Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Spec Ops: The Line

Let us check in on the status of the War on Terror, shall we?  In ten years we've gone from merrily dropping ordinance on Iraq with a proud patriotic bounce in our step while whistling Yankee Doodle Dandy, to now bombing Mesopotamia all over again - but this time we really feel awful about it.  The high we got from crusading against terrorism has long worn off and now we're left with this awful national hangover and a ruined Middle East.  Today President Obama looks less like the leader of the free world than a sad little man trying to plug up every leaking hole before the dam finally collapses.  We killed Bin Laden, we liberated Iraq from tyranny, we destroyed Al Qaeada's networks, and yet terror reigns more free than ever before.  Every strike of our mighty red white and blue hammer of freedom only shattered the Middle East more and more.

I do not know how the War on Terror will finally be judged in the history books, whether students of the future will see the early 21st century as more a tragedy or a farce, but this will be a frightening time of introspection.  The United States did not like when it was shown its own conqueror nature after Vietnam*, I doubt it will like what it learns from Iraq either.  It is easy to live with simple illusions - they're friendly roommates always accommodating to one's ego.   It is much harder to live with the truth who isn't going to coddle you and will get your goddamn share of the electric bill, one way or another.

If there is any one piece of media that most appropriately sums up the current state of the world, it would a little video game called "Spec Ops: The Line".  "The Line" belongs to a series of very boring squad-based modern military shooters, each one as generic and artistically meaningless as the last.  That is, until the final game, a huge release timed to compete with such brilliant commentaries on modern warfare as "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare", perhaps the dumbest series of video games of our time (yet fantastic popular).  Adolescent and adolescent-minded gamers just wanted to release their pent up masculinity into some Terrorists, they did not want a long sermon about the failure of American foreign policy as represented by an "Apolcalypse Now" homage set in the ruins of Dubai.  "Spec Ops: The Line" essentially killed its own franchise by doing something new and incredible.  But forgetting mere sales, "The Line" represents a new frontier in gaming storytelling, and a dark warning for those yearning for another jaunt through the Fertile Crescent.

As you may have guessed from those swipes at Call of Duty (and I held back - a lot) I am not a big fan of modern military shooters.  It would take a lot before I started rating a military shooter very highly, especially one like "Splops: The Line" which is a cover-based shooter with slightly outdated combat.  The shooting segments are ultimately have very little to be said about them.  You duck behind cover, and you shoot at enemies.  A lot of the times your hero will find himself fused with the cover when you want to be more mobile, limiting your options and getting you killed.  The fighting turns into a theme park BB gun game where you have to shoot the enemy as soon as they pop their dumb heads out of cover.  Health regenerates, the enemy is not terribly bright, and you almost don't even need to change positions while shooting.  Just keep hitting the targets and you'll win a big purple stuffed teddy bear.

It just is not very good gameplay.  It ranges from simply boring, on-rails segments, to being actively unpleasant, such as the final levels where nine trillion enemies will show up and will keep firing volleys of rounds until every piece of metal in the Middle East has passed through their gun barrels.  I actually felt truly seasick by the time I finished the game.  I'm sure the developers, Yager Studios, are pleased to know that for me shellshock set in after five hours of constant explosions and head shots, making me feel physically ill.  For military shooter veterans though, this gameplay would be a comfortable romp through a traditional experience.  There's nothing sloppy or badly made in the war, it just never becomes fun.  War is supposed to be Hell after all, and what is more Hellish than a mediocre gunfight?

Normally at this point I would conclude:  the game is not fun to play, and move on.  I've judged most games simply on the metric of "how enjoyable are they to play?"  Admittedly this is a shallow judgment, but most games we have covered on Planet Blue really have not had much more ambition than to be fun.  Companies like Nintendo have corned the market on fun.  However, comparing "Special Operations: The Line" to a "Super Mario Galaxy" is viewing the game incorrectly.  This does not want to be an enjoyable experience.  The ambitions of "Spec Ops" developer, Yager Studios, lie elsewhere.

