How Many Americans?

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.

Tom Dawson

About Tom Dawson

Tom Dawson is, in no particular order; a two-time Olympic bronze medallist (synchronised swimming), ancestrally Atlantean, a compulsive liar, the Green Lantern of space sector 2814 and the inventor of the cordless drill. His fondest wish is that someday he’ll get paid for writing stuff like this.