Monday, July 7, 2014

Spec Ops: The Line is better than you think it is (a spoiler-filled discussion)

I've been meaning to write this article for almost two years now. I played Spec Ops: The Line around the time it was first released, and it had a profound impact on me in ways I've been hesitant to describe. My original review skirted around spoiler territory as well as it could, and I know that I managed to convince a few people to play the game. That's great, of course, but it also means I've never had the chance to truly discuss why it is that I so deeply admire this game. So, tonight, I'm going to do that, and I'm going to do it for people who have already played Spec Ops from beginning to end. I've already done the service of selling the game, so now I'd like to explain to people who have already bought it why, in my opinion, it's better than they realize.

If you have not played the game, you can read my original review here or, if you trust me enough, just go out and play it cold.

This article contains massive spoilers and is intended only for people who have already completed Spec Ops: The Line. If you haven't finished the game, do not read any further. I'm not joking here. The scene that I'm about to discuss involves a moral choice being made under pressure. If you know about the situation and are mentally prepared for it, you'll miss out on the reactionary element of this sequence that made it so powerful for me. I'm serious. Stop reading if you have yet to complete Spec Ops, even if you think you don't care about spoilers, and even if you don't plan on playing the game. It might wind up in your collection someday, and you might find eight free hours in which to play it, and you might have a profound moment ruined forever.

Now then. The scene in Spec Ops that has sparked the most controversy is a midway turning point in which Walker and company fire upon an enemy encampment with white phosphorous and then discover that the soldiers had been sheltering innocent civilians. While there's a lot to take away from this scene - since there's no other way to progress through the campaign, many have argued that this reveal is a cheap guilt tactic - it's not what I want to discuss. No, the scene that I want to discuss is an incident in which I most certainly did have a choice.

Let me set it up, just as a refresher, because of course you would not be reading this if you haven't already seen this for yourself. You're near the end of the campaign. Walker and company just invaded the radio tower, killed that annoying DJ, and then tore the whole building down in a turret sequence that's supposed to be exhilarating until you realize what a maniac you've turned into. Their helicopter crashes in the ensuing chase and Walker becomes separated from his two squadmates, Adams and Lugo. He locates Adams easily enough, but as the two communicate with Lugo over the radio, they learn that he's being surrounded by some kind of mob. Walker and Adams rush to help him, and they discover that he's been hung by the locals of Dubai. They shoot the rope, but it's too late. Lugo is dead.

Now the crowd turns to you. They have you surrounded and there's no reason to believe that they don't want you just as dead as Lugo is. Adams knows this. He has his gun at the ready and is begging Walker to give him the word. Walker gets up and readies his own gun. And then control is handed back over to the player.

As far as I can tell, there are four possible reactions to this scene. The first is to do nothing, which results in you getting killed by the mob, so that choice gets the boot right away. The second is to fire above the civilians' heads, which effectively scares them away and avoids any further death on either side of the conflict. The third possible reaction is self-defense: You don't want to kill these people, but you're under pressure and they've just murdered your teammate, so you're not really left with much choice. Unfortunate, but also understandable.

I didn't do any of these things. I went with the fourth option, which was to raise my gun, open fire, and not stop until every civilian in front of me was dead. I wasn't doing it out of self-defense. I was doing it out of revenge. I had forgotten that Walker's original mission was to observe the situation and report back. I hadn't realized that Walker's failed attempts to save Dubai were all the direct result of him disobeying orders and trying to be the hero he wasn't. I'd grown increasingly frustrated that the situation in Dubai only seemed to be growing worse the longer I stayed, in spite of everything I thought I was doing to protect its citizens. I was frustrated that American soldiers were turning on me, that CIA agents were trying to bury the mess, and that locals seemed to regard me as the villain.

