Do You Feel Like a Hero Yet?
Spec Ops: The Line
Yager Development, 2013
Movie trailers tend to be either wholly representative, or essentially misleading. Not quite a form unto themselves, they are usually caricatures of their subject’s genre, so that the viewer can instantly determine if they are the target audience and thus whether they need spare it any attention.
Considering Hollywood’s flaccid creative trajectory of the past decade or two, this means for many films the trailer is all you need to see.
The same can often be said for game trailers as well, particular now that they’ve started appearing in theaters alongside movie previews. When I first saw the trailer for Spec Ops: The Line it was quite possibly before a movie or maybe on someone else’s TV; as my poor recall on the matter may attest, I didn’t make much of it. This is because The Line looked for all the world like it was advertising a standard ‘realistic modern’ shooter. Now, I don’t mind shooters as such – the number of shooters I’ve reviewed stands as testament to the fact that I rather enjoy them – but ‘realistic modern’ is one subgenre I assiduously avoid. This aversion can be problematic, though, since ‘realistic modern’ design ethos has become so prevalent, supplanting the nearly decade-long reign of the ‘realistic World War II’ shooters.
What’s more problematic – and the primary reason for my aversion – is the simple fact that such ‘realistic modern’ shooters are by and large odious: not simply violent, though they are indeed that, but frighteningly jingoistic, rabidly nationalistic, fetishistically obsessed with military hardware and (if we are being extremely generous, only implicitly, but to anyone with the most vestigial critical faculties as good as outright) racist.
Such games typically drop you into already dusty Middle Eastern cities being pounded even finer by hi-tech ordnance courtesy of the US military and friends, with orders to shoot anyone brownish-tinted and head-scarved who might still be holed up in the ruins. They also tend to be bad even as games, only ‘realistic’ in the oxymoronic sense of ‘cinematic realism’, stringing together spectacular scripted scenes with monotonous gunplay. Like a Michael Bay flick or one of James Cameron’s blockbusters, they mistake 3D technical trickery for actual dramatic depth, and – more apropos of video games, a definitionally interactive medium – visual intensity for immersion.
Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw – one of the most incisive game critics in the medium’s short history – has gone so far as to crassly re-dub the ‘realistic modern shooter’ genre ‘spunkgargleweewee’, a style of game that is characterized by laziness to which moral, intellectual and political reprehensibility are incidental but suspiciously consistent.
I imagined that Spec Ops: The Line could be comfortably grouped into this category of games I prefer to ignore. So when Yahtzee declared it foremost of his ‘Games of the Year 2012’ I felt obliged to at least watch his review of the game. It opens thus:
Is a shooter game about the horrors of war an inherently hypocritical thing? Can a game’s plot really take the stance that the hideous things man does to his fellow man is beyond hollow guilt-filled rationalization, when with its very next breath it goes ‘BING’ and gives us the ‘emotionally dead’ achievement? Does it inherently cheapen the message to coincide it with exciting shooty action? Could a video game reasonably make us feel guilty for things it told us do? Can a video game use shooty gameplay to produce emotions beyond visceral joy, or will the intended message be inevitably overlooked by an audience who will probably just be trying to have fun shooting things?
As you might well imagine, I subsequently bought and played the game.
Both Yahtzee and I are proponents of the ‘video games as art’ argument, but in our current era the arts are often necessarily entertainment as well, and video games – like movies – are no exception. This also means we need to account for the fact that video games are – again, like movies – frequently centered around representations of violence. In all fairness, the same can be said of all diverting media throughout all of human history: the Iliad is out-and-out war propaganda after all, and name me even one great Greek tragedy that lacks for incest or infanticide. The Colosseum in Rome is a marvel of architectural engineering, the enduring basis for so many modern venues, but it was built to house the most brutal of spectacles. Just look at the Latin: video ludos – I watch the games.
Spec Ops: The Line is aware of it’s own complicity, and enters into dialogue with it – that is the genius of the game. It’s most obvious influence is Heart of Darkness, via Apocalypse Now, an allusion it wears openly by naming its Kurtz stand-in ‘Colonel John Konrad’, but the game can’t be reduced to this citation. Before I can explain, however, I’m honor-bound to state that much of what follows will constitute spoilers.
