by Delta V, last updated 30 Jul 2012 15:47

Whatever else I'm about to say, I have to acknowledge that Spec Ops: The Line is both brave and ambitious. Trying to talk about the psychological cost of war and the nature of player complicity is a difficult thing to attempt in a videogame, especially a third-person shooter. And credit where it's due, there are some truly inspired design decisions scattered throughout. It is also foolish and cowardly, in its own way, content to reference and reflect instead of truly understanding or improving. But though I believe the game to be a failure, it is a supremely interesting one. Perhaps even important.

It does, however, fail.

(It should be obvious, but here be spoilers. All the spoilers.)

"Can you even remember why you're here?"

Let's get this out of the way first: the entire premise is ludicrous. The city of Dubai - and only the city of Dubai - is buried in sandstorms without precedent. A US Army battalion commander, Colonel Konrad1, just up and decides to take his troops and go there instead of home after their deployment to help out, despite the lack of authority or transport capability2. Evacuation attempts are made by land and air instead of by sea, despite Dubai being a coastal city. The 33rd battalion has a squadron of helicopters, but their range is suspiciously curtailed. Communications with the rest of the world are nigh-impossible due to the "storm wall", despite the existence of satellite radios3 and the aforementioned coastal access. Nobody in the outside world knows of what's happening in the city, despite the prevalence of drones and reconnaissance satellites. And we are never shown just how Captain Walker, our avatar, and his curiously4 small5 team are brought to Dubai - we begin the game proper6 walking towards the city, without any indication of how we got this close already.

I realize the developers were attempting to channel Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, with their isolated milieus and tortuous journeys. But these violations of plausibility eat away at the veneer of realism the game attempts to cultivate, and collectively undermine much of what is to come. Almost every major plot point can be undone at a stroke by way of one or more of these objections. For what I say here, please assume they do not apply, so that we may take the text on its own terms.

I must say, though, that the environmental artists did at least as much as the writers to bring that flawed premise into stark, blasted relief. Their vision of a ravaged Dubai is spectacular, with blues and greens and purples keeping the sandy coral at bay in the battle for color spectrum, haunting murals littering the ruins and worthy of display on their own, and howling, raging storms that evoke divine wrath. Like Bioshock's Rapture (Dubai's most obvious comparison in the modern videogame lexicon), the clarity of its realization helps stave off (to some degree) its sundering of realism. This form of storytelling, allowing the player to move through an inhabited (or formerly-inhabited) space and creating an implied, suggested history through it, is one of videogames' inherent strengths — and wherever else SO:TL falters, it's not here.

"How many Americans have you killed today?"

The game also inherits all the problems of conventional shooters. By the end of the game, I am personally responsible for killing almost the entirety of the Damned 33rd7, and my two teammates account for the rest. The mechanics of shooting men are thoroughly standard, with the additional problems of scarce ammunition and a finicky cover system. There are the occasional large, lumbering enemies with machineguns and lots of hit points. Your own health regenerates as per convention. Each major firefight leaves the better part of a platoon dead at your feet.

It is entirely possible this blandness of combat design was intentional, to lessen the appeal of the basic shooter gameplay loop and remove it as an excuse for the player to continue. If so, it succeeds admirably — playing the game certainly seemed like a cruel slog, and hardly “fun”. That would seem like a necessary step, if one is attempting to make a game which fundamentally attempts to question why the player engages with it:

Because we can inhabit the shoes of these characters, we can become these characters, but at the end of the day, we're still controlling their actions. When we pull the trigger on the controller, that's the only reason the character in the game pulls the trigger on that gun. It may not be real, but we're still choosing to fire that gun, to kill that person, whether they be a combatant, whether or not. But we still want players to think about that expectation of who they are and who they really are, and how it relates to the games that they play.
Walt Williams, lead writer

Videogames are fundamentally ergodic texts, predicated upon some non-trivial effort required to traverse it. This traversal, in the conventions of shooters to which SO:TL adheres, involves gameplay sequences where, well, you shoot people. Sometimes there is walking from one point to another while dialogue happens. And there can be cutscenes in between. But the most common and most crucial method of traversing story nodes in a shooter is by killing.

