Category Archives: Game Analysis

Smashing Plastic Guitars (And The Patriarchy): My Confusing Journey Into Guitar Hero and Emergent Narratives

Last month, I finally bought Guitar Hero III.  With a used guitar from Amazon and an old PC copy, I was able to load up and play a game that I had never actually owned, but nonetheless had held enormous sway over two years of my gaming life.  Rhythm gaming disappeared almost as quickly as it rose to prominence, so Guitar Hero III, for me, remains the untarnished pinnacle of that genre.

At first, I played it as a way of revisiting childhood experiences. I completed the career mode on medium without much difficulty in a few hours, enjoying the songs, style, and 300px-Judyhealthy nostalgia trip.  After completion, I almost immediately packed up the guitar and left it to lounge in my closet.  But two weeks ago, I picked it up again, this time playing on hard mode as Judy Nails, a punk rock girl who emanated goth culture and 90s grunge.  This didn’t change the gameplay in any way, only what avatar was displayed rocking out on screen.  Overall, it wasn’t that different from my first playthrough.

That was until the second stage of the game.  My band had just completed their first real gig, playing a set of songs in a run-down bar to a small but energetic crowd.  As we closed the last song, a 3D-rendering of Tom Morello, a guitarist from the angsty, rap-metal band, Rage Against The Machine, emerged to face off against my character in one of the game’s iconic guitar battles.  I knew and guiltily enjoyed the song, so I prepared myself to play.  However, before the battle began, something caught my eye.  The camera panned left to focus on a leather-clad woman, clearly a stripper, as she walked onto the stage in the beginnings of a T-rated, but clearly suggestive dance.  The crowd went wild, and the game took a slice of time out of my performance to focus on hers, which continued throughout the song.  I had played this game dozens of times at friends’ houses in the past, and once again a week before, but somehow I hadn’t given this section much thought.  Yet, for some reason, even though it had no direct impact on the game whatsoever, my position of playing as Judy Nails made this stand out to me.

I unconsciously began to wonder how she would have felt about this.  Seeing another woman that blatantly objectified must have been alienating, unsettling and disorienting.  This stripper, and the way the crowd and camera treated her, established women as an object.  Judy Nails’ role as the protagonist made her a subject.  The two were clearly in conflict.

But that wasn’t how I framed those thoughts.  This wasn’t a removed defense of Judy Nail’s emotions.  No, this bothered meI felt alienated.  I felt objectified.  And I was pissed off.  I was about to battle against an incredibly skilled guitarist, in a head-to-head that would launch my character’s career into greatness.  Yet the game chose to focus on a 322px-Judy_Nailsstripper, something that, yes, likely would have made the fictional Judy Nails uncomfortable, but, more confusingly, made me feel uncomfortable, in a way it hadn’t every other time I had played the game.  How could I fight my way to the top of rock ‘n’ roll, if this stripper was standing right in front of me, with others dancing in cages behind her, symbolizing a level of unapologetic objectification that held women back in the medium and in the world?  These weren’t the empathized feelings of Judy Nails, they were my feelings.

I didn’t have time to process this, nor the myriads of other problematic presentations of women I would soon notice in the game, because seconds later, a torrent of notes came flying down the game’s virtual fretboard.  Both the computer-controlled-Morello and I played wickedly difficult progressions, producing a chaotic ballad of record-scratches and distorted guitar riffs.  The song was difficult enough that it consumed all of my attention, leaving none to consider The Stripper and the implications of her presence.

But I was angry, not in a way that was clear and focused, but cloudy and saturating.  This let me reach a level of flow in play that balanced detachment and engagement, shaping my actions to a reflexive perfection I rarely experienced.  As the song barred forward, with us neck and neck in points, I slowly began to accumulate more of the game’s power-ups, special abilities that would mess up the opposing player, and I used them sparingly.

3616-active07guitarhero3-wii-00This wasn’t conscious strategy, but an automatic response.  Before, I had seen guitar battles more as a special stage to perform on, instead of a battle with a clear opponent.  But this time, I had an enemy.  It wasn’t Tom Morello, I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice guy, it wasn’t Neversoft, the game’s developer, and it certainly wasn’t that stripper.  It was something I couldn’t clearly define, certainly not while playing a song on a difficulty level I had absolutely no reason to be playing on.  But I was angry at something.  I couldn’t define it, but I knew it when I saw it, and I knew that I needed to defeat it, not for someone else, but for me.

And I did.  As the digitized Morello began his ending solo, signaling the beginning of the “death drain”, which would lose me the battle, I thrust my guitar into the air, activating my carefully curated power-ups.  Digital Morello’s difficulty level was increased to expert, each note he had to play was doubled, all of which flashed on and off of the screen sporadically.  He failed the song in a matter of seconds.

I shouted an adrenaline-filled cry of victory.  I had defeated an honest-to-god bad guy.  I didn’t know what that was, or what it meant, but I knew I had done something.

The virtual crowd roared in approval at our performance, demanding an encore.  Rage Against The Machine’s iconic Bulls On Parade was loaded up, and, before I could reflect on the experience, I was thrust right in.  Despite feeling the thrill of an undefined victory, I still felt a simmering anger that permeates many of Rage’s songs.  Bulls on Parade is very much a song about fighting the system, and now, I had a system to fight.

For the rest of that playthrough, I wasn’t just embodying someone who loved music with a passion, I embodying someone locked in a battle against a culture.  I started to notice characters with the same character model as The Stripper in nearly every other stage, many of them in cages.  I started to notice how there were maybe three songs in the game guitarhero3slash1124with a female singer.  I started to notice how my character didn’t appear in the pre-rendered cutscenes.  I started to notice how, aside from the rarely-used female singer, and a briefly-shown TV reporter, there was not another woman in the game. But I still loved the music, and I loved the feel of playing the game.  I couldn’t just quit, I had an undefined enemy to defeat!  I had to prove, to something equally undefined, that I could love rock but not be the kind of rock that made a camera linger on a T-rated rendition of a stripper.  I had a system not just to defeat, but to change.

And I did!  Sort of!  I played through the rest of the game on hard.  I earned money and glory.  I bought the coolest guitars and the most expensive punk-rock outfits.  I unlocked The God of Rock, Slash, and the Grim Reaper from the character selector.  I beat every song with four or more stars.  In a conclusion that would have made Jack Black proud, I won a guitar battle with the devil for my soul to a rock rendition of The Devil Went Down to Georgia.  I became a “rock legend”, as the ending victory screen proclaimed me.  I played Dragonforce’s infamously difficult Through The Fire and the Flames atop an enormous hell-tower to hordes of cheering demons and devils.  I had done it.

But I had already done that a week ago.  Sure, it was on medium difficulty, but hard mode didn’t fundamentally change the experience.  Yet, somehow, it felt so much more invigorating the second time through.  I hadn’t just defeated the devil, the odds, and the hordes of other rock artists on my way to the top, I had defeated…something.  Sexism?  The patriarchy?  Strippers?  I wasn’t quite sure.  But I had done it.  I was a champion of rock, a legend, and I was a woman.  I got to play that solo on the top of that tower.  But I did not change the world.  I did not change the game.  I did not do anything combat the industry’s persistent, disturbing, and childish approach to representing half of the goddamn planet.  I didn’t do anything but change a few variables on my PC.  But that experience had enormous meaning to me nonetheless.  I may not have defeated even a sliver of the real patriarchy, but my defeat of an imagined one helped me learn from an otherwise mundane experience.

This story was not written into Guitar Hero III.  In fact, my narrative is mostly at odds with the game’s constructed one.  But this only made the experience all the more powerful.  I felt a beautiful parallel between my journey and Judy Nails’, with me in conflict with, yet in love with the game I was playing, and her in conflict with yet in love with rock music and its culture.  I embodied that contradiction, acted on its inconsistencies, and could feel the medium respond to my created story. I could assign meaning to the actions I performed and emotion to the songs that I played.  I could treat the game’s sexism as a problem with an imagined world that I needed to fix, instead of a prejudiced choice in a piece of static media, because Guitar Hero is not a piece of static media, it is a game.  I can take that game, which I adored unquestioningly when I was younger, and find meaning in 9it, because it isn’t the same game I played when I was 13; the game has changed because I have changed. Through this, I experienced a story I never could have in reality, because, yes, the game depicts a world created by developers that portrays women in a way that is simply wrong, but I am a part of that world.  I can change it.

