We’ve all heard about games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. They are both beloved and reviled for their taut and violent action and realistic depiction of simulated real world modern combat situations. For the majority of the time in each of these games, you assume the role of an American soldier, heroically fighting against terrorist forces, Cold War Communists, or radical paramilitary organizations. In some (infamous) cases, you occasionally take on the role of the villain, but it’s always in service of fleshing out the story of the main character in the game and cementing why he has to rise up to become a hero.
Today, I’d like to talk about another game in this same genre, Spec Ops: The Line and talk about how it changes the game, so to speak.
Spec Ops: The Line follows the story of a three man Delta Force team led by Captain Martin Walker and their mission to investigate what has happened to a fictional 33rd Army Battalion sent into a dust-storm ravaged Dubai to restore order and evacuate refugees six months earlier. The game is a traditional first person shooter that focuses on squad tactics and cover-based combat. The game environment is itself unique (in more ways than one) being based entirely in a city that is so swallowed by massive sand dunes that it almost feels submerged and claustrophobic at times (though to be fair, BioShock did this first). Indeed, much of the gameplay mechanics feel overly similar to previous games in the genre and -on the whole- the game feels remarkably mediocre in terms of how it plays. Multiplayer mode, a staple for first person shooters is non-existent. On its face, this game is incredibly lackluster and forgettable.
However, I promise that if you play it, you will never forget it. (Warning: If you do plan to play this game, stop reading now!)
Where Spec Ops stands apart from the crowd is in its story. Captain Walker and his team are inserted into what appears to be a civilian uprising against the tyrannical military rule of the Army 33rd “The Damned” Battalion and its despotic and maniacal commander Colonel John Konrad. As they progress downward through the city, they encounter shanties and slums populated with a dejected and hopeless Dubai populace and decorated with brazen grafitti by an active insurgency and engage in firefights with both armed dissidents and their brutal 33rd Battalion oppressors. Captain Walker and his team are forced to take matters into their own hands and try to bring justice to Colonel Konrad and his mercenary soldiers.
So the player is led to believe, at least.
However, as you move forward, disturbing clues begin to make themselves apparent that sully the moral certitude for the Capt and his men: the Dubai government’s abandonment of its people, a populace violently rejecting American oversight and control, mutinous Army officers and the merciless martial law a desperate Colonel Konrad was compelled to enact. All of this set to the backdrop and constant commentary from a crazed reporter turned disk jockey cum propaganda leader for the 33rd. Regardless, the player knows that Captain Walker must continue on and confront a clearly out-of control Konrad.
At one point in the game, Captain Walker is confronted with an encampment of dozens of soldiers from the 33rd, positioned between Captain Walker’s team and their target location. Large tents dot an area filled with HMVs, mobile infantry vehicles, gun emplacements and squads of soldiers. As Captain Walker descends onto an overlooking rooftop, his teammates spy a nearby mortar emplacement with white phosphorus rounds. Faced with such a daunting opponent, the team engages in a brief debate about the consequences of what they must do and then look to their leader to take action. Captain Walker loads up the mortar and attacks the encamped troops, utterly and brutally immolating them.
This is the point where the game ‘changed’, although to be honest the game had never been anything different; only now has it shed its disguise and exposed its true face. As the player descends into the burning -though occasionally still living- remains of previous US soldiers and make their way through one of the large tents, they discover hundreds of refugees, also horribly burned alive. The soldiers were protecting the refugees from the violent insurgents. Captain Walker and his team have crossed a seemingly imperceptible point in their journey. You could even say a line.
Clearly this affects Captain Walker immensely, the weight of so much ugly death resting firmly on his shoulders. They move forward towards Colonel Konrad and justice and -thanks to a recovered tactical radio- Walker and Konrad begin to have discussions as they progress. Konrad berates Walker for not understanding the burdens of leadership, criticizes him for not being able to see the greater picture, and then later vilifies Walker for the increasing brutality of his actions.