SO:TL claims to attempt to confront the cost of this basic interaction, but even from its first moments it fails to do any more than claw at the surface. The very first group of people you meet - some refugees from the city - do not fire immediately, and one of your squad begins translating in Farsi. It seems for a moment as if you can finally talk to the monsters — but no, they open fire, and you shoot out the windows of a conveniently-placed vehicle and bury them in sand. The same goes for the renegade US soldiers you later encounter. They shoot first, and become your enemies by default. Your later alliance with the CIA agent Gould, and then Riggs8 after Gould's death, is that same passive acceptance of whichever side doesn't shoot at you.

And shooting is the only means of interaction. There are moral choices sprinkled throughout: kill the soldier of the 33rd who killed the CIA agent, or let him live; save Gould at the cost of civilians, or watch him be tortured and killed; kill one of two murderers, a civilian who stole water or the soldier who killed the other's family in pursuit; mercy-kill Riggs after he dooms the city to die of thirst, or let him burn alive. But all these choices are confined to matters of who, when, and if you shoot. There's an irony in this reductionism, when the game is trying so hard to force consideration of the act of shooting, to purposefully deny the dialogue wheel of Mass Effect or the nonlethal weapons of Deus Ex or the evasion of Metal Gear Solid. As insistent and as literal as SO:TL is, I'm not sure that irony was fully understood.

"This is all your fault."

The crux of the game rests at the literal halfway point9, in the (now-infamous) white phosphorous sequence — and here it makes its most glaring error. In order to continue, the player is forced to use incendiaries against their enemies, seeing the carnage only through an infrared camera10, unknowingly burning a group of civilians to death in the process. Then you have to walk through the atrocity you've wrought. This causes Walker to break - to dissociate, and to hallucinate, for the remainder of the game. This drives him further towards catastrophe, piling mistake upon unintentional, misinformed mistake, until there is nothing left.

This is also the point where the player dissociates from Walker.

The choice is both carefully staged and mechanically enforced. You face about a company's worth of enemies, but if you engage them directly, you're met with infinitely-respawning snipers. You have to get past the chokepoint they guard. You're given a mortar on high ground, but the rappel lines down don't activate until after you've used it. The only rounds available are white phosphorous11. You've just fought through the results of the 33rd's use of those same incendiaries on the insurgents - charred corpses and all - so while you are assured to know the weapon's awful effects firsthand, that slaughter can also lessen your reluctance to turn it back against the perpetrators. You see those you are burning to death through distant, anonymous infrared, so you cannot possibly know of the civilians' presence — and the sequence does not end until you've hit the vehicle next to where they're gathered.

These barriers and limits and constraints are all fully intentional on the developers' part. The entire second half of the game is predicated on the event. They will not let this cup pass.

"There is a certain amount of choice in that scene - you could attempt to take on the soldiers with the weapons that you have - but you don't have enough ammo to do it. […] Could it be looked at as a bit of a cheat, that the game has led you in a sense? Absolutely. But so does life. These things happen in war, collateral damage, innocent lives are taken all the time. Yeah, it'd be great if the soldier could reload the checkpoint and do it differently now that he knows something's happening, but he can't. That's what I think makes the story of Spec Ops so effective, walking into a game that's not going to embrace you and completely bend to your will. It's a game that is in fact going to be opposed to your will, and it's going to walk you through an experience that is tailored for you not to like it."
Walt Williams

I understand this impulse. I understand this authorial desire to ensure that journey is undertaken. The developers are even willing to accept the player's blame, in the same way Walker subsequently blames Konrad for forcing his hand, transferring his guilt onto the shoulders of a ghost. But while Walker tells himself he had no choice, the player knows it. Completion of a text is not enough to constitute complicity to it — Walker makes the precipitous decision to press on, and we can only acquiesce if we wish to see where it leads. We have one way forward, and as we stare at the smoldering corpses, we can disconnect. This is Walker's story now, not ours. We're only along for the ride to see how his story ends.

"Do you feel like a hero yet?"

As Walker descends into madness, the game's more interesting elements come out. His orders and his chatter become more bloodthirsty and cruel. His execution moves become more painful and less merciful. Hallucinations abound; the most clever of them is a fight with a heavy trooper amidst a room full of mannequins, blacking out every couple seconds as the heavy replaces another dummy each time. The helicopter chase is played again - after demolishing the Radioman's broadcast tower in a hail of minigun fire - and Walker even comments12 on having done it before.