Despite gaming’s relative youth as a medium, this isn’t some wholly unique experience.  In fact, we have a term form it.  It’s called emergent narrative, and it shows up in games like The Sims, Dwarf Fortress and Far Cry 2, where the authored narrative is overshadowed by stories the player creates using the systems of the games.  My experience with Guitar Hero doesn’t fit cleanly into this definition, but my role as agent in the story does allow me access to a bit of its advantages.  I was able to create a story, one that emerged entirely through my interaction with the game’s systems, that was much more personally compelling than the one the developers told.  In the authored story of Guitar Hero, the game told me that I was a rock legend.  In 529710-235_5_lmy story, I felt like a goddamn rock goddess, armed with a plastic guitar in one hand and a confused desire to smash the patriarchy in the other.  My real-world gender didn’t make that experience disempowering or emasculating; I had an evil to defeat and an injustice to fight, who cared if I was only a woman in the game world?  I’m going to remember that story for far longer than I will remember a couple of animated cutscenes.  I have learned from it, and it has changed my outlook on the real world.  Because, despite my story’s completely imagined nature, it made me feel like a hero; guitar and otherwise.

No Man Is An Island – Overcoming Player-Centric Worldviews Through Telltale’s The Walking Dead

Spoiler Content: Major, game-ruining spoilers for Telltale’s The Walking Dead.  I don’t discuss it in as much detail as my Spec Ops or Bioshock papers, but I do spoil one pretty major thing.

Survival is a theme that many modern games have loved to explore. The player is given a clear losestate: don’t die. The player is given clear primary objectives: get food, water, and medical dayz-ont-he-horizon-wallpapersupplies. The player is given clear secondary objectives: getting warmer clothes, and, more specifically, a gun, will help you get the food and water you need. The player is also given clear means of accomplishing these goals: scavenge for what you can, and kill anyone who stands in your way. Survival plays into the systemizing of games perfectly, as though the genre was made for the medium, and survival games line the halls of gaming’s greatest achievements. Day Z and The Last of Us, two very successful games from last year, both explored these mechanics in depth. Fallout, an isometric, post-nuclear roleplaying game from 1997, became a such a cult classic that it was later rebooted by Elder Scrolls developer Bethesda to resounding critical success. Survival is a genre that games do well, and have explored many of the important themes of. However, one game stands out as providing a subversive taken on the survival genre, and while The Last of Us may be a close second, it is Telltale’s critically lauded Walking Dead franchise, based on the enormously popular comic books and TV show, that, that most effectively explores the negative impact of survival-centric thinking. The Walking Dead tries to highlight how dehumanizing the systemization in survival games really is. They not only encourage but explicitly reward degradation of humanity, giving the player absolutely no ludic reason not to, and, in fact, many reasons to, kill anyone who so much as looks at them funny. Survival games create a world that is a puzzle for the player to solve, emphasizing player-centrality above all else, and treating other people as disposable obstacles. The suffering of other characters does not affect the player, in fact, the suffering of others benefits the player. In these games, the player is usually alone, combat-experienced, and healthy, with no attachments or obligations that a normal person might have, and can move freely throughout the world with complete control. The world is theirs for the taking.

The Walking Dead attempts to subvert the nihilism that accompanies the systemization of humanity by placing the player in the shoes of Lee Everett, a history professor under arrest for murdering his cheating wife, just as the zombie apocalypse breaks out. Throughout the game, he escorts an eight-year-old girl, Clementine, across the American South. Clementine is not his daughter, she just ran into him as the apocalypse began, but the player is encouraged to view TWDher as a daughter figure. Through the injection of the player into a paternal role, The Walking Dead changes worldview that accompanies many survival games, shifting the focus from raw survival to the safety and personal development of a young girl. While the game explores many themes, this them, I believe, is most central to its presentation of a post-civilization humanity. The game focuses on this point the greatest in a passing comment by one character, a reference to the famous John Donne poem, No Man is an Island. While the character only quotes a brief segment of it, the well-known one from Hemingway, I believe the poem is worth repeating in its entirety.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

In the context of an apocalypse, this poem rips apart every shred of the survival mentality created and conditioned by many games in the genre. It presents the seemingly noble desire to survive as destructive not just to the world but to the self, as a loss for one is a loss for all. If survival means harming others, than the survivor does not survive, they are just as scarred as those they have killed. Through emphasizing the interconnectedness of humanity by using this quote, The Walking Dead paints a world not of a single, great tragedy, but of a million individual tragedies, each one chilling away at the fabric of humanity, and, in turn, every human being who is a part of it. Yet, through the placement of Clementine, Telltale proposes an alternative view of the apocalypse, one that doesn’t come with the pitfalls of the self-centric one. Clementine’s presence in The Walking Dead challenges the systemization and devaluation of humanity by providing the player with a meaningless choice to treat every human being as a part of a greater whole, and through their role as a parent, redeem themselves for the actions they must take to survive.

The Walking Dead, while a game about choice, does not have a great deal of player choice. The player’s decisions, for the most part, will not alter the narrative significantly, and are usually only reflected in a single line or two. Lee will start in the apocalypse and he will die in the apocalypse. Nothing the player does can change that. This is primarily due to budget constraints, and is a common practice within the industry. Interactive storytelling veteran David Cage, famous for games such as Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, once referred to this process as “bending stories,” or working in light of budget constraints to create choices that seem to have an impact, but do not significantly shift the game narrative. In the industry, this is called the illusion of choice, and The Walking Dead embraces this philosophy wholeheartedly, tailoring the themes of their world to this technical constraint. The inevitability of death in an apocalyptic world is a core theme, and the player is provided with the choice not of if to die, but how to die. While the expanded universe of The Walking Dead isn’t clear on the exact outcome, it is fairly clear that humans will die off, and that their civilization will not rise again. With this inevitability, and the real impact of player decisions denied, what good can the actions of one man do? Any choice the player makes will be meaningless. Standard survival The-Walking-Dead-1games would ludically tell the player to survive as long as possible, to view people as a means to an end, however, The Walking Dead gives the player a choice, however meaningless, to do otherwise. Lee’s decision to protect Clementine, to save a child, is a redemptive one, one that has no impact on his own survival, but does help him redeem, however little, for the murder of his wife. He bears the guilt for ending one life, and so he tries his hardest to save another. As games author Adrian Froschauer puts it, “The decisions you make in The Walking Dead don’t change what happens, they change how it happens” (Froschauer). Every sequence will begin and end the same way, but how they progress is what Lee, and by extension, the player, can change. The game carries its larger themes into its minute-to-minute gameplay. In this, the player is given a genuine choice of their worldview. For example, PopMatters contributor Nick Dinicola, in his article “I Am Clementine” describes his take on Clementine as a guarded, distant and practical girl who has seen every one of her friends die. Clementine does not seek companionship or trifle with niceties because she has seen how futile those attitudes are. In short, Dinicola’s Clementine had given up on people. Yet, my Clementine, as distinct from Dinicola, had a different approach. She saw Lee’s actions towards others, actions that I decided as the player, and realize that the only thing she had left in that world was other people, was the friends she was close too. Clementine had experience great loss, but she understood that that loss is the nature of the beast. “The world is a dark and scary place,” says Froschauer, “but we have to rely on each other, and even though we don’t have much influence on what happens around us, we can still make the best of it.” These are the words that my Lee and my Clementine lived by, and how they chose to experience the world.