The game opens with tableaux of gleaming skyscrapers rising improbably above an encroaching desert. The camera looks out from a broken ledge onto the city of Dubai in ruins, all but swallowed by sand. A tattered American flag flutters in the foreground, hanging inverted, a military sign for distress. The momentary quiet is disturbed by the aerial mastications of rotors, a sound that heralds helicopters. Soon gunfire joins and an aerial dogfight zips past our perch. The camera peels off after the action, one large helicopter trying to shake numerous smaller pursuers. At last the camera dives into the pursued, and the player is in control. No further context – in media res if you can stand more Latin – just you and the man you control and the helicopter-mounted chaingun he controls, and the bullets chattering from the other helicopters that hound you through a treacherous topography of chitinous corporate towers and gaunt skeletal cranes.
The fight is immediate and visceral, your weapon unwieldy but frighteningly powerful. It’s one of the chief joys of shooter games – you get to see what this gun can do! The enemy helicopters fall one by one under the relentless hail of your bullets, but more keep coming. Then the sandstorm hits. Suddenly the air is thick with particulates, visibility close to nil. Out from behind the vast silhouette of a skyscraper comes the twirling, burning shape of a crippled helicopter hurtling directly towards you.
Impact gives way to black out. Black out fades into exposition. A voice, that of the main character Captain Martin Walker, narrates:
Is John Konrad the greatest man I ever served with? Well, I don’t know. There was this one time in Kabul when he dragged my bleeding carcass half a mile to an evac chopper. So maybe I’m biased. But the facts don’t lie. The man’s a fuckin’ hero. Remember when the first storms hit Dubai? You were probably all safe and sound at home watchin’ TV, while Konrad was leading the Damned 33rd in Afghanistan. Instead of coming home, he volunteered his entire battalion to help with the evac. Bet all you did was send a check. Rumor is Konrad was ordered to abandon the city. He defied that order, and the 33rd stood with him.
Meanwhile we witness a montage of a military man’s morning routine, though the camera is shy, steering clear of his face and focusing instead on objects apropos the narration – medals and decorations, photographs, newspaper clippings. Even before the man in the montage walks out onto a balcony to survey sand-buried Dubai it becomes clear that this is none other than Konrad himself. Walker’s voice continues:
Now the official story is still hazy about what happened next. All we know is that the storms got worse. Much worse. Last thing we heard outta Dubai was that Konrad was leading a caravan of survivors outta the city. That was six months ago. Then, two weeks ago, we picked up this transmission.
A new voice – a whisper that bristles with static:
This is Colonel John Konrad, United States Army. Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure… Death toll… too many.
Cut to three armed figures, making their way through the twilight of a sandstorm. They banter and bullshit, as befits soldiers with proper esprit de corps before stepping into the clear. There’s the city before them, and the desert all around. ‘Gentlemen, welcome to Dubai.’ – ’Yup. Still dead.’ – ‘Yet to be seen, Sergeant.’
These are your people, the Delta Force team led by Captain Walker. Your direct subordinate, Lieutenant Adams, handles grenades and heavy weapons, while Sergeant Lugo manages tech and sniping. Your mission is simple: locate the source of Konrad’s transmission, assess the situation, then radio command so they can send in reinforcements. Of course, things fall apart – imperfect revelation and poor judgment combine to draw Walker’s team of Delta operators deep into the hellish interior of storm-ravaged Dubai.
The Line begins as most ‘realistic modern’ shooters do – your team dropped in a foreign locale, gunning down dark-skinned ‘insurgents’ – but this is a feint and one that doesn’t last long. True to its source text, it becomes increasingly clear that Colonel Konrad went to extraordinary lengths to keep the situation in Dubai ‘under control’. The majority of the game is spent fighting American soldiers who’ve gone rogue under Konrad’s command. Evidence of the Colonel’s atrocities steadily mounts as your team traverses the car-clogged highway into the city. Bodies hang from the streetlights lining the thruways, beautiful but grim street art proliferates, refugee camps assembled from the scraps of Dubai’s former opulence – makeshift silk tents, scraps eaten off of fine china and crystal – house frightened people caught between the Damned 33rd who control the food and water rations and the CIA agents who want to bury the whole fiasco so the world will never know.
Thus the insurgents are CIA patsies and the Damned 33rd are the only real peacekeepers, though they’ve become monsters in order to keep what peace is left. In short, the situation in Dubai is decidedly FUBAR. The ambiguities of the dire situation are most plangently conveyed through the tried and true audio-log convention, a storytelling device leveraged to great effect in titles like BioShock, whereby the player collects fragments of ‘intel’ – a passenger jet’s black box, a psychological profile for Colonel Konrad, fine silver melted into bullets – whose accompanying narration sheds light on the events preceding the action of the game.
Indeed, BioShock is an excellent comparison to draw, because The Line similarly explores the relationship between player and player character. But while BioShock concerned itself with the experience of freedom intrinsic to video games, The Line is more interested in the complicity specific to pleasurable violence that is so prevalent in gaming.
