“I do believe that as writers and designers, we don’t have any room to judge the player,” remarked Walt Williams, Lead Writer of 2K Games and one of the primary minds behind the shocking narrative of Spec Ops: The Line, one of the most surprising videogames of last year. In a talk called “We Are Not Heroes: Contextualizing Violence Through Narrative,” Walt provided a solid a practical and philosophical foundation for designing games that treat violence carefully and seriously.
In the course of making Spec Ops: The Line, Williams said they “realized that violence wasn’t going to be meaningful simply because of the story we told around it,” and focused instead on what Williams calls the “illusion of causality, in which the violence appears to unfold because of the player’s actions, rather than the game simply attempting to tritely justify the violence for the sake of fun.
In particular, Williams emphasized the hypocrisy of their main character, pointing out that “hypocrisy is just good drama.” Throughout, the game’s protagonist Walker goes from profession soldier to feeling detached from his squadmates and the reality of what’s going on around him. This builds until finally the Walker comes unhinged and is conveyed as unhinged. Speaking of Walker’s enemies, the same types of enemies that other games often use as mere pawns or furniture, Williams said, “When they see him they don’t see a soldier. They see a force of nature. They see death.” Their call-outs slowly become more panicked and fearful.
All of these considerations set up a context that allows for the player to judge themselves. Rather than coming across as pedantic or preachy, the game is silent, allowing the player to consider her or his actions. “The only thing worse than being yelled at is the anticipation of being yelled at,” said Williams. “Once you punish the player, they have no reason to feel guilty anymore.”
That’s not to say the game doesn’t have a message. According to Williams, if there’s one thing he wanted the player to get out of the overall arc of the game, it’s this: “With all that you’ve seen and learned, maybe it’s time to think about putting down the gun.”