Tag Archives: video games

Slow Down The Violence

The other day, I was on Wikipedia reading some details about Alien: Isolation, a survival horror game in development by Creative Assembly.  This game comes after the colossal failure of Aliens: Colonial Marines, which will no doubt lower people’s expectations.  However, as I was reading through the description, I noticed a line in the overview: “…an Alien has already infested the station.”  Something about this line got me incredibly excited for the game, and I want to dig into why the possibility of a single enemy is so interesting for me.

In most games, the player kill hundreds, even thousands of people.  I have sunk an embarrassing 53 hours into Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall in the month since its launch, and in that time I have killed no less than 930 players.  Think about that.  How many people in human history have personally killed over 930 people?  How many have even come close?  I’m not going to say something stupid like
Titanfall_Gameplay_Thumbnail1virtual violence causes real violence, but the sheer amount of violence significantly damages the pacing of these games and devalues their narriatives.  Factoring in kills of computer-controlled enemies, and my atrocious 0.8 kill-death ratio, I found out that I have one encounter in Titanfall every thirty seconds.  These engagements are so simple and so quick that each individual duel is essentially meaningless, an instant test of twitch reflexes, positioning and impromptu strategies.  While I enjoy Titanfall, mostly because of the giant mechs and jetpacks, I think there is another way.

In the now-iconic Always Black essay, “Bow, Nigger”, the author describes a battle in Jedi Outcast which explores ideas of honor and good and evil in competitive games, but also touches on a style of combat we don’t often see.  Jedi Outcast‘s combat lends itself to the kind of epic duels we all see and love in the Star Wars movies, where two titans of skill and prowess go at it for a not-insignificant period of time.  You would never see a Titanfall-esque showdown between two opposing characters in a movie; it would be over in a matter of seconds.  Movies have a tense build, bursts of action, and a masterfully executed climax, but with games, it is over all too quickly.  Jedi Academy combat feels more movie-style than game-style, with highly developed low-level mechanics determining lightsaber swings, stance and position, and block timing.  In movie combat, the majority of attacks miss or are blocked, and it takes only two or three hits to kill a person.  Jedi Academy works in much the same way, with most attacks resulting in blocks, and only a few hits can bring an enemy down.  This, I believe, is a much more powerful approach to combat, emphasizing the skill of two opponents.  How many times have we fought giant bosses that are soak up ungodly amounts of damage?  How much more satisfying would it be to land a single, skillful hit or two to take down a ridiculously complicated boss?  What I’m saying is this: slow down the violence.  Emphasize the complexity and nuance of a single encounter and drastically reduce the number of encounters, so that each fight feels meaningful instead of routine and boring.  Games, because of their length, make the exhilaration of fighting multiple enemies disappear.  Killing ten enemies in a single encounter isn’t empowering, its expected.

I remember a mission in Mass Effect which began with a slow, well-paced murder investigation, but quickly transition into with me fighting weak, computer-controlled enemies for an hour and then finally fighting a boss.  Right before that boss fight, a cutscene played where my character chased the boss, tackled her out a window, then drew his pistol, dodged a magic attack, and took at least a dozen shots at his now-fleeing enemy.  Soon after, I took control and just kinda shot her for a while until she died.  This juxtaposition of the awesome and the mundane made me consider how the game could have been improved if the previous hour of fighting was removed, the investigation expanded, and the conclusion turned into a mechanically complex boss fight.  Instead of having a lot of passable combat, the game could benefit from a small amount of complex and engaging combat.  Violence can raise the stakes as high as they can go, can make the story literally a matter of life and death, but if overdone, it can have the opposite effect, making the artifice of the game world clearly apparent, and the meaning of the struggle evaporate.  What I am asking for is focus, for an emphasis on mechanics that are engaging in and of themselves, not because of their context.

