Wednesday, November 28

Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line - Book Review

This post contains spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line.

This marks a first for me: a book review. I've undertaken quite a few critical readings of modern fiction texts over the course of my university studies, but never have I actually thought to write a conventional review. The principal reason for this is because it usually takes me weeks -- if not months -- to read a book and I'm not in a position to effectively criticize most of the books I've read because the finer details are usually lost on me by the time I reach the farthest page to the right.

The best thing I can say about Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line is that it's written in accessible language, and provided that you have some experience with shooters and video games in general, you should breeze through it. Keogh's a gifted writer, and this is an easy read which confirms a lot of what I thought, points to some finer details that I missed on my admittedly fast playthrough, and gives me some reasons to consider revisiting what was an ugly, though engrossing tale. Killing is Harmless is pretty much the only reason I picked up the game that’s the subject of this reading, and the foreword has to be one of the best advertisements for a video game mine eyes have seen.

The greatest criticism I can level at Killing is Harmless is that it's not -- at least in my opinion -- a critical reading of a game. It's long-form "new games writing" that relates the author's experience with the game to what I presume to be a lifetime spent playing games. There's a lack of real criticism levelled at the game itself, and a lot of the observations made in the text felt natural to me: a man who's received a quality education and has some knowledge of the Vietnam War, protest music, semiotics, US imperialism/interventionism and who had -- perhaps most importantly -- completed the game solely as preparation to read this text. I went in looking for stuff to read (puns!).

There’s no perspective adhered to for the length of the text either, giving further weight to this being more of a meditation than a critical reading; though there are some recurring themes. Keogh spends a lot of time focussing on an observation from the game’s lead writer, and this influences a great deal of his character analysis. Interpreting the podcast utterances of a creative doesn't equate to a reading here, and it won't register as profound to anyone's who has witnessed the gradual degradation of Captain Walker and Co. in Spec Ops: The Line. Another constant in Keogh's deliberations is focussing on the meaning of the protagonist's name. I agree that it may have some significance in terms of critiquing games in general, as linear progression is a common video game trope (read: it's not exclusive to shooters). However, his repeated attempts to squeeze meaning out of Walker's name start to wring hollow.

I think it's hard to read too deep into Spec Ops if you focus on the concept of "advancing = complicity" because the game itself forces the player to engage in two major atrocities. The argument Keogh presents is that the player could stop playing (even though the game wants you to realise that you won’t stop playing) if they don’t want to participate in or otherwise witness war crimes, but this is a copout. Wanting to stop play isn't normally a cause for in-depth investigation in games journalism, it's a reason to lower a score (if you’re reading a publication that tends to assign one). Having the player abandon the game to either trade it in or get a refund is NOT a design choice. Any person who willingly creates a game with even a whiff of intent for the player to give up only to subsequently dispose of it probably shouldn’t be involved in games design. If Keogh’s theory runs true and the developers did indeed want for players to consider abandoning their trek through Dubai, then Spec Ops’ disappointing sales could be proof of my assertions.

One thing I thoroughly enjoyed about Keogh’s comprehensive recollection of The Line was realising that I’d missed a lot of symbols in my quick playthrough. In fact, seeing what I had missed opens up some possibilities for… well… actual readings of Spec Ops. Like how about the unrequited love story between Walker and Konrad, for instance? That shit would get some copies moving off the shelves. Granted, you couldn’t get fifty thousand words out of that one (though my wife, the product of a similar education argues otherwise); but I think there’s something there.

For what it’s worth, Keogh has written something important and – ultimately -- readable. This may not be the first long form critical reading of a game (it’s still coming), but it is a lengthy and entertaining read. There may be some obvious calls and some drawing of long bows, but it’s nice to know someone saw and felt something similar to you when playing through this ordeal (believe me when I say that calling Spec Ops an ordeal is no overstatement). Killing is Harmless, much like Spec Ops: The Line, is important: it’s fresh ground, and I hope there’s room for more long form games writing in the market – much like I hope that Yager again tries its hand at the thoughtful shooter and finds commercial success. We need to think about what we do when we play games and shooters specifically, and we need more people prepared to write about the experience of playing and questioning at length.  

Keogh is Walker is Konrad is the player is the reader.  

You can purchase Killing is Harmless: A critical reading of Spec Ops: The Line from for the introductory price of $2.99 (valid until 21 December, 2012). 

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