Squawk Ops: The Line

spec ops

WARNING: This dialogue contains major spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line.

Just in time for the holiday happiness season, Left Gamer Review discusses one of the most depressing–and best!–games of the year.

snjoseph: Alright, so I played Spec Ops: The Line, admittedly because I suspected you were too generous inyour review. But man, you were right–it’s incredible.

Metal Gear Solid 2

La-li-lu-le-leave me alone

I guess I started off skeptical because when I read your review, I thought of Metal Gear Solid 2, which tries to make the same points about war/violence in games, but in a way that I found unconvincing and even somewhat cheap. (Whenever an work says, “Ooh, what does it say about you that you’re watching this?” the obvious rejoinder is, “Ooh, what does it say about you that you sold me this?”) But the way Spec Ops delivered its message was carefully thought-through and permeated the entire game.

eagle: Good! I was worried that I oversold the game by underplaying some of my frustrations with gameplay, despite my real excitement about the storytelling and the way the game actually implicates the player. Most games with “evil” options are essentially a kind of “evil drag” that excuses the player for doing anything unpleasant. Spec Ops, though, really punishes you–once the loading screens started taunting, “Do you feel like a hero yet?” I was kind of ready to say, “OK, game! You win!” and just quit, because I felt like I’d gotten everything out of it I could. (The ending was worth it, though, as it turns out.)

snjoseph: The white phosphorus scene alone should put the game in the annals of video game greatness; I thought that was something that we’ve never seen before in games. It was the first time during a game that I really stopped myself and said: “Oh god, what did I just do?” Even in Mass Effect, where you make a bunch of “tough” decisions, you never really question their necessity, since really anything is justified when you’re talking about the survival of the species. (Plus in ME, like Fable, there is usually a “right” decision that may take more effort/tedium, but can be achieved.) I love how Spec Ops questions the implicit decision to conduct the “mission” in the first place. In that sense it’s really radical: it pulls determinations out of the axiomatic realm and into the set of propositions that have to be proved.

spec ops

I’d consider the possibility of a mistake

eagle: Let’s pretend–strictly for the reader’s sake of course–that I didn’t entirely follow your last sentence. I think you’re addressing the fact that your very mission is suspect? As in, all the other games I’ve played with any kind of “morality” element give you an objective that, in the world of the game, is an unquestioned “good,” but a “good” that can be accomplished via means that might be more or less “good” depending on how you want to play.Spec Ops offers you a goal (stop Colonel Konrad) and forces you to use increasingly immoral means to reach it, all the while making it more and more apparent that the goal itself was flawed from the start.

snjoseph: Yes, that’s right; sorry, I like to toss in an obscure phrase once in a while to class things up. The game basically says that what it takes as the premise is actually the whole problem. I’m reminded of that argument for staying in Iraq (or Afghanistan or wherever) that says we need to stay in order to engage in “force protection.” But of course, there would be no “forces” to protect if we weren’t there to begin with. So basically: what we do is necessary, on account of the fact that doing it is the precondition of continuing to do it.

eagle: This questioning of the premise is why I think the end works, despite being a little obvious. The revelation that Konrad has been dead since you arrived reinforces the idea that your mission to stop Konrad only exacerbated his reign of terror. The absence of a living “villain” in the final moments lets Captain Walker understand that he’s the real villain–something that you, the player, figured out earlier but needed to see reach its logical conclusion.

snjoseph: Right. In fact I’d go further: the ending works BECAUSE it’s obvious. It’s probably clear from the first time you shoot an “insurgent”–and certainly after the white phosphorus sequence–that the whole mission is completely fucked, and you’re only making things worse. Yet you never really think it through until the end: you just play on, hoping for some magical resolution from your confrontation with Konrad.

eagle: I think if the story has one flaw frustrating flaw, it’s that the endgame is too drawn out. After the brilliant, mind-bending repeat of the helicopter crash that started the game, I felt like I was just pushing through to the end. I assumed that Walker had reached a breaking point and was going to get his squad killed, so I don’t remember any real surprises between the crash and the final moments. I needed to see how everything was going to play out, but I feel like there was really too much shooting left to do in between that second crash and Walker’s final arrival.

snjoseph: You might be right, although I didn’t particularly think so–which is probably influenced by the fact that, having read your review, I played the whole thing in “baby mode for babies,” so my experience was faster and less frustrating than yours.


An unfortunately pioneering moment in gaming repetition

eagle: Fair enough. Still, that repeat–the revelation that the game-opening helicopter crash actually takes place close to the end, meaning that Walker is thoroughly out of his mind–is the greatest single moment I can think of in any game. It took me completely by surprise and I think is particularly effective as a game twist. Lots of games reuse missions lazily, but it’s brilliant for the main character to realize he’s doing the same thing twice, realize that he’s lost his grip on reality, and yet plunge on anyway. If this were a film, we’d recognize the repetition as repetition instantly, but because its a game, there’s an extra moment of confusion where I wasn’t sure if I’d run into terrible design, or brilliant design. I am pretty sure I laughed out loud once I understood what was happening.

snjoseph: Yes, this was totally my reaction as well! I love it when Walker says in a sort of confused voice, “Didn’t we do this already?” because that was exactly what I was thinking at the moment. It was a great “breaking the fourth wall” moment, but very nicely attuned to the medium, as you point out.

eagle: So beyond the strong narrative and the remarkable way in which Spec Ops comments on the whole genre of military shooters, do you have thoughts on the game’s criticism of imperialism? I think it’s basically impossible to play a video game in 2012 set in any sort of desert locale and not think “Iraq,” and the white phosphorous sequence is brutal. It’s been a couple months since I played, but I remember the CIA angle of the plot feeling a bit convoluted. And though my review tried, in a way, to defend the Heart of Darkness-styled story, I think Spec Ops ultimately has much more to say about Call of Duty than US foreign policy. What do you think–am I not giving it enough credit? The politics of games like CoD is so reactionary, that Spec Opscan’t help but feel radical in comparison. But it’s still anchored in a pretty conventional take on the Vietnam War, reinvented for 2012.

snjoseph: Yeah, I was thinking about this too. I thought the story was actually less Heart of Darkness than I initially expected or feared. In the novel, it’s basically Africa that turns Kurtz into a madman. In Spec Ops, on the other hand, it’s hard to argue that it’s Dubai that turns Konrad into a monster; the city is, if anything, more “civilized” (in the bourgeois sense) than the average American city. Perhaps one could argue that it’s Afghanistan that’s ruined Konrad, but that’s an explanation for Romney voters and the “Afghan good enough”racists of Obama Mission Control. A normal person would blame it on the horrors of the war and untreated PTSD, both of which point the finger back at the United States. I also think the way your squad reacts to killing American soldiers ironically makes the player question why killing anyone else is OK, although maybe that’s just my own knee-jerk anti-imperialism.

That said, I think you’re quite right to say that the game isn’t “frontally” antiwar or anti-imperialist. It doesn’t really raise political questions directly; and interviews with the designers make it clear that the conscious target of critique was video games, not US foreign policy per se. Still, I think someone would have to be quite dense to come out of the game thinking, “Oh, that’s interesting, but nothing like that could ever happen in real life.” I mean, you would have to be as stupid as a Congressman.