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Miserable Game Corner - Spec Ops: The Line and The Walking Dead

No, this isn't supposed to be a recurring segment; just a double-meaning meant to lure your angry clicking here instead of to whatever nonsense the analyst-of-the-hour is spewing. Also, this article is as close to spoiler-free as I can get with games this plot-heavy, but, per usual, your standards may differ from mine so don't burn my computer or anything

I can't say I didn't get what I asked for. I'm always preaching about games needing to get mature -- for-real mature, not headshots-and-titties mature -- and then these two titles come along, replete with convincing characters, heady subject matter, and a couple of skull-crushing anvils worth of horrifying moments, ensuring I felt like thirty different kinds of shite by the time I was done with them.

Instant Mood Depressor #1 was Spec Ops: The Line, which, having caught my attention early on, found itself in my mailbox a short couple of weeks after launch day. The one thing I love more than carbon-copy military shooters is deriding carbon-copy military shooters, so a game which is meant to do both at the same time! sounded like the best way to spend the next couple of afternoons. Worst-case, I get to point and laugh (and laugh and laugh) at a cynically vapid attempt to cash in on a trend that's already gotten old; best-case, it's a genuinely affecting and worthwhile exploration of the darkness inherent in blah, etc., you get the point.

Unfortunately, this was the best-case scenario.

Spec Ops is a very hard game to talk about without spoiling, not in the least because its MO is to tie a cardboard mask to its face act like a slightly better-written Battleduty of Warfront for just long enough that the player is suckered in -- leaving their gut wide open for the daddy mother-fourletter-er of all punches. I've built up a strong, strong tolerance to pixelated death and dismemberment; even during the game's marquee turning point (you know what I'm talking about if you've played it), I was actually pumping my fist in the air and cheering at the game, applauding it for having both narrative skill to make the scene necessary and impactful and the nuts to put it out there in full view, rather than tuck it away behind +15 evil points or a "don't-go-here-if-you-want-to-be-offended!" display.

And then there was a major news network controversy

But by the game's end, I was legitimately tired, exasperated, drained, depleted, what have you, fully numbed to how many bullets I was pumping into dozens of American soldiers -- I wasn't disgusted, I wasn't thrilled; I wasn't cringing, I wasn't smiling. Outside of some vague, irrational need to trudge forward, clinging on to the completely idiotic hope that there'd be something at the end that'd make the horrors I'd seen and caused worthwhile, I was emotionally dead. Just like the characters. Just like I was supposed to be. Bravo, Yager.

In a way, Spec Ops seems to have put itself in the worst possible position to be financially successful. Masquerading as another dirty brown cover-palooza, however necessary it may be to facilitate the game's thematic intent, hides the colorfully, beautifully dystopian worldbuilding and merciless story from those who would most appreciate it, while its shaky mechanics and forgettable multiplayer alienate the drooling frat boys who would most benefit from it. With any luck, though, word of mouth (such as the 468 above!) will be enough to dip its combined sales just over the profitable hump -- if you've got $50 to burn, you could even snag a copy! If you take your video games at all seriously (and it's okay if you don't) or are at least sick to goddamn death of how homogenized the shooter genre appears to have become, it's well, well worth it.

What a relief the upcoming Steam summer sale was going to be, thought I! I'd pick up a couple of cutesy indie titles and the Civilization V expansion, and spend the next several days washing away the blood and grime off of my virtual conscience. While waiting for the appropriate price reductions, Telltale's The Walking Dead appeared as a daily discount. I'd heard some nice things, so I checked the usual gamut of professional opinion-havers to be sure and plonked down the $15. Episodic? Oh, cool; I'll knock them out tonight, I thought to myself, a contented smile on my face.

There's no way this could be anything but a bright and uplifting feel-good story, right?

