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Spec Ops: The Line – Connecting gameplay and narrative

Two problems plague the shooter genre: poorly programmed enemy artificial intelligence and the failure to acknowledge your decimation of small armies. The numerous waves of scripted enemies and your easy annihilation of them produce issues with no clear solutions. So instead of solving these problems through experimentation, developers ignore the issues. They hope that one day someone else will find a solution to an enemy’s predictable behaviour and inability to adapt your play. It makes enemys harmless when isolated, but a perceived challenge when grouped in dozens.

Naughty Dog – developers of the Uncharted series – create phenomenal game experiences arguably among the best of this generation. But while you play Uncharted, you murder armies the size of small towns without regard to its necessity. They shoot you so you shoot back.

From a narrative standpoint, killing these waves of faceless enemies never sees mention. The main protagonist in Uncharted – Nathan Drake – remains unaffected when killing hundreds of people in his lifetime. Why does he not react to any of it? Why does the narrative ignore it for the sake of gameplay mechanics? Shouldn’t the game aim to achieve a cohesive experience of both challenging gameplay and a coherent plot?

Spec Ops: The Line – a modern military shooter focused on the evacuation of a sandstorm destroyed city of Dubai – builds a narrative around this mass murder. Spec Ops begins as an evacuation mission and then morphs into a story of desensitized murdering for the belief of trying to accomplish a greater goal. As the main characters inch closer to their objective, they begin to question if all of their killing will actually result in a greater outcome for the people of Dubai. Martin Walker and his squad’s survival depend on the strength of their desire to evacuate the citizens of Dubai. It hinges on their willingness to murder rogue American soldiers, rebels and citizens. The team at Yager Development force the player to face moral decisions all related to their interaction with the game world.

Yager Development handles the story and the gameplay as aspects dependant on each other, not separate entities. As the game progresses, newer weapons appear. When enemies cling to life on the ground, the option to execute them for ammunition will appear. The executions start with neck breaking kills and do not at all remain subtle with intent. As the game progresses, Walker and his squad grow frustrated and develop doubts about their true purpose in Dubai. The executions become more gruesome. Perform an execution and Walker now sticks his barrel into the enemy soldier’s mouth or disassembles his face with a point blank shotgun blast.

The more you kill, the more the characters begin to take notice of the increasing body count. The reality then affects the soldiers emotionally, causing them to question their motives. Characters in Call of Duty, Uncharted or a lot of games for the matter, kill without regard to what the action means. Not all games can take the problems of enemy artificial intelligence and transform it into a story of perceiving morally justifiable actions, versus needless killing. Other ways to keep the player constantly engaged must exist without creating a divide between gameplay and story.

The latest Tomb Raider often came positioned as the story of a young Lara Croft and her resistance to killing anything. Outside of the story, she – you – will kill like Nathan Drake and brutally murder hundreds of people without ever paying much mention to that fact.

To solve that problem I again turn to Naughty Dog and their pitch for post apocalyptic game, The Last of Us. Naughty Dog’s pitch for their new game promises smarter A.I and encounters where a group of three enemies will frighten and truly challenge your skill.

Spec Ops: The Line takes their morally driven story and ties it into the outcome and reality of the player’s actions. Yager Development used the waves of enemies that curve difficulty in shooters as a part of the narrative. Their method doesn’t solve the problems associated with enemy A.I, but at least they try to incorporate it into both aspects of the game. Regardless of the quality of the game’s entertainment, their intent of delivering an experience with two closely tied sections of mechanics and narrative creates a desire for that same attention in all games. If games want to introduce a sensitive topic in their story telling, then developers must consider the meaning of the gameplay.