There is a line that people like us (i.e. games bloggers) have to cross. It is the line which divides people who like Spec Ops: The Line from people who don’t.
On one side, its lauding as a landmark subversion and the subject of Brendan Keogh’s groundbreaking close reading, Killing is Harmless. On the other, the mocking, the eye-rolling; its indictment by J. Shea as the cake-eating adventures of Captain Obvious, by Michael Clarkson as a “gutless and cowardly critique”, and by Darius Kazemi as “a middling shooter fumbling at meaning.”
It is an easy game to take the piss out of. Just look at this scathing plot summary which recently circulated on Tumblr and Twitter:
A beefy male nothing with shaved head and dirty face…is walking towards a plot device named Konrad, who disappeared and then turned bad. Every five minutes he stops to duck behind a low wall as thirty humans pour in. We select a human with our cursor and press a button to make their head explode. We are assisted by two clones who explode heads of their own accord. Sometimes the male falls off a building.Ouch. The game lies wide open to accusations of trying to have its cake and eat it: ‘playing with’ and ‘subverting’ the violence and jingoism of the military manshooter instead of having the balls and imagination to offer an alternative. With its ludicrous twist, shouting CoDbros and heavy-handed Vietnam symbolism, it’s so hammy it might a well be called Speck Ops. Moreover, there is plenty problematic in its unquestioning reproduction of Joseph Conrad’s colonialist geography. Dubai, like Africa, as a foreign heart of darkness whose primary utility is as a ‘savage’ backdrop for the psychological torment of our whitebread western protagonist. Also, there are no women in it whatsoever.
Every few hours the sandstorm lifts to reveal a smirking developer, who asks us if we enjoy all of this killing. He disappears again before we have a chance to answer “meh”.
But there were many things I liked about Spec Ops too. For a start, it is a shooter in which the player commits war crimes that are actually depicted as war crimes. In 2011 the Red Cross asked the games industry to start educating its players about humanitarian law and punishing them for in-game breaches; Spec Ops goes further than most in pitching its perpetrators into a private hell. Everyone who has completed it will have a similar reaction to words ‘white phosphorous’ (suffice to say, spoilers follow).
Otherwise, much of my thought about the game is informed simply by my experience enjoying it: it made me go ‘ooh’, and ‘wow’, and sometimes ‘oo-er’. But I’m not too interested in the fleeting visual metaphors and symbolic set dressing that occupies much of Killing is Harmless. Instead, I see, behind all the theatrics and clumsy pretensions, a fascinating formal conceit: the swirling, repeated recontextualisation of a simple binary choice to either shoot or hold your fire.
Spec Ops is full of moments of such limited ‘choice’. There is the scene where you can either shoot or negotiate with a hostile American who is threatening you with his gun. You can either save a bunch of civilians, or let them die and save the CIA agent Gould, who is ostensibly more important to your mission. You’re asked whether you want to offer Riggs the mercy of your bullet or let him burn to death beneath the truck he crashed; later, whether to fire into the furious crowd who have just lynched your buddy or into the air to scare them all away.
Crucially, similar choices, engaged through the same mechanics and having the same feel on the plastic of the controller, appear in a more mundane form throughout. Some of the game’s battles can be avoided if the player uses stealth, while others don’t start until she fires. You can listen to conversations between enemy soldiers, or take the opportunity to kill them while they’re distracted. Even in the first real combat encounter, the player has the option of waiting for the others to shoot first. In essence, these Capital-C Moments Of Choice are just part of a broader sense in which Spec Ops casts the player as a ‘refrigerator box’ whose only means of interaction is as a walking gun. The only choices you ever get are whether to open fire or to take your finger off the trigger (where most of its peers don’t make the latter a viable option).
This is not to say, however, that those options always mean the same things. In some instances, shooting is the aggressive option, and withholding the passive one; kill the 33rd soldier, intervene to save Gould. With Riggs, it’s the other way round - leaving him alive simply condemns him to a horrible, slow death. Meanwhile both options relating to the civilian lynch mob involve shooting, but it’s a question of where you fire; shooting in the air is a scream, a letting off of pent-up aggression, for the gun that wants to be fired and the mind that no longer wants to kill.
It’s worth pausing at this point to reflect on the unique haptic properties of not shooting. In Shadow of the Colossus, holding down R1 for minutes on end produces a sense of real fatigue as you clamber up the hides of your vast enemies, and releasing it a blessed rest. Here, you shoot so many people that your trigger-finger is very likely to get exhausted. That only heightens the strange ‘feel’ of pressing nothing in a game based on pressing things. This feeling is hard to define, hard to pin down, but sharp and poignant, and it occurs often in a game about shooting or stabbing when you take a long, hard look at your enemy and decide to refrain. The quiet certainty of such decisions is like an exhalation; the absence of that familiar pressure on your figure, and the (apparent) absence of change.