Well, guess what wasn't on my face six hours later. While one game is focused on constant combat and the other deals mostly with interpersonal relationships, I can draw a surprising number of parallels between The Walking Dead and Spec Ops, other than the fact that they both caused my left hand to spontaneously turn into a perpetually-refilling bottle of hard liquor, of course; both of them are heavily character driven stories, placing a smattering of "normal" people into a hellish world and watching with demented glee as they degenerate into violent, irrational sociopaths. Both of them require meaningful decisions from the player, which never impact the story when you want them to and always impact the story when you don't want them to. Both of them are unapologetically dark and violent, focusing on brutality so explicitly and closely that they pass beyond exploitative and land in truly disturbing territory.

There's one thing here that Spec Ops doesn't have, though, and that's a warm heart at its very core. While the latter's objective was to completely erode and weather away every last trace of morality and humanity in its characters -- and, by extension, provide a reflection of the player's role in the average shooter -- The Walking Dead centers around good people trying their best to survive and help those they care about; the horrible things they do in their panicked desperation usually serve to enhance their believability as conflicted human beings, rather than depicting them as broken, remorseless shells.


It didn't do much to stop me from hating hating hating hating myself and a couple of those characters, though. In a curious irony, I was at my most comfortable during the skill-free action segments, where all I had to do was point vaguely in the direction of a zombie's head and click rapidly -- with the worst possible consequence being a four-second reset, there was nothing to lose beyond self-respect. Life-or-death choices, where I've got no clue what's going on and either side will forever despise me for sticking with the other, though? That's how you create tension in this kind of game: my life may be expendable thanks to my magical wizard respawning powers, but all these squishy NPCs aren't so lucky. Making sure to play with the horribly immersion-breaking "story notifications" turned off (man I'd love to know exactly what people think of me every time I say something to them in real life!), The Walking Dead gave me an experience just as tense and emotionally turbulent as any action-packed murder-fest, leaving me as drained and regret-filled as my tour with Spec Ops.

But while I indeed had a miserable time with both Spec Ops and The Walking Dead, I loved nearly every minute of them; like any good anything, they appeal to more than just my love of popping heads, drawing out a far wider range of emotions and responses than "F*CK YER!" and "F*CK YERRRR!" That's the line (cough) between "toys" and "entertainment" -- and it's one I hope games will stay on the right side of in the coming future.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go and soak my head in industrial bleach and unicorn-shaped chocolate.
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About Altum Videturone of us since 11:44 PM on 11.04.2011

My earilest memory is of playing a PC port of Pac-Man on my dad's computer. My next earliest memory is of playing a PC port of Tetris on my mom's computer. I've been happily and hopelessly into video games and everything to do with them since, and while I have my favorites - pretty much the entire Metroid series (except, you know, that one) - there are very few good games I haven't played and enjoyed.

Now that I've been here for a few months I guess something else should go here, so: I've set upon myself a personal goal to write and post a blog at least once per week. Sometimes, meeting this deadline means that those articles are not up to the standards I would like, and I'll simply shove them away unpublished and try again next week. More rarely, they turn out great, and up they go. Even more rarely, I'll actually feel very satisfied and accomplished, and will get all excited for the loads of attention I won't be receiving. The following blog entries are ones that I believe fit into the latter category, preserved here in order of appearance for my (but quite possibly also your!) amusement and enrichement:

Battlefield 3: On Scale, Freedom, and Wookies
Deus Ex: Human Revolution - David Sarif
Bigger, Longer, also Harder - A Counter-Case for Longer Games
Location: Darkest Africa
How About a Mass Effect 3 Article with No Ending Controversy (Spoiler-free!)
Quest for Blood: How Seeking Ultraviolence Showed Me the Best Side of Videogames

Also, I mantain the monthly Cblog Analytics series, which tallies up a bunch of statistics and presents them in a simple and organized format. The results are always interesting and often surprising - all the math is done on my end, so no matter how number-phobic you might be, it's worth checking out! This year's entries are listed here: