A virtual gun and good entertainment (or why you still need to play Spec Ops: The Line)
There’s something unsettling in playing Spec Ops: The Line, long before its major twist really falls upon you. Oh, sure, it plays like a conventional third-person shooter as you storm along and gleefully pull the trigger on your gun, but right from the start there’s something unsettling therein, something that gnaws at you. The environments are too claustrophobic, the dialogue too close to the edge of snapping and growling, every moment too pitched and agitated for what’s going on. Sudden slowdowns punctuate combat as you kill people, seemingly without reason, the camera and the events around you drifting slower as if to give you just enough time to really think about the life you ended.
Of course, at this point you don’t need me to tell you what the deal is with the game. It’s been raved about critically, praised as a deconstruction of the real-is-brown military gun-porn shooter by more or less every outlet in existence. Sales weren’t what they could have been, but it succeeded at its goal. But how much merit does it still have? When you know the gut punch that it’s aiming for you, is it still as effective? Does the game still have a point when the only audience that’s going to remember it is the audience that has the least need of it?
Let’s be fair here, Spec Ops has a message that goes beyond “Call of Duty is bad, you guys.” The narrative is every bit as savage as the one in Final Fantasy VII was meant to be. You, the player, are impersonating a hero led on by your own sense of moral rightness, not through any actual beliefs. You start shooting at people, but you never question why you’re shooting at this group instead of the other, or whether your actions make things any better. Non-spoiler warning: they don’t. Your actions over the course of the game simply turn things into more and more of a morass.
There are multiple endings, yes, but the one that fits the narrative best is the one in which the protagonist winds up gunning down the entire rescue team sent for him in the end. There are moving things on a screen in front of you and that means you’re supposed to shoot them. It finishes the story on a note of bleak hopelessness, the idea that violence only feeds into more violence, a chilling echo of Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” from the other side. It’s not just the protagonist; you are not a good person for treating war as a video game. The fourth wall will not protect you.
Powerful stuff. Powerful stuff that I do not need to hear.
I mean, I’ve written an entire column shot through with the statement that there is something very uncomfortable about turning a real war into a cartoon conflict of heroes and villains. I know all of this. It’s all true just the same, yes, but I am not the target audience for the sort of ambush that the game is going for. The target audience are the people who bought the game expecting yet another game in which you shoot brown people and feel like the hero.
Was it effective as an ambush game? Hard to say. But at the same time, that window has vanished. Anyone who buys the game now knows full well what’s on the table. I didn’t go in thinking that I was going to finish up and feel good about myself; I bought the game expecting it to deliver a few sucker-punches to me based on the fact that I’m playing a horrible person. Any sort of ambush effect is lost, and what I’m left with is a game that isn’t terribly fun to actually play. The cover mechanics that form the heart of the game are unpolished and clunky, objectives are sometimes unclear, and there were few moments that I really enjoyed the actual game.
To be sure, that’s a big chunk of what games have to sustain themselves on. Classic gameplay is going to trump statements about the nature of gaming at the time the game is released. Sure, Saints Row IV included some nice barbs at the state of gaming as it existed at launch, but those aren’t going to ring nearly as true in a decade. The whole point of that game’s opening was a parody of the same sort of thing that Spec Ops is making commentary on, but the gameplay as a whole will hold up better.
Except… you know, Saints Row is parody. This isn’t. Spec Ops is a game with a purpose, and that purpose is a bit more complex than the one that I just explained. I glossed it intentionally above, but the game isn’t blaming the protagonist for what he’s doing. Martin Walker is a sociopath with delusions of grandeur, yes, but he doesn’t have agency. You, as a player, do.
By playing through this game, you are complicit in everything that takes place. More than that, it exposes something just beneath the surface, something I don’t like to think about, something that no gamer likes to think about. Go ahead and look up a few lines. I’m criticizing the gameplay, talking about whether or not the mechanics of what I’m doing are fun to play. Are you having fun, Mr. Lefebvre, when you shoot soldiers in the head? Are you not entertained?
Of course I know that the characters on the screen aren’t real people. They’re digital simulations of people. If they flail and panic when I shoot them non-lethally, that’s because they were programmed to do so. If one of them crawls toward me on the ground, begging for mercy, I have the choice to shoot him or not, but he doesn’t have the choice to not ask me to do something. That’s me. That’s all on me. I know these are not real people. I’m simply ending simulated lives. I am still a good person.
The loading screens start to mock you as you progress through the game. It’s really easy to ignore that. “You are still a good person,” they say. Or, “How many Americans have you killed today?” Or, “Everyone in this city is probably going to die. But this is just a video game, so who cares?”
I would rather be playing Mass Effect 3 when it comes to a shooter. The mechanics are more polished there, and more to the point, I’m not fighting against simulated enemies in an approximation of a real-world conflict. There, I’m fighting for something that is a conflict with some honor to it. I’m fighting to defend life in the entire (fictional) galaxy against an enemy who uses (fictional) people as cannon fodder, absorbing and assimilating them. I don’t have to feel bad about shooting the minions of the Reapers. I don’t have to feel bad about cutting down Cerberus troops (how many of them became tools against me willingly and how many were forced into it). I can take joy in shooting the Reaper-led Geth (who turned to the Reapers in desperation when they were attacked, they had nothing left, they panicked, I negotiated a peace between Geth and Quarians but how many died first).
When I play that game, I can be happy at how good I am at killing, because I am not killing things that are so uncomfortably close to real people. I have more fun practicing skills that involve ending life. My wife and I talk enthusiastically about a match in which she pulled dozens of Geth over a wall to their deaths, about how effective we were at ending lives.
But I don’t need to hear this message, right? Because I know that idolizing games like the ones that Spec Ops is commenting on is a bad thing. No, it’s much better to idolize games in which you’re dealing with fictional deaths, in which you stand up for more fictional causes, in which you avoid making any kind of comment on the people being shot every day in the real world for soil and ideas.
Spec Ops is talking about that. But it’s also talking about the very nature of violence as an entertainment medium, about the idea of playing a hero who kills everyone, about how you interact with fictional worlds. It’s not about whether or not you’re having a fun time with this. Not having fun is part of the point. You aren’t supposed to walk away feeling invigorated after a session full of ending lives and cutting people down. Sure, they’re fictional, but what does it say when you’re complaining about not having enough fun cutting down completely fictional individuals?
The cues are everywhere in the game. This isn’t a game about a trend in gaming, it’s not about a real conflict, it’s not about how much you think you know about jingoistic gun-porn. It’s a game about how that moral high ground you think you stand upon may not be so unassailable. It’s a game about how your reasons for doing reprehensible things are still gross and vile, no matter how solid you might think your motivations may be. It’s a game that can stand up even now, even when you know full well what you’re walking into.
Is it a good game? That’s tangential to the point. It’s a good piece of art. It makes you think about what you do, look at your world in a new way, and ask some uncomfortable questions about who you are and why you do things. And it does all of this even when you know full well what’s coming around the bend.
Yes, the game is still relevant when you know what’s coming. Because you really don’t until you’ve been through the experience. And though it’s not what I’d call pleasant, it is important.
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