I killed a mob of civilians. Not out of gleeful delight. Not because I had to. I chose to gun them down because of something they did, and my squadmate followed my example. I didn’t feel better afterwards, neither justified nor avenged. I did not even have time to regret my actions because I needed to push forward because… now I forget. It must have been important, though. What I do remember is how they ran and screamed, these piles of pixels draped in colors resembling flesh and blood. I remember explosions of red, their cries of pain. I’m sure they deserved it. A few days ago, I killed a mob of virtual civilians in a video game, and I’m still thinking about it.
There’s no shortage of military shooters in the game market. In fact, Yager’s Spec Ops: The Line would not have even been a blip on my radar had it not been for significant press about the game’s story. On the surface, Spec Ops is one of these games, and it stays this way just long enough for the player to realize this, pitting the player, who controls a more macho Nathan Drake, against non-white enemies alongside trash-talking grunts in some desert wasteland. At some point in the game, though, things go from status quo to FUBAR — I just can’t pinpoint the exact moment.
I think the fact that I cannot find the locus at which the story shifts is testament to the writing behind this game–or at least its source material. Drawing from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (the game has more in common with the latter), Spec Ops: The Line builds its narrative around two works that are giants in their respective media of literature and film. The problem I faced going in, though, was that I knew what to expect because I’ve read the novella and seen the film countless times. It’s an ambitious project, perhaps one that stands a bit too comfortably on the shoulders of giants, but it is a successful one. The story is damn good and worth the time and money I invested in the game. Its elements were familiar, but the specifics were unique. It’s more homage than re-imagining, which works in the narrative’s favor.
The game’s initial concept is simple, if not a bit stupid. Dubai has been hit by a sandstorm of biblical proportion, and the 33rd Battalion, led by John Konrad, tries to help evacuate those left behind, eventually staying behind after the U.S. asked them to come back. The United Arab Emirates declare Dubai a disaster zone until a transmission from Konrad breaks the radio stormwall, prompting the U.S. to send a Delta Force reconnaissance team into Dubai. At first, I questioned the plausibility of radio silence in the year 2012 when the game starts off as a standard military shooter in a hyperreal environment, but what begins as routine jingoistic, macho-military combat erodes into existential battles against former American soldiers.
About midway through the game, I realized that “reality” (or some Baudrillardian “hyperreality”) had broken down, buried under piles of corpses and sand. Spec Ops never strives for the realism that Call of Duty or Splinter Cell or numerous others attempt; instead it offers asurreality, a parallel military narrative that uses the tropes of other games in the genre only to undo them. The shifting sands, the hallucinations, and the psychedelic rock music all build an atmosphere on “unreality” in a genre that seems so focused on realism. To say much more would venture into spoiler territory — though shame on you if you’ve never read Heart of Darkness or seen Apocalypse Now.
Spec Ops, though, has more in common with Heart of Darkness than its narrative. Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness in the particular mode of the adventure novel, a genre dominated by tales of British men who go to the jungle, encounter the primitive natives, and come home to England more assured of their masculinity and the English values that separate the man from the savage. Conrad’s position, of course, is that ideals of British manhood and manners break down as Marlowe travels deeper into the Congo, and reveals not only the flaws inherent to this binary classification of civilized and savage but also the failure of the adventure novel itself. Spec Ops does something similar, revealing the inadequacy of the thrid-person military shooter genre to provide an honest simulation of the horrors of combat.
I find the game’s mechanics to be somewhere between adequate and good. Gears of War and Max Payne 3 offer more competent cover mechanics than Spec Ops does, but I cannot help wondering if its simple controls are by design — Yager’s way of deconstructing the familiar tropes of its genre. And it lampoons the military shooter with unflinching brutality. In fact, the enemy AI is far too good for the cover mechanics to be as unreliable as they are. The gameplay is nothing revelatory, but it crashes so beautifully with the narrative that I can’t help asking myself, “Why the hell am I playing this game?” I know nothing good will happen at the end, but I want to see where it all is going. To see the game through, I have to put myself through what feels like mediocre gameplay but opens up as I realize its importance. Each explosion carries meaning as you tear apart a city that once stood for excessive decadence and architectural beauty.
The ruinous Dubai setting is perfect for a game hell-bent on dealing with the very idea of mindless destruction and its repercussions. Abandoned by the rich and empowered, the city marked by one of the largest gulfs separating the privileged from the destitute falls to apocalyptic, desperate equality. And while the city crumbles, so too does your platoon of Not Nathan Drake and his two Not Nathan Drake’s buddies. While they start out with quippy banter and stupid machismo, their bonds are stretched and eventually snapped. While I often harp on Nolan North’s over-exposure in the game industry, he delivers a stellar performance as Capt. Walker. The overall voice work is excellent, and it evolves too, in-game. Walker’s reaction to suppressing enemy fire changes from an initial call for cover early in the game to a gravely, “Fuck you,” growled at the approaching enemy. Often, I found myself uttering the same thing in tense firefights, resulting in looks from wife that fell somewhere concern and annoyance. It was a bit more sobering than I could have expected.
The most troubling aspect of the game from a reviewer’s perspective, though, is its unnecessary inclusion of multiplayer. For a game that so effectively attacks the jingoism of most first-person shooters, the decision to offer such a watered-down and “safe” multiplayer experience is downright offensive. While there is ample opportunity explore the moral implications of shooting a character controlled by another human being in a provocative and inventive way, the multiplayer for Spec Ops: The Line is hollow, boring and has even less polish and nuance than the single-player campaign at its worst. It’s worth noting that lead designer Cory Davis recently said on record that the game’s multiplayer clashes with the thematic complexity of the campaign in the worst way possible, but the fact of the matter is that it’s part of the final product. It is a complete waste of time and effort that follows a dangerous precedent for the inclusion of multiplayer in some for or fashion simply because it’s expected.
I’ve a macabre fascination with video game violence, but rarely does a game so blatantly turn that violence outward, so much to tell the player, “You know you’re a bit messed up for playing this, right?” It’s a big question and one that needs asking. While I can’t say I enjoyed the game without admitting my own appreciation of the macabre, I can recommend it, and I can do so highly. It warrants your attention if only to give you an abyss to stare into to see what looks back. In Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kurtz posits in what is likely the most chilling monologue in cinema history, “Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies.” Perhaps this game will make a worthy introduction to both of them.