Note: This post contains vague plot spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line.
There are very few games I've played this year -- let alone in my lifetime -- that have forced me to reflect on what it is that I'm actually doing when I'm playing games. Most often, I'm killing something: shooting someone, aiming for the head, bringing death. Most games frame their violence in such a way that its implication for and impact on a protagonist are swept under the rug in favour of the big picture story. Be it winning a futuristic war, repelling an alien invasion, or avenging the loss of a loved one: the ends often justify the means.
Worse still, most of the games I've played have allowed me to trust my hero. To believe the path they've taken -- that's often linear -- is righteous. There's no time or reason for me to question cleaving a Locust Drone in twain, or dispatching some zombie, vampire or other nightmare-fuelled creature because they are so effectively "othered" that my actions warrant no further consideration. Everything fits the usually bulky, macho man's vision. They kill so that the Nazi advance is stopped, so the North Koreans fail to take the American Mid West, and so that evil is vanquished from many a land. There's no grey area. I'm good, we're good, the baddies die. Game over.
Those are the questions that Spec Ops: The Line asks, but in so cheap a fashion that the impact is potentially lost.
Before I get to the heavier aspects of this title, know that Yager's effort plays like just about every other third person cover shooter on the market. You hunker down, you scrounge for ammo, you pop from cover when the time is right. There's the odd turret section and on-rails level to break up the monotony, and you gain access to a respectable arsenal over the course of the adventure. It all seems very familiar, and that's part of what makes The Line so effective. You've done this a thousand times before, as a thousand different "cold, hard, handsome killers."
The game lulls you into this false sense of security and then confronts you with some of the most harrowing imagery and themes that you'll find while cast in the role of an American soldier. The game's protagonist, Captain Martin Walker is voiced by the almost literal video game everyman, Nolan North. With such a familiar lead, Spec Ops tries to show players the real impact that killing around a thousand men would have on the average person's psyche. It's really affecting to see someone that looks and sounds mighty similar to Drake (of the Uncharted series) fall apart under the weight of their own actions and body count. For someone who's always had a bit of a problem with how someone like Drake is thought to be so utterly endearing, in spite of the fact that he's murdered more than the population of Australia and New Zealand combined -- for TREASURE, no less -- it's refreshing... and horrifying to see the consequence of all those spent clips and grenades.
There are some truly gruesome and haunting scenes to behold across your (approximately) six hours in Dubai, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that the overall experience has left me hesitant to play any game that involves death on any scale after reaching two of several possible conclusions. I finished Spec Ops on Monday, and I haven't had the heart to return to Black Ops II for the purpose of reviewing the multiplayer component, or thought of playing anything else that involved firearms. This may not be the thinking man's shooter -- squad tactics play no great part; be patient, choose your shots, and you should get through without much fuss -- but it'll keep you up at night.
This all sounds great right? So how does the Shooter Parable lose sight of its message?
Spec Ops: The Line telegraphs the two biggest punches in its repertoire, and the experience suffers as a result. Forcing players into a particular telling of events means that the illusion of choice built up earlier in the game goes up in smoke.
Still, there were sequences where I was audibly saying "No, no, FUCK NO!!!" because I was unnerved and genuinely appalled at what I was capable of (even given that there was no real alternative). It's cheap storytelling when you clobber your audience with unavoidable consequence and horror, but there's no arguing that it's not effective in this case.
Sandstorm-ravaged Dubai is literally dripping with symbolism -- as evidenced by Brendan Keogh's fifty thousand word anecdote, Killing is Harmless -- and it doesn't hurt to stop and take in your surroundings. Even on what is now a low-mid range laptop, the visuals impressed in terms of both art direction and technical proficiency. Some of the set pieces are nothing short of jaw-dropping. Spec Ops may be a sleeper hit, but it'll wow you if given half a chance.
For mine, Spec Ops: The Line and Hotline Miami are two of the year's most important games, as they've forced me to reflect on the how, the who and the why of video game violence. While Hotline Miami's message is somewhat more abstract (and most likely imagined on my part), Spec Ops bludgeons you with its commentary. It's ugly, it's horrifying, it's an ordeal, and it's absolutely worth experiencing. Something else packaged in something utterly familiar.