One game that exemplifies this kind of strong mechanics set, despite its flaws, is From Software’s Dark Souls.  My most engaging battle in Dark Souls happened between me and a black knight, one of the toughest, non-boss monsters in the game.  I had just cleared out a courtyard full of skeletons and climbed to the top of a tower, when suddenly this knight appeared.  I ran for my life down the tower and back into the courtyard, with the knight close at my heels.  When I reached the center, I spun around, and he stopped in his tracks.  Hesitantly, I drew my shield, and the two of us began to circle one another, searching for an opening.  The knight lunged, I dodged to the side, I struck, he blocked the blow.  My character was slightly overburdened with all the loot I was carrying, so my movements were slower and more sluggish than they should have been, and I felt it.  I had fought two knights before, and I knew that, in all likelihood, I was going to die, and lose all the souls I had spent the past hour collecting.  The fear of death isn’t something I often experience in games, despite being in life-or-death situations so often, but Dark Souls had put it back into me.  The duel continued through the slow, tense trading of blows, blocks and parries.  Both of us were weak, but I was out of my healing Estus Flasks.  But then, the knight charged, and somehow, I managed to roll to the side not only in time to dodge the blow, but to position myself perfectly behind him.  Fueled by adrenaline, I slammed the right trigger on my controller with all my might, and plunged my katana into the knights back, achieving a rarely executed but brutally effective backstab.  The knight dropped to the ground, and as his souls poured into my character’s body, I jumped out of my chair and shouted in excitement.  I felt the weight of that victory, more than the dozens of trash mobs I had killed to reach the Mass Effect boss fight, or the thousands of faceless enemies I killed in Titanfall.  That was my victory.  That was true empowerment through combat.  This is what happened in a battle without any narrative context.  Imagine what that victory could have meant with a powerful story behind it.

[Edit 8/7/2016: I was an idiot, Dark Souls is now tied for my favorite game of all time, backstabs are easy as hell and pretty much break combat, and the game has an amazing story.  I was just dumb.]

This is why I am so excited for Alien: Isolation, because it focuses on a single, drawn out battle between the protagonist and one xenomorph alien.  Instead of padding the game out with hundreds of aliens until the carnage becomes meaningless, as Colonial Marines did, Isolation will focus on an extended encounter between the player and an enemy so terrifying and powerful that the player can barely fight back.  That is a kind of focus we do not see often Aliens Isolationenough, a kind of focus that makes games great.  When violence is extended and overused, it becomes filler, something to make the game long enough to justify the $60 price tag.  But violence doesn’t have to be that way.  Games like Dark Souls try to create combat systems that focus on deep, robust mechanics can successfully create longer-lasting, less frequent combat scenarios.  Alien: Isolation’s similar emphasis, especially in a horror setting, gives me great hope that not only will one of my favorite sci-fi movies will finally get the game it deserves, but that the medium can create games that use violence without losing themselves in the carnage.

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. <http://ontologicalgeek.com/clementine-will-remember-all-of-that/>.

Dinicola, Nick. “I Am Clementine.” PopMatters. N.p., 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <http://www.popmatters.com/post/178309-i-am-clementine/>.

Portnow, James. “Extra Credits: “For Whom the Bell Tolls”.” YouTube. N.p., 25 Apr. 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emeCepFW9v0>.

Portnow, James. “Extra Credits: Raising the Dead.” YouTube. N.p., 19 Apr. 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qizgjT4UXa4>.

Portnow, James. “Extra Credits: Minority.” YouTube. N.p., 2 May 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suf0Jdt2Hpo>.

The Changing Game – A Feminist Exploration of the Transformative Potential of Gaming

Spoiler Content: Spoiler Free!
Warning: I wrote this for a class I’m taking, and it assumes the reader knows literally nothing about gaming, so some of the stuff might seem a bit…obvious…at times.