Nothing more than a typical jingoist fantasy of shooting Brown people, right?  Oh no.  Not even close.
The backstory of "Spec Ops" involves Dubai, the opulent superficial gem of the Middle East, being destroyed and cut off from the world by a series of impossibly huge sandstorms.  A US humanitarian mission led by the finest (and most fictional) brigade in the army, the Damned 33rd, abandons their orders to retreat and occupy the city to save lives.  The actually game is set several years later as you, Captain Walker, lead a three-man Delta team into Dubai to scout out the situation and again with the best intentions, bring home the Americans trapped in the skyscraper-infested Hell.  Things go from bad to worse almost immediately, as you get caught in a firefight against local Arab insurgents, and then find yourself in a shooting war with the very soldiers you came to rescue.

For most of this game your enemies are not something as repugnant and morally unambiguous as terrorists, or even better Nazis, they are US soldiers.  Yes, the soldiers want to kill you, but only after a miscommunication and a few battles have left you demolishing several hundred of their buddies.  The entire game is this awful circle of violence, spiraling downward and downward, until you are flushed down into a sewer of madness and mass murder.  Even your character's voice grows harsher and his tone gets more ragged, going from clinical operation euphemisms "tango is neutralized" to furious bloodthirsty "GOT THE FUCKER!"

A game like "Tomb Raider" delights in the slaughter your character unleashes, while being completely unaware of the contradictions this killing has with the story it is trying to tell.  That's a game that wants to have its cake and also fill its cake with bullets too.  "Spec Ops: The Line" knows exactly the brutality your character is diving into, and relishes the gray moral area into which it throws its player.  No cake for this game, unless that cake can plead for its mother and bleed profusely.  It definitely is a lot of fun to shoot a rapist in the balls, but how much fun is it to shoot your own countrymen who in their own way are just trying to protect themselves and the surviving people of Dubai?  I bet you cannot even work up the aggression to aim for his testicles, tempting though they may be.

As the story continues to unfold the already grayness of the situation takes a hard left turn towards straight darkness.  "The Line" may be the first video game to ever have its player star as the villain.  Games have indulged in their exploitation antiheroes before, everybody loves driving like a maniac through the streets of Liberty City in a stolen Toyota, but this is a game that is not an escapist fantasy.  It is the kind of game you want to turn off.  Your mission was stated to help people, yet every action you commit only drives the situation further and further into an ocean of shit.

"The Line"'s favorite trick is pulling back the curtain on the reality of your actions.  Every time the game starts to become "game-y" and you let your guard down, that is exactly the moment it strikes.  One infamous sequence allows you to annihilate an entire enemy base filled with foes, letting you relish step by step the destruction and smite these villains like an Old Testament deity through an emotionless laptop display.  Then you actually get to see who was down in that base, what your smiting has wrought.  See where the joy of carnage has brought you?  Look at what you've done, you monster.  Later you get an exciting chase sequence, only for it to conclude with basically being told that you've doomed the entire city.  Yeah, you're given a dark figure at the top of a tower to taunt you as the representation of ultimate evil, but just how far do you have to sink to reach this final boss?  And will killing him actually solve anything?

You cannot really say "Spec Ops" is tricking you at any point.  By the time you're seeing bodies beg while burning of white phosphorus injuries, you should know this is not going to end well.  Your squad mates begin to exchange nervous glances, as if Walker has truly gone mad.  Uncontrollably the story descends further into the depths of depravity - metaphorically represented in this game by just about every level slopping downwards as you move forward.  And less metaphorically represented by the piles of bodies you leave in your wake.  Walker wants so badly to be the stereotypical White American hero of a Call of Duty game, and will deceive himself into believing it for as long as he can.  The only question is if you can join him in the fantasy despite every evidence to the contrary.