When Clementine enters the world, and Lee chooses to accept her, the winstate of the game changes. Before, it seemed clear: stay alive, however now, pinning down the exact goal is difficult. Like real world people, Lee isn’t driven by a single desire, in this case to survive, but instead by a complex amalgamation of survival and his paternal duties to Clementine. Yes, he has to keep her alive, but he also wants to raise her to be a good person, to help her have some good experiences of human connection. Finding that balance between survival and humanity is difficult, but it is what Lee must do as a complex character with conflicting obligations. Late in the game, a character, Chuck, tells Clementine that she is going to die very soon, and that people can’t live in this world, and I flew into a fit of rage, directing Lee to yell at him for daring to try to make Clementine think that way. In all likelihood, Chuck was right, and Clementine would die sometime soon, but the idea of clementinetarnishing the one innocent thing in a world where everything has gone to hell enraged me to no end. From an objective, survivalist standpoint, yes, it was probably important for Clementine to accept that she might die. However the game was no longer about pure survival for me, it was about keeping Clementine alive. Through her simple existence, Clementine had change my and Lee’s worldview. Her role as a child further adds to this, and is unique in video games for being surprisingly realistic. Children in games are usually a burden or annoyance, invoking feelings of ire instead of the paternal feelings that so many experience. If Clementine was this kind of child, she couldn’t have had the emotional impact on both Lee and the player that she did. The game subverts all of this, starting with the player’s introduction to Clementine: she helps Lee first instead of him helping her. In a genre which, like many gaming genres, places player empowerment at the core, Clementine’s role as an agent slightly disempowers Lee, and continues to do so as Lee sacrifices for her. In the game’s conclusion, Lee chooses to die so that Clementine can live, in an ultimate rejection of empowerment and survival, denying everything that the genre has built up. The scene is heart-wrenchingly emotionally resonant, bring many players, myself included, to tears because of the paternal feelings it evoked. This is because Clementine is not a burden, she is not an escort quest, I don’t need to be distracted from what I care about to help keep her alive, she is what I care about, she is an adult with way less experience than me, not a bumbling child. The game carries this theme into other children in the world, including Duck, a seemingly annoying kid who, after a few plot-centric quests with Lee, becomes more a sort of side kick, and rewarding the player with a message “Duck things you’re incredibly awesome” if the player chooses to give him a high five at the quest completion. Children are not worthless in this world, they are precious, and not just as one-dimensional symbols of innocence in a fallen world, but as real people who haven’t had the optimism beat out of them. Clementine embodies this, and Lee, and the player, are driven to protect it.

Protecting Clementine goes far beyond just physical protection, and even explicit interactions. The player must make all of their choices about not just in the context of their own survival, but of what Clementine will learn from those choices. In the second episode, I was given the option to kill a man who had killed and eaten one of my friends, a man who certainly deserved to die, and were I alone, I probably would have done it. However, Clementine was there. She was watching. Knowing that, I couldn’t kill this man, even if he deserved it, even if it was the better choice for my survival, because that would teach Clementine that this is a world where humanity is not valuable. Despite the myriads of reasons to do it, my desire to raise Clementine right prevented me from doing it. Despite everything in the world encouraging me to abandon my humanity, to embrace what Lee had started even before the apocalypse with the murder of his wife, Clementine made me want to seek the good in humanity for her. And, in the end, Lee dies for this. In the ultimate unification of all of the game’s themes, the game lets Lee choose how to die. His last words, he can inform Clementine’s worldview, telling her either to survive or to be human. The game flashes its iconic, “Clementine Will Remember That” text on screen after the player makes their final choice, but, from a gameplay perspective, she won’t. That choice, made in the last few minutes of gameplay, will have literally no impact on the last stages of the game, but, to me, that is the most important moment of the game. What I chose to say to Clementine in Lee’s final moments were overwhelmingly powerful to me, I would even go so far to say they are a part of my identity. That choice had nothing to do with anyone’s objective survival, but it meant more to me than anything else in the game. That is the power of the way The Walking Dead treats the world.

In Cormac McCarthy’s iconic post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, the unnamed boy keeps repeating the phrase, “Carry the Fire.” When he meets a new group of people after his fathers death in what becomes the book’s final scene, he doesn’t ask them their names, if they have food or if they will take him it, he asks them, “Do you carry the fire?” The Walking Dead, in all its nuanced explorations of the apocalypse, is asking this question. When the player meets Clementine, it asks if she carries the fire. When the player meets Kenny, Carley, Ben or Chuck, it asks the same question, “Do they carry the fire?” And finally, through every single theroadchoice the player makes, even and especially the seemingly insignificant ones, it asks them, “Do you carry the fire?” The authenticity of The Walking Dead’s characters and the impact of its questions hinge on its ability to get the player to ask these questions. In The Road, carrying the fire was directly related to how the boy and his father treated others, in if they viewed survival as more important that the lives of others. Behind carrying the fire, there is the philosophy of for whom the bell tolls. The Boy carries the fire because he understands that other people are not just human beings deserving of dignity, but connected to him. He cannot hurt one for his own gain, because the suffering of another is his suffering. In short, the bell would toll for him. Through Clementine’s existence, Lee begins to understand this as well, and her presence forces him to change everything he thought he knew about violence and survival. The game brilliantly connects the player’s arc with Lee’s arc, forming their narrative so that both ask the question, “Do you carry the fire” at the same time. By linking these two arcs together, Telltale allows the player to explore these ideas with even greater depth, something that could not be done in a non-interactive medium. The questions it raises, the questions it answers and the ones it doesn’t answer, all pull from every aspect of its nature as a game, and through doing so, creates a masterpiece that will be discussed and debated for years to come.

Since The Walking Dead’s release and subsequent critical and financial success, many in the self-proclaimed “hardcore gamer” audience have laid a criticism against it that it is not, in fact, a game. Challenge is not a core engagement of The Walking Dead, the story progresses regardless of which decision the player makes, with only a few losestates scattered here and there. However, despite the apparent lack of “gamey-ness”, I believe The Walking Dead represents an enormous possibly future for the games industry as a whole. Games originally focused on pure mechanical engagement, make the ball bounce back, collect all the white dots, shoot down all the space ships. Today, however, some games are shifting that emphasis, away from pure mechanical engagement and towards another strength of games: agency. The player is actually present in the game narrative, making decisions that determine the way the game plays out. The Walking Dead emphasizes agency as a central theme of its structure, and while it has mechanical engagements, that is not what keeps the players coming back. I played The Walking Dead so I could be a part of a narrative I cared about, so I could explore the themes of humanity and degradation, of dehumanization and systemization, through a medium that lends itself towards doing so. This, I believe, is the core of what future games can do, and through games like The Walking Dead, I believe we can catch a glimpse of the future, and hopefully, start to discuss what we want that future to be.

Works Cited

Froschauer, Adrian. “Clementine Will Remember All of That.” The Ontological Geek. N.p., 10 Jan. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <>.

Dinicola, Nick. “I Am Clementine.” PopMatters. N.p., 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <>.

Portnow, James. “Extra Credits: “For Whom the Bell Tolls”.” YouTube. N.p., 25 Apr. 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <>.

Portnow, James. “Extra Credits: Raising the Dead.” YouTube. N.p., 19 Apr. 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <>.

Portnow, James. “Extra Credits: Minority.” YouTube. N.p., 2 May 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <>.

Out From Behind the Glass – The Evolution of the Bioshock Franchise and Interactive Storytelling

Disclaimer from the far-off future of 2017: BioShock Infinite has some more…troubling implications that I didn’t really get when I wrote this piece three years back.  The implication that violent, systemic racism and violent rebellion against systemic racism are equally evil is a frankly ridiculous one, and while I don’t think it’s one the game makes intentionally, it is pretty steeped in the text.  Ken Levine, the game’s creative director has commented on this, and I think I agree with most of what he says, but it requires much more criticism than I gave it in this piece.  I’ll probably go back one day and write a piece on Bioshock Infinite and it’s shaky attempts at an interesting take on systemic racism, but that would require beating the game again, and thus require replaying the Lady Comstock boss fight on 1999 mode, a task I plan to avoid for as long as I am able.

Anyways, here’s the piece.

My Booker DeWitt was a hero to the cause! A story to tell your children! You—you just complicate the narrative!”

-Daisy Fitzroy, Bioshock Infinite

Spoiler Content: Complete, comprehensive, game-ruining spoilers.  Please do not read this unless you have played the game or plan never to play the game.  Bioshock Infinite is a game that thrives on the player slowly figuring out the nuances of the plot, do not rob yourself of one of the greatest pleasures the medium has to offer.


