A blog about Spec Ops: The Line.
I’m a sucker for things that take well known tropes and/or cliches, and decide to say “hey, maybe this kind of thing isn’t as realistic as we think. Let’s show people why!” This is called a deconstruction, and it happens more often than people think. Hell, it happens in video games almost all the time, and inevitably pisses some people off, which is always fun to see in comment sections. However, I do wish that people would talk about these things more often, as it helps to further the discussion of how well can games tell stories. And so, as part of a new set of blog posts, I’m going to talk about games that deconstruct very well known genres, tropes, and characters of gaming, and proceed to give a new perspective on what these tropes would be like in a realistic scenario. With that said, this is all going to be one huge SPOILER WARNING for anyone who hasn’t played the games I will be discussing.
As a starting point, let’s discuss Spec Ops: The Line. I love this game more than you could know. It’s not my favorite game (not by a long shot), but it stands as the biggest “Fuck you” to everyone who thinks that military shooters must always be about a one man army saving their country from foreign aggressors who wish to commit acts of terrorism against the great USA. At first glance, however, the game does try to convince you that it is that kind of power fantasy game. You are a soldier named Captain Martin Walker, who sent to a sandstorm-ravaged Dubai on a recon mission with his Delta Force squad. Upon finding dead American soldiers, the mission changes to looking for survivors.
See? Already this sounds like it’s going to become yet another power trip against those who would dare to kill American soldiers trying to help out the people of Dubai. Even the gameplay doesn’t do much to help, being a fairly average, almost predictable third-person shooter. Enemies spawn in predictable points and waves, turret sections abound, complete with exploding red barrels, and the controls themselves feel light and arcade-like when compared to other, more weighty shooters like Gears of War. Combine this with a very shallow team system that gives your squadmates reason for existing beyond a few generic military quips here and there, and you have the makings of generic military shooter #43546.2.
However, that average style of gameplay comes with a few noticeable caveats. Each time you kill enemies, they don’t go through typical death animations. They just…drop dead, very realistically. Headshots make your victims heads explode in splashes of blood, to realistically portray how brutal, yet effective, hollow-point bullets are against people. Enemies killed by grenades and explosives pretty much disappear when in the blast zone. It all serves one single point: military combat is brutal. It’s brilliant, really, when you think about it. Give the players a predictable shooter experience, and then make them feel uncomfortable as your enemies die in a realistic fashion.
It gets worse, however, in terms of its deconstructive nature. The biggest thing they want to tear apart is the power fantasy that military shooters are often all about. That players want to find the means of taking down enemies in the most efficient and badass way possible, all in the name of wanting to be a hero. Okay, sure, the game gives you that chance in one chapter. The game proceeds to have you fight American soldiers at some point, do to an assumption that a certain unit, the 33rd, have gone rogue. You come across some soldiers near a gate, and Walker sees that going down guns-blazing is suicide. So what does he do? Well, he finds a mortar nearby, with some white phosphorus shells. After some hesitation from his squad, we take control of the mortar and proceed to bombard the gate with clouds of white phosphorus, taking down large groups of soldiers at once, and even a camped unit somewhere in the back.
So yeah, you expect to see your character get into a cutscene, survey the damage, and move on without a thought, right? Well, you do survey the damage. With full control of your character, you see exactly what you’ve done to these soldiers. You see bodies strewn about, half charred by the vicious chemical you’ve unleashed. Some remain alive, screaming out in agony as the phosphorus melts their flesh, chokes them to death, or even both at the same time. You meet one such soldier at the end, who simply asks “why?” He mentions that they were helping before he dies, and this is where the game drops a bomb on the player. The soldiers you just wiped out were helping some civilians, giving them shelter and water in the midst of the sandstorm. That big pile of “soldiers” you killed near the back? Those were all civilians. You just killed them all, thinking they were soldiers.
It’s at this point the character in the game snaps, deciding that it was the rogue 33rd that caused this to happen, rather than taking responsibility for the fact that he – and by extension, you as the player – just committed one of the worst possible war crimes: maliciously killing unarmed civilians. He begins screaming orders at his squad rather than simple projected commands. He brutalizes his opponents and screams obscenities at them rather than professionally confirming kills. And this once honorable captain-turned-psychopath is supposed to be the hero?
It’s at this point that the game goes into its darkest turns. Captain Walker blames every atrocity and casualty he commits on the man he was looking for: Colonel Conrad, who berates Walker after their first contact. He continues to kill more American soldiers, thinking they’ve all gone rogue while drawing the ire of the trapped citizens of the ruined city. All the while, he remains as brutal and unstable as the moment he made that terrible decision. We get the sense that we shouldn’t trust the guy we’re controlling, and yet we continue to play because “hey, it’s only a game, right? Killing people in a game is what you do, right?”
That’s another thing. Within the loading screens of the game, you get a few snippets of information regarding military facts or gameplay hints whenever you die or go into a new chapter. After the incident, however, the text gets…more hostile, saying things like “how many Americans have you killed today?” and “this is all your fault.” It doesn’t seem to be addressing the game, but rather you, the player, pretty much asking you why you’re continuing to commit these acts of violence. Why is that, you think? To achieve some goal? To come out a hero by the end, even though you’re growing more psychotic with each act of violent murder?
It’s funny talking about this at all, when I know some people can (and will) come up with this counterargument: that the game forces you to do this. How are you supposed to deliver a message like that if the game constantly railroads you into committing atrocities while at the same time blaming you for something the game told you to do?
But that’s the point, isn’t it? In any video game, you’re constantly being told what to do, and you think nothing of it. The only time you’re thinking about your choices is when the affect your own moral sensibilities. Most people don’t like violence and have, fortunately, never seen the ugly face of war. Spec Ops: The Line basically takes away your choice like most video games do and has you committing crimes in the name of moving the story forward or just proving how good you are in a game. At the same time, as you’re playing, it forces you to question just why exactly you’re doing this, with the only real choice you are able to make on your own is, surprisingly, turning off the game and leaving it alone.
In other words, there is a fantasy element to playing video games that people use them for. Like most that play military shooters, it’s about becoming a hero through being a soldier. This game takes that fantasy and turns it on its head, applying reality to a genre that is so far removed from reality it almost hurts. If people – especially young children – actually think that games like Call of Duty or Battlefield are accurate to real life military life, then if they ever join, they’ll be sorely disillusioned, and Spec Ops: The Line proves to be a well-made catalyst for that disillusionment, as long as people are willing to overlook its less than stellar gameplay.
I could talk for days about how Spec Ops: The Line breaks down the illusion of military shooters, but I’ll keep this short. There are a myriad other ways that Spec Ops: The Line subverts typical military shooter mechanics, narrative devices, and other tropes and cliches. What matters in the end is that this game, while it disguises itself as a typical military shooter, is really a masterclass of deconstruction, taking what we know about military shooter conventions, and throwing them into the real world to see just how disjointed and removed they really are from the real thing. In doing so, we can perhaps craft a similar story, but one that involves that one man moving past his own torment and rising as a hero not of the war, but of himself, becoming an example of true heroism.
But hey, for all I know, it really is a mediocre shooter that is trying to say something irrelevant in the face of giants like Call of Duty, and is pretentiously attacking them in order to mask the fact that it couldn’t muster the budget to copy them. I know people who see it this way, and it could be a valid point. I’m just saying that it’s not the only valid point, and to ignore the possibilities is to be ignorant of the potential video games have to move people in ways that film or literature struggle with.
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