Curiously nerdy posts.
Today, I’m going to write about something a bit different from what I normally do. I’m going to write about a video game. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve played a lot of them, but usually, I’m of the opinion that they aren’t close to the caliber of storytelling that makes me feel as though they’re worthwhile for me to dig into. But today, I’m making an exception to talk about a game that came out a few years ago, and didn’t get nearly as much recognition as it deserves.
The game I’m talking about is Spec Ops: The Line.
In a world where the best selling video game titles are absolutely dominated by military shooters, this game stands apart. It starts like any other “OOOH RAH! ‘MURICA!” shooter, and ends like none other.
The basic premise of the game is straightforward. It’s modern day. The city of Dubai is completely ravaged by a series of vicious sandstorms that have basically destroyed it. The US sends in a battalion of soldiers, led by legendary Colonel John Konrad, not to invade it, but to assist in evacuating all of the residents to safety. The mission, however, goes terribly wrong, and many people die. In fact, everyone in the city is presumed dead. That is, until one day, a transmission is received from the city. It is from Konrad himself: “This is Colonel John Konrad, United States Army. Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure. Death toll: too many.”
You play Captain Martin Walker, a Delta Force operative leading a small elite squad into the ruined city of Dubai. Your mission is simple: find survivors, if there are any, radio for help, and then get out. Naturally, everything quickly goes to hell after that.
The fact that it borrows heavily from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (a rare piece of classic literature that is, in my opinion, worth the hype to read), along with the movie adapted from it, Apocalypse Now, is obvious. The basic story is essentially a mishmash of the two. Both feature a man going into an extremely dangerous place to save/confront a fallen legend that he used to admire. Both feature heavily the theme of how a person’s environment can change even a good man into something much less than that. It’s a classic arc. The fact that Francis Ford Coppola so easily changed a book about a man going into the heart of an African jungle to a movie about the Vietnam war so seamlessly is proof enough of that.
But the game quickly shows that it’s not just a cut and paste job of classic literature. It touches heavily on the same theme, sure, but it does a lot more than that. It comes directly after you, the person playing it. It shows no shame in breaking the fourth wall to do so.
It’s subtle, at first. When you first go into Dubai and notice that everyone is shooting at you simply because you’re an American soldier, it’s easy to brush off. It feels just like any other gung-ho game where you play a soldier. You and your squad are extremely professional, and careful to not use violence unless necessary. Even when you fight, it’s a very clear band of brothers with almost polite announcements, like “Tango down!” “Target them!” “Pick him up!”. But as the game goes on, and the stakes get grim, your character starts getting more unhinged. You start killing even when it’s not necessary. Your character starts yelling “Die, you bastards!”, instead of simply reporting them down. Your squadmates start questioning your orders. Things just get worse… and worse. And then there’s the decision making.
And the game basically forces you to make split-second decisions seamlessly in the game. It’s so subtle that a lot of gamers probably wouldn’t even notice that they have a choice in most of these instances, if not for the achievement list you can read through. The toughest part of many of these decisions is that, unlike so many other games that try to touch on morality, it’s not kill or don’t kill. It’s simply which person to kill. But that shouldn’t bother you, right? You’re playing a shooter. You’re supposed to shoot people.
Sometimes, there’s a slightly less evil option, but people still die whenever you do anything. Captain Walker, and you the player, both rationalize what you’re doing by painting Colonel Konrad and the 33rd Battalion as the reason for why you have to keep pressing forward. Why you have to keep killing, whether or not more innocent people die. Even though, as your squadmates will point out more than once, you could’ve left Dubai at any time. But Walker refuses every time. Why?
It’s about doing the right thing. It’s about being the hero. You’re saving the city from an evil man, taunting you on a handheld radio as you play a one man death squad plowing through the city.
Maybe that’s why the big reveal at the end of the game is such a punch in the gut.
By the time you battle to the top of the tallest tower in Dubai, you discover the corpse of Colonel Konrad sitting in a chair, with a bullet in his head. He’s been dead for a long time… long before you ever made it to Dubai at all. He killed himself, probably the second he realized he wasn’t a hero anymore. So yeah. The voice of Konrad taunting you on the radio through the whole game, egging you on and vowing to make you pay for what you’re doing?
All in your head. It’s simply a way Walker rationalizes all the terrible things he’s done. You don’t have a choice, either, if you want to keep playing the game. You have to destroy the remaining water supply of Dubai. You have to bomb a large group of civilians with white phosphorus mortars. You have to kill, and keep killing.
The voice of Konrad is just a way Walker, and by extension, you, stays motivated to do terrible things. To make you believe you’re the hero. There is no “good guy” choice in this game.
The message here is simple. War is terrible, and it maims anyone who touches it.
The game as a whole is just amazing storytelling, and it made me question why I play games like this. I feel like it should be required for anyone enjoys playing the Call of Duty or Battlefield series to play this game. It doesn’t glorify the genre, or war, or shooting people… it lays it out for what it really is.
As Konrad says in the game, “It takes a strong man to deny what’s right in front of him. And if the truth is undeniable, you make your own.”
Simply an amazing game. ***** all the way.
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