This dichotomy is at its most intense and ambiguous in the game’s two-stage ending. While Martin Walker points his gun at his own head, you can shoot to deny the truth, to kill your inner Konrad and pin your sins on him. Alternatively you can release, let go, ignore, refrain, and accept responsibility for your mistakes. This was my choice: I lowered the gun, and closed my eyes, and thought “so be it. Punish me.” In fact, you can also get the same ending by shooting yourself, but there’s nevertheless an interesting reversal of rhetoric: the positive and decisive act of shooting can in fact be an act of avoidance and retreat. Later, if you choose to stay alive, there is another fork: plunge yourself back into the pleasurable tap-tap-tap of a final monstrous firefight against friends who look identical to the enemies who were supposed to be your friends…or wait, and let them free you of your gun-shaped agency.
This, for me, is the principal interest of Spec Ops. It sets up a simple, repeated binary choice based on the mechanics of its genre, but then surrounds these choices with contexs that call them into question. We might say its main artistic project is to problematise the decision to fire, to make you feel maximally queasy about killing people while generally refusing to give you another option. It indicts the act of engaging with the world from behind a gun – both in games, and on our own Earth.
For me, it succeeded. The game is peppered with sequences in which an ordinary decision to shoot in the midst of ordinary combat is suddenly called into question. In the frightening ‘mannequins’ scene, where a dangerous Heavy Soldier repeatedly swaps places with a number of shop dummies, you have to wonder what you’re shooting at and why you’re shooting. At another point you’re about to beat some guy’s face in (like you do every two minutes) when he suddenly appears to be your squad member Adams, screaming at you not to kill him; most players will hesitate until he raises his gun and forces you to fire. Later, another enemy temporarily resembles your other comrade, Lugo, his model stretched to the gigantic proportions of the highly-armoured Heavy. My reluctance to fire got me killed the first time around. And then there is simply the background disquiet which comes from shooting hundreds of soldiers who are wearing your own uniform. Yes, I know I should feel bad about shooting people in games anyway, not just white Americans. But the similarity of my enemies to my avatar exerted a constant draining effect, a background moral radio static. This is wrong, I was thinking, this shouldn’t be happening, can’t we talk it over. I’m not the only one who felt this sense of unease.
So forget Walt Williams’ interview guff about “the line between expectations and reality” (just because he made the game, doesn’t mean he knows what he’s talking about). The Line is R1, the trigger, the binary, the difference between two simple choices. It is the line that Walker attempts to draw through Dubai but by which Dubai is not divisible. The game surrounds that line with so many spectres and ghosts that we can’t take it for granted anymore, and the player reenacts Walker’s own psychotic logic by attempting again and again to apply this inadequate binary solution to increasingly disturbing and complex situations.
This is why I took Spec Ops to be more than merely a subversion of tropes or a glib comment on its own medium. Its cant about “wanting to be a hero” seems to point in that direction, but its critique of military force has real-world implications. Foreign policy based on the use of violence, military personnel used as police forces in occupied countries, and armed checkpoints in civilian zones all fall within its logic. We know from Bloody Sunday what happens when we ask men who are trained and psyched for battle to act as crowd control for a civilian protest, and from the checkpoints of Afghanistan what can go wrong when innocuous drivers approach twitchy, paranoid soldiers whose only way of stopping them is to fire shots aimed closer and closer to the heart.
Nor do we have to go very far to find real-world echoes of Walker’s attitude to his enemies. Walker insists that his own atrocities are the inevitable consequence of a war he didn’t start, just as Israel claims that Palestinians cause airstrike massacres and ‘human shield’ terrorism is to blame for collateral damage. We hear the voices of a thousand military PR officers in Walker’s claim that he’ll “make them pay for what they’ve done.” We recognize, too, his furious desire to take righteous revenge on a villainous enemy. When Coalition forces went into the Iraqi town of Fallujah in 2004 to avenge four Blackwater mercenaries, the death toll included 600 civilians. But a US army colonel had told the BBC: “The enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. He lives in Fallujah. And we’re going to destroy him.” When they came back in 2005, they came with white phosphorous.
I’ve argued before that even games which deal with warfare and soldiery should offer a range of verbs beyond ‘shoot’ and ‘wait’ (as in Aaron Reed’s fantastic Maybe Make Some Change). Spec Ops: The Line is part of a decadent tradition of subversive games which nuke their genres without stepping outside them. Real change in depicting war may only come when the power of the new consoles is used to simulate civilian populations and ambiguous or insoluble problems, rather than to give us a sweeter view of some guy’s head exploding. Nevertheless, Spec Ops has something clever at its heart. It's not revolutionary, but it changed at least a few people's minds, as evidenced by its unusually analytical coverage in mainstream outlets. It was a brave game for an AAA developer to make, and - for all it apes books and films - it is aesthetically interesting in specific, textured ways that only a videogame can be.