“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.
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. At 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.
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 Ops – The 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. The 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.
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. Just 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.”
Another 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. The 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. However, 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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