Entrance_TowerIrrational Games’ Bioshock (2007) is tied for the top rated first person shooter of all time, tackling topics as diverse as Ryndian Objectivism and the nature of choice in games. It was a smash hit in both sales and reviews, and is widely regarded as one of the most successful games of all time that still tackles tough philosophical issues. After a lackluster sequel that was given to another developer, anticipation for a true sequel was at an all-time high. So, to say that Bioshock Infinite, Irrational Games’ return to the franchise, had high expectations, would be a drastic understatement. Bioshock had its strengths, to be sure. It told a story through a beautiful environment of the underwater city of Rapture, with very few human characters actually appearing before the player. The player fights endless hoards of deranged, mutated humans, but they serve more as gameplay objectives than actual people. The player only comes face-to-face with a single character in the entire game. The rest of the time, however, the player see human characters on the other side of a glass wall, just out of reach. This soon became a hallmark of the franchise, with even the abysmal sequel trying to continue the trend.  This is primarily because, in 2007, the team at Irrational Games didn’t have the resources they needed to create humans in as lifelike and believable a way as they wanted. The technology simply wasn’t there. However, by the time Infinite was created, they did. So, instead of telling a story purely through the environment, the team began to use human characters. The primary example of this is Elizabeth, who is painstakingly animated with amazing detail. She is widely regarded as the most realistic rendering of a human being in a video game, not in terms of art style, but animations, actions, and interactions with the environment. Through characters like Elizabeth, the game could truly tell a human story, and explore human ideas. The two ideas it chose to focus on were self-mythologizing and choice, not a binary, good-evil moral choice, but the choices we make as a people and as a person, that define us on a daily basis. The regular, seemingly inconsequential choices. In this paper, I will trace these themes through four characters: Daisy Fitzroy, Zachary Comstock, Booker DeWitt and finally, the player themselves. This is the story that Bioshock couldn’t have told.

Plot Summary


Set in 1912, Infinite follows ex-Pinkerton Booker DeWitt in his journey to rescue Elizabeth, heir of the flying city of Columbia. They are constantly perused by the city’s prophet-leader, Zachary Comstock, and his giant, mechanical Songbird. Elizabeth has the ability to move between universes, which the two use for the Vox Populi, a minority-lead revolutionary group, in exchange for passage out of the city. However, they enter a world where Booker has died as a martyr for the revolution, and the revolution’s leader, Daisy Fitzroy, views him as a threat to the story she constructed. She is killed by Elizabeth in her attempts to kill the pair, but before they can escape, Elizabeth is captured by Songbird, and Booker is pulled into the future by an older Elizabeth. She gives Booker the information he needs to rescue Elizabeth: a song that will control Songbird. Armed with this knowledge, Booker returns to rescue Elizabeth, and the two kill Comstock and destroy the siphon, a device blocking Elizabeth’s powers from reaching their full potential. This gives Elizabeth unfathomable power, through which she learns that Booker and Comstock are actually the same person but from different universes. Comstock is a version of Booker that chose to be baptized and cleansed of his past sins, and took up a new name to signify this. He built Columbia, and kidnapped Booker’s daughter, Anna, because he could not have an heir of his own. He renamed Anna to Elizabeth. However, part of Elizabeth’s finger was cut off during the jump between universes, and because she existed in two universes, gave her her abilities. Elizabeth explains that Comstock exists in an infinite number of universes, and the only way to destroy him is to kill Booker before he could make the choice that created Comstock. Booker accepts his fate, and allows Elizabeth to drown him.

Daisy Fitzroy

Infinite’s ending is perhaps its most powerful aspect, dumping a great deal of plot twists on the player in the span of a few minutes, but the daring nature of the ending often leads players to ignore one of the more controversial characters in the game, Daisy Fitzroy. Fitzroy is a black freedom fighter by the time Booker and Elizabeth meet her, but she was originally Lady Comstock’s housemaid. Recordings scattered throughout the game world reveal that Fitzroy was, at first, content with her situation, and felt at home in “their world.” However, in a situation completely outside of her control, she was framed by Comstock for Lady Comstock’s murder. So Fitzroy was forced out of a world that she felt at home in despite having no control over, and into one where she had a choice, however limited. Infinite seems to espouse the idea that everyone only has two choices: the choice to begin and 


the choice to end, and Daisy makes her choice to begin rather than die, and starts her revolution, the Vox Populi. However, she soon falls into the same path of self-mythologizing that Comstock is so brilliant in executing. Momentum is a key theme in Fitzroy’s story, and soon the Vox turn from a desperate revolutionary group into a bloodthirsty rebellion. When Fitzroy’s revolution is in its infancy, Elizabeth optimistically exclaims, “There’s going to be a revolution, just like Les Miserables!” But the Vox are not the good-hearted freedom fighters of that story, they choose red as the color for their revolution, invoking the iconography of the blood that quickly becomes symbolic for the results of their actions. Fitzroy does not try to stop the momentum of the violence, and instead embraces it. In the end, it becomes about power for Fitzroy, not justice. A question arises as to if she ever was genuine, or if she was always out for revenge against Comstock and used her revolution to acquire the power to do so. As her revolution continues, she stops making it about equality and instead about dominance. As she does this, she starts crafting a narrative of past events to justify this new direction. When the new Booker appears in her world, contradicting her story of the Martyr Dewitt, she explicitly tells him, “Booker Dewitt was a hero, a story to tell your kids. You just complicate the narrative.” Booker never did anything to wrong Fitzroy, much like Fitzroy never did anything to harm Comstock, but Booker’s presence threatens the narrative Fitzroy wants to tell about her revolution, and as soon as that challenge she reacts as viciously as Comstock did towards her. “Damned impostors.” She says to her soldiers. “Burn their bodies when you’re done.” Fitzroy wants nothing to exist to challenge her myth, the one she built up about Booker and his heroism. It doesn’t matter to her if that is how it really was, and recovered audio logs form alternate-universe Booker suggest that he wasn’t even the hero she thought he was then. But Fitzroy’s myth is ended as suddenly as it began, as Elizabeth drives a large pair of scissors through her chest to stop her from killing a white child. She made the choice to begin her revolution, but that became her only true choice, after that, according to Elizabeth, the Vox always turn from nobel revolution into bloody rebellion in every parallel universe. Their bloodlust is a constant, the only variable is how they get there. There are many variables in Fitzroy’s revolution, ones that change across universes, and Fitzroy needs to construct her myth in order to create the clean, bedtime story she wants. However her story fails, and all that it results in is her death.

Zachary Comstock

Comstock made his choice to begin at his baptism after Wounded Knee, and from that point on he began crafting a story about himself of which no one could get in the way of. When he was baptized, he believes that Booker Dewitt died, and Zachary Comstock is a new man without any of Booker’s sins and with a new story, written by Comstock, not reality. He adopts patriotism and American Exceptionalism as the foundation of his myth, as America already has a great history of concocting myth for power and comfort. Columbia itself is modeled after The White City amusement park in early-1900s Chicago. The architecture is, in the words of game journalist Adam Sessler, “A fetishization of an American that never existed.” And this theme permeates every aspect of Columbia. When Booker first regains consciousness in Columbia, he is greeted by godlike statues of three of the founding fathers, Jefferson, Washington and Franklin. All three have been deified, and are worshiped not as men but as gods. As Booker wanders through a Columbian garden, he hears whispers of prayers to each of the founders, with Comstock_Statuetheir own deep religious iconography. Founder Worship is a theme that Comstock adopts wholeheartedly, and like America removed the flaws from its founders, so to did Comstock remove his own. He no longer was a simple soldier at Wounded Knee, instead he was commander of the 7th Cavalry. No longer was he the ruler of Columbia who ordered his men to quell the Boxer Rebellion, now he was leading the charge. No longer was he a sterile old man without an heir, now he was given a Miracle Child with unimaginable powers, destine to take the throne and rain fire on the “mountains of man.” When Lady Comstock would not support his myth, he killed her. When Elizabeth would not support his myth, he tortured and brainwashed her for decades. Every time something contradicted his myth, Comstock would torture, kill and lie his way to creating his true version of the story. He was not ex-Pinkerton, Booker DeWitt, he was The Prophet, Zachary Comstock. Comstock believed that he could completely abandon the sins of his past through baptism, and spent the rest of his life trying to bring this about. In an early audio log the player finds, the true meaning of which is not fully recognized until a second playthrough, Comstock says the following

One man goes into the waters of baptism. A different man comes out, born again. But who is that man who lies submerged? Perhaps the swimmer is both sinner and saint, until he is revealed unto the eyes of man” -Zachary Comstock

This log deliberately invokes the uncertainty of quantum mechanics, specifically the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment (which wouldn’t be the first time), but also highlights how Comstock never could completely abandon his past.  Booker’s appearance in Infinite is Comstock’s past coming back to haunt him. Comstock knew Booker would return, despite his best efforts to stop him, and created the myth of the False Shepherd, making his old self a demonic figure of pure evil. The irony of the situation is that Booker did lead Elizabeth away from Comstock’s plan, and did overthrow him, and even killed him. Comstock made the choice to begin, but Booker, another version of himself, made the choice to end him.

