2K Games interview: Nolan North ‘flexes his muscles’ in Spec Ops: The Line

In our most recent interview, Joseph Fait spoke with Cory Davis, the Lead Designer at 2K Games, about what players have to look forward to in Spec Ops: the Line. Davis also touches on the inspirations of the story and what Nolan North brought to the table in his voice acting performance.

PlayStation Universe: What was the reason behind using the Spec Ops name instead of building a new franchise?
Cory Davis: “We felt like the Spec Ops brand really matched the type of game we wanted to make, because it instantly says: ‘Special Forces, high stakes missions, military shooter gameplay’ to anyone who reads it. We feel like the genre can, and will continue to mature, and we wanted to be clear about the fact that we were entering that space, with our new take on these things.”

PSU: From playing at PAX East, issuing commands to the other people in your squad seemed super intuitive and key to succeeding in firefights. Was that system always a part of the game, and how hard was it to make the commands simple and fun to use?
CD: “I’m glad you enjoyed the squad commands. The interesting thing about designing the squad commands for Spec Ops: The Line was that we had to always keep in mind that the squad is a narrative tool before it is a gameplay tool. We really wanted you to have the feeling that you are the squad leader of two really interesting characters, who look and behave believably in a wide range of situations. We had to strike a balance between putting the player in control, without distracting from the narration. One way that the squad commands support the narration is the evolution they take as you get deeper into the rabbit hole. The relationship of the squad breaks down, and the way that they speak to each other changes drastically.”

PSU: Sand plays a huge part in gameplay. How hard was it to implement in a technical fashion, and were there any problems during focus testing with people forgetting about taking advantage of it? If so, how did you remedy it?
CD: “We wanted to make the environment come to life for the player, to use it not just as a backdrop, but also integrate it heavily into the gameplay. The fact that Dubai is covered in millions of tons of sand in Spec Ops: The Line gave us a lot of cool opportunities. We spent countless hours investigating how we could make some of the scenarios and gameplay involving sand come to fruition. Luckily, we have an extremely talented tech team that was unwilling to compromise. One good example is the sand cloud that gets kicked up when you toss a frag grenade into the sand. If you look at the dust and sand clouds in other games, using traditional rendering techniques, you’ll notice how simple they are. The reason for that is because of overdraw caused by multiple translucent texture planes overlapping (in other words, they are very costly performance-wise to render). We knew that would be a challenge from the start, so we built systems to deal with that. Toss a frag grenade in the sand anywhere in Spec Ops: The Line, and you’ll see a massive disorienting cloud that you can use to your advantage against enemy squads.”

PSU: Story is on point in Spec Ops, how does it feel taking inspiration from Heart of Darkness?
CD: “The greatest thing about Konrad’s novella is the way that it addresses universal themes which touch all of us as human beings in one way or another. The questions it asks about the soul of man, and his true nature are questions that really intrigue us as developers. We wanted to work on something that was meaningful to us, and that challenged us as human beings. We felt like that could potentially add the context necessary in order to make a shooter experience very interesting. We also love the elements of the journey, and the themes of evolution which are expressed by Konrad. It was always a nice thing to refer back to throughout development. All that said though… don’t expect our story to go in the same direction. Spec Ops: The Line contains a unique take on these themes in a sand-ravaged Dubai.”

PSU: Is there anything that hasn’t been getting a lot of attention that you feel should be?
CD: “I’d just invite you to look out for the surreal, and the subtle stories that the environment is telling. The further you go down the rabbit hole, the more and more you begin to see into Walker’s psyche. Don’t expect to piece together the entire story without really being perceptive and looking for those missing pieces.”

PSU: Nolan North is awesome, how awesome is Nolan North in Spec Ops?
CD: “Yes, Nolan is awesome. In Spec Ops: The Line, he had the chance to really flex his muscles, in some pretty damned fucked up situations. You’ll see a full evolution of his character, and the extremes he was able to believably pull off are shocking to me to this day. Nolan is a real pro, and even had me touched emotionally a number of times in the sound booth. It’s amazing to work with someone who can bring so much of himself to a character, but at the same time, can teleport emotionally and contextually into the fictional scenario that you have designed. I can’t wait for people to hear Nolan pushed to the brink of insanity as Captain Martin Walker in Spec Ops: The Line.”