Thursday, November 1, 2012

spec ops: the line: the review: the title

Spec Ops: The Line is a game recommended to me by someone who said it made him feel physically ill. If you don’t think that’s a wholehearted recommendation of the game, then you have pretty boring opinions about what makes games worthwhile to play. For those who haven’t heard anything about it, it’s a modern war game set in Dubai, and describing the concept for people that haven’t played it beyond that will take away from what it’s trying to do. I’m aware that sounds silly, but it’s necessary. (This essay is safe reading for those who haven’t played it until the disclaimer that it isn’t.)

I started the game at about six or seven in the evening two days ago. I stopped for dinner around eleven. I finished the game around three in the morning. I spent most of yesterday recovering from the experience.

This is a game that’s open to interpretation. That’s something to be treasured. I’ve read a bunch of different thoughts on it, and people can take away vastly different things from the story. Games that are well-conceived and well-written enough to make this possible don’t come around often. This is a game with actual themes and motifs beyond bullets entering/leaving heads.

While I agree with most of his broad conclusions, the Extra Credits videos about the game oversold the gameplay by quite a bit. His interpretation was that, as a modern military shooter game with a much darker and more character-driven plot than most, it served as a satire of the genre as a whole. There’s a lot of support for this, both in the game itself and looking at our culture surrounding games, where this genre is one of the few types of games that has broken through to the true mainstream in a way that even bestselling-but-“nerdy” games like Final Fantasy were never truly “mainstream.” I feel that he oversold it a bit, though, when he tried to use the remarkably mediocre gameplay as an aspect of its satire; ie that the game isn’t supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be kind of a slog because that’s what war is, man.

Let’s dial it back a bit here, people. The gameplay was adequate. Nothing in the design points to it being made purposefully uninteresting or unfun; I’ve played a bunch of war games whose gameplay was even more sluggish without those games being accused of attempting to make a big point about games in general. Instead, the gameplay was good enough to keep the player going forward, while certainly not being good enough to merit playing the game just for the combat. All games have one aspect that dominates the others; usually that aspect is gameplay, with art and story that serve only to funnel the player toward the next content area. There are few games where everything in a game serves the story, especially in this genre (I would argue it happens occasionally in JRPGs, though I don’t play too many of those), but we should respect the games that attempt this, when they do a good job of it.

While it might upset the more traditional game designers’ sensibilities, just like any fan of gaming is more than alright with playing games with subpar story, graphics, and sound if the gameplay is good, sometimes we’ll have to play games with only average gameplay for those other aspects.

Like every dude with a blog that writes essays about Games Y’all Should Play, I’ll start off with the disclaimer that this post will spoil Spec Ops: The Line, and that if you haven’t played it, you definitely should. What follows is no longer safe for people who haven’t played the game.

The game opens on a title screen of a tattered, upside-down American flag waving while Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner plays. This introduces us to a couple aspects of Spec Ops: an irreverence for American interventionist ideology, and having the subtlety of a freefalling anvil. This title screen heavily influenced how I interpreted the narrative: not just as the story of one man’s descent into nihilistic destruction, but a metaphor about American involvement in other countries.

What happens in broad strokes? Walker is sent in to do some reconnaissance and save some civilians. He mucks around despite having barely the slightest clue what’s going on. In the name of saving people, he kills a lot of people, including civilians. He constantly runs around trying to undue the last terrible thing he did, fucking things up more as he continues. He justifies things by saying he had no choice, and refuses to withdraw from the situation by saying that people need to pay for what happened. It’s not a coincidence that American imagery and personalities are all over the game, because the game serves as a critique of American ideology.

And the load screens. This game has by far the best load screens ever in games. When it asks, “do you even remember why you came here?”, it was effective not just because I wasn’t expecting it, but because I genuinely could not… and because the same question could be posed to real-life American foreign interventions. Walker has to keep going through Dubai because he’s in Dubai.