The turning point comes when Walker’s team find a large group of enemies between themselves and their target. Clearly outnumbered, but still holding the element of surprise, the Delta team spots a weapon that can change everything, a mortar with hi-tech targeting. The trouble is that the only available rounds are white phosphorous, affectionately known by Vietnam vets as ‘Willie Pete’, an incendiary chemical whose use as a munition lies within one of those convenient gray areas not explicitly covered by any international treaty. For my own part I lolly-gagged trying to imagine some other means of progression, desperate to avoid this resort – a desire echoed by the non-player characters, Adams and Lugo – but Captain Walker sees no alternative. He arms the mortar, you with him, and together you set to work.
The sequence that follows is endemic to ‘realistic modern’ shooters, one which is ‘realistic’ insofar as it accurately portrays the ever increasing use of computerized targeting by the US military in its contemporary armed conflicts. Instead of staring down the barrel of a gun, Walker fires a drone camera into the air and cracks open a laptop, the screen of which displays his enemies as little white blobs – individual human beings – clustered around larger white blobs – manned vehicles. From this technologically enhanced perspective, the player is able to treat their targets like the enemies in the earliest video games, an association that is made next to explicit in The Line. Walker’s face is even reflected in the screen to highlight the peculiar sensibilitiy at work here: a screen within a screen, a game within a game.
Most ‘realistic modern’ shooters engage in the power fantasy inherent to this ‘wrathful God’ perspective without a hint of irony. Indeed, they generally proffer it as just compensation, a properly biblical response to the sins of your enemy, who are depicted as sufficiently merciless to deserve no mercy in return. The Line inverts this entire structure, even as you rain pale fire down on the 33rd. As Yahtzee puts it:
Modern Warfare got into the habit of making a shocking moment that illustrated the ruthlessness of the enemy and the resources at their disposal. It’s supposed to make you hate and fear them and get you fully pumped to ruthlessly cockslap countless numbers of them for the rest of the game. The Spec Ops shocking moment, contrarily, is designed to make you hate yourself, and fear the things that you are capable of.
Because the final salvo of white phosphorous you unleash is a doozy, igniting a whole mass of those nasty little white blobs and sending them running and screaming in a mob, still aflame. The satisfaction that comes from ‘twenty birds with one stone’ is just as fulfilling as you’d expect, as long as you can forget the birds are people and the stone a hellishly painful death by incineration. Only The Line doesn’t let you forget.
As your team vaults into the trench to survey the carnage, you learn what that last satisfying mass of burning bodies really was: a group of refugees, civilians, non-combatants. There were the people all those soldiers were posted to protect. You see them, contorted with pain, frozen in mid-act like the plaster ghosts of Pompeii. Some hang from the fences, as if still trying to escape. Others simply huddle on the ground. Kneeling like a Madonna in the very center is the grotesque sight of a mother holding her daughter. The heat of the phosphorous has melted their flesh together in a last embrace.
Do you feel like a hero yet?
This is a question the game will ask you, slipped discreetly into the loading screens along with conventional plot synopsis and gameplay advice. It’s not the only such infiltration. Henceforth there will be other strange proclamations and maxims, some elusive, some pointed, turning the usually neutral space of the loading screen text into a Greek chorus. From this moment onwards, Walker spirals deeper and deeper into madness.
Tormented by Konrad’s voice on the radio, a voice only he seems to hear, he swears he will make Konrad and the 33rd pay ‘for what they’ve done’, only what he really means is ‘what I’ve done’, which really means ‘what we’ve done’. Because he didn’t do it alone. The player did it, too. You are now a war criminal.
To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.
Hallucinations and moments of temporal dilation convulse the game periodically. One moment Walker will be looking at a stretch of barren road, the next he sees it transfigured into a hellish inferno. Trapped in derelict department store display room with an imposing enemy in combat armor, the lights begin to strobe violently as the naked mannequins and Walker’s target impossibly trade places in split seconds of darkness. The world slows down as Walker kneels on an enemy soldier’s chest, watching as he draws his weapon, molasses-slow. The player urges Walker to act before it’s too late, mashing buttons. Time kicks back to full speed as Walker brutally pummels the face of his prone foe. Look what you made him do.
