Spec Ops: The Line Isn’t Profound, It’s a Shooter
I hate shooters.
I just thought I should get that out of the way up front. They’re just too busy trying to be self-important and Epic and cover a Grand Scope and really Touch On The Human Condition to step down from their lofty, ambitious pedestals to realize that the genre hasn’t really changed much since 1993. John Carmack said during the development of Doom, Quake, and Id’s early games that shooters don’t need a story – that the action and flow of a shooter is actually broken up by trying to shoehorn Meaning or Story or really anything greater than mere Context.
In the days since Doom and Quake, almost nothing has changed with the format of the shooter. The past 20 years has seen cutscenes inserted between levels to try and give us some sort of Reason to be moving from room to room killing things. But aside from the cinematics, and a significant graphical overhaul, the modern shooter is pretty much functionally identical to Doom.
Doom is a game that is, by its own admission, unashamedly about nothing more than killing lots and lots of things.
Upon the release of Spec Ops: The Line, the buzz was that finally – finally – here was a shooter that provided real gravity and feelings of consequence to all the standard mindless shooter violence and actually said something.
The problem is, Spec Ops: The Line is still, for better or worse, a shooter.
The story in Spec Ops is a loose reimagining of Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now which is itself a loose reimagining of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. That in and of itself should clue you in to the level of simulacra we’re dealing with right off the bat. The Colonel who the player character (voiced by the “at-this-point-’ubiquitous’-is-an-understatement” Nolan North, by the way) is searching for is even named ‘Konrad’ – cute, eh? The basic premise is that a team of American soldiers is sent into Dubai to search for more American soldiers and are forced to fight their way out of a complete shitstorm, learning firsthand about the horror and dehumanizing nature of war, all while shooting about seventy-gazillion “insurgents” in the face along the way.
And that, ultimately, is the problem. Mechanically speaking, the shooter is still stuck back in the Doom days, still blasting away aliens/terrorists/whatever with a depraved grin while spattering the screen with a spray of red, just enjoying the sport of it. Stuffing a bunch of cutscenes and distressed-sounding barks in a shooter doesn’t suddenly give the on-screen slaughter Meaning. Telling players what “their” character is supposed to think about the violence through cinematics does nothing except get in the way of the killing.
Shooters are specific in that oftentimes the only way players can interact with the world is through the barrels of their guns. This tautological observation means that shooters, by their very design nature, encourage a string of constant violence; players’ interactions with the world are inherently destructive, as they are either passing through a world, or shooting it. As a result, the “violence” in shooters has been sterilized, as it is the only interaction the player can carry out. Shooter violence does not carry the emotional weight of its real-life counterpart. It is, as the games’ sole mechanic, just another type of problem solving, like jumping gaps or pushing blocks.
THIS IS THE PARAGRAPH WITH THE SPOILERS, IF YOU CARE ABOUT THAT SORT OF THING
There is a moment in Spec Ops: The Line that is often cited as a pivotal example of the Impact that the game is touted for conveying. At one point, you and your squad need to cross a courtyard patrolled by a platoon of hostile American soldiers. Rather than engage in what would certainly be a suicidal firefight, your team decides to shell the soldiers with white phosphorous from a nearby mortar. As you hear the soldiers screaming and dying as they immolate, you can tell It is one of those moments that was supposed to be very heavy-hitting and Significant.
Ironically, it was one of the moments during which I felt more detached from the violence on screen. This is partially because the action is viewed through the infrared scope of the targeting drone overhead, but partially because, in the scope of the game as a whole, the violence was no more meaningful than any of the other killing I had been doing up to that point. The game had spent its entirety up to that point desensitizing me to mass violence, and now all of a sudden, for a very arbitrary, artificial reason, I’m supposed to care?
Spec Ops is very keen in its latter half to take every opportunity to remind you of the fact that the nameless, faceless characters you are mowing down are Americans. It even goes so far as to insert a loading screen blurb that reads “how many Americans have you killed today,” just to remind you that these characters/targets/masses of pixels mean more than those others that you’ve been killing and that you should Feel Something about it.
However, there is functionally speaking no difference between the Americans you kill in the second half of the game and the Insurgents you kill in the first half, except that their barks are delivered in American accents instead of Arab accents. Like every other shooter peon enemy ever, they are ubiquitous and facially obscured; they shoot at you. Telling us through cutscenes that these characters are somehow more important than other characters and that we should feel differently about killing them rings laughably hollow.
The biggest flaw present in Spec Ops: The Line is that it is still just a shooter. It tries to make a point about how horrible violence is within a genre that is at best apathetic about violence and at worst totally enamored with it. Throughout my playthrough of Spec Ops I killed just as much, if not more, than I have in any other shooter, and it was just as meaningless. Telling me it should hold more meaning doesn’t make it so.
This is the fatal flaw present in shooters today: they’re trying so hard to advance storytelling conventions but neglecting to advance the way the games are actually played; in short, they’re taking Doom and trying to tell us it’s A Farewell To Arms. Some developers have realized that the way shooters are played hasn’t changed, and instead opted to change the way the story is presented instead.
Look at Far Cry 2, a game that has no story to speak of. It is a game in which, like other shooters, the player commits constant acts of heinous violence. Ingeniously, that is exactly what the game’s “story” is “about”: your character committing acts of heinous violence. The game provides very little Story or Context for you murder spree. It doesn’t deign to tell you what you should think about the killing you’re doing, no cutscenes to try and insert character feelings; it just has you kill. Far Cry 2’s lack of narrative heavy-handedness doesn’t just acknowledge that the killing in shooters is sterile and mechanical, it embraces it. It uses the shooter convention of mass violence to encourage you to become the cold, mechanical killer you portray on screen and then proceeds to not give a fuck about what that does or doesn’t Mean.
Spec Ops: The Line is a fun shooter. It is mechanically sound and snappily responsive and it does a fine job of making you want to play it. It is not, however, a profound shooter. It is a game that purports to treat on violence without realizing that its very foundation is built on a genre that is self-admittedly apathetic towards any deeper thematic discussion on the subject. I chuckled when one of Spec Ops’ loading screen blurbs provided the definition of cognitive dissonance; I wondered if the developers would ever pick up on the irony.