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I don’t scare easily. I never have, whilst I love horror in all its forms it rarely scares me properly. Never the type of scare that keeps you awake, that has you reaching for another drink and another cigarette, and that makes you wish someone would say it going to be alright. I think it’s because I know its fiction, and how could make believe scare you? There are no aliens, no bumps in the night or bogymen coming for me, just taxes and exes, oven meals and bitter Scottish weather, none of which is particularly scary.
What keeps me up at night are my memories. Those gnawing pangs of past mistakes, misspent days or words I can’t take back. I’ve battled depression for as long as I can remember, and when you mix those dark and morbid thoughts with an overactive imagination and a mind full of questions, your left with sleepless nights and regrets. Friedrich Nietzsche put it best,
“If you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you."
That’s why Spec Ops: The Line is the singular most terrifying game ever made.
SPOILERS AHEAD-Normally I wouldn’t emphasise this so much, but if you haven’t played this game stop reading and play it. You'll thank me.
You back? Good.
Spec Ops: The Line is both a 3rd person shooter and a hell ride into the human psyche. I’m not going to wax lyrical about the reasonably solid game play, or even its superb plot. What we’re here to discuss is why it’s terrifying. The horror that the game causes works on multiple levels, and its only when those pieces begin to fit together and you turn that camera on the wretched soul clinging to a control pad do you see the true power that this game processes.
It begins so simply. Like all great descents you don’t even realise that you’re being dragged down. The game begins and for the first few hours you’re firing off bullets and ploughing through insurgents as if it’s Call of Duty with Resident Evil controls. The action gets more and more heated, the violence of lost Dubai begins to increase. The voices over the radio begin to get more and more urgent, the soldiers under your command get more and more reluctant yet more insistent that we report back to HQ. When suddenly and yet so gradually you realise you’re changing. Your voice over the coms is getting more frayed and desperate, you grip on the controller is getting more frantic and each bullet is more valuable than its last fellow. This is not your average shooter, Captain Walker is far more than an avatar, he is you, changing gradually. Acts of violence that you would have baulked at in the first half become common place in the second. You brush off the murder of hundreds of men. Using weapons of such devilish design becomes normal. You have gradually become inhuman, and only when you stop to take a breath do you see how different Captain Walker has become, how angry and blood soaked he is, and how you, the player were the one who led these men through hell itself.
You and Walker become shells of the people you once were. Or perhaps your mask slipped and the true evil that has bubbled beneath the surface all these years is showing its face. Spec Ops: The Line makes you the monster. Without even realising it, those binary good/bad choices it throws at you are not what they seem- they are shades of grey. Its only when the game is over, and you read the tales of others experiences do you realise you didn’t have to do all those monstrous things to progress. You didn’t need to pass judgement on those men, you could have walked away… but you didn’t. You could have fired in the air to scare the civilians who were hanging your comrade… but you didn’t. You opened fire, you executed those men. You took life and death into your hands and you made your decision. Spec Ops: The Line plays with your associations of military shooters. You as the player, have been programmed that fighting is duty, that killing the enemy is progression and that victory and safety is only a check point away. Only when the credits roll do you see how far you have sunk, only then do you question your actions. And NO ONE has chose the path of least resistance.
And the game knows it. Gradually the messages on the loading screens start to change. The game reminds you that it’s just a game, that none of it is real. The game breaks the 4th wall to tell you that it’s all make believe. But it is real. All you have to do is look in a newspaper, read a military book or hear of the horrific things humans are doing to each other all over the world to know that it’s not all make believe. And even if this game is fiction, you’re the one pulling the trigger, you’re the one who didn’t even try to go back for back up, and you’re the one that skipped over to the white phosphorus and weaponised it. You’re the one who continued to play the game, despite it being about horrible men doing horrible things. The load screen knows it too, pushing your buttons and rubbing salt into your wounds. Until right when the perfect storm is at its most chaotic, when the only way for you and your team is through the centre of hell does it twist the knife perfectly.
It’s the signature of a game that knows what it’s done to its player. Spec Ops: The Line makes the player hate themselves. It holds up a mirror to what’s bubbling beneath the surface of us all. Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t need buckets of viscera, it doesn’t need jump scares and creepy atmospherics. It chills the player to the core because it forces the player to look at themselves. It forces us to think of our own actions, it makes us think of those millions of NPC’s we’ve gunned down over the years with smiles on our faces. Perhaps we’re not as damaged and unhinged as Captain Walker is, but we are not saints. We are after all, simulating murder for fun. We are soaking ourselves in the mire of man’s misery. Perhaps we are all capable of inhuman atrocities given the circumstances. Now tell me one thing more terrifying than that.
I bet you didn't know that I’m an amateur DJ under the name of Y so Serious? Well why would you, we hardly talk after that embarrassing incident with the horseradish. I was going to make a normal blog list with my favourite bits of game music, then i thought id mix them together for your listening pleasure! Please note I’m not very good at it, and there’s some glaring mistakes, but if you've half an hour you never want back have a listen!
I hope you enjoy D-toid massive,
The question of a favourite game is harder than it first seems. I, like many of my fellow D-toiders have a space in our hearts for the classics, the cult favourites and the unique gems, and we will (and happily do) argue about where they belong in the great ranking and why people should play them. But to pick one and raise it about all others has to be a personal thing. There is a inherit danger of picking a “safe choice”, a Silent Hill 2 or a Bioshock, because these are widely loved, we can be blind to their failings.
