“Yet to go further in tackling these issues I’d like to look at them as symptoms, not as the problems themselves. There’s something wrong with our commercial games, and with the core audience that buys and loves them. There’s something broken about the marketing machine that keeps feeding this ouroboros. There is a power structure in place and we need to find out who to talk to in order to take it apart.” – Leigh Alexander
This review spoils the entirety of Spec Ops: The Line. If you’d like a spoilerless review: it was promising but disappoints in every way.
Let’s return to the AAA critical refrain, last heard when Mass Effect 3 was released: Spec Ops: The Line is not a very good game. In fact, it’s a completely generic game; the only difference between SOTL and Gears of War is its setting, polish, and a smaller feature list. Machinima calls it “unique in its intelligent treatment of adult themes,” Mitch Dyer at IGN says it “makes killing people mean something,” Allistair Pinsof of Destructoid replayed chapters “to [understand their full] gravity” – the list goes on and on. It’s critically lauded for its themes and novel treatment of the standard shooting people experience.
Why, then, are its game design and writing such insults to the player’s intelligence?
Before the game’s release, Spec Ops: The Line built a lot of buzz through claims that it was based on the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness. While the novel is firmly entrenched in the literary canon, it’s more popularly known as the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a movie which is widely regarded as one of the best films ever made. Both the novel and movie are about a man named Kurtz who descends into the depths of an uncharted land and manipulates the natives into viewing him as a charismatic god. He even wins over representatives from the “civilized” world – Marlowe, a British trader in the book, and Captain Benjamin Willard, a US Special Forces operative in Vietnam. In both cases, the protagonists find Kurtz after a lengthly and surreal journey, meet Kurtz, are enchanted by him, witness his death, and return to “the real world” in order to report on their experiences. In their own ways, each work (at its most basic) is about understanding the difference between morality and ethics – particularly pragmatism – and the question of what keeps someone good when she is the most powerful person in the room.
Spec Ops: The Line, by contrast, is largely about the question of why one would spend money on a game which does its level best to make you stop playing.
On a mechanical level, it’s a basic cover shooter: pilot your avatar, Martin Walker, Special Operations, to hide behind cover to regenerate health, throw various types of grenades, tell his squad members to attack specific people, and fire various kinds of weaponry at various kinds of enemies. Sometimes Walker will find a grenade launcher or sniper rifle. The lead writer on SOTL, Walt Williams, contends that this utterly stultifying gameplay is a deliberate choice: you see, they didn’t want to scare players off with unfamiliar or interesting gameplay before they had the chance to be dumbfounded by the plot’s sinister revelations. I have to thank Mr. Williams; before playing this game and researching what he had to say about his game, I didn’t believe that the frequent assertion by blog commenters that “game writers are just people who want to be screenwriters” held any validity at all. Perhaps foolishly, I still believe that there are people out there who genuinely want to write good games in which the player has an effect on the world and characters around her, and that it’s possible to do this well; however, in Spec Ops: The Line, Mr. Williams has gone out of his way to present the illusion of choice and then “surprise” the player by yanking the rug out from under her feet.
Like the often-lauded Bioshock, which title we are all very tired of hearing, Spec Ops: The Line plays upon the necessary obedience of the player to game mechanics: once someone purchases a game, they’re going to try to play it. When Bioshock did it, it was something of an interesting observation, though the rest of the game let down that premise; in SOTL, it’s a tired motif that is approximately as shocking and relevant as a picture of a puppy. Sure, it’s nice to see, but it’s hardly uncommon. You’ve seen it a million times before.
The plot of Spec Ops: The Line has very little resemblance to Heart of Darkness. While it is a clear inspiration to the characterization of Cpt. Martin Walker, Walt Williams seems to have missed the point – and indeed, most of the movie and book – by focusing on the “gradual discovery of a crazy leader’s actions” motif to the exclusion of any other thematic, technical, or intertextual elements. Where Marlon Brando reads T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” (itself inspired by Heart of Darkness), Martin Walker makes a series of half-sensible command decisions on his star-crossed trek into Dubai (itself a blatant contradiction of orders.)
