Friday, January 4, 2013

Walk The Line

With Spec Ops: The Line, hindsight is 20/20. Everything about it is so much more fitting, more clever, and more fascinating in retrospect. For the first few hours after finishing it, my core criticism of the game would have been that it fell into the same trap that Far Cry 2 did. It seems that what both games want is for the player to feel bad about doing bad things. Like most gamers I find it easy to shrug off any supposed remorse or disgust for “my” actions when these bad things were a necessary part of progressing in the game. There was no way to avoid doing them, and if it isn't even a choice why would I feel bad? Which is when it struck me. There was always a choice. With that realization, Spec Ops: The Line became something else entirely. 

To the Reader go the Spoils
If you have any interest at all in morality and narrative in videogames, play this damned game before reading on. Seriously, it's barely 5 hours long and is averaging somewhere between 5 and 15 quid on Steam most of the time, so don't act like you don't have time or money. I contemplated putting a password on this entry, because I know there are those of you who even now intend to read this blog post without  playing the game. If what I am writing about at all intrigues you as a result and inspires you to play thereafter, you will have tainted your own chance to experience the very thing that intrigued you in the first place. Pretty ironic don't you think? I know you, obsessive self-spoiling nosey-parker. I AM you. Unfortunately that's why I know that you are still reading despite all my warnings. In fact, probably because of all the warnings because now you just -need- to know what is so special it has to be a secret for it to work. Well, I tried. 
----------[SPOILER WARNING ACTIVE]---------

Walker on the Wild Side
Although there are several moral choices in the game that the player has control over, the two really big bad things Walker does in Dubai are built into core story progression. From my perspective, Walker made those calls in cut scenes and thus the consequences were out of my hands. So while I shortly agonized over and questioned my decisions and reasoning following the moral choice sections, I felt a comfortable distance from Walker's more heinous war crimes. In fact, in place of personal remorse I felt a growing distrust and dislike for Walker himself, whose gradual moral and mental decline are ingeniously represented by a series of clever tweaks to his character which are individually subtle and collectively screaming. 

He suffers cuts and burns that literally stain and scar his original clean-cut captain America image with dirt and blood, his melee attacks become increasingly and unnecessarily brutal until they border on sadistic, and by the games end his voice (Nolan North of course) is raw with a barely contained animalistic rage. Where once there were stern military commands, now he barked for his team to murder and slaughter the enemy, now he announced his kills not with dry professionalism, but with a disturbing satisfaction. Technically he still followed my control inputs to the letter, but he seemed to take increasing creative license with them until the character under my fingertips felt more like a beast I had on a leash than a direct extension or avatar of myself.

The Blame Game
I rode this perspective to the finish line and subsequently avoided letting the game really cut me emotionally. Afterward I discovered this mentality wasn't in line with the general reaction from most critics, who did actually feel bad and responsible even though the game told them to do it. Powerfully ambiguous as “art” often is, I decided my experience was just as valid as theirs by its nature, but it was in that comparison that my epiphany was born. The two approaches here are guilt or detachment, in the form of askewing the blame by placing it on Walker instead. Think about  it for a moment kids. It's the same choice Walker has to make at the end of the game. 

Black Mirror
All along Walker has been using the looming threat of villainous mastermind “Konrad” as a scapegoat for all the bad choices he has been “forced” to make. In the end he has to confront the realization that this Konrad is not real but a figment of his imagination. Imaginary Konrad then all but spells it out for both Walker and the player. 
"None of this would've happened if you just stopped. But on you marched. And for what? The truth, is that you're here because you wanted to feel like something you're not: A hero."
Throughout the game Walker insisted on moving deeper and deeper into Dubai despite the initial mission being pure recon, always spouting saccharine nonsense about “having to do what's right” and everything that happens thereafter is a result of his refusal to stop because there is always another objective they need to accomplish first. Throughout, he insists he had “no choice” but to do everything that he does. Thus I initially didn't realize just how far through the 4th wall Konrad's message was intended to travel. This hits gamers right where it hurts, right in the wish fulfilment  It points to the childish desires that drive us to the genre and calls them out as pathetic and flawed.

