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Spec Ops: The Line in Review

You might have heard some critics comparing Spec Ops: The Line to Francis Ford Coppola’s surrealist war-horror masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. It’s not an invalid or misguided comparison and the game is at least loosely homage to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the inspirational material for both that film and this game. There’s been a lot of talk about the game’s more sophisticated, psychological depiction of wartime violence and the moral toll of conflict. That too is not invalid or misguided, because it’s definitely there by intent. There are some genuinely chilling and truly horrific beats throughout the game’s six hour linear story progression as well as some compelling subtexts and an amazing setting that itself questions what gains are to be made in fighting for democracy and capitalism in the Middle East.

Nolan North- who I’m convinced is actually the name of every character he voices other the Penguin- and a pair of fellow Delta Force operatives are sent into a post-catastrophe Dubai to look for survivors of a massive, apocalyptic sandstorm that has literally buried the city’s incredible- and incredibly ostentatious- architecture. It’s fascinating, even in a video game environment, to wander the wreckage of this oil money-funded metropolitan monument to mercantilism. Abandoned supercars litter the streets. Signage for jewelry stores and designer boutiques clash with threatening graffiti and charred corpses. There is a surrealist bent that is well-appreciated. Walk over a sand dune and suddenly you’re on the ledge of a skyscraper overlooking ruins. It’s a paradise of profit laid waste by the red wrath of God.

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Like the Kurtz character in Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, there’s also a military hero that’s gone rogue and has holed up in the city’s tallest building. Apparently the American 33rd division has done so with him, practically taking over the ruined city. The CIA is involved. Civilians that have not been evacuated are in the crossfire. It’s a surprisingly complicated, detailed story that almost makes you forget that the game is a by-the-numbers, completely uninteresting third person shooter that induces headshot fatigue less than halfway through its runtime.

There’s no need to enumerate mechanics, control methods, AI and whether or not the graphics look good. You’ve played this game, from the pop-and-shoot gunplay to the rudimentary turret sequence where you’ve got to defend a guy doing something. It’s a competently made, completely uninspired and un-innovative example of its genre once you peer past the exceptional writing and attention to context. Regardless of its high-minded framing, it’s just as much a machine gun massacre as a Serious Sam game is.

While I was playing the game, wondering why it took so many shots to fell the bullet-sponge bad guys (which are more often American white people than the normal Evil Brown People that antagonize these kinds of games), I found myself questioning the validity and earnestness of the game’s message more than anything regarding war or morality. It’s edgy. But it’s not as if the intended message is a particularly profound one. I’m pretty sure that by now we all know that war, yeah, it’s real bad man. It makes people do some pretty crazy stuff. No new thematic ground is broken here.

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But what’s more damning are the limitations that participation imposes on conveying anti-war, anti-violence messaging in a video game. The medium itself forecloses on the creators’ authority to communicate the “war, yeah, it’s real bad man” message. You still get a friendly “ding” when you earn achievements and trophies for shooting people, and you’re rewarded with story progression for killing the bad guys. And of course there’s a full multiplayer suite that undoes any pretense or intention of not glorifying war and killing.

It’s hard to take the game seriously once you step back from some of its more effective moments, like the aftermath of a white phosphorous attack that should effectively end the “awesomeness” of impersonal slaughter-sequences like the ubiquitous AC130 gunship trope, and realize that it is just another middle-of-the-road shooter. This could have been a dramatically subversive, incredibly progressive game that puts the player in the physical and psychological aftermath of modern warfare and the mistakes that are often made in defense of freedom or other agendas masquerading as freedom. But it isn’t. It’s a mediocre action game that just happens to have had a better-than-average writing staff that thought they could elevate the subject matter to something closer to Coppola’s film or Conrad’s novel. But participation- the key differentiator in the spectatorship of games versus films or novels- undermines what they were trying to accomplish.