Two paragraphs ago, I initially typed that “you” do certain things, before correcting that because of how inaccurate it is. While early in the game, Walker is such an obvious blank slate that the player can project themselves onto him, the a rational player’s thoughts and reactions will start to deviate from Walker’s before too long; for many people, this is during That Scene, when many players (including myself) futily attempt to not do the only thing the plot of the game allows. Later on, when Walker wanted to circle around the tower more so that he could “see what this gun can do,” my reaction was that I certainly did not want to see what the gun could do, thank you very much.

That’s why this game is not just a third-person shooter, but the most distinctively and most genuinely third-person shooter ever made. The character progression, which is emphasized so effectively by Walker’s physical deterioration throughout the game, just wouldn’t be possible if we were truly seeing the world through his eyes.

This is also what makes Spec Ops function as a form of satire on the genre of war shooter. These games are predicated on the player feeling heroic through the actions of their on-screen avatar, and identify with the positive feelings the hero feels. The satire is effective because Walker does almost the exact same things as the hero in any other “American Soldier in the Middle East” game, it’s only the character’s reactions are different. I fully expect to play war games in the future where I’m instructed to take over some computer terminal and drop bombs in it, and Spec Ops has preemptively ruined those segments by showing what really happens when people kill other people via remote control.

The “moral choice” systems in games have always been bullshit, and Spec Ops’ is just the same, except that it seems to intentionally make all your choices irrelevant. If this was another game, and it gave me the choice of either saving civilians or securing ~valuable intel~, I know that the impact of not having that intel can’t possibly stop me from seeing the game’s finale; the game will find a way around my choice and get me to the same point no matter what. Spec Ops does the same thing, except rub the player’s face in it more. No matter if you choose to save the civilians or the guy who can give you intel, they’re both dead and you don’t get the intel anyway. Why? Because fuck your moral choice systems, that’s why, sometimes choice is an illusion. None of the choices in the game matter, just like every other game, but at least this game has the decency to say so.

While the game’s narrative is incredibly engrossing, the ending of the game (as powerful as it is) still highlights how far game narratives have to go before they’re on par with the storytelling of other media. When the game is (rightfully) praised for its plot, including the conclusion, and that conclusion is one of the most cliché conclusions possible (and the head writer, in an interesting “Spoilercast” on GameSpot, says that the other most cliché conclusion possible—that of “he was dead all along”—is an interpretation that he buys into), it’s time to take a step back and examine what in Spec Ops was so effective. Not the gameplay, not the oft-covered thematic territory of “war is bad/hell/bad as hell,” not the hackneyed end-of-narrative plot twists, but how the game forced the player to do things the player did not want to do in order to continue. This is a necessary development for games, and will be one of Spec Ops’ lasting influences. Gameplay can be used to produce feelings other than fun and arousal (in various forms), and just as movies can take the perspective of characters other than the heroic, so can games make the player cause something other than things getting better, and the antagonist closer to their inevitable downfall.

Spec Ops is an important game. It’s not about the protagonist changing the world to be better, but about the protagonist changing into something terrible.

ADDENDUM (because I meant to write this and totally forgot): as much as games journalists have been going nuts over how shocking and important Spec Ops: the Line is, its initial reception also serves as an indictment of the traditional system of release-and-review that is games journalism. The PC version of Spec Ops (the version I played) has a rating of 76/100 on Metacritic, compared to 87/100 for the latest Battlefield 3 DLC.

How do you give a percentile rating to a game that will change the way people think about war games? Should I give it a B+ for sound because of occassional audio glitches and voice acting that shook me to the core because of the emotional intensity of the words they were saying? Do the 360 and PS3 versions receive a 4% score penalty because their textures of murdered civilians and the protagonist's face reflected in a computer screen aren't as high resolution as they are on PC?

The game review is a medium that rewards competence and marginal improvements over what has come before, in order to show that things have gotten better over the past few years. Were it not for a friend telling me about it, I would have seen Spec Ops' mediocre scores and ignored it entirely.

A final helpful hint for people looking at aggregated reviews for games: if it receives any score 85% or below with low deviation (ie every review is in the same range), it's unplayably generic. If it scores 85% or below and the scores deviate wildly, it's a must-play.

(I'm trying out this Google Affiliate thing, so I hope I don't offend anyone's sensibilities with the ad below this.)


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