But we, the player, are trapped in Walker's broken mind. As long as we keep playing, we can only watch as he compounds his errors. The true point of no return is Walker's assistance to Riggs in stealing the water trucks (the main remaining source of water left in that doomed desert city) — Riggs is there to bury what's left of Dubai for the greater good, but since we have no option to investigate, to ask questions, we are almost as surprised as Walker when Riggs crashes the trucks and ensures the slow death of those who remain. It is a worse crime than the fires we rained down, but again we have no option except to carry on.

We can let Riggs burn to death for his troubles, though. We've gotten good at burning.

By the time we reach Konrad's corpse - after both our teammates have met their ends, after we've hallucinated the pitiful remnants of the 33rd saluting us in surrender - we learn exactly how broken Walker's mind is (if we hadn't guessed already). Konrad's voice in our ear was Walker's guilt transposed. The soldier and the criminal we had to choose between were both desiccated corpses. The civilians we have the chance to save at the cost of Gould13 are still doomed to slow death by thirst thanks to Riggs (with Walker's help). All our choices up to that point spin off into meaninglessness. This only serves to reinforce our own distance from the tragedy unfolding.

At the very end, though, we get our first truly meaningful choice of the game. Two choices, in fact. The first allows us to shoot the illusion of Konrad, to deny our guilt through Walker, or to either shoot Walker ourselves or allow Konrad to do it for us, condemning Walker for his sins. The latter leads to Walker's suicide, next to his erstwhile predecessor. If we choose the former, we get a playable epilogue and another choice, where a fresh group of US soldiers (from the evacuation force Walker finally calls in, standing over Konrad's corpse) find Walker outside Konrad's tower. We can fight them out of instinct and receive different endings depending on whether or not we prevail.

Or, for the first time all game, we can lay down our weapon.

"You are still a good person."

Why are you still playing, the game asks. Even the loading screens turn against us, as the game itself questions our desire to continue in the face of escalating devastation, accusing us of enabling all these terrible events by our desire to see the end, mocking our assumed hope that some victory may be salvaged.

"And then you go down further and you have Walker, who comes in later. And he's supposed to look for survivors and leave, but he sees the 33rd, he sees that Konrad might be in trouble, and he says, 'No, I can go in. I can make a difference here. I can find out what's happening, I can make a difference.' And it's all just a mirror of this same kind of expectations versus reality. And it's really one of the things we want the player to be thinking about when they play this game, or at least at the end of the game. What are the expectations of who I am when I sit down to play a video game? How do I see myself? And then, at the end of the game, who am I actually?"
Walt Williams

"The concept we currently have of player agency [in most video games] is that since I'm the player and I'm the hero and this world revolves around me, it has to react however I want it to react. If I want to be the good guy, it has to back up my choice and let me be the good guy. And that's just not the way the world works. … We wanted the choices in the game to be realistic in that you walk into them and you don't know all the information. You simply know what's going on in front of you and you have an idea of what you can do… yeah it's going to go a particular way based on what you've done, but ultimately there's more information than you know."

All of this, though, assumes the player is necessarily complicit in Walker's actions, simply by continuing to play. This is the lesson the developers wish to teach, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. None of this would have happened if you just stopped. But there is a liminal space between ourselves and our avatars (and the agency granted to each), between experiencing something and reveling in it, between continuing out of fun and continuing out of duty. Critically speaking, we owe the text a full account.

And we have no option within the text except to continue. We have no option to turn back, to retreat, to cease advancing into ruin and call in the evacuation our mission revolves around. They could have put that in. They could have made it long and boring (and longer the further you've gone) to go back the way we came, but the option to stop must exist within the game to be meaningful. The true tragic moment was right near the beginning, when the madness of the place is first made apparent, and Walker's men almost plead with him to radio home. He does not — and the player is given no choice in the matter. The course is set for us, just like the very games which this game wishes to examine.

We play games for many reasons. We watch and read tragedies and comedies both, and things in between. We can walk down dark paths with purpose — this is the freedom art allows us, to explore those places as transients. But the possibility space of the game is not the same as that of the story. Just because a text is ergodic, just because we put effort into the experience, does not necessarily mean that we are culpable. It can bring us closer to the flames, can narrow that gap between ourselves and the characters we play, can help us understand them better. But there is always room for the player and the character to differ in their goals. And if the sins are to be on our head, as players, the choice must be ours. Our avatars can make mistakes, can push too far, but there will always be that distance if we do not guide their hand in those moments.

This is where Spec Ops: The Line fails. It calls for us to cross that line, to throw ourselves against the trenches and the barbed wire and machineguns. But that line doesn't go far enough. We can always find our way around it.

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