Regardless of the handful of binary moral decisions, bodies hanging from street lamps and the PTSD nightmare that closes the game, this is still one where a meter tracks your headshots and there’s plenty of cool, Michael Bay-class set-pieces and machismo on display. While some may walk away from this game haunted by some of the grisly imagery and questions of morality, I’m walking away from it haunted by the question if the medium of video games is incapable of effectively carrying messages about violence and war while rewarding players for playing along.

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Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of Nohighscores.com as well as FortressAT.com. His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

24 thoughts to “Spec Ops: The Line in Review”

  1. Interesting points, presented brilliantly. I’d really like to play this game, but it isn’t going to happen. So I’ll content myself by asking whether the answer to your conundrum isn’t simply to remove the reward/achievement aspect from the mix? I see nothing about participation in and of itself that should stop a violent game making pertinent comment about violence. Quite the opposite, in fact, if handled correctly. But when its incentivised within the game then yes, that would seem to immediately undermine the points its trying to make.

    1. It would definitely be a bold move to take out the reward/achievment aspect- but gamers would flip out without the carrots. Like Brandon. 😉

      The problem is deeper than that though, I think. The short version of it is how do we make gamers feel that blowing a guy’s head off with a shotgun is a TRAGEDY and not a VICTORY?

      There’s a built-in incentive in any game where you’re faced with opposition that must be overcome with your participation. Story progression, “the next level”, is a reward. Completing an area of the game is in itself a reward. Hell, even being entertained by the game is a reward, but that’s something that you experience in less participatory mediums.

      The culture of gaming and the games medium is largely centered on violence, conflict, war, and killing. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong, evil, or bad about that but I do think that when so much of that is hardcoded into the medium, that makes a game where you pull a trigger and even get just a visual reward of a cool headshot effect or whatever contraindicative of the potential to effectively criticize or question the use of force.

      I still think that the controversial “No Russian” sequence in Modern Warfare 2 does this better than anything I’ve ever seen. The uproar and hoo-ha over the scene sort of overshadowed the fact that it was a hugely transgressive, self-aware segment where the “ubermensch” machine-gun man concept of the FPS was completely turned upside down. You were suddenly behind the eyes of good guy that had to pretend to be a bad guy, and part of that is shooting innocent people. The scene failed however, because the only moral consequence was in the mind of the player. If you chose to not join in the massacre, there’s nothing different that happens in game. If you’re another Columbine waiting to happen and you gunned away with glee, it’s the same outcome. There should have been more of an in-game consequence to drive home the point.

      So I don’t know…in a game where you may kill literally thousands of “bad guys”, how can you take out the reward for killing? How do you make shooting some video game bad guy in the face a sad, tragic event rather than a high-fiving, “boo ya!” one?

      In some ways, it reminds me of a bit in Uncharted 2…Nathan Drake kills TONS of people over the course of the game. At the end, the bad guy comments on this. But it doesn’t really mean anything, because you’re rewarded just the same.

      1. I played the original Deus Ex last year, and I went on to murder my way through the first level of the game. In the hub that followed on of the characters in the game later berated me for doing so. He told me that he thought I was better than that and that it was well within my ability to have gotten through without killing anyone.

        It hit some button because I actually stopped to think about who the enemies were from that point on and chose the non-lethal route for dealing with most of them.

        Alpha Protocol had stuff like this two, where sometimes your best option was not to just murder the unknown enemies in the area. So I wonder if the first step to getting out of this is mixing up lethal/non-lethal tactics against “enemies” of varying motivations.

        1. Believe it or not, there was a beat in Ninja Gaiden 3 that was really quite profound even though the game itself was trash. It got me to think about who the enemies were, as you said.

          So you’re Ryu Hayabusa, and you’re carving up a whole level of bad guy soldiers. Typical Ninja Gaiden business. But then, one of them takes off his balaclava and pleads with you for his life. He says “I’m just trying to take care of my family, this is just a job for me”. For a second there, I actually did think about it. But the game doesn’t give you any other option than to cut this poor guy down. There’s a comment there about violent impulses and the impetus to murder in video games,but it’s sublimated in a terrible game that relishes in gore and death.

