Civilian casualties are rare in video games. Every real-life war results in a terrible loss of innocent life; collateral damage is a grim reality of battle. Yet most war video games play out across perfectly crafted arenas in which each "team" is clearly marked and civilians are nowhere to be found.
Spec Ops: The Line dared to be different in a lot of ways, but one of the most remarkable was that it didn't shy away from depicting civilian death. Perhaps even more remarkably, the game's most potentially provocative scenes felt appropriate and purposeful.
Spec Ops: The Line spoilers follow.
Spec Ops tells the story of three soldiers who head into the now-destroyed city of Dubai searching for a renegade Army colonel and his lost brigade. What follows is a descent into hell, as their minds and morals are severely tested and, eventually, broken completely. It's a fascinating meditation on the role of the player in a war game, and is the rare video game that is is noteworthy for its flaws as for its strengths. For a full rundown, read my review of the game.
In one particularly intense scene towards the end of the game (seen in the video below), protagonist Captain Walker and his teammate Adams are looking for their third squad-mate Lugo. Things have completely fallen apart, and all three men are about to snap. Each team member is injured, they're at each others' throats, and their nightmarish situation has no good ending in sight.
Adams and Walker come upon Lugo being lynched by a mob of furious civilian survivors. Walker quickly shoots the rope to knock Lugo down, and players are tasked with resuscitating him. In another game, Lugo would come wheezing back to life at the last minute, but not this one — Lugo's dead, and now the mob is closing in on Walker and Adams.
Players are put into an impossible situation with no way out, and fear and stress take over. You can't walk through the crowd, or they'll push you back. They're throwing rocks, which are pushing you closer and closer to death. The reticle on your rifle appears on screen. It seems like there's only one way out.
Once you open fire, the civilians immediately flee. This is one of the "lines" referred to in the game's title. And yet in war, surely this line gets crossed all the time. A person is threatening you. It's difficult to tell if they're an enemy soldier or a civilian. What do you do?
I spoke with Spec Ops: The Line lead writer Walt Williams on the phone last week. We discussed that scene, as well as his approach to the game's other potentially controversial content.
"We wanted it to be a very chaotic kind of situation," Williams said, "much like it would be in real life. There is a way out of it [without shooting the civilians]. You can scare them off. Shooting in the air. Bu I believe most people do probably end up shooting them, whether they need to or not.
"I know in focus testing there were quite a few people who shot them and didn't mean to or thought that it was the only way to get out of that situation. But also it was designed for you to think that. We wanted for you to feel very pressured and not know what to do. 'We have to shoot them. They're getting violent, what do we do?' Because that's exactly what a soldier in that situation would be thinking. Getting the character in that same mindset was very key for a lot of that game. And it seems like we pulled it off, and thank god, because that one was one of the trickiest ones."
Williams acknowledged how easy it is to get this kind of thing wrong. "You slip up once, and it taints the whole thing," he said. "We went over this thing with a fine-toothed comb innumerable times, making sure that there was nothing int he game that was just there to shock. Like, we wanted all of the - we had a strict rule from the beginning - there can be no civilians in the scene unless they're is an absolute, real reason - there had to be an organic and narrative reason to have them in the scene. We didn't want to just have civilians constantly running around the line of fire, because then we would be 'The game where you can kill civilians all the time.'
I asked Williams if there were any other things that needed to be taken out. He said that some of the environmental brutality was removed because it felt excessive, as well as a scene that had a civilian with a booby trap bomb strapped to his chest. "It was basically, 'Do you kill these innocent people or these innocent people? It felt too much like it was turning Konrad and the 33rd into the Joker, or a comic book villain. Where they were giving you this very contrived kind of situation. And while we did have something like that similar later, with the two men hanging from the street sign, with that choice, it was always much more about the meta aspect of the game, where Walker has a choice of A or B, but the real choice the player has is: Are you going to do what the game tells you to do or are you going to try to do something else? And that was why that particular choice stayed in, because it was directly involved with what we were tying to do with the overarching theme of the story, which is gamer vs. game."
I was struck by the fact that I didn't find the civilian-shooting scene objectionable. Troubling? Yes. But that was the point; it felt necessary in a way that the similar "No Russian" sequence in 2009's Modern Warfare 2 did not.
Williams said that the team worked to avoid the clumsiness of "No Russian," and that the easiest way around that was to make the civilian killing integral to the story they were trying to tell. "The thing that got me the most [about "No Russian"]," Williams said, "was that you could opt out of playing it. And that struck me as saying, 'We wanted to do something that would cause controversy, but it's actually not necessary to the game, which is why you don't have to play it.'
"We went out of our way to make sure that everything that could be controversial was absolutely necessary, that it grew organically out of the events before, and that it was directly connected to the story. That if you had taken it out, the story would be completely different."