Spec Ops: The Line’s moral dilemma

Spec Ops: The Line's moral dilemma

All video games are about morality. Yet few games seem to have been designed with an awareness of this fact, and least of all shooters, which use metaphors of death and war to adrenalise players. War is decoration: an aesthetic of winning, losing, and little else. Yager Development hopes to breach that unnatural separation between morality and play with Spec Ops: The Line, a thirdperson shooter meant to evoke moral uncertainty and discomfort. With the game's June release date fast approaching, we spoke to Cory Davis, creative director and lead designer at Yager, about the challenges of addressing morality with gun in hand.

One of the challenges with morality in games is the disconnect between player and protagonist. It may be immoral to kill civilians or ignore pleas from teammates, but those can both speed up player progression. How do you deal with that?

That's definitely something that's been on our mind throughout development. In this particular game we had the goal of taking these stories that are told by the soldiers on the battlefield and helping the player feel those emotions, to make them question their own preconceptions about what they would do in those scenarios. One of the ways we do that is by putting the player into a number of situations where there isn't an identifiably good or bad outcome. The player isn't thinking that they've got to choose one way to get a weapon drop, or if they choose another way the combat might get a little easier, or something like that. 

How do you design decision points like that without making them binary choices between good and evil?

They're based on the sort of split-second decision-making that soldiers have to live with. I think games hit that heroic note extremely well. They have the ability to make you feel the exhilaration of successfully completing objectives, causing destruction, mayhem, and havoc, and then coming out on the other side untouched. 

One of the things that we delved into that's purposely avoided in a lot of shooters is the idea of ambiguity in death. In this game, when you kill people, it's not a clean and easy thing that happens very quickly. In the middle of the battlefield you're going to have people bleeding out in agonising pain, and after the dust clears that's still going on. We don't allow you to take weapons from enemies until they're actually dead. 

It's been amazing to watch players in focus tests realise that to get more ammo or another gun they'll have to kill this wounded person on the ground. A lot of times they'll try and bypass the situation, or they'll try and quickly shoot the guy in the head to put him out of his misery. Other players will enjoy the brutality of the scenario. We play with those executions as well, which become more and more brutal because of the decisions that have been made, the situation the squad has found themselves in, and the relationships that are breaking down between them. The squad is a great element for this because they disagree with each other quite often – as you can imagine they would in a scenario where there are big decisions to be made. They don't all agree about the way to proceed, and they also react to the decision that's made. 

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