Saturday, March 16, 2013

KISS: "Spec Ops: The Line"

Keep ISimple, Stupid:
A concise analysis of Spec Ops: The Line

"Spec Ops: The Line" is a third-person exercise in ludonarrative dissonance - which is to say, a third-person regen-health cover shooter - created by Yager Development and 2K Games. It attempts to "subvert" the "tropes" found in existing regen-health cover shooters despite those games almost all attempting to do the same thing, resulting in a round robin tournament finale where the loser will be declared the boring straight man that all the others are making fun of (spoiler: It's Medal of Honor).

One of the most notable and cited scenes of "Spec Ops: The Line" is the White Phosphorous scene.

This scene depicts a scenario in which the protagonist, while burning enemies alive to death with 84mm incendiary rounds fired from a mortar, accidentally (air quotes) kills some civilians. The player is shocked and surprised to learn that they have killed civilians despite the civilians in question being visibly unarmed and not engaged in combat. From this, gamers learned several valuable lessons. Well, one valuable lesson.

1) Sometimes when you are shooting at people, the people are civilians and shooting them is bad.

One might assume that the basic concept of not shooting unarmed people would be simple enough, but apparently Spec Ops: The Line was a daring piece for breaching this otherwise untouched subject. Perhaps in the future of gaming we can potentially address even more controversial subjects, like "White Phosphorous is technically banned by the Geneva Convention anyways" and "soldiers are actually people so maybe don't kill them all either, especially if they surrender or something".

While many gamers are still reeling from this incredible revelation, it's worth discussing the ways in which other games have discussed similar subject matter with a bit more aplomb.

Call of Duty 4, one of the games that Spec Ops is supposedly subverting, makes it very clear in its equivalent gameplay segment that civilians are not to be targeted. While it could easily be possible to make commentary on the joy that the player is meant to feel by exploding hundreds of enemy soldiers from an invulnerable gunship a mile in the sky, Spec Ops declines to challenge this aspect but instead focuses on the fact that you might be killing civilians. In CoD4, the few civilians in this segment are noted by the fact that they are neither carrying nor shooting weapons, a nuance that apparently escaped Spec Ops' target audience.

Full Spectrum Warrior is a tactics-based game where the player commands one squad composed of two US Army fire teams. In this game, the player does not directly control the soldiers' guns, but rather assigns zones of engagement. The civilians in this game exist in normal gameplay, and unless the player is quick to stop them, soldiers may engage enemies when civilians are in the way. This kills the civilian. Going by the testimony of actual US military personnel, this is far closer to the reality of civilian death in war than Spec Ops' scenario.

ARMA 2 devises similar scenarios - civilians inhabit towns during regular gameplay, and will often be caught up in battles between factions. The high usage of explosives and artillery in this game makes an even more direct statement than FSW, as entire areas will sometimes be targeted for artillery or mortar attacks by individuals incapable of judging the presence of civilians. Contrasted against the direct thermal visuals of Spec Ops' scenario, it's much more reflective of the haze of war. This is compounded by the multiplayer mode in which one side consists of guerillas posing as civilians, a scenario much more in line with the reality of the insurgency in Iraq.

Metal Gear Solid and Rainbow Six even go so far as to say that maybe even killing hostile soldiers is bad - MGS offers non-lethal alternatives such as tranq darts or stealthy avoidance, while Rainbow Six sees some enemies surrendering and offering themselves up for capture.While simplistic, these measures humanize enemies and make the choice of killing or not killing them more meaningful, whereas the always-hostile, always-angry enemies of Spec Ops and similar shooters cannot really be treated like humans from a moral standpoint.

Killing is wrong and bad. This is a lesson that gamers actually had trouble learning and needed help to internalize. Despite this, they seem to still think of themselves as being intellectuals. This is itself a mystery.


  1. Actually, the White Phosphorous scene was just another one of the "the video-game told me to do it, and that's just part of its story" moments, therefore the action didn't relate to me personally. The scene that had the most impact on me as an immersed player, was where I was surrounded by civilians throwing rocks at me to leave them alone but I was cornered, so had to do something to get out. The subversive nature of the game happened after I finished and was looking up the achievements and realising that I didn't need to shoot any of the civilians in that moment. But what the game had done was got me so used to shooting that when that decisive moment came, I completely forgot that I could shoot into the air, or just elbow-butt someone to make them move, but instead chose to sacrifice one innocent - something the game had tried to make me do earlier but I had convinced myself that I had side-stepped that issue.

    It was interesting for me, because that made me reflect on the nature of the soldier who follows orders because of the justified end goal, just as you the player will commit whatever action the game tells you to commit because of the justified end goal (being the story).

    1. I think that sounds neat from an immediate emotional perspective, but again, it sets it up as that because you're used to the game presenting you an incredibly cartoonish scenario where all enemies constantly attack and refuse to surrender. If the game was designed to be like an actual war, where there's rules and regulations and human behaviors, do you think the same thing would have happened?

    2. Is the idea that civilians might be caught in the crossfire really that revolutionary? I haven't played many FPS in recent days but I would have thought that was taken as a given.

    3. The last time I saw civilians being a genuine and constant consideration in a mainstream high-end FPS was Delta Force: Black Hawk Down way back in the early noughties.

  2. I generally agree that shooty games need to move past this decadent stage of having their cake and eating it - subverting the conventions without actually having the balls to move past them or present alternatives.