I never felt more detached from Walker than when he was dribbling patriotic idealisms at the start of the game and when he was that beast yanking on the leash at the end, but it's during these extremes that Walker holds up the black mirror. The single-minded childish hero wannabe at the start of the game straining for glory and automatically following every objective he encountered without question .. and the bloodthirsty rage monster reveling in the suffering and death he could reap on his enemies. Those are the two most base desires that the military shooter genre satisfies laid bare. And we didn't like what we saw.

My revelation was confirmed when I saw that in an interview, the lead designer openly stated that in his eyes “putting the controller down and walking away” was a valid ending to the story. Walker is our Konrad, I had piled all the blame on a fictional effigy of my own making rather than consider the truth, that I did have a choice. The choice I had missed was not in the games universe but mine, I could have stopped playing, or simply not started playing at all.

Lines in the Sand
Am I peddling you over-cooked pretentious tosh? Maybe! Some of you will think so. For me though, Spec Ops: The Line is as complex and layered as any book they made you write essays about in your high school English Literature class, and every angle I consider it from seems to offer new parallels and insights worth writing about. Check this out for a start: During the first few chapters Yager plays up to the players lowest expectations of the genre. A brave gamble when many designers fear an entire game can rest on the first 5 minutes, but by taking time to establish this bland baseline players will have no trouble relating to, they have cranked up the volume on any subtle tweak to convention from then onwards. As the moral consequences and serious drama ramps up, the slow motion headshots that reduce whole skulls to red mist seem indulgent and cartoonish, caricature and macabre. The endless streams of enemy soldiers the player mows through feels increasingly ridiculous, at times I spent so much time behind a turret I wondered if the enemies would ever stop spawning. And when you think about it, that Desert Eagle is sort of silly, look how big it is. Cognitive dissonance is in the games blood and bones, Yager works to put the player in a surreal auto-pilot with enough brain cells left over to recognize something amiss below the surface, a lucid dream, an itch they can't scratch. It wants players to be just slightly uncomfortable in their comfort zone.

Extra Credits offers other insights, such as the usage of American soldiers as the main enemy. While I lack the geographical patriotism this was clearly intended to prod, I've seen enough movies and played enough games to feel the slight psychological friction of shooting uniforms generally associated with my allies. Another observation Extra Credits made was the constant literal descent the player makes, every level there are half a dozen “drop down” actions or ziplines, but never a ladder or a climb spot. This is definitely a deliberate move by Yager, it is a sympathetic backdrop to the moral descent of Delta team. Ask yourself, how often do you see narrative devices like that in games? You could probably count them on half of one hand.
See the first Extra Credits Spec Ops: The Line episode here, along with the rest of the series:

Think On Your Sins
A question mark always hanging over Spec Ops: The Line was the innate hypocrisy of a military shooter attempting to provide a subversive commentary on the military shooter genre, and indeed, the hypocrisy of a product that literally makes war into a game having the audacity to fly any sort of anti-war or anti-violence flags. I think the secret ingredient is ambiguity. Spec Ops isn't saying military shooters are bad and we shouldn't play them, it's just asking us to question our motivations for doing so. It isn't anti-war it merely asks us to face some extreme consequences and horrors of war up close and personal. It's self aware, and all it asks from the player is that they be the same; it wants to shake us awake and muddy the waters. Spec Ops is about confronting realities, but it is the audience that decides how to feel afterwards. Spec Ops: The Line might even be an attempt to give gamers their very own dose of post traumatic stress disorder.

Thanks for reading, you can go download and play Spec Ops now, obsessive self-spoiling nosey-parkers.

- Steve


  1. Underneath it's grandiose themes and symbology, the writing is really strong, dialogue is sharp and polished, as is the voice acting and delivery. The Radioman's dialogue stands out immediately as being of a higher class than most videogame scripts, but even from the earliest scenes the squads bickering is better than the average military grunt bickering. Just wanted to say that for the record.. but it didn't really fit well in the review.

  2. I just realized I had actually typed out "much in the way of that" and I'm so sorry you had to read that syntactical holocaust.


Although I am a game designer employed within the game industry, all of the opinions I express in this Blog are my own opinions, given in a personal capacity, and do not represent the opinions of my employer