaning. As an example, he said, if you're playing a platformer, the game will be defined by jumping. When you're playing a shooter like Spec Ops, the game will be defined by the act of killing a person with a gun. "When you're using an action as a tool, it's easy to disassociate from what that action is," Williams said. "When you play a shooter, that action is killing a person. When you sit down to play a shooter, you're essentially signing up to kill hundreds if not thousands of people over the course of the game."
Williams talked about how players still manage to disassociate from that fact, despite video games' extreme body-counts. By padding games with nothing but killing, "[Developers have] allowed killing to become not simply mundane, but run-of-the-mill," Williams said. "Not only that: filler. The more enemies you kill, the more it feels like it's padded out. For an industry that in the past couple years has been striving to create more emotional connectedness between the game and the user, it's interesting how we've allowed killing to stay so mundane."
Williams then outlined how he and the team at 2K Marin tackled making violence less mundane, and also compatible with the story of Spec Ops. According to him, it all came down to an awful moment midway through the game, where the player is responsible for horribly killing a number of civilians with white phosphorous, a ghastly weapon that's something like napalm. "We knew if we were going to have violence be meaningful, we had to have the player realize that violence wasn't necessarily a 'safe' act, that it could end badly," Williams said. That scene allowed them to communicate that. (Last year I spoke with Williams about a similar scene, where Walker is forced to open fire on a group of unarmed civilians.)
He went on to explain how he approached making extreme violence and a coherent story work together. One of the keys: "The illusion of causality." Don't justify the use of violence from start to finish, he said, but let the story appear to unfold because violence is used from moment to moment. The first step was to embrace the tension between what the player wants to do and what the writers have decreed will happen in the story.
"We have to stop looking at it as the difference between what the player is doing and what we wrote," Williams said, because the player doesn't have as much freedom as it may seem. "The player can only do what the core mechanic allows them to do." In Spec Ops, that core mechanic was shooting. The only thing that connects the narrative and the core mechanic, Williams said, is the main character. "Your main character can never be more righteous than the core mechanic demands," he said. Which means, if the game is about shooting people, the protagonist is probably going to be less than a shining beacon of humanity.
Walker, the protagonist of Spec Ops, can't be all that righteous, Williams said, because he's got to kill enough people to fill many hours of gameplay. (Williams did jokingly point out that Nazis appear the only kinds of people who were excepted from this in video games. "Nazis are basically human demons," he said. Heh.) It's easy at the beginning of a game to have the killing make sense, but as the game goes forward, it becomes weirder and weirder that he's killing so many people. However, Williams pointed out, it's very easy to turn this weakness to a strength, at least for the story.
Key to that, Williams said, is having the characters themselves rationalize their actions, even the most extreme ones. They don't have to be successful at it, but they should at least try to explain themselves to themselves. In other words, the soldiers in Spec Ops should be killing people because they're soldiers, but as the game got more intense, they began to feel compelled to rationalize to themselves and one another why they were on such a violent, ultimately destructive quest. (And in the story, they do just that.) The fact that, by the end of the game, it was impossible for them to explain away all the killing is okay, Williams said. After all, hypocrisy is a human trait, and a character's inability to justify himself makes for good drama.
Williams then broke down how the game used choice without gameplay consequences (crucial, in his opinion), and avoided punishing the player, leading up to the ending, which allowed the player to make a choice that revolved around the central mechanic—shooting.
At the end, Williams said, "You're going to feel pretty bad about all of this. To be honest, the reason is, we're an industry full of very intelligent, often aggressive people, and we know that the blanket use of violence is wrong. It's getting harder and harder for us to play these games and to look at them critically and say, 'This is okay. This makes sense.' Especially as we get older, especially as we play more of them."
I found Williams' talk very interesting, if a bit hamstrung by its short length—talks at the narrative summit usually run only 25 minutes, which doesn't quite give time for lengthy analysis or an audience Q&A. It was a re-explanation of the mission statement of a game that had its share of frustrations and failings, and I would've loved to hear Williams talk a bit more about the aspects of the development process that led the game to fall short of that ambition. Still, it was heartening to hear a writer so committed to his original vision for his game, and able to articulate it so clearly.
"I will admit personally," Williams concluded, "I would like to see less violent games out there, not because I think that they're bad or wrong, but because I think that creatively, they're too easy. I think we're better than that." He said that Spec Ops' epilogue addressed that belief in how, depending on the choices you've made, you're given one last choice as to whether to shoot, or whether to put down the gun. "Is there something else that we can do?" Williams said, echoing the game's final question. "Is there something else that we can make?"