Tag Archives: spec ops the line

This is probably an odd question, given that it deals with a setting that isn’t by nature realistic, but what would be your advice on writing fight scenes set in a universe with video-game elements (ex. health bars, experience points, level-ups, combos) but where the fighters react realistically to pain, and medical knowledge is still in effect (limbs can still be broken, internal organ damage is still possible), like a particularly realistic RPG?

So, my first suggestion would be… play a lot of video games?

Okay, so, thing is, if you’re going to write about video games, you do need to know what you’re talking about. Actual violence isn’t something you’re likely to experience, but, if you’re building off video games; well, violence in video games is something that’s on tap.

Using just what you’re describing, the first recommendation that comes to mind is Fallout: New Vegas on hardcore mode. Hardcore doesn’t actually make the game more difficult, per say, it just enables some simulation like mechanics. Basic healing items only heal the player’s health, damage to limbs is persistent without medical attention, and starvation, dehydration, and sleep deprivation all become threats that you have to manage. There’s some writing in quests talking about more specific injuries occurring to other characters, even though the mechanics themselves don’t support them. (Fallout 3 lacks hardcore mode, so stimpacks will automatically heal limb damage, which basically negates that mechanic while you’re healing.)

If your setting is post apocalyptic, the STALKER games might be a good franchise to look at, even if they are brutally difficult. Character advancement is non-traditional, and I’ve taken flak in the past for calling them RPGs… but all three games fall someplace between an RPG, survival horror, and an FPS.

If it’s a modern setting, then some of the Tom Clancy titles, particularly the two Rainbow Six: Vegas games come to mind. They also don’t have any persistent damage mechanics, and are also extremely lethal, with a focus on “realistic,” tactical gunplay. It’s not, you know, actually realistic, but it’s also accessible.

If you’re looking at a fantasy setting then Dark Souls might be a good choice. It honestly isn’t has hard as some of it’s fans would have you believe. That said, it is unforgiving of mistakes, so expect to take quite a bit of time mastering the combat system. I’m actually going to come back to this one again in a second.

I think I’ve mentioned Mount & Blade before. I haven’t played the more recent games in the series, but it’s a sort of medieval version of Elite, where you build up a mercenary band and then go… do, whatever. Sign on with one of the factions, trade goods, prey on bandits. The mounted combat is really good, and it does mass combat really well.

If you’re wanting to go with a more cyberpunk setting Deus Ex: Human Revolution is worth looking at. The original Deus Ex is also, though the combat itself is a little wonky.

Now, this is all assuming you want a sort of real time, action game style combat system. If you want a more abstract system, looking at games like the Firaxis XCOM reboot, or Shadowrun Returns might be more appropriate. Also, on that subject, if you have a solid understanding of 3rd and 3.5 Edition D&D, Order of the Stick is probably worth a look.

Okay, that’s just writing combat… if you’re wanting to write about video games and RPGs, and play with the concepts there, you’re going to need a slightly different recommendation list.

I’d start with Knights of the Old Republic 2. This does some brilliant stuff with talking about mechanics like discussing leveling up as the player consuming anything they fought, and addressing how once party members join, they’re effectively stripped of their free will in service of killing for the player.

The developers revisited some of those themes in Neverwinter Nights 2’s first expansion, Mask of the Betrayer, and I would recommend that game, but it requires spending a lot of time getting through the main NWN2 campaign to get there. (Technically, you can fresh generate a preleveled character for MotB, but without having a solid grasp of the systems going in, it would be a horrible introduction.)

Dark Souls actually does some interesting setting stuff. Some of this requires digging around in the item descriptions and trying to piece it together… or just looking up YouTube videos, with someone else doing the musing. Marcus “EpicNameBro“ Sanders is probably the best in depth source out there, and VaatiVidya has some good primer videos. (Somewhat obviously, there’s a fair number of spoilers in both of those links.)