While doing reconnaisance as a forward spec ops team, Walker orders his two squadmates further and further into Dubai, apparently immediately forgetting that communication with his superiors is possible. In a fit of paranoia stemming from a misunderstanding of a dying CIA agent’s last words, he drops white phosphorus onto a huge encampment of US soldiers and refugees. You may have heard of this event. Granted, when faced with the decision I thought it was a bold decision to present; however, that was a short-lived attitude once I discovered that it was impossible to choose not to drop the WP on the encampment, impossible to step away after only bombing the military targets (in an interview with Williams, Jeff Gerstmann noted that the segment didn’t end unless he’d bombed the obvious group of civilians, to which Williams responded with a bemused air that he was more observant than their testers) and in fact that the game presents you with unkillable enemies if you try to engage the encampment with small arms. It’s no decision at all.
At the time, this reminded me of nothing so much as the stereotypical Dungeon Master who, in running a tabletop RPG, brutally murders his players the instant they deviate from his preconceived script. In practice, of course, one of the most vital skills a DM, writer, or game designer can possess is the ability to adapt. When Williams says (in the same interview) that at one point the development team allowed the player to choose not to commit that war crime but took it out “for technical reasons, maybe, I’m not sure,” he is in fact conceding that his real objective isn’t giving murder weight, but chastising the player for doing the only thing implemented by the implementors. In claiming that the game attempts to “give murder weight,” IGN and the developers of SOTL betray their lack of familiarity with media outside third-person shooter games. As any regular consumer of the nightly news could tell you, murder’s horror lies not in its weightiness, but in the startling ease with which it can happen. It’s the blitheness with which one can murder that is at the center of works like Silence of the Lambs, Full Metal Jacket, Dr. Strangelove, The Shining, etc.
Which is the whole point of consequences. One merely has to look at the average YouTube video’s comments to see what lack of consequences does to social propriety and justice. In fact, one merely has to look at Spec Ops: The Line to see what horrors an unchecked ego can wreak: in the name of depth, the game trots out that old nag of endings and reveals that Konrad is all in Walker’s head, that he and the Damned 33rd are simply hallucinations brought on by Walker’s horrific crime. (On an unrelated note, I am flabbergasted that the game press fell in love with the most basic of freshman creative writing plot twists.) It’s thereby revealed that every choice after the white phosphorous was a false one. While the player may choose whether to execute a soldier who killed innocents or a water thief, it is revealed later that both were corpses in the first place. The dilemma of whether to rescue a group of innocents or a CIA agent is also moot; both died anyway. There are a couple of quasi-interesting moments throughout the game, like when you can shoot a civilian mob or fire warning shots, but this twist handily invalidates all of them.
Rather than telling a story that “really matters,” in the words of G4TV‘s Adam Rosenberg, Spec Ops: The Line tells a story that ultimately matters not at all. Although it is marginally better than most ‘telling a story’ shooters in that it pretends to allow the player to participate, this tiny step is hardly unique. If this is the high-water mark of current game development, it’s a sad climb back to the lofty heights of the mid-oughts and earlier, when games like I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, Sanitarium, and Slouching towards Bedlam questioned the player’s complicity in the events depicted within the game.
If games are to mature as a medium – a low and desperate phrase that betrays anxieties that are more about ourselves than our pastimes – then we can’t rest on our previous laurels and call them unique and innovative. We’ve already had games that referenced the fact that games are designed and that players are limited to what the designers implement. We’ve even had attempts at making a statement about why we’re driven to solve puzzles. As clever as they are, they are the equivalent of a film student pointing the camera at a mirror.
It’s time to stop patting ourselves on the back and time to stop awarding developers cookies for imitating our favourite movies and games.
It’s time to hold ourselves to any standard at all.