There is nothing ‘post’ about this traumatic stress. Walker’s squadmates watch on with increasing concern as their commanding officer oscillates between murderous intensity and trance-like torpor. Any identification between player and character becomes more and more difficult as it becomes less and less palatable. Our alienation should be thorough by the time we are once more in the helicopter manning the chain gun, firing at soldiers on a rooftop. As the helicopter pulls away, Walker orders his squad mate in the cockpit to ‘swing back around’ for another run. When Sergeant Lugo asks ‘Why?’ instead of tactical rationalization we get a furious: ‘I want to see what this gun can do!’ It’s deja vu, all over again. Soon they’re fleeing through the city on those chomping rotors, pursued by helicopters, back where we began. We’ve only just begun.
You cannot understand, nor do you want to.
Walker will survive the long road to Dubai tower, where he believes Konrad awaits him, but death hounds his every footstep. On the path to vengeance he will be tricked into destroying the city’s water supply, damning all of Dubai’s populace. Sergeant Lugo will be lynched in retaliation by angry refugees. Lieutenant Adams will die buying Walker time to get to Konrad, but when Walker reaches the pinnacle he finds that the real Colonel Konrad is already dead by his own hand. His bloated, decomposing body lies slumped in a chair. Walker’s Konrad is a hallucination like the rest, a scapegoat onto which Walker could load his guilt and shame, a convenient villain with a heart dark enough to make Walker’s checkered soul a little lighter by comparison. No such luck.
The game is to the player as Konrad is to Walker. It’s true that player is forced to take these actions in order to play the game, just as Walker claims that his actions are merely reactions to what Konrad has done. Yet the player is only playing because they wish to have their hand so forced: the game does not play itself. ‘What happened here was out of my control,’ Walker protests to the hallucinatory Konrad. ‘Wasn’t it?’ Konrad rebuts, ‘none of this would have happened if you’d just stopped.’
You are still a good person.
Of course I kept playing. In the end you’re given two choices. A reflection of Konrad faces Walker with a gun, and Walker holds the mirror image. Konrad counts to five, and if Walker doesn’t shoot Konrad, Walker shoots himself. Even if Walker lives, embracing madness and gunning down a specter, what’s left of him is a hollow shell, a bloody wraith drifting through a bleak epilogue.
The questions linger as well, most of all Yahtzee’s question, that of complicity, the question of what it is we’ve just done, and what it is the game is doing. It’s a daring thing, this deconstruction of shooter games masquerading as just another gratifyingly un-reflexive bloodbath, but what does it mean for a thing to be that which it purports to critique? The analogy to Heart of Darkness is valuable here because the same question has been put to Conrad’s canonical masterpiece. In 1975 Chinua Achebe gave a lecture called “An Image of Africa” in which he condemns Conrad’s ‘thoroughgoing’ racism, which he argues is inseparable from the meaning and message of Heart of Darkness. Obviously he doesn’t imagine this sacred cow of Western modernism will go down without defenders:
It might be contended, of course, that the attitude to the African in Heart of Darkness is not Conrad’s but that of his fictional narrator, Marlow, and that far from endorsing it Conrad might indeed be holding it up to irony and criticism. Certainly Conrad appears to go to considerable pains to set up layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his history.
It might be contended, Achebe says, but of course he will contend otherwise: ‘Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation,’ he states, ‘but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth’. His contestation, supported by readings from the text, is impossible to discount. While the topics are starkly different, the core issue of Spec Ops: The Line is similar. In the case of The Line I, as player, want very much to insulate myself from the moral universe in which the game places me, the relation to violence and pleasure I necessarily adopt when playing and enjoying shooter games.
I don’t have an answer that could give some satisfying, final determination, if any such a judgement even exists. A shooter to end all shooters may be too much to hope for. I’m content, for now, to view The Line as a kind of inoculation, even though there is no guarantee that it will function as such. The razor sharp satire of Full Metal Jacket’s opening segment is blunted easily enough in its unironic celebration by precisely the demographic the ‘realistic modern’ shooter is marketed towards. At least this text is out there, I think, causing distortions in the collective imaginary, running interference to the smooth, cinematic progression of its cretinous fellows.
For me, the lasting concern is less about how video games mimic violence or – as recent spates of gun violence have led politicians and certain special interests to proclaim – encourage imitation in its players; this sort of concern is age-old, and can itself be the topic of great literature. Instead I’m left thinking about what the politicians would rather us not remember: how real-life violence has come to more and more resemble a video game.
The trend began with the first Gulf War, which avoided the immediacy of imagery that was so disastrous to civilian morale in Vietnam by supplanting gruesome battlefield footage with exactly the kind of bomb’s eye view The Line uses to implicate its players. This way of war has reached its epitome in the ubiquitous use of unmanned drones, combat platforms that demand the skills of a gamer more than that of a soldier. If the line between player and killer has grown blurred, we would do well to remember that the crossing can be made by either side, with consequences for both.
Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.