Booker DeWitt


Booker is perhaps the only character in the game who has done things he isn’t proud of, but doesn’t try to pretend he hasn’t. Booker is a broken man, who has brutally murdered hundreds. Booker’s existence basically revolves around him hurting people, and the majority of the gameplay focuses on this as well. However, Booker does not try to deny this. This Booker did not accept the baptism after Wounded Knee, believing that a ritual could not redeem the things he has done. In fact, his distrust of redemption is one of the first things the player learns about Booker. When the player first enters the lighthouse at the beginning of the game, Booker scoffs at a bowl of water with the words “Of Thy Sins I Shall Wash Thee” printed above. Booker acknowledges and accepts the bad he has done, and doesn’t try to remove it. However, he did try once before, when he gave up Anna in exchange for the removal of his gambling debts. Instead of redeeming him, the decision racked Booker with guilt, destroying his life. Had the Comstock not tried to take Anna from him, Booker never would have been forced into Columbia where he ultimately does redeem himself, but not through the false methods that Comstock took. When Booker realizes who he is, that he is Comstock and that he sold Elizabeth to pay for his debts, he does not try to deny it, he accepts the responsibility for his actions and sacrifices his life to right his wrong. He does this without question, acknowledging his own brokenness and sins, and surrenders himself in an act of disempowerment that is utterly uncharacteristic of the first person shooter genre. Instead of making a choice to end his own life, he surrender’s that choice to Elizabeth. He doesn’t make the choice to begin or end. Throughout Infinite, Booker continually tries to take responsibility and make up for what he has done, not through erasing it but through his own action. However, this is not enough. According to Elizabeth, Booker will always fail when he tries to save Elizabeth on his own. He is trapped in a cycle of trying by failing. This idea is emphasized over and over through the song, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The song appears numerous times throughout the game, first in a choral rendition when Booker enters Columbia, again and again when Elizabeth hums it to herself in the game and in flashbacks, in a touching moment where Booker plays guitar while Elizabeth sings the song, and once more over the end credits. The game practically beats the player over the head with the song, showing how trapped Booker is by his own guilt but internal goodness that keeps compelling him to help the people he has hurt. Booker doesn’t make any substantive choices in the game, and every choice he makes is predetermined and ineffectual. The only way Booker breaks the circle is by surrendering his own agency to Elizabeth, by giving her his life, challenging genre conventions, and ending his cycle of trying to choose.

The Player

Booker’s dilemma fits perfectly with the player’s role in the game, especially their lack of choice in the game world. Bioshock was famous for deconstructing player choice in video games by telling the player that they have never made a real choice in a game where every possible outcome was created by a developer. Infinite falls into the category of post-Bioshock games, or a game that acknowledges this lack of choice that the player has and tells a story that utilizes this concept. The first Bioshock was filled with choice in the level design, with sprawling levels with their own distinctive tone. Infinite, however, is fairly linear by comparison, with level design that has been poorly received. However, displaying their brilliance yet again, the developers at Irrational used this to their advantage. A consistent motif in the level design is too have two paths leading to the same place. This will irritate some gamers, who, being compulsive people by nature, will check both paths and realize that there is not difference between the two, but this emphasizes the core of the game’s approach to choice. The gameplay is much more tight and “cinematic” than its predecessor, and uses this to its advantage by furthering its metaphors into the mechanics. It uses the classic game advantage of increasing a player’s connection to an event by literally making them a part of it, which is allowed because of the tightness and focus of design they were allowed by their new direction. This is further increased by their decision to have Booker as a voiced character, instead of a mostly silent protagonist like Jack from Bioshock. Booker is wonderfully voiced by one of the best-known voice actors in the industry, Troy Baker, and as the player gets to walking the line between being and not being Booker, the decisions Booker makes can both bring the player closer and distance them farther when the designers want to. But Infinite’s greatest moment in using its role as a game is in the title itself: Infinite. Late in the game, Elizabeth reveals that there are an infinite amount of Bookers trying to save her, each one doing things slightly differently but all with the same beginning and ending. “There’s always man. Always a lighthouse. Always a city.” she tells him, encompassing both Bioshock Infinite as well as the original Bioshock with her description. This makes sense within the context of the narrative, but it also says a great deal about games as a whole. In the metaphor, those different Bookers are other people playing the game, or other playthroughs that a player may do, each with slight differences but all being carted along the same path. “We swim in different oceans but land on the same shore” she tells Booker, in another double line intended for both protagonist and player alike. The different oceans are the different playthroughs, and the same shore is the narrative that every player experiences, despite their differences. My favorite weapons were the shotgun and the volley gun, and I used the Charge and Undertow vigors every chance I got, but my roommate prefered the sniper rifle and machine gun, and applied the Possession vigor with tactical precision. We both played the game completely differently, swimming in different oceans with many hours of the core experience playing fundamentally differently, but we ended up on the same shore, that same ending where Booker is drowned by Elizabeth. The player isn’t simply watching Booker’s journey, she is experiencing the same thing through the mechanics as a metaphor, and Infinite is brilliant for precisely this reason: it only can work as a game. Booker and Elizabeth can only exist on the screen in front of the player with controller, mouse or keyboard in hand.


Debate still rages across the internet if Infinite was a greater game than its predecessor, and it seems as thought there will never be a consensus on the issue. However there is a clear difference between the two that cannot be denied: Infinite tells a human story, while Bioshock does not. This does not make one greater than the other, but human stories often carry more weight than ones that are less human. As Irrational brought its franchise out from behind the glass and into the realm of humanity, it opened up a whole range of powerful issues for games to explore, and it only focused on some of them. Elizabeth is, almost undoubtedly the most realistically acting character in a video game, and all of this was because Irrational took the risk to create something that hadn’t really been created before, and I believe that the medium is better for it. Through the new technology the game implemented, it was able to explore themes far beyond the scope of the medium thus far. Now that Irrational Games has closed down, it is unlikely we will ever see another Bioshock title from the minds behind the original.  However the core team made the decision to leave the manpower and financial resources of the AAA giant that was Irrational and now is running a small, sixteen-man studio to focus even more on narrative and human elements.  Technology has evolved to the point where they believe this is possible.  In the years to come, and if their history is anything to go by, it will take years, we might see what they want to humanize next.



“Bioshock Infinite: Ken Levine Discusses Columbia, Elizabeth, and Religion – Part 1.”YouTube. YouTube, 13 Dec. 2012. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <>.

“BioShock Infinite REVIEW! Adam Sessler Reviews.” YouTube. YouTube, 25 Mar. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <>.

“From Shock to Awe: System Shock, Bioshock, and Infinite.” YouTube. YouTube, 11 May 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <>.

Hamilton, Kirk. “BioShock Infinite Is Insanely, Ridiculously Violent. It’s A Real Shame..” Kotaku. N.p., 4 Apr. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <>.

The Power to Escape – My Time in the World of WarCraft

Spoiler Content: Spoiler Free!

Alright, I have a deep, dark secret that I tell everyone. I used to be a huge World of Warcraft (WoW) player. Not the standard “play all day, every day” type of player, no, my parents’ draconian computer-time limits prevented that.  What defined my WoW experience was thinking. Nearly every moment of the day I would be thinking about this world, through articles, books, websites, YouTube videos, whatever. WoW, essentially, was my real world. Now this was during middle school for me, when my real life was at its lowest and WoW was at its height, so it was the perfect time for me to become engrossed in this world. Through lawn mowing, extorting money from my siblings, babysitting for my parents’ friends, whatever, I was able to scrounge up the $15 every month to play the game. For thirty minutes a day, and a glorious hour on weekends, I was exactly where I wanted to be. Every other moment of my life was lived in anticipation of those thirty to sixty minutes. It was the first game to completely consume for my existence, but it did it differently than any game ever has. When I finally got my hands on Bioshock Infinite, that was all I did for like three days, all I could talk about, all I could think about. But, a few days later, it had worn off. I still loved the game, but it wasn’t an all-consuming force. In the weeks before Mass Effect 3 came out, I was constantly nerding out about the game, and for a week, Mass Effect *was* my life. It consumed my every waking moment. I think that this is the mark of a truly great game, that it creates a world you want to live in, and, through the constant experience of separating yourself from reality, you can live there at will. All it would take in middle school was for me to sit down in class, and let my mind slip into Azeroth, and I was no longer sitting in a class that I hated surrounded by a room full of sadistic assholes, I was climbing to the top of Icecrown Citadel, runeblade grasped tightly in hand, ready to do battle with the Lich King. WoW, Mass Effect, Bioshock, and other games like them, can do that to me.