Nobody ever means to hurt anybody.
Thankfully for this game, the art design is fantastic.  Dubai makes for a perfect ironic backdrop for this story.  The city is more of a huge temple to modern capitalism than a real location that real people live in.  It's an amusement park taking the shape of a metropolis.  Gorgeous ultra-modern architecture and sweeping riches are devoured by the sand, then decorated with shrapnel.  Children play with crudely sewn together dolls with eyes made from diamonds, a priceless object now turned into so much rubbish thanks to the desperation of the situation.  This is a very pretty game with a fine use of color.  Some segments are bathed in psychedelic neon fog.  The brightness of the desert sun along with varied level design makes for a crisp well-built environment for you to splash with enemy blood.  Building on the roots of "Apocalypse Now" the soundtrack is mostly 1960s Jimi Hendrix or Deep Purple tracks.  Vietnam is in the air this game breathes, and your ears will be reminded constantly.

"Spec Ops" also loves to torment its player with various notes on the loading screens.  It will kindly remind you "Killing unarmed civilians is prohibited by the US military code, but this is just a video game, so who cares?"  It deconstructs the entire shooter genre with lines such as:  "Killing for yourself is murder, killing for your government is heroism, but killing for entertainment is harmless."  There is this mocking punk attitude, as the designers troll their audience mercilessly.  More directly it will ask more damning questions like "How many Americans have you killed today?" or get right to the heart of the matter:  "Do you even remember why you came here?"  Throw in some hallucination horror segments, the fourth wall breaking here and there, and the main villain's face showing up on billboards throughout Dubai and this is a game that is truly fucking with your brain, and I love it.

Of course nobody really does remember what the mission was.  That mission ended when you killed your first friendly.  Now you can only keep following the path in front of you, to whatever horrible end it might lead.  The only other solution is perhaps the most sane of all:  turn the game off and play something else**.  But you're not going to do that, you have to see how this story ends.

Narrative in video games typically are just traditional narrative piggy-packed onto an interactive experience.  Take away the role playing battles of a Final Fantasy game and you're left with basically just a mediocre to decent anime.  "Spec Ops: The Line", however, might be one of the very few games whose stories could only have been told through a video game.  Captain Walker is too obviously a terrible person.  Watching him do the things he does in a movie would result in you simply turning against him like any other villain.  But when you are Captain Walker, when you are committing these atrocities yourself, you're sharing the blame.  Walker may have had no choice (or fooled himself into believing that) but you took every step the same as he.  Simulating villainy and simulating horror might not be pleasant, however, it definitely makes for fascinating results in the audience. 

The final scene of "Spec Ops" is an open question:  does Walker deserve to live after what he's done in Dubai?  Could you live with this?  The gun is put in your hand, just make the final choice.

Weird that such a dark game is so full of color.
"Spec Ops: The Line" seems to be a game that perhaps President Obama should have played before going to war again.  I doubt he will find the magic answer to the impossible foreign policy questions that stand before him.  But just waving the American flag and having good intentions will not be enough to save the world.  Misread the situation and you could destroy it all.  George W. Bush misread the situation, he wanted nothing more than to save the Middle East, and clumsily blundered us into a whole new generation of conflict.  We've paved our rode to another Iraq War with good heroic delusions.  Where are we paving now?  Blind yourself with fantasies of valor and you will never know where the road you're traveling leads.

* People like Dinesh D'Souza, for example, still refuse the truth.

** Which the game designers have coyly claimed was exactly their intent.  A legitimate ending to the story of "Spec Ops: The Line" is simply the player taking the disc out of their console.

1 comment:

  1. I have really got to get this game at some point, I was considering getting it on the last steam summer sale,but I decided to get system shock 2, the original half life, xcom enemy unknown and elder scrolls 4.
    The thing that is holding me back , is that yes the story seems to be amazing, but im not the biggest fan of modern day shooters.
    The only shooters a I like are fun ones like Metroid prime,valve shooters etc.
    Still I do plan to get this down the road.
    Glad to have you back.
    Sword Of Primus