Spoiler Warning. Ye Hath Been Warned.
There’s no denying that the virtual killing of other humans is pretty easy, whether their representations are controlled by the computer or by an actual person miles away. Shooters, and especially modern military ones, capitalize on that fact and let you gun your way through waves of enemy soldiers. These acts are also framed in such a way that violence is seen as the only solution, or at the very least justifiable. It’s kill or be killed. Maybe you are also just dealing with very bad people (e.g. Nazis and terrorists).
Things get more troubled when dealing with civilians. How do you handle the killing of unarmed innocents in games? In series like Grand Theft Auto, we are dealing with people of skewed moral values. Even then, a pretty big disconnect can happen. GTA4’s Niko Bellic is a criminal, but not a psychopath. It makes sense for him to kill other criminals, but less so to harm passers-by. Still, we tend to wave off such incongruence because we are controlling bad men in a free and open world letting us do what we want, and often doing so while disconnected from the embedded narrative.
Soldiers we control in our games are not usually bad men. This brings me to the core of this essay: Spec Ops: The Line. As you start playing the game, Walker doesn’t seem like a bad guy. He is your average, white, male, American soldier hero. He goes into a bad situation (a sand-covered Dubai) and decides to save the man who rescued him long ago: Colonel Konrad. “Hell yeah! I can go with that!” says your average gamer. You spend a good chunk of time shooting survivors who are shooting at you, and then renegade American soldiers who are also shooting at you. Everything is pretty boilerplate until you hit chapter 8.
The moral turn of the story comes when you have to use white phosphorus to get pass a group of soldiers. In the process, you also burn alive 47 innocents by accident. Walker then take it upon himself to enact justice on Konrad; the man he sees as responsible for all the horrors seen in Dubai. The rescue mission becomes one of justice and revenge. The problem is, Konrad’s dead. All the interactions happening between him and Walker take place in the later’s mind. Faced by the atrocities he’s caused, he decided to construct a narrative in which he and his men are victims of a twisted game orchestrated by a madman. Truth is, the only crazy person here is the one trying to justify inhumanity.
Obviously, the game forces you into those acts. If you do not kill those civilians, you cannot progress in the game. While I agree that it can be seen as a flaw in the design, I also have to wonder how many player tried to avoid using the white phosphorus versus those who gleefully jumped on the occasion to rain fiery hell on their enemies; innocents be damned. There are always people trying to look behind the curtain, but the impact of this scenario is more powerful on those playing it like any other shooter and trying to get to the bigger gun first. It is because they go through the same process Walker goes through. At first, they feel the need to go forward because it is the mission that was given to them (or in Walker’s case, that he gave to himself and his team). When everything goes bad though, Walker needs someone to blame. He has to justify such an horrible act and cannot see it as a mistake on his part and a terrible accident. I think this arc is not so different from what a lot of gamer went through when trying to defend Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” mission.
When you think back on the conversation surrounding that sequence, one of the most common arguments was that the whole thing could be justified through the story. You had to attack the airport to get closer to the terrorist but were ultimately betrayed by, once again, an evil rogue American military leader. That you were partaking in such an inhuman act had to be justified. You were not a bad person; it was all for a greater good. The Line takes the same approach until it flips the table on the player and shows one of the weaknesses of modern military shooters: they justify every horrible acts that player has a hand in. They take away the opportunity from players to reflect on their actions, look at the kind of darkness it involves to take the life of innocents, or even soldiers shooting at you. Basically, what it takes to cross the line. They give you a pre-made bogeyman, a fall guy for everything bad that happens.
If video games really want to talk about the nature of war, and by extension human nature, they need to leave some room for reflection on responsibility and futility. Sometimes, good people make really bad choices. The Line prefers to look at how someone deals, or not, with that than to create heroes and villains.
The ending of this game puts a mirror in front of Walker and the player, and demands that they look at what happened. They did (virtual) inhuman things and could have stopped at any point, but didn’t. Walker was pushed forward by some twisted sense of justice against a ghost he conjured from his mind, and the player gladly followed along, even if, looking back, it made little sense. If you want your player to cross the line, let them face their actions, don’t make a Walker out of them.
Sadistic Design in Spec Ops: The Line – Karl Parakenings, Medium Difficulty
Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Shooter – Tom Bissell, Grantland