Spec Ops: The Line is one hell of an experience. Not quite what I’d call one hell of a game, because absent the introspective nature of the plot or the broader attempt at social and political commentary the actual gameplay is often generic and unsurprising, but the journey from beginning to end is both fascinating and thought-provoking. Captain Walker’s gradual erosion of his self-image as the heroic cavalry into a realisation of his culpability for terrible crimes presents a fantastic character arc, addressing all-too-common narrative tropes without the usual context that idolises the one-man-army frequently inhabited by players. Without the omnipresent nuclear threat that Call of Duty so adores or the mid-genocide settings of Halo and Gears of War offering a simple motivation, players are lead by the game into assuming that cutting a bloody swathe through the opposing forces is the right thing to do simply because they are the Bad Guys, and Walker and his team are the Good Guys, relying on the commonality of simplistic stories in media to foster player acceptance. When the meta experience of Spec Ops begins to shift away from supporting this black-on-white reasoning as the cause of the game’s conflict, it presents quite the gut punch; Good Guys and Bad Guys both begin to lose value as simple definitions. We, the players, are left wondering about why we are doing as we are and whether these actions are excusable as opposed to doing them because we’re told to.
It’s masterfully executed, and deserves to be lauded, as indeed it has been. Of particular note is the shift in tone of the loading screens over the course of the game, morphing gently from the bland hints usually offered by the genre (“Reload often”, “Armoured enemies need to be targeted in their weak spots”) into fourth-wall breaking observations and questions directed toward the player. These poignant moments are well-timed within the game’s progression, appearing on loading screens that pop up between areas and giving players only a few moments to digest them before being thrown back into another hectic gun battle. It’s a careful reflection of the inner struggle of Walker, uncomfortable thoughts slipping in only when the adrenaline-fuelled distractions of running gunfights pause for a brief time, building up over time until they eventually push away the preoccupation with survival and warp the game’s narrative around themselves.
One thing, however, bothers me. One particular load screen popping up toward the end of the game gave me pause for thought, but not in the fashion it was presumably intended.
“How many Americans have you killed today?”
It’s a simple question. Walker, an American soldier, has spent his day blowing away fellow countrymen, and the player is expected to empathise with the toll this must take. However, it didn’t sit quite right with me. After a great deal of thought, I finally isolated what had been niggling at me about this one. Superficially it fits right in with the theme of actions questioned and the imaginary Good/Bad guy line eroding — Walker and his comrades are American soldiers, fighting against other American soldiers, all over a literal hill of sand. Walker may be rationalising his choices through his hallucinations, but the player is encouraged to ponder the question. It’s not often we are presented a game story wherein our character is forced to turn on their own side without the game first demonising that side through obvious betrayal, after all. In Spec Ops Walker may feel betrayed, his sense of duty and loyalty affronted at the supposed defection of the 33rd, but the reality is far less clear-cut.
It all falls down in the phrasing. While Spec Ops is nominally opposed to the usual gung-ho, hoo-rah attitude of modern war games and attempts to form a narrative in which these tropes are dissected and criticised, in other areas it offers them clear reinforcement. Walker, Adams and Lugo are all guilty of or complicit in war crimes and a whole host of atrocities, but what aspect of this does the game choose to broadcast directly to the player? Not “How many innocents are dead at your hands?”. Not “Why do you derive enjoyment from this?”. Not even a simple “How many people have you killed today?”. No, crucially the game singles out Americans, falling into one of the major pitfalls of the genre; Americans are, by definition, the Good Guys. When Americans are Bad Guys they are rogue elements or shady black-ops government agents (both cases occur in the game, as the 33rd Division has gone rogue from their mission and the CIA clandestinely attempt to clear up the mess), to be opposed and eventually defeated by the real Americans, the Good ones who love freedom and apple pie. Overwhelmingly it is the American military which provides our perspective on war in media, and as such they are usually portrayed as Good Guys by default. Robert Rath addresses this mono-perspective in his excellent column, Modern Warfare is a Comforting Lie, noting that modern warfare in entertainment is usually presented within a context that supports the imaginary narrative so many people hold true, forming an Orouboros of narrative serving opinion serving narrative. We represent war all too often as an individual’s struggle, seen from the perspective of the single soldier or unit, which saves the day by battling through increasing numbers of the notional enemy. It’s easier to boil down such a complex thing for the casual end-user, to pretend that major conflicts can be resolved or altered by a single plucky individual with a large bag of guns, than to admit that the escapist fantasy is just that. Western powers, with our superior technological might and supposedly superior moral attitudes, need only leap into a nation and shoot everyone, and the day is won. Even if we fail, our hearts are in the right place, and that ought to earn us a little slack. Let freedom ring!
