I would hardly call this a review of Brendan Keogh's Killing is Harmless: A close reading of Spec Ops: The Line. I picked it up yesterday, read half, then finished the other half today. And now I have thoughts on it, or at least want to gush about it through an outlet, so here we go.
The book can be bought here. its currently at a minimum price of $4.99.
In full disclosure, I have not actually played Spec Ops: The Line, and I'm an avid fan of writing about games in general. As far as I know, and I think as far as the author knows, this is the first book of its kind, a close analysis of a single game, over 170 or so pages. Not only that, but being released in E-book format, already typos have been closed, and footnotes added, which is just an interesting development in the area of how books are released, but I think that's a tangent. I want to consider how well this format works.
That is, did I enjoy, instead of playing a game whose main message was to ask me why I'm playing the game, reading about someone else's flow of conscious as he describes each scene of the game as he has noticed in multiple playthroughs.
What does it all mean bro? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN
Well, yes, I did. I wouldn't be utterly surprised if that enjoyment is specific to me, but I think this can work. From what I understand, now that Spec Ops is pretty much ruined for everyone who reads about video games on the internet, and considering that the game itself mostly sells on its narrative, having that narrative removed and explained, prodded and pointed out, was riveting enough that I got through it fairly quickly. If I actually played the game, I probably wouldn't notice the symbolic mannequins standing over even the early battlefields, the empty choices, or the optional conversations. I know that on one hand I'm supposed to experience the “art” if you will and come to my own conclusions. But I don't mind having a teacher, if you will, walk me through what he perceived to be the important parts of the game, explain to me things like the significance behind the in-game songs chosen. Keogh does a good job of walking through every chapter of the game, reviewing it all in the lens of someone looking for significance, even remarking when things are boring, or when a scene eludes his ability to pin down what it all means(he comes up with a number of possible meaning for the scene where the crew fall into a room filled with sickeningly detailed dead bodies, but can't quite decide what thematic purpose it serves beyond shock value). But I think that helps with his translating the experience of the observant player through his words. At the time of this writing, he even has on his blog a correction involving him mistaking one ending for another because on his first playthrough he panicked and unknowingly pressed a trigger under the stress. He isn't really a reporter on the game. It feels basically like watching someone play the game and talk to you about it. Its an interpretation, and one I found a fun read, for lack of an actual sucker willing to play through the couple hour campaign of The Line for my amusement.
Can this be done with other games? I don't know for sure. I can't really imagine a whole book produced for any other single game. Not unlike Portal, The Line is apparently a rather short play, but like Portal, that let the designers craft every single piece of the narrative and message(if not the actual gameplay) of the game to their liking, from the crows to the mannequins to the shouts and conversations of your enemies. As Extra Credits has already mentioned, The Line isn't a game dealing with being fun. I think a book might be a bit of a stretch for most games that are still about being fun. But if more games that are less like fun romps and can convincingly be made out to be more like thoughtful, or angry, or pretentious, interactive experience(for lack of a better term), then maybe this is the first step to building something that a years from now can be called a sort of canon of gaming.
I think, whether an individual opinion of this book is good or bad(and I did like the book), that this book is published (not unlike Spec Ops: The Line)a good step. I guess that makes it a recommendation. Might be worth more if you actually play the game. Or maybe play it after reading? I don't know.