Video games have an issue with women. As an ardent defender of the medium, I have to acknowledge and face this fact every day. From the pixelated rape sequences in the Atari 2600′s Custer’s Revenge, to the ridiculously disproportionate character models in Tomb Raider, to the Grand Theft Auto “Hot Coffee” interactive sex mod, gaming has had a tenuous to outright juvenile relationship with gender and sexuality. Until the last console generation, beginning in 2004, there were hardly any good female characters in gaming. Well-written female protagonists in games are even rarer. If there is a medium that most represents the Standpoint Feminist critique of “the neglect of women’s perspective and experience,” this is it (Lorber 173). The gaming industry appears to be created by and for men. Why, then, do I think that video games could be one of the greatest tools for the feminist movement since the birth of the modern novel? What can the movement possibly gain from a medium where the “woman is the other” (Simone de Beauvoir, qtd. Tong 191)? The answer, I believe, lies in the very nature of games themselves, and the gaming industry is beginning to realize this. Unlike other mediums, games directly craft experiences, ones where the player inhabits the world the developer is creating for them. In his iconic essay on New Games Journalism, British author Kieron Gillen famously stated that, “The worth of gaming lies in the gamer, not the game,” emphasizing the centrality of player experience over authorial intent. Through the use of games as an experience instead of a piece of consumable media, I believe that feminist game developers and writers can foster a view of gaming as a way to explore alternate sexual and gender identities, encouraging a larger acceptance of diversity through a consistent and focused experience of the other.


At the beginning of almost every role-playing game, a player is presented with a Character Creation Screen. In this screen, the player can change an exorbitant amount of variables about a character. The basics are sex, skin color, weight, personal back story, profession, etc., but the player can – and indeed, many do – spend hours tweaking variables from exact hair shade to hand size to nose width. During this time, the player creates a character that they feel personally attached to, one that they identify with, and one that they have constructed from the ground up. In short, “for every fan, there is a different [character]” (Munkittrick). For example, many entered the sci-fi role-playing-game Mass Effect as a straight, white, male Commander Shepard, while I entered as a straight white woman, and still others entered as a lesbian black woman. From there, the player begins a process similar to the kind of “self-naturalization” that feminist writer Judith Butler describes (Butler 33). They slowly accumulate experience that reinforces their role as their character, instead of themselves. As they have conversations, fight battles, and form relationships as their character, they generate a form of “repeated stylization of the body” that Butler defines gender as (Butler 33). This process of relearning one’s identity creates a fluidity of roles that is uncommon in the rest of our lives, similar to certain kinds of method acting. Role playing, unlike books and movies, does not encourage the player just to empathize with the character, but to actually be the character and make real-time decisions as the character would. An experienced role player is able to easily dive into a role, and transform themselves into an amalgamation of themselves and their character to interact with the game world as such. My Commander Shepard is a different person from my roommate’s Commander Shepard, as she makes decisions based on the part of her personality that I created and define, continually blurring the line between self and other.

The way the player sees the world, through this newly constructed role, results in a similar “mutual transformation” to that which Shannon Sullivan describes in her book on Standpoint Feminism (Sullivan 228). If a male player is playing as a woman, they are forced to work within their role and “ask questions from women’s point of view, ” subtly changing the experience (Lorber 173). In addition, because of the player’s role as the primary agent of the story, their taking action reinforces the idea of women as subjects, as actors, instead of objects to be acted upon. One great example of this trend is in the recent game Assassin’s Creed Liberation, where the player plays as a creole woman, named Aveline in 18th century Louisiana. Aveline’s default clothing is the armor of an assassin, which is relatively gender neutral, and allows her to go unnoticed by the general public but not by guards. However, the player can switch to the expensive dress of a lady, which will result in guards leaving her alone, giving her the ability to 20924ACL_SC_SP_18_SD_Persona_Aristocrat-610x345sneak into otherwise inaccessible places, but will cause men in the street to harass her, and even shove her around. The player is injected directly into this world, not as a swashbuckling action hero but as a hero who is also expected to be a woman following traditional gender roles. Through changing the seemingly mundane game mechanic of level traversal, the game “reframes questions and priorities to include some band other marginalized people” (Lorber 173). Aveline is under constant social pressure to conform, and, because of her gender, her outward appearance almost completely defines what other people think of her, instead of her identity as a human being. The game allows the player to explore this through its mechanics, through having to be Aveline and experience a similar kind of restriction and pressure that someone in her position would have felt.