I played most of Spec Ops in a single sitting, and experiencing a game in such a manner can leave you physically and mentally drained, as I'm sure any gamer can relate to. I was even playing it on the highest difficulty available at the outset, which made the experience an often frustrating grind. As has been said, Spec Ops isn't actually a great third-person shooter, nor is it even really supposed to be. It's not supposed to be fun or rewarding. It's supposed to be exhausting. It's supposed to be wearying. It's supposed to be maddening. As Walker's stamina decreased, so did mine. I'd fallen into the mindset that if this is a video game, I must be the hero. So why were my efforts failing? Why was I putting myself through this only to be rewarded with anguish and misery?

Lugo's death was the tipping point. From an outsider's perspective, there was plenty of moral grey. Lugo was lynched, yes, but from the civilians' point of view, the three of us were responsible for essentially dooming the entire city, regardless of what state it was in before we'd arrived. But I didn't see it that way. I saw my heroics being rewarded with the senseless torture and murder of my friend. When I was surrounded by a mob of civilians ready to pounce on me, I was not scared. I was angry.

And so I killed all of them. Not to save my own life, but because I wanted them dead. I mowed down dozens of them. When I finally stopped shooting, I spotted a couple of wounded civilians trying to crawl away. I thought to myself that I'd wasted enough assault rifle ammo, and that I should probably save the rest of it for any more soldiers I might bump into around the corner. So I pulled out my sidearm and shot the wounded civilians in the head with that instead.

And then, as I was walking away, I felt absolutely sick to my stomach.

I've done terrible things in games before. I've killed people who didn't deserve it and in some cases condemned entire civilizations to doom. But in every other case, it had simply been role-playing. I was in character. When I play Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and choose the path of the Dark Side, and when I'm robbing shopkeepers and Force choking innocents, it never occurs to me that such behavior is in any way a reflection of my true nature as a human being, because that's ridiculous. Star Wars is fantasy and we know that from square one. We're presented with dialog options and are afforded all the time in the world to make choices. Hell, in most cases, you're just trying to maintain a consistent character; an inherent flaw in many games with moral choices is that they don't allow for much middle ground. You're either sickeningly sweet or cartoonishly evil. It's silly. It's unrealistic. It's "just a game."

What scares me about my reaction to Spec Ops is that it wasn't a conscious choice. It was instinctive. I just underlined every possible way in which this sequence can play out, but developer Yager doesn't. They place you in a tense situation and give you no time to reflect, to examine your options. These people just killed your friend and now they have you surrounded. Act.

And what's truly profound about this sequence isn't how I reacted, but why. You could kill these people and feel totally justified for doing so simply considering the knowledge that you were in mortal danger, and no, firing over everyone's heads wouldn't occur to everyone on the spot. Killing out of self-defense is okay. But that's not why I killed these people. I killed them because I wanted them dead. I killed them because I felt wronged. I killed them because I was a monster.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Spec Ops is revolutionary. Countless movies and memoirs have told us that "war is hell," that violence is senseless, and that people are driven to madness over it. And while those of us sitting on our sofas and sipping coffee will never truly understand what that's like, video games, as an interactive medium, bring us closer than we ever have before. I fought Walker's battles. I had a personal stake in his "mission," self-appointed or otherwise. I experienced the ongoing frustration of seeing my hard work backfire tremendously. And I spent hours and hours working alongside Lugo, growing to like him as a person. I was emotionally wracked over his death and I committed an atrocity over it, as I'd been driven to do. As cliché as it sounds, Spec Ops really did awaken a darkness in me that I didn't realize was there.

Obviously, I know many have
walked away with different reactions to Spec Ops, and more will follow. As I've said, some people will never even see this particular sequence play out the way I did. Spec Ops really is the sort of experience that everyone will take something slightly different away from. That's art.

[This article was inspired by a recent suggestion I made on Twitter that Spec Ops: The Line is perhaps the greatest game of the last ten years. No one agreed, which is to be expected, and to be honest, I'm not sure that I agree with it, either. But I might someday. The more I think about this game, the more appreciation I have for it. Two years have passed and nothing has slowed.]