There is a lot of praise going around at the moment for Spec Ops: The Line. A quick brief: it’s a third-person shooter set in a sand-sunk Dubai, and America is fucking things up as usual. The praise it is receiving is for one reason—the game emphasises the tropes of typical modern shooters in the hope to subvert why we play. It’s supposedly a thoughtful reflection on why gamers love war games and shooting people, a deep meta-analysis of worn clichés.
What a load of bull.
We’re led to believe that the developer’s intention was to make an example of modern war-themed video games, and perhaps for some Journalists the designers achieved this. It appears that way, but perhaps it’s a case of grasping for Literary Straws. Ultimately Spec Ops is a ridiculous and heavy-handed exercise in being ‘edgy’. I won’t overstate this: if you think that the only way to “win” the game is to not play it means that you’re a moron. Sorry. Here’s why gamers buy and play video games based on war:
To win. To complete the game. To accept the challenges presented and come through on top.
Now, I won’t admit for one second that similar games are good or even average, but that doesn’t make them any less viable as consumer purchases. By making a game with utterly arbitrary choices to make the statement, “Why are you playing this atrocious game we made?” the developers have completely jumped the gun. Messages of, “Do you feel like a hero yet?” and “How many Americans have you killed today?” are undeniably overt, destroying any real sense of subtlety and legitimacy. If you have to spell it out, you’ve already lost.
Furthermore, for Journalists to say, “This is what the game is about, QED” defeats such theories as the Death of the Author and, well, subjectivity. The game is also about the horrors of war, and in fact does a better, straight-up depiction of this. It’s still a little over the top, but I suppose the horrors of war do defy the imagination. It’s unfortunate that to depict war, we have to act out the atrocities. And I do mean have to. The theme is arrogantly the worst aspect of Spec Ops, but by no means the only faux pas.
Captain Walker and his team are assigned to go into Dubai to learn what happened to Colonel John Konrad (way too obvious, guys), commander of the 33rd Battalion. Insurgents ambush the team, conspiracies and betrayal brought forth, and Walker vows to Fix It All. Only he doesn’t. I think.
It’s a convoluted mess, and I really couldn’t keep up with exactly what was happening. On a scene to scene basis it has fine dialogue and motives, but as a narrative arc it falls apart. At one stage you’re on a rescue mission, and at the next turn you’re helping bring about the death of thousands. Makes sense, I guess. It’s at least as good as every other major war-game released (which is to say, terrible). What I did gather from the conclusion of the anti-heroic tale is that Walker is insane.
The ol’ “It was just a dream” shtick. Pretty much from the moment Walker enters Dubai he blames every action on someone else, even when that person is dead. All those meaningless choices about who lives and who doesn’t and for how long are for nought because, guess what, “you” are crazy! It’s all a figment of Captain Walker’s imagination! And despite his squadmates realising that he’s lost the plot, they do absolutely nothing, letting themselves go along for a ride with a madman. It’s one thing to have a plot with a thousand threads and no knots; it’s another to come out at the end and say, “Tricked ya!”
I’m going to be blunt and admit that I enjoyed the guns in Spec Ops. A lot. The automatic shotgun, the grenade launcher, and even the humble SMG were all glorious. Bodies exploded, enemies were executed, and repetition eventually meant I beat a level. Guess all that thematic bullshit can get thrown out.
What I didn’t like was the emphasis on linear progression and forcing the player’s hand. Sometimes it was RPGs and invincible enemies forcing you into a certain place so that a certain set-piece could unfold. Sometimes you could not progress unless you committed a Deplorable Act, like when you were made to kill innocent refugees (at least in Modern Warfare 2 you had the choice). All in all, the real process of ‘playing’ was fundamentally limited, and fell into the traps of most mainstream video games.
Rather than highlighting the explicit components that make modern games, why not make gameplay that is truly fresh? Why not make a game that perhaps presents the themes through your actions—and I mean actions that matter, not actions pre-determined by the developer. Why not have a simple story with fewer elements, but more punch? Better yet, let elements within the game unfold as the player reaches them, creating an emergent experience. There is more power in allowing the student to find out for themselves.
In the end, I played Spec Ops to win. And win I did. But Captain Walker certainly didn’t. Which is an odd disconnect when you think about it. My decisions and choices were never going to affect the story or themes, only my immediate surroundings i.e. how quickly the ‘enemy’ died. And for that, I can at least give Spec Ops some praise. I enjoyed the shooting and killing and mayhem, even if the game didn’t really want me to.
Added Bonus: my short video review using only in-game footage!