This kind of exploration inevitably leads to a breaking down of concrete, binary approaches to gender and sexuality. By allowing a white, male player to experience the hardships of a biracial black woman, it “demonstrates the fluidity of gender and sexual boundaries,” and encourages a more diverse worldview (Lorber 267). If a player can become someone completely different and share in their experience with increasingly miniscule levels of difficulty, then, it would follow, people in the real world could do this as well. It “…adds needed fuel to the feminist fires of plurality, multiplicity, and difference, replacing binary thinking with a deeper, more complex understanding of race, gender, and sexuality” (Tong 191). Through this, players can begin to see parts of their world as gendered that they might not have otherwise seen. Perhaps the Chell-Between-a-portal-chell-27945457-830-623greatest example of this is the puzzle game Portal, released in 2007 by Valve Corporation to adoring critics and fans, featuring a now iconic female protagonist, Chell. The game is a First Person Shooter, by technicality. As a genre usually filled with military-fetishizing, jingoistic, rah-rah-masculine gunfests, FPSs are rarely marked by the subtle quietude that permeates many of Portal’s levels. While Portal technically falls into this category, since it is in the first person perspective and the player does shoot a gun, it also undermines it completely as “the gun’s masculine symbolism is subverted by the fact that it shoots portals rather than bullets” (McNeilly). The portal, and the game itself, is about solving problems, not killing enemies and exerting power. The game, through subtly, often overlooked cues, tries to tear down the very genre it is technically a part of, and it does so brilliantly. When the perspective of what is now the gaming other is introduced, such deconstructions become inevitable.

Despite the bleakness of the current gaming market, developers have begun to inject bits of feminist thought into their games, and thus allow their players to explore and accept these alternate sexual and gender identities simply by being them. While it is very easy to be pessimistic about the future of the medium, huge strides have been made. Anita Sarkeesian, a powerful advocate for feminism in the gaming sphere, won this year’s Game Developer Convention’s Ambassador Award, chosen from a list filled with Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 8.58.07 PMinfluential women. Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider, long hailed as the pinnacle of sexism in the medium, recently rebooted the character as a reasonably proportioned, well-written character, selling over six million copies. Gone Home, a game from a rookie developer which told a both chilling and heartwarming coming of age story about a teenage, lesbian girl, received universal critical acclaim, earning many game of the year awards. The industry is changing, and feminist voices are no longer absent from the medium. I believe this medium has an enormous potential, one that could change the perspectives of the millions who participate in it. The medium is in its adolescence, and there are certainly a great deal of growing pains, but through the constant injection of feminist voices, I believe it can continue to change, and, hopefully, join the ranks of feminism as a force for good.

Works Cited

Rosemarie Putnam Tong, Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction, Fourth Edition (Boulder: Westview Press, 2008), ISBN 9780813348414.

Judith Lorber, Gender Inequality: Feminist Theory and Politics, Fifth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). ISBN 9780199859085

McNeilly, Joe. “Portal is the most subversive game ever.” Games Radar. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <http://www.gamesradar.com/portal-is-the-most-subversive-game-ever/>.

Sullivan, Shannon, “The Need for Truth: Toward a Pragmatist-Feminist Standpoint Theory.” Feminist interpretations of John Dewey. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002. Print.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Gillen, Kieron. “Kieron Gillen’s Workblog » The New Games Journalism.” Kieron Gillen’s Workblog » The New Games Journalism. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <http://gillen.cream.org/wordpress_html/assorted-essays/the-new-games-journalism/>.

Munkittrick, Kyle. “Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation.” io9. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <http://io9.com/5886178/why-mass-effect-is-the-most-important-science-fiction-universe-of-our-generation>.

Janiuk, Jessica. “Gaming is my safe space: Gender options are important for the transgender community | Polygon.”Polygon. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <http://www.polygon.com/2014/3/5/5462578/gaming-is-my-safe-space-gender-options-are-important-for-the>.

Franklin, Chris. “Assassin’s Creed and Emotionally Resonant Mechanics.” YouTube. YouTube, 30 Mar. 2014. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bsxQZ5JDec>.

How Should I Play?

Spoiler Content

-Telletale’s The Walking Dead Season 1, Episode 4, one major spoiler
Spec Ops – The Line, one major spoilers

Everyone who has been through high school or college has had a teacher tell them how to read.  “Look for this symbol!”  “Underline anything important!”  “Take notes!”  “Reread it multiple times!”  As someone who’s ADD (and, okay, occasional lack of effort) made passing detail-oriented reading quizzes difficult, I was instructed to try every one of these methods, none of which worked.  All of these instructions instilled in me a strong belief that reading wasn’t a passive experience, but a skill, an art in and of itself.  The book didn’t react to my actions, but content and the way I consumed it did. How I approached the medium very directly affected my experience, helping me get the most of out of my reading.

