Spec Ops: The Line
Dear readers: over a mucus-intensive and gloomy weekend in Istanbul, I played a video game to completion, and it was Spec Ops: The Line. It was a good choice. I am surprised and cheered that a shareholder-owned business somehow dedicated millions upon millions of dollars to the production of this bold piece of anti-entertainment. It accomplishes a too-rare feat in videogaming, that of alienating you from the core pleasure you take in shooting fellows in the head. It goes so far as to suggest that there is something inherently wrong about this pursuit as a leisure pasttime, and I enjoyed being unsettled.
Which is to say: Spec Ops does an inside job on the shooter genre. From a gameplay perspective, it is the most bland product imaginable. But it does a lot of things– not all of them wholly artful– to disrupt your moral relationship to what you’re making happen on-screen.
I thought its most effective tactic in this effort was the way exploited the operational vagueness that is characteristic of the genre.In virtually all of these hooh-rah-type games, your moment-to-moment understanding of your goals tends to be moderately confused. Indeed, most of these titles have a trees-for-the-forest problem: all these inter-mission cutscenes, with their zooming maps, give a pretty clear sense of why you are fighting away in some cheerless middle eastern environment — there’s always ethnic separatists or something, provided you bothered to watch that stuff. But in the midst of any given mission, it is all just dudes yelling at you about something or other as you soak up a bullets. “Hop on that turret!”, they’ll bellow. “Clean out that bunker!”, they’ll shriek. And then you set to, because there is a glowing UI element on whatever it is you are to interact with.
Spec Ops works by having this confusion and reliance on external orders gradually wear away at your sense of Heroic Purpose. In Spec Ops I had both a serious forest problem and a serious trees problem. I was drawn into gradually more indefensible conduct without knowing quite why I was there, or what I was supposed to be accomplishing at each point. Merely by playing competently I was drawn into dubious conduct. There was an industry-standard turret sequence/Jeep chase, and then oh shit, I seem to have destroyed the remaining water supply. Even from the perspective of someone who has finished the game, and being the kind of person who tends to be a bit more attentive to story than the typical bloke, I have very little idea what in god’s name came to pass.
Except that I killed a lot of people for no apparent reason. I trouped your way through a silted-over Dubai, with the nominal aim of finding a squadron of American Marines that have gotten lost in the course of an evacuation mission. However, the operational goals get hinky real quick. I got ambushed by the troop I was supposed to be saving and had to shoot my way out; for the next six-odd hours I was running through various sand-intensive environments pursuing god knows what.
Refreshingly, I suppose, the opponents in this game weren’t a faceless vaguely-Arabian horde. They weren’t even Persian. I murdered a ton of American soldiers that (supposedly?) had gone rogue and run a post-apocalyptic Dubai into the ground. Once, a random unarmed person ran across my field of view during a firefight and I shot them down. (In a rare moment of moral subtlety, this murder passes without comment) At another point, I was manipulated by the game into murdering a dozens of innocent civilians with an incendiary mortar, an act whose aftermath the game requires you to vividly witness.
In the interstitial cut scenes, your NPC squadmates helpfully express bewilderment about what-all you’re supposed to be accomplishing out here in the first place, and also voice skepticism about your stated explanation for what you’re doing on a level-by-level basis. In the cutscenes you say some cursory remarks about preserving the civilians or somesuch, but the actions you undertake never really reflect any such aim.
Your character never has a convincing explanation for his actions. And this makes sense, because he really just is the player. He’s not there to save Dubai. He’s there to see how this gun shoots. Madness.