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The Scholarly Gamer avatar 3:09 PM on 06.10.2014  (server time)
Verisimilitude and Videogames.

Looking back at the games that I have played over the past 5 years or so, there were not many of them that brought me close to the grip of reality, although I cannot say that it was what I was initially looking for.

For the vast majority of us, gaming represents a way to live another life in some fantastical environment where we can do the things we could only dream of in reality.  We can slay dragons as a Dohvakiin, go to war with our friends online, or take a spin in the apocalypse to test how long we'd actually survive.  Do we really want reality when we are playing these games?

Initially, I would have said no.  That was, until I starting paying more attention to the environments that games were creating for me, several games in particular, and realized that reality had been smacking me in the face the entire time.  Verisimilitude, from the Latin verisimilitudo ("likeness to truth"), is a philosophical concept that represents how close to reality a representation approaches.  And some of these games have been getting scarily close.

When I talk about approaching reality though, I am not referring to graphics.  We all know how amazing the graphics on the next-gen consoles and high-end PCs are, so that does not need to be discussed.  Games are beginning to approach reality with how they deal with problems and themes presented to the player through the narrative and environment. 

This is the first of a several part series where I will take a look at the evolution of verisimilitude in video games and analyse how it makes us interact with the narrative. Let's take a look, shall we?

Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops: The Line.  If you have played this title already, it's pretty much 'nuff said at this point.  If not, Spec Ops offers one of the most realistic 3rd person shooters that I have ever had the pleasure (edit: horror) of playing.  You play as Captain Martin Walker, sent to Dubai as part of a 3 man team to recon the desolated city.  Needless to say, things change and recon turns into an all-out-war against Indian rebels and other American soldiers.  Without turning this into a full review, Yager's revamp of the series makes you pay. For. Every. Bullet. 

Spec Ops is one of the only games to break the 4th wall in such a way that it is literally reaching out of your TV to slap you in the face, even during loading screens.  Scrolling text will change from reminding you how to vault over cover to prying introspection like "Do you even remember why you came here?" and "How many American's have you killed today?"  The first time I happened to catch one of these I had to stop and think.  Why was I still in Dubai?  I don't remember receiving any orders for this...

With themes ripped right out of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the protagonist's descent into madness is littered with choices that actually make you feel, well, pretty much everything.  And I am not just referring to feeling bad for your character.  Oh no, you actually start to question yourself and your personal actions throughout the campaign.  And the game is not far behind, to remind you that every time you pull the trigger on your controller, Captain Walker pulls the trigger on his gun.  And on the other end of that barrel, someone dies.  

Not some random NPC that was generated and thrown at you by some complex code.  No, you just shot and killed someone.  Maybe it was an Indian trying to save himself from oppressive American soldiers?  Maybe it was another American, not entirely sure why you were firing at them in the first place?  Or maybe they were completely innocent, and you just got it all wrong.  The game takes its time to show you that people die because of your choices, or lack there of. 

The choices that you make in Spec Ops are not about changing the outcome of the game to reflect one play-style or another, but instead are Yager's way of finding out the type of person you really are, and then using that to get under your skin.  I will give one example from near the beginning of the game.  

In one instance you come across two men who are hanging from a bridge.  A voice over a loudspeaker tells you that one man was sentenced to death for stealing water, while the other is a soldier sentenced for killing that man's family when he went to apprehend them.  You are given the chance to pick who will live or die, and pull the trigger yourself. 

I noted that there were four snipers looking down on the scene from an overpass, and decided to try and take them out instead.  I ordered my squad-mates to focus on two, while I took shots at the others.  With crack shots taking the first two out, the other two snipers prioritized their fire on the hanging men, killing them before returning fire on us, as the voice over the loudspeaker warned us against such disobedience.  My choice was one of several that are open to the player to discover on their own, with no assistance from the developer. 

Either way, Spec Ops: The Line wants you to know that what you are feeling right now, in this instant, is much closer to reality than any feelings you will get from the vast majority of other shooters.  You feel empathy, sorrow, hope, and regret.  And when everything reaches a plateau at the end of your long and hard fought journey, you feel...well...that's for you to decide.  But you are damned certain you feel

Spec Ops: The Line has forever changed how I look at shooters, and how I interact with choices presented to me in games.  There are often deeper connections to real-life situations, and lessons to be learned through how we interact with a narrative that forces us to confront ourselves. I will leave you with one question, a question that has haunted me in every humanitarian-mission fueled war game since it was posed by Spec Ops.  Do you feel like a hero yet?  

Welcome to Dubai, Gentlemen.

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