      2. “The short version of it is how do we make gamers feel that blowing a guy’s head off with a shotgun is a TRAGEDY and not a VICTORY?”

        Short answer: only if you turn gamers into the victim, rather than the guy who pulls the trigger. Make the gamer FEEL every bullet fired, every wound suffered, and they’ll think about what they’re doing. Otherwise, they hardly will, if at all.

        The long answer is too long and complicated (and I haven’t thought it through yet), but here’s a quick, chaotic brainstorm:

        – gameplay and story are different entities. Some gamers try to combine them in their heads (and I’d say those are usually the ones who really enjoy any given game), but for most, they’re entirely different things. “Hey, I need more health in Prototype? Let me absorb this pregnant woman and her baby after slicing both in half in the most gruesome manner, so I can get a little more biomass to defeat this hunter.” Most gamers wouldn’t even flinch, because it’s mechanic – they don’t attribute any real value or meaning to that particular action, other than “fill my health bar”.

        – those kinds of questions – the impact of your actions, “what ifs”, etc – are anything but fun for most people. Games are seen by most as your typical summer action blockbuster (which is why Call of Duty is so popular): turn your brain off and enjoy the explosions and ludicrously improbable events. The moment you think about them, you notice the pointlessness of all that, how shallow those things are, and you start to notice all the mirrors and smoke generators everywhere, and guess what? It’s not fun anymore. But here’s the thing – not all movies are summer action movies. The real question is: is it possible to make a game – a true game – that isn’t about fun, but about looking at yourself, or at things around you, and make you think about it?

        Anyway, here are a few things worth trying:

        – lower the body count, and make sure there are consequences (story and gameplay wise) for every enemy killed.
        – play with the player perceptions. Put them in the place of their victims. Make them care about what’s going on, about who lives and who dies.
        – take some lessons from the original Prince of Persia. Remember the bit with the mirror?
        – take some lessons from the very last level before the epilogue of Braid. How does that make you feel?
        – do you remember that part near the end of Bastion? The awesome scene with the Kid and the “villain” of the game?

        Well, that was confusing. But hey, it wasn’t an easy question.

        1. yeah the summer blockbuster thing is apt. Since we agree on almost all points otherwise, I’m going to posit that a game can do both, but it is rare. Most summer blockbusters are shallow surface level things *cough* Expendables *cough*. Occasionally there is one that digs quite a bit deeper.

          Now you won’t really find summer blockbusters with the same kind of character development or nuance as an arthouse type film. Occasionally, though, you get one that uses a big budget to do something more, your Godfathers and The Dark Knight’s. They are incredibly rare, once every couple years or more. It could be possible for a game to do the same thing, but that type of title is probably a once a console generation title. A few games have come close to doing this, but have fallen short somewhere. Deus Ex:HR was almost there, and turning down the combat emphasis a bit might have gotten them there.

          Honestly we’ve seen people start to try, and that’s encouraging. If we can get them to let go of combat a bit we might even arrive. Whether such a game is commercially viable is another story.

        2. So, The Last of Us isn’t out yet, and who know’s whether Naughty Dog will be able to pull off what it seems like they’re going for, but based upon their E3 preview, it seemed to me that they were specifically trying to achieve “making gamers feel that blowing a guy’s head off with a shotgun is a tragedy”.

          Well, at least that’s what I’m hoping they’re trying to achieve…

      3. “The short version of it is how do we make gamers feel that blowing a guy’s head off with a shotgun is a TRAGEDY and not a VICTORY?”

        I think that Heavy Rain did this part right, when you chase that drug dealer, and at the end you have him at point blank range, with shotgun in your hand, and he shows you picture of his family. I just couldn’t shoot him after that, although I wanted to few minutes earlier, after he chased me with shotgun through the apartment.

