One of the biggest letdowns that a gamer can experience is to have an experience spoiled before they get a chance to play the game. There have been many games that have had a pivotal moment in the narrative that if the player has advanced warning, lack that same impact. I remember the largest one here on DToid was Bioshock - I didn’t own a 360 when the game first came out, and after a year the spoiler became a running joke in the community. Sometimes, there is a price to pay for not being in ‘the now’. As I played through the game, when I reached that pivotal scene, it didn’t blow my mind. It didn’t warp my perception of player agency, it didn't put me into a state of shock and self questioning, and until a few days ago I wondered if it was because it was spoiled and it didn't resonate with me.
This is the point where I say this blog is about Spec Ops: the Line, and contains spoilers.
I played Spec Ops back in January, six months after its release. All of the major scenes had been spoiled for me, but I had still heard it was a harrowing journey into the depths of the human mind and soul. Even Zero Punctuation liked it! Surely, this game would resonate with me. Well, spoilers, the first time I played it I wasn’t impressed. I played through the campaign to completion, and only felt...confused? Maybe not confused as much as empty. I didn’t get it. It didn’t click. And that really got under my skin. I love narrative driven games, why can’t I get into this one?! So I did as much research as I could stand. I read up on countless blogs, I watched videos online, and I even considered reading a book. I didn’t, but I thought about it, and it is the thought that counts, right? I came to a point where I understood the game and the impact, but it still didn’t resonate with me.
Then, recently, there was a blog posted about the game. About why they didn’t like the narrative. And, having done my due diligence, I found myself defending the game, refuting why it was the way that it was.
My understanding of the game was mostly from an academic point of view - I could have written about three quarters of this blog with my understanding before that day and it would have been more or less the same. Which, incidentally, if someone told me I would write a ten page paper on a videogame for recreational purposes, I wouldn’t have believed them. In my search for items that helped my argument, I pulled up a scene that backed up my argument. And as I watched that scene, it was like my eyes finally opened to the game. I found myself screaming out the “oh my gods!” during the scene. For the first time, it clicked. I got it. And I was deeply moved by it.
If you are reading, you surely know the plot of Spec Ops: you play as Captain Walker and are placed in charge of your two squad mates, Adams and Lugo. Your mission is to provide recon of the wasteland that Dubai has become. After dust storms ravaged the city, the “Damned 33rd”, lead by Konrad, set out to rescue the citizens. The US government soon abandoned the effort, but Konrad insisted that he and his troops stay behind, going so far as to disobey orders to leave. Your job was to see if anyone was left, and your curiosity leads you to find out what happened to Konrad.
You initially find yourself fighting insurgents who have been fighting against the 33rd. You also learn that the CIA has been attempting to ‘remove’ the 33rd, so naturally you are mistaken for a CIA agent. The 33rd open fire on you, forcing you to kill American soldiers. This is the start the start of your ‘sins’ in the game. You slaughter soldiers, you kill insurgents, you unleash chemical warfare on innocent refugees, and you doom the city by destroying the water supply. All in the name of getting to Konrad to solve the mystery of how the city got so bad. All because Konrad was leading you to do such things.
At times, the game presents the player with choices that are unclear - one scene has you in front of a rioting mob that just lynched one of your squad members. The game tells you to shoot to make them disperse. I know, in my heart of hearts, I was sad to see one of my men go, so I ripped right into the crowd. Only later did I find out you can fire into the air and they will disperse. However, some scenes you cannot avoid. There is a scene where the only way to progress is to unleash white phosphorous on a group of soldiers below - as the smoke clears, you realize that in addition to committing a war crime against Americans, you also destroyed a refugee camp. To many players, this scene is enough to instill a haunting memory, and I personally will never be able to forget the centerpiece of it all: the burnt husk of a woman, mouth agape in mid scream with no eyes, only sockets, covering what we presume is her daughter’s eyes from the grotesque scene of burning bodies surrounding her.
In addition to all of this imagery, the game also presents the soldiers you kill as human beings. Oftentimes, you can sneak up on them in idle conversation, where they are contemplating why they are fighting, talking about their family, reminiscing about being back home. The game goes out of its way to humanize the enemies you are fighting.
Finally, the game presents ‘tips’ on loading screens that are meant to shake you to your core. At first, they are things like “this button reloads!”, but they turn to things like “this isn’t your fault”, and “you are still a good person”. One in particular asks “how many American soldiers have you killed today?” It knows you will see these as you die or as a scene changes, and uses this opportunity to seemingly scold the player’s actions. All of the screenshots (except the first one) in this blog are in game 'tips' presented to the player.