Ultimately, Walker does finally reach Konrad, but only after his other two teammates are dead, one in a firefight, the other lynched by an enraged mob. As Walker shambles through the miraculously pristine interior of the Burj Khalifa, triumphant as the remnants of the 33rd dutifully -and surprisingly- surrender to him, we see what this fight has cost Walker, his body so deformed by his wounds that half of his body is monstrous, burned and bloody. He confronts Konrad in the penthouse, the Colonel condemning Walker’s actions while idly painting a tableau of Walker’s brutal massacre of the soldiers and refugees earlier in the game. The Colonel walks behind the painting and seemingly seats himself in a chair on the balcony outside. Yet when Walker reaches Konrad, he discovers that Konrad is dead, desiccated. His adversary has been dead for weeks and the discussions he’s been having purely the effects of (what would appear to be) post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet, Konrad continues to speak to Walker. It is this conversation that finally informs us of the true story of the game.
Spec Ops: The Line is not the story of a soldier’s heroic struggle against injustice or that soldier’s decline into madness. It is the story of the player. When Konrad says “you did all this because you wanted to feel like a hero“, he’s not referring to Captain Walker; he’s talking directly to the player. Spec Ops skillfully has taken standard, established tropes within the first person shooter genre and subverted them. At no pointing in the game does it ever explicitly say that the 33rd or Colonel Konrad have subjugated the people of Dubai. Terms like ‘martial law’ and ‘military tribunal’ are used, but we translate those terms as players into something far worse, based purely on the condition of the refugees earlier in the game and our own prejudices as players that we are ‘the hero’ and therefore the things we shoot are ‘bad guys’.
The game is masterful in playing upon our assumptions and our biases. It presents us with some obvious choices, plus some completely hidden ones. For instances, in the level with the white phosphorous mortar we could chose to engage the soldiers in a gunfight. But we don’t, because big guns –no matter how terrible and morally reprehensible– are better. Another example is when your sniper teammate is lynched by a mob. You reach him and cut him down, but he nonetheless dies. You are then faced with the same angry crowd. You can try to push through, but they beat you back. You can stand idly there, but they eventually stone you to death. It seems that you can only -and justifiably- shoot into the crowd to kill your attackers. But there’s another option: shoot into the air. It’s not obvious, but it is there, yet it is unlikely that many will even attempt it, given the easier option.
This game, seemingly wrapped in the guise of a mediocre, stereotypical shooter is the most successful indictment of ‘shooters’ and their demographic that anyone could create. I don’t think this is a propaganda piece though because it’s too subtle for that. This game is an examination and confrontation of why people who play shooters play them. As players, we’ve grown so very used to gunning down enemies that we don’t even think about it anymore. It’s not that we’re desensitized to the violence, although I’m sure some people might be. It’s that games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor so consistently represent violence as the justifiable option that we no longer think about it, we just act in response to obstacles. But the real issue isn’t even the institutionalized violence in these games, because games are generally based on conflict and adversarial by nature. The real point that the game and the developers are illustrating is the assumption we -as players- make while playing these games: that we’re heroes.
Spec Ops: The Line is not saying that gamers who love shooters are born killers. It’s instead saying that the reason we play shooters is flawed: we want to imagine we are heroes, but the games themselves do not depict realistic heroes. They are shallow, empty representations of an ideal warrior that does not exist in real life. There is no such thing as a real life John McClane or Jason Bourne. Heroes are not born from the barrel of a gun. There are thousands of soldiers who must make decisions on a daily basis that often can mean death for someone, but it’s not this that makes them heroes. It’s their honor and their duty that is heroic. What we are doing in these games is not heroic.
The character John Konrad (a clear homage to Apocalypse Now) even clarifies this -seemingly breaking the fourth wall to directly address the player- when he says “you did all this because you wanted to feel like a hero”. We play these games to imagine ourselves being soldiers, being heroes. But we rarely have any concept of what being a true hero is. Ask a veteran what being a hero is, what it requires. Ask them if combat made them feel heroic. Being a hero isn’t about lobbing a crate of white phosphorous grenade into a mass of soldiers or gunning down as many terrorists as you can. It’s about pulling your squad mate from a burning vehicle. It’s about standing post in 30 degree temperatures because that is your duty. Being a hero is answering the call of your country when asked of you and enduring hardships that no other human can imagine and then trying to return to the ‘normal’ world unchanged. Being a hero is losing your legs in combat, then rebuilding your life. Until you have done any of these things, you are not a hero; you’re just pretending to be one in a game.
Next time I discuss the best game on the market right now.