  2. Here’s the problem as I see it, power fantasy.

    Developers are scared out of their mind to make a game that doesn’t fit the power fantasy mold. Make a game where you aren’t some super soldier mowing down hordes of enemies and you risk your game getting dinged in reviews as ‘unfun’ or ‘boring’. Tyranny of the masses and such, Michael Bay, Idiocracy level stupidity and such drive the market. For a big game they have to hit mass markets, and the masses are stupid, wallowing in their own ignorance. The masses want neither subtlety or surprise, rather preferring repetition and spectacle.

    Gameplay and story do not exist in isolation, and one must serve the other. How many times do we hear about gamers complaining that the cutscenes depict things that they can’t do in gameplay, or things they NEVER would do (i.e. walk into obvious trap). For this story to work the gameplay needs to support the central conceit of the story. DO NOT make you mow down faceless goons. Make each kill meaningful. Have total body count in the teens. Make a level where you are hunting ONE enemy, desperately trying to avoid all other conflict. Make a level about being hunted, where your only hope of survival is escaping, or ambushing your hunter. Make a single shot debilitating, where 2-3 will outright kill you.

    THAT is the kind of game that would reinforce the story. Even mediocre gameplay in that style would make this game a gem. The two halves of the game would work in harmony to make something greater than the sum of its parts. Now they are working in dissonance, turning the other to just so much noise.

    This is why I am so hopeful yet concerned about the new Tomb Raider. If they fully commit to the idea of realistic violence, with a kill count that does not exceed the teens, it could be special. If every enemy has personality, every kill meaning, then it will have great impact. If halfway through they go into full badass mode, with Lara mowing down enemies by the dozen then the story they are trying to tell will be undermined, and destroyed.

    …That was a bit ranty, but still it needs to be said, developers are handicapping themselves. If they can get over this prepubescent power fantasy fixation we could start to see big things happen.

    Short version, less enemies= more impact.

    1. Quality over quantity. A great point.

      This puts me in mind of the boss fights in the Metal Gear Solid series. Each one is a truly epic conflict that often calls into question issues of loyalty, the trauma of war, or other deeper subjects. Moreover, the bosses are like Batman villains in that they each have a degree of sympathetic pathos. When you kill one, it’s _meaningful_ and there is a tremendous sense of resolution and finality.

      The fight at the end of MGS3 in particular brings all of this home. It’s hardly heroic or a power fantasy at all. It’s elegaic, tragic, and mournful.

      Some of the boss fights fit exactly into your statement here-

      “Make a level where you are hunting ONE enemy, desperately trying to avoid all other conflict. Make a level about being hunted, where your only hope of survival is escaping, or ambushing your hunter. Make a single shot debilitating, where 2-3 will outright kill you.”

      By turn, these fights are very narrative and work in harmony to develop the greater subtexts and concepts that Kojima is trying to communicate.

      But I do think you’re right, the whole power/murder fantasy thing is at cross purposes with realistic or analytical depictions of violence.

      1. MGS 3 is a great example of this. At some point, you actually suffered for your sins, when you “fight” The Sorrow. Kojima was really pushing his theme of violence leading to more violence with that encounter, and that’s definitely a big reason why I’ll always consider that game a classic.

        1. YES, that has to be one of the best boss encounters (not really a fight, is it) ever. You literally meet the souls of everyone you’ve killed in the game up to that point. That blew my mind, and quite frankly it was more effective than anything in this game.

  3. Somebody let me know if this already exists, but is there a zombie game where the player is searching for a cure (so, the more zombies you kill, the fewer lives you’ve saved at the end)? Because that would be a great way to juxtapose the mindless killing sprees inherent to many of these genres with an over-arching mechanic for punishing the player’s decision to kill.

    Somewhat similarly, I remember Alpha Protocol (and the Deus Ex series as well, plus others I’m sure) had levels where you’re infiltrating friendlies and you’re trying to play stealthily specifically because, if you get caught, a whole bunch of innocent people are going to have to die. I’ve always appreciated that mechanic as well (significantly more than when you’re being stealthy while infiltrating the bad guys).

    1. Lone Survivor kind of does this, and it’s definitely the best example I can think of a game that makes you question your violent impulses. The fact that the game is so surreal and psychological kind of encourages you to question your own behaviour when playing the game.