The intended effect is that the player feels uneasy while playing. However, at the end of the game, the player finally encounters Konrad. And this is where it stops being a game.
A bloodied Walker makes his way to where Konrad is. A dozen troops meet you, claiming they are all that remains of the 33rd- you killed the rest. They surrender to you, and point you to Konrad. As you walk to meet him, he asks you “do you feel like a hero yet?”.
As you find Konrad in his lavish settings, he asks if you think he had gone crazy. Walker responds that he had hoped so. He is painting a familiar scene - he is painting the refugees, specifically the woman holding her daughter. Konrad says his undoing was that he couldn’t escape the reality of what happened in Dubai. He actions are figuratively pushing the painting in your face, forcing you to stare at the most gruesome consequence of your actions.
“Your eyes are opening for the first time”, he says.
Walker looks at the painting and after a moment declares “You did this”. “No, You did. Your orders killed 47 innocent people”. Konrad then asks who is responsible for what happened?
As the scene continues, we find Konrad assures us that ‘this is no game’. We then see Konrad in a chair, pistol in hand, aged, and most importantly - dead. It is clear that we are talking to an illusion at this point. The background turns black.
The game flashes back to the opening, remind you of your initial mission: find out if there are survivals, then radio home. Not to chase down Konrad, not to save the city. Thinking back to it, Walker says that nothing that happened was in his control, and that he was only trying to help. Konrad reminds him that everything that happened was based on his actions, and no one was saved - the only thing Walker is good for is killing people. Scenes of those you have killed flash past. The illusions that Walker created throughout the game are suddenly revealed. Then Konrad says that “the truth is, you are here because you wanted to feel like something you are not. You wanted to feel like a hero”. He continues to claim that Walker has used him as a scapegoat for his actions.
At this point, control is returned to the player, and a decision is presented - you can shoot Konrad. Or you can kill yourself. Walker mutters that maybe this is all in his head, to which Korad retorts that maybe it is in his. The player gets the choice to pull the trigger on whoever he or she chooses.
You can watch the entire scene here:
Here we learned that Walker is suffering from the stress of a battlefield, and was using Konrad as a scapegoat for his actions. He disregarded orders from up top because he wanted to prove himself as a hero. Yay. The end!
The scene makes sense in the context of the characters, but there are certain phrases that should key you in to what is really happening: The game isn’t showing you a dialogue between Konrad and Walker. The game is talking to you. The game is saying that you the player are Walker, and that Konrad is the developer. Slowly, it changes the background from what would be expected in a realistic war game to a black screen. The set is taken down for a minute, the actors stepping out of their roles. The scene isn’t dialogue between two characters.
This is a message. From the developer to you.
And they are pissed.
If you haven’t realized this before, go back up and watch the scene again. Watch it with Walker as you, personally. Not as you projecting as Walker. Not as you pretending to be Walker. But between you personally and the Yager. With Walker as nothing more than a puppet that you are controlling. This is, afterall, what they wanted. Konrad tells you that this isn’t a game, and he really means that. They break the fourth wall to get you to pay attention and listen up. There is also a line where Walker says that maybe it is all in his head. An illusion. Konrad says that maybe it is all in his. It was, afterall, a picture in the mind of those who developed the game. The developer shows you the burned refugee. It shows you that it knows that you killed civilians. It knows that you killed innocent lives. And it had the ability to predict this, so much that it could paint out the outcome of your actions in the way that would affect you the most. Of course you would kill them. Of course you would open fire on Americans. Because you are a monster. How would Konrad know that this happens? Easy. He doesn’t. The developer does.
The game reinforces this player agency by showing Konrad dead in a chair, having taken his own life. He never existed. He is nothing but a voice in our ear, an audio snippet playing from someone long gone. A voice in our ear that we were using as an excuse to commit these atrocities.
The next exchange is simply fantastic. “You did this”. Every player who dislikes Spec Ops uses this exact argument. The developer set up the game in such a way where the only way to progress is to gun down soldiers, to bomb civilians, to doom an entire city In many places through the game the player has a choice: like I mentioned above, you can mow down the crowd, or force them to disperse. Other times, there is seemingly no choice. Because of this, many feel like the game is unfairly punishing them for doing what the game told them to do. The only way to progress it to commit a war crime, so why are they holding it in our face. They made us do this!
