Last year, I played a rather unique game with the unwieldy title of "Spec Ops: The Line". It makes innovative use of the interactive game medium (a first-person shooter in particular) to make a critical analysis of the nature of first-person shooters themselves. The YouTube show "Extra Credits" did a two-part discussion of this game. Part 1 is a spoiler-free explanation of why you should play this game. So if you've ever played an FPS, and a brainy, metay deconstruction of the FPS in FPS form sounds like a good time, then please go buy it now and play it before reading the rest of this post.
The rest of this post will be filled with spoilers!
I'll be focusing on two moments of the game that particularly stood out to me.
"Rememeber when the first storms hit Dubai?"
The story of the game is that a massive dust storm wiped out Dubai. A US infantry battalion went into the city to assist with search and rescue several months ago and haven't been heard from since. Suddenly, there's a radio signal. And so the player character, a Delta Force captain, goes in with two squadmates.
You begin the game thinking you're a hero, but over the course of the game, through confusion, friendly fire, and worse, your character's morality disintegrates. The infantry battalion you're looking for is led by a commander named "Conrad", so they're not exactly subtle about being inspired by "The Heart of Darkness". But, as Roger Ebert liked to say about movies, "It's not about what it's about. It's about how it's about it."
Friends and foes
The game opens in an intentionally generic way. My squad of 3 American soldiers runs into a group of Arabic irregulars wielding AK-47s and wearing headscarves.
And so I run through the environment shooting Arabs for a while, just like any other military shooter. The enemy is "othered", making them easier to dehumanize and kill. (Though even here, if you pay attention, it's not exactly clear if they're really bad, and my character kinda started the shooting...)
Then I run into the US infantry battallion I was looking for, but there's more confusion, and suddenly we're shooting at each other. Suddenly, I'm shooting at Americans! Now when I shoot them, I hear them saying things like, "We need a medic!" No more foreign languages. Less "othering".
Eventually, I sneak up on two American soldiers on a ledge overlooking the city at sunset, and I overhear this exchange:
"Hey Bradley… you got any gum?"
"Here ya go. Last piece."
"I don't wanna take your last piece, dude."
"Take it. Stole it off'a Benson, anyway"
"Oh. Well, fuck that guy."
"Hehe… No kiddin'."
*sigh* "You know, with all the shit goin' on, I forget how beautiful this place can be."
"I feel ya."
"You know sometimes at night I'll come out here and sit. Just listen to the wind."
"Yeah. Reminds me of how the wind used to howl through the trees where I grew up."
"Kinda peaceful, actually."
"Hard to believe there's any peace in a place like this, huh?"
"You gotta look for peace, no matter where you are, man. Helps remind you what you're fightin' for."
"Yeah, true that. Anyway, thanks for the gum. I'm gonna go check upstairs."
As the soldier walks up the stairs, he spots me.
And so I shoot both of them in the head.
If I didn't, he would've shot me. I had no choice.
After killing those two very humanized characters, I of course go on to kill hundreds more, as you do, when you play a first-person shooter. It's just that this game refuses to play along with the game of dehumanization and othering. This game is showing me the true consequences of killing all these people.
I have no choice but to shoot the enemies to progress in the game, right?
But of course I have a choice.
I chose to play the game. I could always choose to put down the controller.
Spec Ops: The Line just wants me to know what I'm really doing when I play military shooters: I'm choosing to fantasize about killing humans. Unlike other shooters, it doesn't make this easy.
A real choice
Late in the game, a helicopter crash separates me from one of my squad mates. Over the radio, I hear him being surrounded by an angry mob. I reach him too late; he's already been lynched. And now the mob is turning on me.
My remaining squad mate wants revenge. He's shouting things like, "Let me open fire! Just give me the fucking order!" The mob has no guns, but they're starting to throw rocks at me. The rocks flash the screen red to show that they're damaging me.
What do I do? Do I have to shoot these civilians? Do I, once again, have no choice? Is my only moral "choice" to put down the controller and let my character get stoned to death?
Suddenly, I think of something: I point my gun into the air and shoot up.
And the crowd scatters!
It's difficult for me to convey how amazing this felt. The game finally gave me a chance to reclaim a tiny part of my humanity. I felt like I got to make a real choice, with real consequences.
Crucially, it let me do so purely using game mechanics. Imagine if the game presented me with a prompt, instead:
What would you like to do? [Shoot into crowd] [Shoot into the air]
I think that would have stripped out all the morality. I would've felt like I just picked one branch of the story, and I would've been curious what the other branches were like. I would've thought about my choice through formalism and not emotions. The key to making the scene work was that I felt like the actions I was taking were an extension of me. It was only by applying a decision through standard gameplay mechanics that the decision felt real.
I think this is a crucial concept that more games need to embrace: Using the game mechanics feels like an extension of yourself, and so moral choices made through those mechanics have far more impact that choices presented through prompts or explicitly selected choices (like dialogue trees). The indie game "Papers, Please" will deserve its own post, but it achieved a similar effect of making me feel like my actions had moral consequences, because I was making choices through game mechanics.
The impact of the game
While I had played a fair amount of Modern Warfare 2 and Battlefield 3, I haven't played any military shooters since Spec Ops: The Line. I'll probably play them again some time, because the viceral fun is still there, but there will be a part of me in the back of my head that feels a bit more guilty.
The lynch mob scene still sticks with me. I think there's a lot of room for games to use game mechanics to explore moral choices, as Papers, Please has also done. I look forward to seeing more examples of games that make me stress out about the moral implications of what I'm doing.
If you want to know more about the other interesting techniques this game uses, Extra Credits analyzes the game in a spoiler-filled way in Part 2 of their series.
And if you played the game and are as obsessed with it as I am, then you might be happy to know someone wrote an entire book about the game called: Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line, analyzing it beat-by-beat!
Addendum 1: Storytelling through background dialogue
In Spec Ops: The Line, as the player character progresses through the game, the random battle dialogue changes. In the early game, he's likely to say "professional" things like, "Target eliminated!" or "Tango down!" In the late game, after he's killed scores of people, when his journey into the heart of darkness nears its end, he's more likely to underscore kills with "FUCKING DIE!"
(Which is more human?)
Addendum 2: The dangers of perspective
The topic of "othering" reminds me of something that happened many years ago when the US military commissioned a first-person shooter called "America's Army". The multiplayer would be US military vs terrorists, but they didn't want anyone to be playing as terrorists, so they came upon a brilliant solution: You are always the Americans! That is, you see yourself as an American soldier going in for mission to rescue a hostage that the terrorists are holding, but the players on the other side see themselves as Americans protecting a VIP that terrorists are trying to abduct. Sure, they accomplished the goal of never having the player be a terrorist, but I think they inadvertently made a statement about moral justifications in war...
Btw, if you want a non-game critique of dehumanization and perspectives, there's no better example than the "War" short (5 minutes) from the MTV series "Aeon Flux".