I think that something we, as geeks, practice is this process of divorcing ourselves from reality, though most people lose this ability as they grow older. Children are always living in fantasy worlds, because they are still trying to get a grip on the real one. Adults, with that real world clearly defined, don’t seem to have the same capacity as children to escape. But for geeks (nerds, dorks, whatever), that ability is almost a requirement for surviving a social structure that isn’t made for us. homeland_lgWhen we were younger, we don’t find much comfort in people and the real world, because we were rejected for liking swords and sorcery instead of footballs and baseballs. In order to escape the drudgery, and often torment, of real life, we used fantasy worlds in place of our own. I dove into new worlds when I was a kid, worlds that I was not old enough to understand fully, but was imaginative enough to explore. I fell in love with R.A. Salvatore’s brilliant novel Homeland, chronicling the life of a dark elf, Drizzt Do’Urden, as he struggled to deal with a world filled with vicious, self-serving and hateful families trying to gain as much power as they could at the expense of others. At the time, the magic and fantasy setting made me love the world, and the author wove the fabric of this new universe with such artful precision that I never wanted to leave. Today, I now hold that book in the highest esteem because I can see some of Drizzt’s struggle against dark elves and spider gods as sort of similar to my world, without all the flair and window dressing. It is one of the finest examples of world building I have ever seen.

So, that brings this all back to WoW. WoW isn’t a particularly well designed game, it doesn’t have a brilliantly written story exploring powerful ideas or interesting characters. It doesn’t have game mechanics that create a consistent feel or aesthetic enhanced by the world around it. All in all, it is a fairly repetitive game, without much true merit to it. The story, while interesting, doesn’t go much beyond standard high fantasy.

But for some reason I fell in love with that game. The environments were so varied and interesting that I lost myself in them. Playing with others was okay, but it detracted from my main focus: I was exploring a new world. The depths of Azeroth were lush and detailed, and I couldn’t bring myself to leave them. There was a magic to it, and maybe it was just childlike nostalgia, but is that really a bad reason to like something?SetWidth850-Tirion-vs-Lich-King-by-yuri996 Atmosphere can make a bad game great, and even though WoW’s gameplay is normal and simplistic, I still remember the chills that went down my spine from Tirion Fordring and Arthas Menethil’s duel outside the Light’s Hope Chapel. Years of substantially better written games such as Mass Effect, Bioshock or Gone Home have done little to diminish that thrill. Something about that vanilla fantasy world and the absolute purity with which it is executed appeals to me in a way that no other game can. While I no longer fear the real world the way I did when I first picked up my copy of The Warcraft Battle Chest in 2006, logging in to this game gives me an excuse to return to my childhood, leave the world behind, and instead live in the incredible world of Azeroth.

WoW is today a pretty bad game in comparison to the myriad of titles I’ve played in the years since, but those experiences will remain powerful to me. WoW is still a game I can enjoy, even if just from an observer’s perspective. It is, at its core, beautiful.
Cloud Serpent

Blurring The Line: Exploring Societal Conceptions of Violence Through Spec Ops – The Line

“To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.” –Spec Ops – The Line

Spoiler Content: This post contains MASSIVE, GAME RUINING spoilers for Spec Ops – The Line.  If you plan to play it at any point, I would highly recommend avoiding this essay.  It, like all games, is best experienced on your own.


You begin overlooking a city ravaged by horrible sandstorms, standing in ruins of its former glory. The Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, looms over the skyline as an inverted, tattered US flag flaps idly to the side. Jimi Hendrix’s distorted rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” plays far in the distance; three symbols of American and capitalist ideals warped in one way or another.  You grip your controller, and press start. The game’s title screen becomes the game itself, and a helicopter roars past. The camera follows it, and another helicopter comes into view.  Jumping into the action, you prepare to man the side-mounted minigun in your helicopter. But, the helicopter abruptly explodes into fiery wreck, and spirals down towards the sand-covered ground below. The camera then snaps up to the second helicopter, which you now realize is yours. It is subtle, and easily missed, but long before the narrative suggests that anything is out of the ordinary, this twist makes you feel uneasy, makes you think that you aren’t about to become the hero in your own, seven-hour action story, and maybe, the villain is you.

So opens Yager Development’s 2012 video game, Spec Ops – The Line, a production that has received great critical acclaim and sparked discussion in the emerging academia surrounding video games. Spec Ops is a military shooter, a genre defined by gameplay centered around shooting a grossly unrealistic number of enemies. The genre is full of blockbuster titles that glorify the American military and fetishize violence, such as the enormously popular yet critically despised Call of Duty franchise. The team at Yager was fully aware of the genre’s history when they began work on Spec Ops, and, in an uncommon decision for a genre generally filled with mindless action titles, decided to base their game on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic reimagining, Apocalypse Now.  Using these well-established stories as a foundation, the game begins its critique of Western conceptions of violence.  For this reason and many others, the game has been hailed as one of the most powerful examples in the medium of critique and exploration of difficult ideas and ethical issues.  The player explores these issues by taking control of Captain Martin Walker, and both watches and participates as he changes from a calm, composed Delta Force operative to beaten and broken man.  Along the way, Walker and the player commit atrocities based on unclear motives and a burning desire to discover more about the twisted world they finds themselves in.  Throughout Spec Ops, the player is forced to question their role in the horrific events that play out before them, as they serve as Walker’s puppet master, putting their puppet in place to enact horrible war crimes executed by the game.  Spec Ops ventures to counter two ideas,“violence is necessary” and “Killing is Harmless,” through a medium that seems to accept these ideas as fact, but, through the player’s role as “both audient and participatory,” is predisposed to countering them as well.

Plot Summary

Spec Ops takes place in a sandstorm-ravaged Dubai, occupied by a rogue U.S. Colonel, John Konrad (a reference to the Heart of Darkness author, Joseph Conrad) and his 33rd Battalion.  Inside the city, Konrad has established complete control, massacring the refugees he was supposed to be evacuating.  In response, the U.S. army sends in Captain Walker and his Delta Team squad-mates, Lieutenant Adams and Sergeant Lugo to gather intelligence and call for backup to apprehend Konrad.  Walker ignores this order, and, believing the U.S. troops to be the victims, fights through the surviving refugees to save members of the 33rd.  Once inside Dubai, however, Walker realizes what the 33rd has done, and must defend himself when the 33rd attack him as a perceived threat.  Walker spends the rest of the game battling the 33rd, but blaming them for forcing him to do so.  He continues to deny his responsibility even when he drops white phosphorous on a group of refugees, believing them to be U.S. soldiers. Soon after, Walker recovers a radio through which Konrad attacks and berates his actions, while clearly being responsible for the atrocities in Dubai.  The actions he commits, coupled with the eventual death of his teammates, lead Walker to have guilt-induced hallucinations, seeing the men and women he killed appear before him.  Welcome to HellAt game’s conclusion, Walker discovers that Konrad had killed himself long before Walker had arrived, and while he was responsible for the 33rd’s atrocities, the Konrad Walker heard over the radio was only a hallucination he created to deny his own guilt.  The player’s decisions can then result in a number of different endings, none of them desirable, and many resulting in Walker’s death.

The Role of Choice

Spec Ops focuses greatly on ideas of choice and agency with regards to violence, primarily through an exploration of the choices Walker makes throughout the game.  Violence, specifically war violence, is justified as a necessary or sole option in many complex, political situations, a justification that Spec Ops wishes to counter through its examination of Walker’s choices, many of which seem justified at the time.  To many players, Walker’s decisions may legitimately seem like his only viable option, however a thorough examination of any of his major choices clearly demonstrate many fundamental flaws in Walker’s thinking.  His insistence that he does not have a choice often leads him to boxing himself into situations where this quickly becomes a reality.  The game does not say that Walker always has a choice, but instead that, through his denial of agency and refusal to question his actions, ends up in situations where neither choice is desirable.  Intent is not enough in the world of Spec Ops, and, as the team at Yager would argue, in the real world as well.  The decisions we make as people and as a people will often create outcomes that we have no control over, especially when critiques of these moments are written off as unnecessary.