The response is that you did this. Your orders killed the refugees. Your orders killed American soldiers. You orders doomed the city. And not your “orders” as Walker. But you playing the game. You saw what the game way presenting. They made it painfully clear who your enemies were, and what was at stake. They gave you your mission, then asked you to deviate from it. The developer gave you a voice in Konrad that prodded you into killing soldiers. It suggested you should mortar soldiers. And you obliged. The game isn’t responsible for you playing it. Your purchased it. You played it. And when it told you to kill, you killed. The game never forced you to kill anyone. It allowed you to kill people. And we, the generation of sociopaths who find pleasure in playing power trip military fantasies were all too eager to oblige them. We had a choice. We always have a choice. The game went too far, and we winced, but we never stopped playing. If we had stopped, turned around, and remembered what our mission was, we could have saved countless lives. If we decided that this game crossed the line of what we are willing to do, we would have turned it off and dismissed it. But we are conditioned to press on and keep playing no matter what the virtual consequences are.
Then Walker takes the voice of the player yet again: “I was only trying to help.” How. Powerless. Later on he says that he never meant to hurt anyone, and the developer responds with “no one ever does”. We were playing this game because we thought it was ultimately the right thing to do. As we continued to kill, we ultimately believed we were doing so because the story would end up where we were doing the correct thing. We wanted to believe that if we pushed through the brutality, we would find an ending where maybe the city was saved. What did we get instead? We received nothing. Bleak, horrific, nothing. So why did we do this?
“Because you wanted to feel like something you were not. You wanted to feel like a hero”.
Has a game ever been so accusing? Has a developer ever been so blunt? They flat out say that we are playing game as an empowering escape. We are killing virtually so we can feel good about ourselves. We are willing to pump round after round into our fellow digital man if it means we can feel like a hero. We are willing to sacrifice our morals if it means we can escape what we really are for ten minutes: no one. But in the power fantasy of the modern shooter, we are all fighting the good fight, we are all the infallible hero. And here comes Spec Ops saying “no. You are a gamer, playing a game, wanting to be something you will never be. You will sacrifice everything for that as long as there is nothing on the line, you loser.”
Finally, the developer gives you a choice. After all this, what do you do? Do you try to keep playing the hero? Do you hold out hope that after all of this you can still get a happy ending? Or do you admit defeat, allow them to say that they got you, and stop playing now by killing yourself. If you shoot Walker, you realize that you were wrong, and that they were right. If you shoot the developer you continue the illusion that you are still ‘right’, and that the violence was justified.
This single scene asks so much more of the player than any other game has. It isn’t just saying in this game you were a dick because I told you to be a dick. It is asking you if you really, honestly, think that every military shooter on the market is right. Is it correct to take people’s lives to live out your own power fantasy? How far are you willing to go to get the reward of being a hero? The entire scene is asking you to stop playing games as a kind of Skinner Box - keep killing and we will keep rewarding you - and start questioning your motives and thinking for yourself. What have they done? Why am I killing? Do I have a choice?
From a personal note, I played this game through on my first time going for the last ending. There was no closure, no fanfare, and I felt empty for it. I did everything it asked me to, because I knew that if I did I would get another chapter. I would get another achievement. If I shot someone in the face with a shotgun, a fountain of blood would pop up with all the fanfare of a coworker giving me a thumbs up in the office. I felt nothing from the game, except the feeling that I missed something. I played through again through the scene with the white phosphorous only to get the same empty feeling.
After watching that scene again, and realizing that they were talking about me? I feel horrible. I fell right into their trap. They were right. I would pursue any goal, no matter how gory, to advance whatever narrative they drove. When I mentioned Bioshock above, it wasn’t simply for the community spoiler. It was also because this game pulls the same “would you kindly?” card. I am willing to do whatever a game asks me to do, regardless of context, just to advance the game. We trust that what we are doing is correct. If a game refused to progress unless you killed an infant, would you? Would you turn off the game and play something else? What if the game asked you to open fire on civilians in an airport? Spec Ops takes a moment to ask, from one reasonable human being to another, what are we willing to do in a game to be entertained? How far will we go?
For me the answer to that question is, in a word, unsettling.
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About SaveStateone of us since 9:05 PM on 04.27.2013
Welcome to the Save State Cblogs! In honor of Chad Concelmo's awesome Memory Card series, we decided to continue his legacy.
Remember that one moment from your favorite video game? You know, that one you made a special save file for just so you could easily experience it again? Well, that's us!
Every so often, we write up about moments in games that had an impact on us, either by making us feel super happy, super sad, or a moment that showcases how awesome videogames are! These are the special moments we saved and want to share with the world.