Except that, as Spec Ops itself attempts to underline, this is not true at all. Politically we have learned this lesson already from the failed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but our entertainment media is slow to catch up. It’s easier to show war as a simplistic action-and-reaction chain that begins and ends with the barrel of a gun than to ask casual players to examine the quagmire of social and political factors involved. It’s partly Walker’s ingrained cultural notion of himself and his compatriots as de-facto Good Guys that leads him down the path he takes in the game, and logically is also partly responsible for the horrible actions he takes on that path. If one is automatically assumed to be in the right by dint of cultural doctrine, surely any action is excusable?
What makes this one problematic little line especially painful in this instance is that the game has ably demonstrated already that nationality or supposed cultural attitude is no barrier to committing terrible sins. Walker has done monstrous things. So have the 33rd. The native civilians, unthinkingly labelled by the characters as “insurgents”, are assumed to be Bad Guys by their very nature but eventually revealed to be no worse – some would argue far better – than the American soldiers present in Dubai. Yet when asking players to reflect on the gravity of their own choices, Spec Ops reverts back to that cultural doctrine – by asking how many Americans the player has gunned down, it is really asking the player to consider how many Good Guys. At one point in the game, discussed endlessly around the intertubes and the subject of some wildly varied opinions, Walker and co. let loose a barrage of (highly illegal) white phosphorous mortars onto what turns out to be sheltering civilians. It’s a landmark moment, and presents the first major turning point at which the player must confront the fact that their actions are not at all heroic. When it comes time for said player to be confronted with their actions, though, Spec Ops instead frames that confrontation within the expected attitudes of the medium; forget the collateral damage, how many Americans are dead?
It’s disappointing in a game that otherwise takes such pains to confront the default perspective of war games. Spec Ops even goes so far as to question the cognitive dissonance involved when we use simulated killing as a tool for relaxation, dismissed as harmless fun, but condemn those who kill for real. When the chips are down though, it subtly falls back into line by challenging the player through that very perspective and in doing so encourages it. That players should question their actions because they have gone against the traditional American = Hero narrative undermines the impact of the overall message. Killing civilians, committing war crimes, shooting into an unarmed mob may all be terrible things, but none of them quite so bad as killing Americans? Addressed to Walker himself, perhaps by Konrad, the line would have made perfect sense; Americans-as-heroes is integral to his delusions and central to his desire to push responsibility for his actions onto someone else and, as the protagonist of an FPS storyline he’s living in his head, being confronted with the reality of his un-heroic actions would be shattering. But for players, it strikes a sour note, suggesting that Americans are more important than all those dead civilians, and in doing so it conforms to what we’ve come to expect from the genre.
This is not to condemn Americans in general as egotistical. Walker – and the player, and the genre, and in fact mass media in general – has had this idea drilled into him throughout his life, and so it is hardly surprising to see it endure. America Saves The Day. It’s what they do. If not America as a cultural force, then a lone American on a mission of righteousness. One of the driving forces behind the storyline in Spec Ops is to subvert this notion (after the sandstorm, practically everything bad that occurs in Dubai is due to American intervention; whether the martial law of the 33rd, the murderous rampage of Walker or the self-serving manipulation of the CIA), but one of the more damning assertions thrown at the player relies on it in order to have an impact. If Americans are a force for good, then killing them must be an evil act, worthy of being remarked upon above such minor trivialities as war crimes.
Perhaps it’s simply a constraint of the medium. It has been suggested that the inclusion of shooter tropes – ravaged landscapes, macho military men, vanilla gunplay – are intentional, a way of imparting to the player that this is how Walker sees the world and his place in it. It’s possible that as hard as Yager Development tried to turn the genre on its head, they were unable to do so without subconsciously assimilating some of those tropes of the genre into the work, leading to the glaring discrepancy between actions and condemnation. At the end of the day though, for all Spec Ops succeeds in forcing discussion around the genre, it still finds itself reassuring the subconscious of followers of the common narrative; that you the player are, by definition, on the side of the angels.