Time has done interesting things with the way we see video games. Back when video games became something that was readily accessible in arcades and home consoles, they were novelty items – toys, distractions, spectacles of technology, or all three. The video game of the late ‘70s pales in comparison to the video games of 2018, but aspects of these ideas are built into the DNA of video game design. Speckled through the history of video game design, you find games that eschew the ideas of aestheticism in order to tell a story through the medium of video games. Missile Command made a statement on the futility of nuclear war, 1992’s Alone In The Dark placed the ideas of horror movies in a video game space, and Bioshock brought narrative ideas from Atlas Shrugged and The Manchurian Candidate into its story.
As video games mature and explore different themes and ideas, the modes of gameplay change and adapt as well. Violence in video games began as a spectacle or as a reward, as Mortal Kombat showed, and was there to shock and disgust, all for the sake of attention. But Mortal Kombat was not the only one doing this: over in the first person shooter style of video games: we had Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein 3D, moving into Call Of Duty, Halo, Sniper Elite, Medal Of Honor, Battlefield and beyond. All of these games use a different kind of violence as their modus operandi: adversary against an AI opponent, in its various forms, with the gameplay facilitating a challenge against something else, be it a group stated as the enemy by the narrative, or against real life opponents in head-to-head multiplayer.
Or against, you know, alien hunchbacks.
With all of this in place, we turn our attention to Spec Ops: The Line: a game that depends on the decades of war shooters that came before it. From the absurd excess of Wolfenstein to the politically charged messages of modern Call Of Duty titles, it rides on the coattails of this history. It begins as these games often do: exemplifying the bravery of those who fight for their cause, as a unit of three soldiers come through a destroyed Dubai on a rescue mission. The game immediately turns to one of intrigue and political murkiness. The CIA are involved, and American soldiers have gone rogue. As the bastion of reason against such atrocities, you are the only one that can save these people. So far so humdrum war shooter, but in this predictability the seeds are sown. Every small step in this narrative journey makes sense. The tropes click together. All is as it should be.
And then one of your actions crosses the eponymous line. A strike against your supposed enemy turns into a horror scene, as your action causes your fellow countrymen to burn alive, and civilians are murdered in an act of senseless bravado. That infamous white phosphorous scene takes place, and the game irreversibly changes course.
Things get pretty real pretty quick. Buckle up.
I love this game because it is one of the rare examples of gameplay supporting its narrative by subverting what players believe is happening. In its first eight chapters, Spec Ops: The Line deliberately lies to you, obscures the truth in small ways, like the banter of the US enemies talking about home. In its second half, even when the game is at its most self-reflexive, its impact hinges on your belief that your actions still have positive consequences. Lives can still be saved, even as you destroy the last water trucks in Dubai, mow down countless of your supposed “brothers-in-arms”, and finally confront the guilt that drove you to these extremes. These small decisions, in isolation, are justified in the path you have taken. Looking back from where you’ve come from, in the buddy-buddy Tom Clancey-esque game you started in, it seems laughably naive to even posit the theory that we were ever helping in the first place.
This is one of the small ways violence displays itself in our video games: as signs of dominance, strength, and the overcoming of adversity. A physical display that, even when outnumbered, outgunned, and outclassed, your sheer skill and willpower will win you the day, even when, realistically speaking, you would have been a corpse eight hours ago. We play these games to be the hero a story, to disengage for a while. This is Spec Ops: The Line’s greatest strength: it shines a light not onto the how, but the why. The dialogue in Chapter 15 is a chilling deconstruction of our play habits in this format, as Colonel Konrad berates not only Walker, but the game’s players for participating in this horrific display. His lines reflect a frustration with a society complicit in what is represented within these mediums: “you’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not: a hero…you were never meant to come here…none of this would’ve happened if you’d just stopped.”
Let’s take Konrad’s comment a step further. Why do these comments in particular resonate so loudly? I mean, if we were so ashamed of our participation in the first person shooter, surely we would’ve felt guilt for the millions of Nazis and Japanese soldiers that we killed in countless war shooters, or the Arabic combatants that litter our modern day shooters? Yet these are faceless avatars of something bigger: they are the representation of adversary, the things we hate about the world at large, or maybe about ourselves. It is easy to click a button to launch a physics object into another physics object to prompt a program that displays red and black pixels on a screen in front of us. These are easy, acceptable targets. The ramifications are not that important. It’s just a game, right? Then why did the “No Russian” scene from Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 cause such a stir? Why are we so vocal about being “forced” to commit atrocities in this game? Is it because of who we are being asked to commit violence towards? Or is there something being said about the acts themselves?
The aforementioned No Russian scene.
The critics of this game will often say two things. They will either point to the mere existence of the violence of video games, as they often do, or they will make the argument that a game that demands a player to participate in these horrible acts of violence are complicit in pushing their players into these acts. Interactivity is the cornerstone of our medium: without game play, there is no “game” to “play”. If the game pushes us down this path, surely it is just as guilty as the games that came before it? In this, Spec Ops: The Line is unique. It never demands your participation by giving you helpful prompts. The objectives, the descriptions for buttons and commands, and even the loading screen help texts are intentionally vague. Your enemies even play by different rules than you, It is the learned behavior of games before Spec Ops: The Line that prompt us to act in a certain way, and when the time comes that we realize our mistakes, it thoughtfully hands us a mirror and asks us to look at our reflections.
Spec Ops: The Line is a game that poses numerous questions about the nature of violence and war, and not always in the best ways. Yet for all of its flaws, it is a game that passes no judgement on the player themselves, as much as you may think it does. It is a story told in a video game format, with your participation, to explore the idea of violence and war. It is a game that sometimes forces you on a path you must follow, and sometimes leaves the choice in your hands. Ultimately, it is the choice of the player to either thoughtlessly participate, or to self-evaluate their behaviour and the motives of games like Spec Ops: The Line. In all of the final sequences of the game, the player is given a gun, a person or group of people you do not know, and no objective. It is in the player’s hands. Do they keep shooting, or do they put down the gun?
Perhaps it was said best by the lead developer of the game, Walt Williams: “In many ways, Spec Ops hates you, and it’s reacting to you, in the sense that, yes, we may have designed the game to work this way, but none of this would have happened, in the context of your experiencing it, if you had not put the game inside your system and played through it, you are, within the context of you playing it, the cause of everything because you chose to play that game, and it is reacting back at you.”
Choice, agency, participation in violence without a motive. These things are ultimately in the hands of players, and how we choose to decrypt what we take part in. In this, the violence of Spec Ops: The Line is the most important of its type: the violence that makes us think.
Image credits go to Yager Entertainment, Infinity Ward and CheatCC.com.