It was with this mindset that I recently started approaching a new question, “How Should I Play?”  I don’t approach playing a game the same way I read great books; the way I play games is an aspect of my experience that largely goes uncriticized.  If I sit down and think about revising my play style, it is usually from a purely mechanical standpoint; how can I increase my damage output, how can I avoid dying so much, how can I make this jump; these were the questions I was asking.  You know what kind of questions I have almost never asked?  How would Booker DeWitt fight in this shootout?  What kinds of weapons and vigors would he use?  Would he take cover?  Would he use the brutal melee takedowns that bothered me so much?  How would Joel react to Ellie in survival situations? Would he go off on his own and leave Ellie to fend for herself while he took down dozens of enemies, or stay by her side to protect her?  Would this change as the game progressed?

Two events recently got me to really think about this question.  MrBtongue, a YouTube creator who’s content I have increasingly grown to like, once talked about how, when he played Half-Life 2, he would close all the doors behind him in the game’s iconic opening sequence, Point Insertion, because he didn’t want the Combine to know that he was there.  It didn’t make any difference mechanically, but it did affect his experience.  The second happened the other night, I was playing through Telletale’s The Wolf Among Us, and a friend commented that I never picked the silence option, despite it being 25% of the game’s choices.  I simply hadn’t considered it.

Both of these events made me think that there was an entirely different way of playing through some of my favorite games.  They also showed me that there was a method of thinking that would allow me to get more out of these games, and that came from considering my actions in the context of the world and the characters, not just my personal morality.

In games, there is a brilliant conflict between player and player character.  I both am and am not Martin Walker.  I both did and did not drop white phosphorous on unarmed refugees.  I both am and am not Joel.  I both did and did not kill all three doctors in the game’s final level.

But I also am and am not Commander Shepard.  I both did and did not become great friends with Garrus Vakarian.  And I also am and am not Lee Everett.  I both did and did not save Ben’s life even when he wanted me to let him die.

Games have an enormous potential to help us better explore the depths of human experience, both the good and the bad, but they can’t do that if I’m not playing critically.  There is no way I could have understood the brilliant ideas in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 if my teacher hadn’t helped me build a respect for the depth and nuance of the book’s metaphors, or if I hadn’t created my own techniques and to discover how every single facet of the book was connected and meaningful.  Books have that nuance.  You can be a great reader.  Films have that nuance, as anyone who has explored Citizen Kane or even Blade Runner will tell you.  You can be a great film viewer.  But when people say that someone is good at a game, they mean they have mastered the game’s systems, not that they can really dig into the meaning.  We don’t have a term or way of talking about someone who approaches a game as a world of art that was carefully crafted by brilliant developers with the same degree of depth and nuance as a film or book.  Yet I have seen gamers, be they on YouTube or in my own life, who make me say, “I want to play more like that.”  They seem to get more out of their experience, to have a greater understanding and mastery, yes, of the game’s mechanics, but also the game’s ideas.

The internet is filled with articles telling you how to master the systems of a game, but you will rarely see an article that tells you how to play to get the most out of a game.  We have the beginnings of this approach to playing, bits and pieces of it, in the way people say, “Don’t rush through Skyrim” or even “Don’t spoil Bioshock Infinite.”  Neither of these impact your interaction with the game mechanically, I would still be able to beat Skyrim or Infinite just fine if I didn’t explore or knew major spoilers, but the fact that we can have that conversation shows that we do understand that there is a better way of playing a game outside of min-maxing stats or switching armor sets.  Skyrim just isn’t the same game if you just charge right through the main quest, and Bioshock Infinite just isn’t as fun if you already know the ending.  We aren’t talking about how to beat the game, we’re talking about how the game is meant to be played, or how it could be played better.  People clearly understand that there are certain approaches to gaming that can better their experience, we just don’t have a language or foundation with which to discuss it.

So, let’s start asking this question: how should I play?

