I have just finished playing Spec Ops: The Line, and like many others, was mercilessly engaged and confronted by its engrossing, if verbose and unrealistic, narrative. For those unfamiliar with the game, it is the latest in the Spec Ops series of wartime third-person shooters that focus heavily on warfare gameplay and squad-based tactics.
The game is set in a post-catastrophe (bordering on post-apocalyptic) Dubai, which has been devastated by six months of sandstorms and has been largely evacuated. The game is apparently based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and has been said to be this century’s Apocalypse Now, a film set in the Vietnam war also adapted from Conrad’s novella.
Initially the game appears to be—and was explicitly marketed as—just another tactical shooter, and in terms of game play and mechanics, it’s just that. Anyone who has played a wartime shooter before will feel right at home with the game’s controls, style and broad aesthetic. That is, until the narrative kicks in and here ‘kick’ is the operative word.
What sets this game apart from previous titles in the series or the bulk of other wartime shooters is not its practical elements—these are good, not amazing—but the game’s startling mise-en-scène and the narrative that takes place within it. What starts out feeling overly familiar—tough-talking and hardy American soldiers investigating and covertly infiltrating a troublesome ‘exotic’ location—slowly develops into a difficult, harrowing and, most surprisingly, quite reflexive moral and ethical morass.
The Gordian Knot that unfolds forces the player to reflect upon their own actions, which mainly consist of shooting and killing a lot of people—not just faceless Arab militias but American soldiers and, most discordantly, local civilians. Where this game diverges from its brethren is in its questioning of the right of the character—who embodies glorified American ideals of justice, rightness and interventionist authority—to be there at all.The actions you engage in have no obvious benefits and achieve very little other than death and destruction—often regarded as the necessary evils of war. But here, these seem like the only outcomes, the only things you achieve.
What’s more the game takes the glory and righteousness of war and turns it on its head. This it achieves through a variety of filmic, visual and narrative techniques. For example, your character and comrades become increasingly wearied, bleak and unhinged, their gear and bodies becoming torn, scorched and caked in sand, their conversation, initially witty and brimming with machismo slowly devolves into dejected grunts or bitter, thinly-veiled threats toward each other.
The most confronting part of the game is undoubtedly the mortar scene—the subject of a lot of talk since the game’s release—where your character must use a computer screen to aim a white-phosphorus mortar at an encampment of enemy (American) soldiers. As the mortar hits its targets and the screams and pained cries of the victims echo in your ears you see your character’s face reflected on the screen, its expression a mask of grim determination yet the horror and gravity of this are revealed in his eyes and small facial twitches. By forcing you to look at yourself as you exterminate dozens of lives with cold expediency the game forces the player to ask “Why am I doing this? Is it because I enjoy it and if so, why?”
What’s worse is then your character must slowly pick his way through the remains of the camp as still-burning bodies twitch and moan around you, only to discover the soldiers had been sheltering civilian refugees, all of whom are now dead and it was you that killed them. As much as you try to do the ‘right thing’ in this game, whether you define that in terms of necessity or an inflated sense of entitled morality, you will be forced to question the consequences of your actions and therefore the actions themselves.
Games, particularly these types of games, traditionally encourage players to revel in violence and carnage with very few consequences for doing so; enemies are faceless, nameless drones, blood and bodies fade away, the antagonist is established as undoubtedly evil from the beginning. However this game lacks any kind of traditional ‘bad guy’ upon whom the burden of responsibility rests. The violence a player engages in is usually legitimated as a reaction to the illegitimate or ‘bad’ violence of another. Ultimately this game forces you to consider your own responsibility; whether your own violence is indeed justified and perhaps, whether you are the bad guy here.
Since the game’s release it has received some fair criticism, certainly it is far from perfect. Regardless, nothing I have read about it has claimed that this game and what it does is not important. While I, along with some others, found parts of it slightly crass and the ending somewhat tired and bathetic, there was one piece of dialogue that felt really important, yet was lost in the melodrama of the final cut-scene. When confronting the man who your character believes to be responsible for most of the carnage (appropriately named ‘Konrad’) he turns your argument around and lays the blame squarely at your feet. Your character forcefully denies this accusation, deflecting responsibility and citing a lack of choice, which due to the nature of the gameplay, feels accurate. Yet Konrad continues, he states that you were never supposed to be there; that what you have done was never your mission, that ‘you could have just stopped’.
And I (the player) realised he was right; your character’s original mission was reconnaissance, a simple scout around and then call in an evacuation, but even before the shooting starts in the first chapter you (both myself and the character) never stop to think that maybe you shouldn’t keep going, maybe this isn’t what you’re there for. This is obvious political commentary and has relevance beyond the confines of the game; it critiques America’s (and more broadly the West’s) assumption that they have a right to intervene, that this (or that, or whatever) is unequivocally their business. This drive to ‘fix’ the world’s problems, to ‘correct’ atrocities and dispense this apparently universal ‘justice’ is something I have never seen criticised in this medium before.
The game’s ending references a few texts, most obviously Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now but also Picasso’s Guernica. Yet it also echoes a claim that Žižek makes in his book Violence, that forceful reaction and intervention is not always the best response, that sometimes it is better to just stop; to think, consider and most of all, to learn.
This is a nice yet undoubtedly naïve sentiment. So what does it mean for me or for those that make these games and others that play them? Should I stop playing shooters? I won’t and nor will others. Should game developers stop making shooters? They won’t and if they did others would. While I think what this game does is a positive thing, I’m not sure why it does it. Are its motivations simply to absolve the guilt of those that play it, to give these games a fresh coat of ethics?
“Yes, I play shooters but I play the confronting ones so that’s ok.” Or “Yes, I make shooters but I make them realistic so that’s ok.”
I’m not sure if this game is a step in the right direction for shooters, but its definitely a step.