The one thing I’ll highlight that is really interesting to me is this: In Dark Souls (and the sequel) you play as an undead, and most of the characters and enemies you encounter are also undead. The mindless undead are called “hollows” and what differentiates the player character from hollows is that they’ve been completely broken by the constant cycle of death and revival. This isn’t an instantaneous process, and as the game progresses, you’ll see several NPCs who become increasingly despondent, until they ultimately go hollow. Without something to work for, they eventually give up the will to live. Which works as a fantastic metaphor for player burnout and fatigue, with hollowing being the point where you put down the controller and walk away forever.

The Saints Row series (particularly 3 and 4) are excellent snapshots of the psychopathic impulses of the average player, codified into dialog and decision making. For all the puerile jokes, the games actually have some surprisingly strong writing, so, if your setting has any inclination towards a GTA style, these are worth looking at.

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but Spec Ops: The Line is an absolutely fantastic tear down of your standard Modern Military Shooter protagonist. The game itself feels fairly generic, up to a point, but, if you want to present your protagonist as an actual person trying to deal with what they’re doing, this is almost exactly the opposite of the Saints Row games, so one of these should be useful to you, though probably not both.

Also, read The Metaphysics of Morrowind. This is a really interesting discussion on player agency, and the implications of it. Specifically, the author is talking about The Elder Scrolls setting, but the discussion on modding, cheat codes, and quickloads as part of a larger coherent multiverse is worth reading.

I’m also going to toss this link to Super Bunnyhop’s Metal Gear Solid 2 analysis video in here. This one might not make sense for a few minutes, just stick with it, you’ll probably learn something. (Also, obligatory spoiler warnings for a game that was published in 1998.)

-Starke

What are some movies or tv shows that do an excellent job at fight (and gun) scenes? I wanted to know what you think, so that I can use them as a reference — be it for drawing or writing a story.

Okay, there’s an easy way to do this and a useful way, let’s start with the useful route. Find names. Not actors, and not usually directors. You’re looking for stunt choreographers, sword masters, or fight choreographers. Unfortunately the name for the positions vary. They will usually be credited in the stunts section on IMDB, if you’re using it. These are the people that actually train the actors and stunt performers. I’ll be honest, these guys can be a pain to track down. If you’re looking for excellent swordplay, the late Bob Anderson is probably the place to start. If you want hand to hand choreography, you’ve got more options, find someone who’s style looks good, and see if you can find other entries in their career where they’re actually coordinating the stunts.

Also, shows will trade off stunt coordinators, sometimes on an episode by episode basis, 24 had at least four different coordinators over the years. Films will sometimes trade off stunt coordinators when they shoot in different cities. So, if you’re looking at a specific fight, make sure you find the stunt coordinator from that episode or scene.

Everyone in stunts are criminally under-appreciated. These are often, very talented martial artists whose names you’ll never know. Tracking down a specific stunt fighter can be tricky, following their career can be even harder, but it is more likely to be useful than a loose list of random films and shows.

So, here’s the random list of films and shows that can get you started:

The Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films have absolutely fantastic swordplay. Some of it is a bit over the top, Tolkien’s races of men aren’t really human, like the setting’s Elves and Dwarves, they’re a mythical race of super beings, so keep in mind that normal people can’t actually fight while being turned into an arrow pincushion.

Heat and Collateral. Both are focused on highly trained professional criminals with military backgrounds. Heat climaxes around the halfway mark with a North Hollywood shooting style bloodbath. Michael Mann’s work also deserves special mention for his commentaries. After you’ve watched Heat and Collateral, go back and rewatch them with the director’s commentary. Some of this is simple cinematography, or story development (which should still be useful for you), but some of it gets into his observations on criminology, and operations. The remake of Miami Vice also has a standout commentary from Mann (as I recall).

Spartan is focused on a semi-anonymous government operative. It’s treatment of violence is instructional. Also, if you’re writing characters with military hand to hand training, this is what they will do to people.

Strange Days. This is one of the rare films where the violence is really unsettling. It hammers home a lot of things we say on a regular basis, like how going up against multiple combatants is a losing game. (Also, one of the antagonists is a rapist who kills his victims, so a Trigger Warning: Rape is in full effect.)