White Phospherous

While the overarching structure of the game critiques choice wonderfully, its most powerful critique comes from the now infamous White Phosphorous Sequence.  Delta’s only motivation for carrying out this attack was that they needed to figure out what was happening in the city, and that the soldiers were in the way.  As a result, they make the soldiers into targets, and murdering them no longer becomes immoral.  Throughout the sequence, Walker expresses opinions indicative of his outlook on the entire mission: that he is being forced along a path over which he has no control, and any objections to the contrary are simply ridiculous.  The bombing is eerily haunting, as, unlike most video game bombing sequences – and they are quite numerous – the player sees Walker’s face reflected in the computer screen they are dropping the bombs from.  In it, Walker does not look sad, angry, or disturbed by the actions he is undertaking, he seems calm, controlled, and tactical.  Walker’s disconnected demeanor is unsettling, because, in contrast to military-glorifying pieces of media, he isn’t killing soldiers from countries that we are conditioned to hate, he is killing American soldiers, men and women with husbands, wives and children.  The trend is continued in two more important moments after the bombing as well.  When Walker and his men are walking through the camp, seeing the soldiers they bombed die slowly and painfully, Lugo whispers, “This was too much…”, to which Walker sharply responds, “Stop talking.”  And finally, when Walker reaches the civilians whom they had unknowingly slaughtered, he does not react like Lugo and Adams, who are horrified that they have just murdered innocent, unarmed civilians.  He remains in total denial, and even after looking into the charred faces of a mother and child that he had just killed, his first words are, “We need to keep moving.”

In his book, Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec OpsThe Line, Brendan Keogh posits that Walker never would have been in this situation it the first place if it were not for his unquestioning approach to complex problems, and his burning drive to continue, no matter the costs.  Keogh connects this to his last name, Walker, which he believes is an intentional choice by Yager to further the view of Walker as “The One Who Walks”, in that all he does is keep walking, not questioning the path he is on.  His only goal is to continue the mission.  When his methods are questioned, he shifts the blame, first to the US Soldiers and Arab refugees who technically opened fire on him first, and when that falsity is shattered, to his hallucination of Konrad, all to avoid having to ask difficult questions.  At first, Walker idealized Konrad, saying that he could not possibly have been involved with the atrocities in Dubai even when all signs point to his involvement.  But, when his imagined reality became too much to bare, he would rather tear down Konrad, a man he greatly respected for saving his life years before, than face any possibility of wrongdoing himself.  Keogh explores this idea further, looking at how Walker consistently claims to have his hand forced while he unquestioningly continues further into Dubai.  Spec Ops-24The 33rd and Delta have both entered Dubai with the best of intentions, to help save a dying city, but both ended up resorting to violence because they stopped questioning the morality of their actions as soon as they entered Dubai, seeing themselves as the American heroes of their own action story.  In one of Walker’s PTSD-induced hallucinations, an imaginary Konrad asks him, “There were over 5,000 people alive in Dubai the day before you arrived.  How many are alive today, I wonder?  How many will be alive tomorrow?”  This is likely an allusion to the modern US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which Walker and Konrad were fictitiously a part of, as the many misplaced good intentions and accidental murder of civilians are fresh in the minds of American playing the game.  Spec Ops suggests that anyone who enters a situation with violence as a possible and present option cannot possibly resolve it, as, under pressure, they will cave in and resort to that easier method.  Walker carries a gun with him for the entirety of the game, and it rarely leaves his hand, so violence becomes his default solution to any given situation.  Without questioning the default inclination towards violence, the game asserts that Walker, the 33rd, or anyone else, will never be able to solve the complex problems in Dubai.

The Role of Consequence

Spec Ops also looks at another aspect of violence: the commonly-held conception of violence as largely inconsequential, with effects both on the killer and the killed being negligible.  Many pieces of media that fetishize the American military, ranging from modern action films to military shooter games promote the idea of consequence-free violence, where the soldiers are wise-cracking action heroes who get to go home to their normal families, unscathed, once the world has been saved.  Spec Ops, at first, seems to be promoting this, with Lugo cracking jokes and “trying to keep it light”, in one of the double lines intended both for the game and the player, which taps into the idea that games must engage only through fun.  Through Lugo’s attempts to “keep it light”, the situation is trivialized, and as it worsens, Lugo amps up the humor, increasing the desensitization, as though he is trying to prove to himself that violence does not affect him.  His eventual death at the hands of a mob of civilians represents a fundamental shift in the game’s tone, not just in the loss of any remaining humor, but also the beginning of the discussion of PTSD, the most present consequence of violence on the killer.  During one of Walker’s hallucinations, Konrad asks if Lugo was the lucky one for having died, as he would have returned with severe mental scarring and PTSD.  Through this exploration, Spec Ops gets at the heart of an issue facing the modern military, with many soldiers coming home with PTSD, but being uncomfortable talking about it because many in the military view it as a sign of weakness.  Soldiers are supposed to be “hardened killing machines”, as Lugo describes himself in the game’s opening, immune to the horrors of violence, much in the same way video game characters murder thousands and yet still make jokes throughout.  For example, the hero of the Uncharted series, Nathan Drake, routinely kills over a thousand enemies per game, yet is still a lovable, wisecracking protagonist.  Yager used this to their advantage when they hired Nolan North, the voice actor for Nathan Drake, to voice Captain Walker, showing through their game that Nathan Drake would go insane if he killed the amount of people he did.  The game tears both of these ideas apart in a single quote from the real Konrad, when Walker recalls Konrad’s response to his idle fantasy of returning home, one evening around a campfire in Kabul.  “Home?”  He says, “We can’t go home, Captain. There’s a line men like us have to cross. If we’re lucky, we do what’s necessary, and then we die. No, I don’t want to go home, Captain.  All I really want…is peace.”  This is the only reference to the titular Line in the game, and the fact that this alludes to the title point out just how much the game emphasizes the simple fact that those who commit violence to not get to go home unscathed.

Walker Degredation

Spec Ops is full of details, both in the narrative and in the gameplay, that emphasize this idea of violent acts transforming a person and eviscerating their sanity.  Captain Walker’s character model is slowly worn down, gaining new scars and bruises, and by the end of the game, is dualistic, with half of his body burned and broken, and the other half normal, giving him a two-faced quality.  Another example is the default actions Walker makes at the player’s command.  Try to reload your weapon early in the game, and Walker will calmly shout to his teammates, “Cover me, I’m reloading!”  After the white phosphorous sequence, they degrade to a guttural shout, “I’m fuckin’ reloading!”  In the final levels of the game, the player is lucky to get anything other than a feral growl or shouted obscenity.  Also, the game’s execution takedowns get progressively more and more brutal.  Most games, even ones that deal heavily with violence, will have enemies drop to the ground, dead, when the player defeats them in combat.  However, in Spec Ops, many enemies will remain alive after they are shot, not reaching for weapons or doing anything to pose a threat to Walker, but crying out in pain or gargling on their own blood. The game’s brutal presentation of death, in sharp contrast to the clean, sanitized violence we so often see in action movies and video games, will lead many players to perform an execution finishing move simply to stop the sounds.  Early in the game, Walker will do a clean, but still brutal takedown through a bullet to the head or punch to the face.  Near the end, the takedowns become increasingly vicious, and the player might find themselves avoiding them all together.  A final, must more subtle gameplay reflection of these themes is the level design.  Spec Ops’ Dubai is more of a psychological landscape than a physical one, in that every single level puts the player somewhere high and tells them to descend.  Looking at the landscape, this constant decent does not make sense, as the player should have reached the ground after the first few levels.  However, this sets up a background metaphor for the game’s “descent into hell” theme that is executed entirely through gameplay.  Spec Ops-27Just as the player believes they have reached the bottom, they realize that they are, in actuality, very far from the bottom, and still have much further to fall.  Using these methods, the game can convey the idea of decent, both physical and moral, to the player without them consciously realizing it, making them more susceptible to these ideas later in the game.