The Walking Dead and Disempowerment – Short Piece

Spoiler Content: Some mild situational spoilers, from Season 2, Episode 2 of Telletale’s The Walking Dead.  Not enough to ruin the game, but you might want to avoid this if you’re picky about spoilders.

Video games, for the most part, tend to be about empowerment. The player takes on the role of a grizzled space marine, a powerful warrior, or a skilled football player. Almost from the get-go, gaming has been about creating a world where a powerful, usually male, usually white, usually straight character goes not from weakness to strength, but from strength to even greater strength. Telletale Games’ The Walking Dead, based on the popular comics and TV show, challenges that. The game is divided into “seasons”, collections five “episodes”, or two-hour game segments that are released bi-monthly. In the first season, the player rook on the role of a black man in the American south just after the zombie apocalypse, and explores themes of race without explicitly addressing them. The plot followed this man, Lee, as he escorts his adopted daughter-figure, Clementine, throughly the quickly-crumbling world and various groups of people. In stark contrast to the usual themes of zombie fiction, which tend to emphasize raw, brutal empowerment, The Walking Dead created a sense of desperation, of a need for survival, not hours of zombie killing.

However, in the second game, the player takes on the role of Clementine, and I entered this brutal world of death, betrayal, starvation and suffering, as an 11-year-old black girl. What surprised me was how long it took me to get used to this role reversal. When fierce arguments would emerge between members of my group, or a few rogue zombies would attack my friends, my default response was to take command and solve the problem. But, as a little girl, I couldn’t do that. Often times I could only stand by and watch as friends died or bitter tensions emerged. I had to unlearn everything I knew not about combat mechanics or how to shoot a gun, but of my place in the world, and my control over it. Like the first season’s approach to race, this season’s approach to power is also heavily understated but very present. There was a sequence in the second episode where my friends had been captured by another group of survivors, which highlighted this shift most powerfully. Had this taken place at the beginning of the game, my default inclination would have been to jump out and slaughter my enemies with machine gun fire, or tactically use stealth techniques to take them down one by one. But, I wasn’t some gun-toting badass, I was a little girl. I was so legitimately frightened, disempowered and shocked that the only thing I thought to do was run outside and to find the two, mid-30s white men in the group. Completely contrary to everything video games had taught me over the years, this game conditioned me not to indulge in empowerment fantasies, but ask for help from those who would traditionally be the heroes of this story.

Throughout the game, I still found myself injecting my perspective into the situation. “If you would just let me take control and handle the problem, everything would be fine!” was something I shouted at the screen numerous times. My perspective as a middle-class, straight, white, American man is to take control and fix the problem. But my perspective as Clementine taught me that that isn’t the way everyone approaches the world, it is, in fact, just a perspective, one rooted in privilege and circumstance, and not in the reality of the world. In The Walking Dead, I found that the characters who did the most damage to the group were the ones who DID try to take control and solve the problem, and those who helped the group were the ones who surrendered it. Through the game’s injection of the player into a small, disempowered, little girl, I learned a lot about what my position in life has done to my worldview, and how embracing these qualities can lead to dangerous consequences.

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.


Klepek, Patrick. “This Is All Your Fault.” – Giant Bomb. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2013. <http://www.giantbomb.com/articles/this-is-all-your-fault/1100-4291/>.
“A Sea of Endless Bullets: Spec Ops, No Russian and Interactive Atrocity” Magical Wasteland. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2013. <http://www.magicalwasteland.com/mw/2012/8/2/a-sea-of-endless-bullets-spec-ops-no-russian-and-interactive.html>.
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.
YouTube. YouTube, 6 Sept. 2012. Web. 12 October, 2013
Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjaBsuXWJJ8
Floyd, Daniel. “Extra Credits – Spec Ops – The Line Part 2″ Online video clip.
YouTube. YouTube, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 12 October, 2013
Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJZIhcCA2lk
Franklin, Christopher “Errant Signal – Spec Ops The Line” Online video clip.
YouTube. YouTube, 18 Aug, 2012. Web. 12 October, 2013
Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlBrenhzMZI
Starkey, Daniel. “Taking games seriously.” Eurogamer.net. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2013. <http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2013-12-01-taking-games-seriously>.