Burn Notice, sometimes. The early seasons are better about this, but the narrator does offer some pretty solid advice, from talking about how to stage an ambush to explaining why you can’t just burst in shooting, this will give you a lot of the “why”, that controls what your characters do.

24. The writing’s hit or miss, and some of the seasons don’t really coalesce into a single story. You’ll probably learn more about staging and executing cliffhangers from the series (that is it’s forte), but it keeps the violence brief and explosive. It also goes through characters like kleenex, so it’s worth watching for that. The torture scenes waffle, and you’re going to have to use your own judgment on what you’ll accept. If you want to use torture, this is a good primer, then watch Burn Notice to remember why torture just doesn’t work.

If you’re dealing with a setting where some of your characters (particularly your villains) have superpowers, Blade Runner. Most of the combat in the film is unusually slow, as the replicants try to subdue their foes with their strength alone. It does show why the whole “stronger = better fighters” is crap. It’s also a fairly solid presentation of a character who is effectively a hired killer, going up against foes that can literally rip him limb from limb.

Highlander: The Series. Adrian Paul’s hand to hand form is a little unusual, but he is pretty good. The show alternates between actors someone tried to train in martial arts, and good martial artists turned actors. Still, there’s a lot of good swordplay, and writing that’s far better than it has any business being. If you’re wanting to write immortals of any streak (including especially vampires), this is a must see. The sword work in the first two seasons were choreographed by Bob Anderson, so, if you’re using swords, keep this one in mind.

If you’ve never seen it, watch Aliens. The first film is good, but not really relevant for this list. The important thing going in is that Aliens is a Vietnam war film set in space. Disciplined, well equipped soldiers up against a guerrilla force.

The film adaptation of Starship Troopers takes some of the same themes and pulls it clean into uncomfortable territory. I’m not going to recommend it for its combat, (though, that is well presented), but I would say it’s worth watching for the insight into military jingoism. Then realize you’ve been basically cheering for Nazis and now want to go vomit blood.

For reference: the film of Starship Troopers is a subversive parody, and the critical cue is seeing Paul Verhoeven’s name as the director. Similarly, Robocop (1987) is a pretty brutal take down of using violence to solve problems. Though, again, this is played straight.

Man on Fire (2004). I keep wanting to skip this one, but the fact is, it’s actually pretty good for what it’s doing. It also manages to convey, in a visceral sense how unexpected violence in the real world can feel. Though, I’ve probably spoiled that sensation by listing it on here. Forget that you read this here, forget the title, forget the fiery image on the cover and go watch it.

Sandbaggers is probably the most realistic presentation of violence in the espionage genre. Which is to say, avoiding it at all costs.

The only Tarantino film I’d actually recommend is Reservoir Dogs. The violence is self contained, and the bulk of the writing is the characters responding to the violence. This is actually some pretty smart writing, and you can probably learn something from it. (For the record, I like most of his work, but, it’s just not as applicable here.)

Mortal Combat (1995) is a goofy movie. But, as we’ve said before, the martial arts are technically good, and slow enough you can follow.

I almost never recommend video games, but, Spec Ops: The Line is an exception. (You can ignore the prior games in the franchise, they’re completely unrelated.) At first glance it looks like a conventional cover-based modern military shooter, it isn’t. The game isn’t particularly realistic, at least the combat isn’t, it’s also not conventionally “fun.” But, it is a very solid study of combat fatigue as well as the burdens and responsibilities of command.

This is a game that will make you do really horrible things, wear you down, and leave you numb and exhausted. If you want to tell the story of an action hero presented with real combat, you really need to play this. No, you need to play this. Nothing will cure a casual violence addiction faster.

Watching LP videos won’t carry the same effect, this is one of those times where you really need to be the one responsible for your actions, to get the full effect.

This is a Heart of Darkness homage (it’s not really an adaptation), if you want a hint of where it’s going thematically.

(Also, TW: Violence, because Spec Ops gets really messed up in a way nothing else on the list approaches.)

-Starke