Therefore I think to pick a game to be your favourite game of all time; you have to love it for its failings. You have to love it no matter what, and to para-phrase Twilight, you have to love it unconditionally. And that is why, for me, Starfox 64 is the greatest video game ever made.
Picture if you will, a young boy of twelve on a cold Scottish Christmas morning, he rips at the festive wrapping paper of a suspiciously big box, he knows what it is. It’s the game he’s wanted for months and months. Its Lylat Wars (Starfox 64 in the rest of world) for the Nintendo 64, and with that gift came hundreds of hours of fun and adventure.
Buuuuut, there’s far more to this story that sheer nostalgia. I could tell you about my obsessive playing of its predecessor on the SNES- Starwing, I could tell you about stealing my father’s phone headset so I felt more like I was barking orders at my fellow pilots, even though it was plugged into NOTHING. I could tell you how it played in black and white because I couldn’t afford a colour television. But they’re not the reasons why Starfox 64 is my all time favourite. It’s my favourite because of a few simple reasons that are seldom matched, never bettered.
Simple, elegant precision.
Hammering the fire button will kill the bad guys, waggling the stick moves the plane, pretty simple right? Yes its very simple, but building from this simplicity Nintendo were able to put each and everyone of us behind the controls of an arwing and be able to pilot it quickly. But with time and practise, particularly in the games “all range” free combat sections, you could duck and weave, somersault and lock on, barrel roll and bomb like the Luke Skywalker/Top gun hybrid you’ve always known you were.
“Simple to pick up, difficult to master” might as well be the mantra to making a good video game. Grasping the subtly of the Arwing, the Landmaster and the Submarine took hours and hours of the players life. To score the highest points, to unlock all the secrets and to explore the Lylat system completely required this level of graft. But it wasn’t a requirement. If you wanted to blast through the baddies and save the universe, you could- In a couple of hours, if you were pretty good to start with. At no point does Starfox 64 force you to come back, but you will… to see the next set piece, meet the next boss or visit the next planet. And that will take dedication.
Admit it... you wanted the medals
More than a new world…a new universe.
Too much is explained these days, not enough is left to the imagination. And a young pre-teen with a fascination for talking animals in space has A LOT of imagination. Starfox 64 tapped into this perfectly, and represents one of several “loveable flaws” I spoke of earlier. A new Starfox game will undoubtedly have a fifteen minute intro explaining the Lylat system, Falco’s favourite type of hand cream, what a G-defuser is and what exactly a Slippy is. Not so in the nineties! “Here come the baddies, fill in the rest yourself” might as well have been the blurb on the back of the box. This “choose your own adventure” style of video game writing works perfectly, as you are thrown into a higgledy-piggledy world which makes no sense. So you begin to piece it together your self, making up back stories and ill fated love affairs between the characters.
The desolation of Zoneless, the evil of the Star wolf team, what Andross even IS… these all were left to the player. And boy did it make the game better. Stories were traded in school yards, lore was hinted at but never delivered as characterisation was expanded by brief snippets of dialogue:
And so a legend is born.
All building to lend the game a film like quality, but a at the same time being so much more than a film as you were controlling it. It was Star Wars, Independence Day and the Labyrinth all at once. Perhaps I have my rose tinted hindsight goggles on, but this was the first post Metal Gear Solid game to improve on the “gaming movie” template. It improved on it because it wasn’t trying to be a thriller, it was trying to be what it was- a frankly ridiculous space opera about animals with lasers.
Feels… its got them.
So it’s a good game. So it takes ages to master. So its fun to shoot things. So its got crappy but enduring bits. Loads of games have that. What pushes Starfox 64 into “best game ever” territory? It story changes depending on how good you are. And if your really, really good you get to see one of the most magical moments in all gaming. But ONLY if you’re a bad ass. Like megaman’s haddoken, the secret ending to Starfox 64 represents a sorely missed era of gaming, where graft and persistence were awarded.
Picture the scene.
You’ve basted through the hard path scoring staggeringly high point values on every level, none of your co-pilots have crashed out, you’ve taken on the thrills and spills of that persistent Starwolf team… when you greeted by a SECOND version of Andross. The grotesque floating brain provides a truly memorable dog fight as you duck and weave to avoid its clutches. The final laser shot seals the deal, and the screen whites out…. until….
It’s your father. Your long dead father, reaching from the grave to guide you to the safety he so heroically missed. Is it a dream? Is he really there? There’s no time to wonder about life and death as the complex is collapsing around you. Franticly you follow your fathers’ ship’s trail to the surface, elated to know your re-untied with you father once more. Fox McCloud looks across the emptiness of space for his fathers Arwing which has faded from view, as his colleagues ask if he’s okay he replies with stoic courage:
Nothing... nothing's wrong.
Not a dry eye in the mutha fukin house.
Its part star wars, part matrix, part daddy complex and part fairy tale. But it comes together at that moment to make such a lasting impression that even now 15 odd years later, Starfox 64 is still my favourite game. Like I said at the start, an all time favourite has to be personal, and it has to be flawed, and what’s more flawed and personal than a Space fox with iron shoes on missing his dad?