    But I think it's pretty whacko to propose that Spec Ops doesn't depict the killing of military personnel as ALSO terrible. This is a game for people trained to play as Americans shooting brown people where you quickly team up with brown people and shoot Americans who shout "murderer!" at you. Directly before this sequence, you witness a white phosphorous bombardment launched against civilians; you are made to know how awful the stuff is, even when used against 'hostiles'. And the entire plot is kind of about telling you that you weren't 'the good guy shooting bad guys' but actually a complete dick shooting people you didn't need to shoot.

    There's other stuff I think it does well, which I'm writing about this weekend, so won't go into here. But all Spec Ops really does is take the jingoism, racism, violence and blindness inherent in most modern military shooters and make them far harder to ignore. Which is, artistically and politically, somewhat of a poisoned chalice, but is at least interesting.

    As it happens, I am skeptical re your citation of more realistic soldier-sim based games as a corrective. Yes, it's significant that they have actual mechanics and dynamics centreing on dealing with civilians in the warzone. On the other hand, they reproduce the fiction that A) there are manageable, certain ways to avoid civilian casualties in war, even without completely changing the way we fight wars, AND B) the killing of civilians in war has nothing to do with the institutional culture and operation of armies and the motives of the soldiers concerned and everything to do with 'just getting it right'. Which, um, yeah.

    This is why, however stupid other things in Spec Ops are (I'm looking at you, Konrad), or however problematic the game may be in other ways, the WP scene works. It does not merely teach us the lesson that killing civilians is bad. It also tells us that in fluid and chaotic situations 'the end justifies the means' is a recipe for disaster. It tells us that righteous punishment of an enemy we think of as the bad guys is going to lead very bad places (if you don't think this is worth saying, I refer you to EVERY WAR EVER). And it tells us that when you have a gun in front of you or in your hands, and when you've been trained for hours to use it, everything looks like a target (which is why you don't use armies as police forces, and what you learn anew each time you do). In its own strange way, the scene gets rather closer to why civilians get killed in war - and why people then try to cover it up or defend it - than many of the games you list. At worst, it does a different job equally well.

    And you can say we didn't need this corrective as much as you like, but, just as there REALLY ARE people who believe Spec Ops is a transcendent masterpiece, there REALLY ARE a majority of AAA shooting games which make Spec Ops look complex, progressive, and revelatory. Its target is real.

    1. P.S. Actually, using WP as an offensive weapon against military targets is against the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Convention on Certain Chemical Weapons, not the Geneva Conventions per se - although the GC DO ban the use of incendiary weapons in civilian areas or against civilian targets. But this just a 'the more you know' quibble which I only know because I just wrote an article on war crimes in videogames.

  3. I really enjoyed Spec Ops because it explored a lot of complex ideas in a unique way. I don't think that the end goal of the WP scene was that killing civilians is bad. That wasn't the lesson being taught, that was a tool for teaching. The entire game was designed in a way that the creators could critique the genre, but more importantly critique the player, using language that we can all understand.

    I believe that there is so much going on in this game that it would be impossible for me to explore it all in a single post, but the most important ideas seem to me to be: 1) a critique of the player who looks to simulated warfare as a fantasy fulfillment (a character even says something about "those people died because you wanted to be a hero" which is, I think, speaking to the character AND the player) 2) a critique of the genre for glorifying the soldier archetype as an empowerment fantasy and 3) a critique of the gaming industry (developers and players, together) for failing to realize the potential of games to inspire meaningful conversation like this.


  5. Just stumbled across this blog... I will definitely read the rest of what's on here. Now to re-hash an old topic.

    The WP scene I think was the highest failure of the game, which is unfortunate because it is the catalyst for the unraveling of the protagonist. (I forgot his name). When the game starts and I got pulled into the story, all I could say to myself as each situation escalated was,"Why haven't they radioed back to their command?" Every instance when enemy contact was successfully resolved, the team had a chance to stop and radio back, but nevertheless they continued to push on. As a gamer I'm obviously enjoying it, but my rational mind was chiming in saying, "F this. I would be calling command first, then continuing. MAYBE." It would be a logical action, to an illogical situation. However, the WP scene just brought me back to reality that this was a game.

    The main character agrees with his LT that there was no choice but to use it. I remember running around after the convo looking for a way to a way to engage the troops head on before using the WP, but there was no other option. In that instance, the game robbed the player of a critical choice. it would have been easy to send the team in on foot anyways to avoid becoming criminals and have civilians get killed by WP by other means. However, by having the use of WP be the only choice ruins the weight of the decision being placed on the player. I felt nothing as a gamer because there really was NO OTHER CHOICE to make. Even one of the NPC teammates questions the actions before its carried out. All I could think afterwards was, "What the hell did you expect?" There was no true "exhaust all other options first before we commit Geneva crimes because were Spec-Ops and we should KNOW BETTER" discussion between them, and for that they truly became war criminals of their own doing. I remember thinking that prior to the WP scene most of their actions may have been deemed acceptable through the UCMJ (I'm loosely generalizing), but the WP use pushed it too far. Besides, no team mate flat out refused either.

    Overall the scene was handled poorly if the creators were trying to make a meaningful point in the story.

    1. That exactly what this game is trying to tell you about: Choices in game are ultimately pointless, especially in the games in tries to mock. The game is not about the horror of war, but instead trying to remind gamers that this is just a game in its own way.

      Thinking Gamer have put it better than I did. It shames that, J' Shea shit on a game that he hardly play at all. And if he does, its definitely not with open mind and full of prejudices because it receives praise from the mainstream media he hate (while in reallity, it also got fair share of flak as well).

    2. I felt like the game still did a really shitty job in that regard, it clearly wasn't trying to say "choices are pointless"(unlike Bioshock Infinite) since you do get multiple endings.

      I've played the whole game I agree with his criticisms.


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