      An early scene that illustrates this (SPOILERS: this occurs within the first twenty minutes of the game) is meeting with your character’s old friends; they seem to be oblivious to the zombie apocalypse that’s going on. You leave the room for a moment and find a gun, and once you reenter the room, your friends are now zombies.

      I shot them without thinking, but then I reflected on what the game was trying to tell me. Did I just shoot them because I had recently been given a gun? Because I was creeped out/scared? The game makes you ask these questions throughout. The ending encounter especially hits this point home.

      Simply put, if you’re looking for the kind of game that makes you reflect on what you’ve seen and what you’ve done, this is a good one to try. The ending actually reinforces it by showing you all the decisions you made during the game. Definitely worth a play.

  4. Oh, and forgot to mention in other comment – great review! Was wondering why is NHS so silent last couple of days, and now you strike with this review and Todd’s great ME3 Mordin article

      1. To be honest, I have no idea what NCAA is without googling it (although I think it’s some kind of university basketball, is it?). But I’m not a sports person *and* I’m from Europe, so… yeah.

        Gonna read your PC Dark Souls impressions tho! And other stuff 😀

        1. (ok, haven’t really been paying attention to pictures, my bad, now I know it’s rugby, which you silly Americans call football, while we know that football’s real meaning is European one :P)

  5. Really? You’re going to try and bring up an outdated concept like the passive spectator in film? You still ‘choose’ to press play, ‘choose’ to continue watching, and you have active thoughts that determine your response to the film. All you’re doing is twisting a double-standard to meet your needs.

    You complain about the multiplayer portion. Well then, it’s only fair that we condemn Heart of Darkness for all those Blu-ray extras that detract from the main purpose. As for those Achievements, it’s your own damn fault for having notifications turned on.

    It seems to me that all you set out to do was create a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” scenario. Excellent writing, but… Excellent environments, but… Decent gameplay, but… Jesus man, it’s okay to get down from your elitist high horse and appreciate something with a little mass-market appeal once in a while.

    1. Friend, you’re talking to someone that likes and praises Call of Duty games. So don’t pull that “elitist” crap with me. Aside from that, this game arguably _doesn’t_ have mass appeal due to the questions it raises and the way that it does try to elevate the level and quality of narrative in the military shooter genre. It can be criticized along a couple of different vectors, but at least they didn’t set out to make an ultra-commercial CoD clone.

      And pressing play, choosing to watch, etc. is a far different level of engagement than playing a game, you’re kidding yourself if you think otherwise. There is a difference between passive observation and actively playing a game. Reception, spectatorship, analysis…all of these things are comparative between films and games but games require a different kind of participation. A game requires us to supply input, for which it provides feedback.

      Seriously, it’s my “own damn fault” for having notifications turned on? That’s part of the design, and it’s part of the current gaming culture.

      Have you actually played the game and can you comment on what you feel are its merits?

      Also, which Heart of Darkness Blu-Ray is it that has all those extras?

  6. I think it’s rather ironic that people need incentives to do morally correct actions. I especially feel that way after playing Mass Effect 2. I used to like that mechanic, but no longer.

    My two favorite games are ‘free’ of these moral incentives.

    The first is the original Deus Ex. Human Revolutions is great but it’s tilted toward no violence by giving the most points to non-lethal takedowns. Not so with DX. In the first mission you can go stealth or massacre, but whatever you do, there are people that will praise and berate you. It gives experience points when you complete practical objectives instead of doing the ‘right’ thing. For example there was a quest to kill a mole, but it nets you nothing. But it does make me question myself when I go against my former colleagues, simply because they mean something for me. DXHR did a similar thing, when someone was surrounded by enemies, I went in guns blazing with my stealth oriented charactet.

    1. I was doing a stealth/ nonlethal playthtough when I played. I got to that point and could not do it. I had copious amounts of ammo and grenades, and let loose with everything. I had to abandon my plan because of what the game did, and it was great.

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