However the game does not just explore the impact of violence on the killer, it also spends much of its time exploring the real impact of violence on those who the player is attacking.  First, the player fights generic Arabic insurgents, wearing Keffiyehs to cover their faces, which an American player may have have already designated a clear “other”, and can reduce to a target.  However, when the player begins to fight American soldiers, there is a long period where the player is genuinely uncomfortable with their actions, knowing that they are killing men with families.  During one level of the game, a member of the 33rd gets on the radio, and begins telling stories to Walker about all of the men he is killing, making them not just be a collection of digital polygons and pixels, but real human beings.  The game sets its enemies up to constantly walk the line between target and person, showing them as people through the events of the game, then making the player numb to killing them by the sheer number of them they have to kill.  In a particular sequence in the game, the player is moving stealthily through a mission, and comes upon a soldier from the 33rd offering his last piece of gum to another soldier, then help him lift his spirits among all the despair of Dubai, and reminding him that there is still hope.  The player has no choice but to kill these two men in order to proceed.  This moment is utterly sickening, and is meant to convey the player’s actions not just as morally gray, but explicitly immoral, as they are killing good men with emotions, hopes and aspirations.  The game wants the player to become repulsed with idea of any violence at all, and dread pressing their controller’s right trigger to fire their gun.  Spec Ops wants to examine the human consequences of a genre that has been dehumanized, much in the same way Shakespeare’s Hamlet approached revenge tragedies, or the later Western films began to look introspectively at the human costs of the glorified shootouts.  Through humanizing the enemies, the game makes the player fully aware of the fact that they are committing digital murder, and wants them to be sickened by their own actions.

The Role of the Game

“The US army does not condone killing unarmed civilians. But this isn’t real, so why should you care?” –Spec Ops – The Line

With just the themes discussed above, Spec Ops could easily have been a modern film reimagining of Apocalypse Now, but what makes Spec Ops unique in this regard is that it uses video games as a lens for its cultural critique, specifically the player’s role in this interactive atrocity.  In their video series on Spec Ops, game developers and journalists James Portnow and Daniel Floyd explain how many games treat themselves as movies, having the experience be contained on the screen, with the player’s role being to push the buttons and move the story along.  However, Spec Ops views games the way Portnow and Floyd believe they should be, as an interaction between the player and the screen.  Spec Ops recognizes the player’s existence, even directly at times, with numerous quotes that are spoken to Walker, but also have a meaning to the player.  The game continues this by carrying its themes for Walker, the illusion of choice, unquestioning continuation, and the moral absolutist view of the US military, into game elements that the player experiences both through their presence in the narrative and through repeated low-level gameplay interactions.  It uses the gameplay and the narrative together to create a picture that it not only haunting because of what the player sees Walker do, but because of the real implications it has on the player’s and the culture’s worldview.  The agency of the player in the game’s narrative allows the developers to make the player complicit in the sins of its protagonist, giving the game’s critiques even more weight than a non-interactive piece of media.  In a sense, it becomes more than just a game, as is alluded when Walker yells out to Konrad, “I’m done playing games, John!” to which Konrad’s disembodied voice replies, “I assure you, this is no game.”

Spec Ops-40Another aspect of violence Spec Ops explores is conditioning to dehumanize and hate the enemies of our country, and how this is done to an even greater degree through certain tropes in the military shooter genre.  Military shooters are often organized into two teams, creating a binary system that does not lend itself to exploring complex political ideas.  This is especially problematic because of the game concept of winstates. A winstate is a point where a game ends with a positive victory condition, meaning that the player has accomplished the intended goals.  For example, checkmate is the winstate of chess, and getting three in a row is the winstate of tic-tac-toe. On their own, winstates are presented to the players as objective goods, and any action that pushes the player towards the winstate, such as taking pieces in chess, is an objective good as well. However, when those chess pieces become, say, middle-eastern soldiers, without a narrative recontextualization of the killing, the shift creates a binary morality which is toxic to understanding modern politics.  Killing middle-eastern soldiers becomes an objectively good action in the context of the game because it lets the player reach the winstate.  Errant Signal’s Chris Franklin believes that this trend is extremely problematic, as it “propagandizes the glory of our own military actions while villainizing those of others.”, which argues against a more complete understanding of international politics.  Spec Ops knows that the player has been conditioned by these games to think of the world as Americans-vs-Arabs, and exploits this to make the eventual reveal and reversal all the more powerful and at times sickening. The game does this through shifting the player’s allegiances, and thus, the winstate, constantly.  First, the objective is to kill the refugees, whom the player was sent to save.  Then, the player’s enemy shifts to U.S. soldiers, making their murder an objective good, by which point the player is attempting to kill every person in the city, except for Konrad, who, ironically, is already dead.  At the game’s conclusion, Walker is the only living person in the city, which, according to the game’s winstates, means that the player won the game.  They destroyed all of their enemies.

Spec Ops’ position as a game also lends it to exploring Walker’s insistence that he had no choice from the player’s perspective.  The player may argue that they had no choice in instructing Walker to do the things he did, that the game developer forced them through the experience the same way Walker was forced through by his orders.  The difference, however, is that the player, ludically speaking, does not have a choice.  When the game begins, the player cannot choose to follow Walker’s orders and command him to leave the city, report back to command, then return home and relax, alive and unscathed.  Spec Ops-05The game does not recognize this as a valid choice, or a valid winstate; the only winstate it recognizes is the one where Walker continues through the preconstructed narrative.  No matter how many times you replay the game, Walker will always kill those people, Lugo and Adams will always die, and Dubai will always be left worse off than when the game began.  This is because the game designer sets the boundaries of the experience.  Even in the moments of player choice, the designer has determined all possible outcomes they want to recognize, the player’s choice within the experience of the game is which predetermined outcome they want to experience.

Spec Ops’ lead writer Walt Williams says that this limitation of game design is intentionally played up in the game to emphasize to the player that “This is not a world you are in control of.”  Williams believes that that the player should not be able to charge blindly into a difficult situation and then have complete control over the results.  In complex situations, Williams says, we often have to make complex decisions with limited information, not understanding the full implications of our actions.  To create a game that says otherwise would be unreflective of reality, and leave the player in this godlike position of omniscience omnipotence.  However, Spec Ops is not promoting the idea that war crimes are sometimes the only option, it instead shows that, if a person puts themselves in a position without thinking or questioning, they will often end up in situations in which there is no morally good or desirable outcome, highlighted by the fact that there is no traditional “good” ending in Spec Ops.  The game wants the player to realize that their actions will have lasting impacts beyond their original results, ones that the player must be constantly considering in order to achieve their desired results.  Spec Ops-08However, the game does provide the player with one choice that they are making every moment they are playing.  Konrad tells Walker, “None of this would have happened if you had just stopped. But on you marched.”  This is another double line, intended both for Walker and the player.  The player has one choice that the developer does not control, one that no one else can mediate or impact, and that is the choice to keep playing.  Just as Walker could have left Dubai and followed his orders, the player could, at any time, turn off their PC, and walked away.  By choosing to continue in this experience, the player becomes responsible for every decision they make, directly or indirectly, whether they recognize the consequences or not.


Spec Ops spends a great deal of narrative and ludic effort deconstructing a style of experience violence-centric media without questioning it.  It looks very critically at any approach to sanitized violence in a vacuum, but it doesn’t leave the player without a possible answer to why people still indulge in this fantasy.  James Portnow, in his team’s series of Spec Ops, said that nearly every studio he has worked with wants to build the player up as a hero, and thus every element in the game is designed to emphasize that core theme.  However, Spec Ops does the exact opposite, putting the player in a hero’s shoes and lets them watch as everything they do goes wrong.  They very directly recognize the idea of the hero, both from the player and in the American military.  In the game’s final sequence, Konrad says to Walker, “The truth is that you’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not: A hero.”  Both Walker and the player entered into Spec Ops expecting to be the hero, and both were grossly disappointed.  Both believed that their actions, no matter how ill-thought out, would have a positive impact, and they could save the day, go home and have a parade in their honor.  This desire for heroism ran so deep that Walker and the player clung to it even when their experience was telling them just the opposite.  As Konrad said, “It takes a strong man to deny what’s right in front of him. And if the truth is undeniable, you create your own.”  Spec Ops is not a game centered around building anything up, it is based around tearing down perceptions of violence that it sees permeating culture and replacing it with a disturbing, horrific and real understanding of what violence is.  It does not fetishize or glorify violence, like many in its genre do, but presents a harrowing take on what happens when a culture ignores the consequences of violence to such a degree that reality takes a back seat.


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Keogh, Brendan. Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line. Australia: Stolen Projects, 2013. Print.
Floyd, Daniel. “Extra Credits – Spec Ops – The Line Part 1″ Online video clip.
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