One of the strongest emotions I have ever had inspired by media wasn’t a pleasant one. Indeed, it made my skin crawl and my stomach churn in a way that no creepy classical painting, heart wrenching song or hardcore horror film ever has, and it did this not with vivid visuals or evocative prose, but with interactivity.
Spec Ops: The Line is a video game that was released in 2012, amidst the market saturation of military entertainment, or “Militainment” (Payne, 2014), and the games marketing reflected this. The poster and case displayed a stoic hero, gun held high, staring down any buyers, just like the legions of other games around it. The trailers were riddled with gunshots, explosions, helicopter crashes and distorted guitar riffs. Pure badassery, waiting to be unboxed. What actually awaited a gamer, though, was something completely different, and the marketing perfectly sets up the player to be shocked by what they end up playing and who they end up playing as.
The premise is loosely based on Joseph Konrads Heart of Darkness. A soldier, Captain Walker (the protagonist), is dispatched to assess the situation of a battalion of US soldiers led by Colonel John Konrad who, after the city was almost destroyed by super-sandstorms, volunteered his battalion to maintain order in the city and evacuate civilians. Of course, no one has heard from Konrad or the battalion, save for a garbled radio transmission stating that evacuation is impossible. After a trudge through the desert, you meet some Angry locals who capture an American soldier and kill a bunch of others. This forces Walker and his two squadmates into the city, declaring their reconnaissance mission now a rescue mission. You load your guns, prime your war face and charge into the city.
It’s after this that the game gets interesting. As the story unfolds, new factions enter the fray, all of them either American or American led. As well as this, about half way through the game Walker, and the player, unwittingly commit a pretty atrocious war crime. These two factors and the character spirals that these instances catalyse make Spec Ops: The Line, at least in my opinion, one of the most important games of recent years.
As I mentioned earlier, though there is so much to talk about in this game, I want to focus on the guilt that this game inspires, especially as a result of the aforementioned war crime. I can’t really go on without specifics, but I’ll try not to mention any of the particularly disturbing details. After encountering a fortified enemy position, Walker and his men use a White Phosphorus mortar to wipe out dozens of soldiers and, unwittingly, 47 refugees the soldiers were moving to a safer location.
It is important to mention the way that the phosphorus is delivered.
Walker aims his bombs from an infrared visual on a laptop, hearing screams in the background. When the smoke billows high enough they allow walkers face to be reflected on the screen, and we see who the scene is really accusing. The digitized massacre playing out is not meant to be the actions of Walker, but the player directly. When the player walks through the compound, past the screaming wounded and into the refugee area, the player is forced to recognize the weight of his or her earlier actions. The game, through a digitized readout of death and destruction in-game, makes the player equate the digital violence that they relish in entertainment to flesh and blood. It shows the reality of the players violence in the most confronting way possible in order to give back the weight to violence that recent war games have sapped away.
It doesn’t stop there, as the game further obliterates the fourth wall with confronting loading screens. From this point, mirroring the failing mental health of the protagonist, the loading screen text changes from standard shooter advice (eg. “Use grenades to flush enemies out of cover”) to confronting things like “This is all your fault?”, “Do you even remember why you came here?” and, my personal favourite, “Do you feel like a hero yet?”. The game deliberately and directly contacts the player to question them as to how much they had disassociated themselves from violence just so they could indulge in an escapist traipse through modern warfare (Payne, 2014). In the final confrontation with Konrad, the fourth wall is almost completely discarded as he attacks the actions and motivations of the player; pointing out the atrocities he or she has committed just so they could “feel like something you’re not… A hero.”
This is such a rich text, and for once the word count has been against me. I wish I could go on, because this game covers so much more, like PTSD, US foreign policy and masculinity. God, what a game. Anyway, it’s still around, though you are more likely to find it in bargain bins or steam flash sales than shelves. If you do ever come across it, I recommend it not because you will enjoy it (you won’t), but because if you enjoy violent video games as I do, then you need a game like this to remind you of the weight that should be applied to the portrayal of violence in every media; especially to video games, a market saturated by gallant heroes gunning down NPCs in the thousands without consequence or care.
Payne, M.T 2014, “War Bytes: The Critique of Militainment in Spec Ops: The Line”, Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 31, no. 4, pp. 265.