To understand what Spec Ops: The Line accomplished, one has to understand the history and purpose of video game violence. So, please bear with me, because this shit is important.
Most video games are about killing. Humans are hunters, and their social structure — much like that of chimpanzees and ants — includes warring factions. In other words, we like killing things, because those who didn’t died a long time ago. Through civilisation, however, we have been teaching ourselves that killing our own people is wrong, for the obvious reason that it weakens our own tribe’s numbers against other tribes that might want to harm us. Also, people are more likely to defend their way of life when they are happy with it, and experts agree that not being murdered is a solid step towards peace within a community. This, of course, doesn’t mean that a few millennia of civilisation could cancel out millions of years of evolution, so normal people still fantasise about murdering their boss or their geography teacher. The problem is how people differentiate friends from foes and what they do with that information.
On one side, the human brain has a very simplistic view of the world. Catchphrases like “you’re either with us or against us” exist because of that exact reason. When you disagree with someone, your brain often pits them with the “others”, and you view them as the enemy. This is why people get so violent (and stupid) in situations or discussions involving politics. After all, a tribe’s socio-political structure is the most fundamental aspect of its very existence.
It’s also the root of all types of prejudice.
It’s not just politics, though. Look at how people react to atrocious crimes or extremely anti-social behaviour. For example, when a serial paederast is apprehended, there are always many people who say that criminals like them should be hanged or burned or have their genitals removed or something else equally torturous. Opponents of onychectomy have been known to claim that people who have their pets declawed should have their own nails removed by law. On a not-so-related note, I have often found myself amused when people express death-threats when a hit-and-run involves an animal or a child or a woman, but not when it’s an adult man. This takes me back to that argument I once made in another article about how most games won’t allow you to kill children or animals or women, but men are open-season. Not sure if it’s hypocrisy or just plain stupidity, but I shouldn’t get side-tracked here.
The other side of this whole thing is schadenfreude. A few years ago, they did a study, where they found out that men enjoy watching people whom they consider “bad” get hurt. They hooked their brains up with scanners, and their pleasure centres actually lit up. And yes, this only happens in men; it doesn’t affect women (mostly). My interpretation is that men are designed to be killers. I mean, what better way is there to watch someone you don’t like get hurt than by actually hurting them? It’s not like prehistoric men had YouTube.
So, men indirectly enjoy killing bad guys and, as explained above, bad guys are generally people they happen to not like. You may not realise it, but this is a major rule in Drama, and you’ve probably seen this hundreds of times. When a movie (especially a bad one) wants you to know who the villain is, it has them do something pointlessly evil, like have someone executed for no real reason or fuck shamelessly in front of others or kick a puppy, all of which don’t really affect the plot in any way.
The same applies in real life, by the way. Many people harbour fantasies about someone trying to mug them or rape their girlfriend or generally wrong them in any way, just so they can have the necessary justification to unleash their inner monster. That drive to kill is always there, always looking and wanting the excuse to murder everyone. This empowerment fantasy is pretty much why video games even exist.
“Thanks, I have been waiting my whole life for this. Now I can go Man on Fire on your asses.”
The most common way developers implement this is through association with a group that is already generally despised or one that nobody would dare to defend. The best example of this is Nazis. It’s not so much that people still hate Nazis today (they’ve become irrelevant in most parts of the world); it’s because, if anyone gives a shit about them, they are immediately branded as bad people. That’s why there are so many games about killing Nazis. Who would dare to stand up and say that they don’t deserve all kinds of punishment? Wolfenstein 3D, which arguably gave birth to the very genre of first-person shooters in 1992 (and wasn’t really 3D), used Nazis as bad guys and Hitler as the Final Boss. How could a game about murdering Nazis possibly be unethical?
Another way to remove all guilt from killing something is to make it soulless. Things like monstrosities, zombies, skeletons, aliens, vampires, robots, lizards, spiders, insects, demons, etc, are all entities that people are usually willing to destroy without remorse. Of course, one could argue that all of the above are nothing but projections of different human personality archetypes, so they would essentially still be killing humans, but I don’t want to get into that right now. Shooters have some history that needs to be told.
It should be noted that the first video game ever was a shooter. It was developed in 1947 and was called CRT Amusement Device and it was about pointing a dot at some shitty monochromatic image resembling a Nazi aeroplane and shooting at it. In 1961, out came Spacewar!, a two-player deathmatch game about two spaceships shooting at each other. As you can see, one was about Nazis and the other was about players killing one another. The game, however, that became popular and defined the genre arrived in 1978.
Nishikado Tomohiro was the one who said “Fuck aliens!” and developed Space Invaders (called Supesu Inbeda in Japan). It is considered one of the most successful games in history, grossing billions of dollars. It was a great game as well, simplistic and elegant, but its level of violence was relatively low.
It also inadvertently introduced the concept of a difficulty curve.
Asteroids, 1979, was even worse. You weren’t even shooting at living things. It was a very successful game, with great gameplay innovations, leaving a huge legacy behind, but, in hindsight, I think the reason it didn’t turn out to be as successful as Space Invaders was because people can’t get very excited about murdering a bunch of rocks. The first truly violent game, interestingly, was a racing game.
Three years earlier, in 1976, Exidy developed Death Race, an arcade racing game about a car running people over. Notably, it seems to be the first video game to ever attract media attention with regard to its graphic depiction of violence. The game’s visual realism is laughable by today’s standards; you moved a bucket car around to run stick-figure pedestrians over, leaving tiny cross-shaped tombstones behind. Of course, it wasn’t the violence itself, because that would have been a particularly simplistic way of looking at this. The problem was that you weren’t killing soulless creatures anymore. It wasn’t aliens or Nazis, it was real people. Funnily enough, the developers claimed that the pedestrians were, in fact, gremlins, so it was okay.
Not sure how it happened, but this is how I picture it.
The year Wolfenstein 3D came out was also the year that Mortal Kombat managed to create an actual moral panic. Being the first video game in history to receive a “Mature” ESRB rating, Mortal Kombat was about people beating each other in hilariously spectacular ways, that also featured special moves which the player could use to finish off their opponent when their health had reached zero. This time, the reasons people went crazy were because the developers had used rotoscoping to capture the characters’ motion making them a lot more realistic than other games, and because of all the murdering of helpless defeated foes.
After Wolfenstein 3D, Id Software created Doom (1993) and Quake (1996). Both of which were about shooting demons or demon-like creatures, and Quake was also the first game to feature flying polygonal giblets, even though the concept of gibbing dates as far back as 1990, with Smash TV, the spiritual predecessor of games like Alien Shooter or Alien Swarm.
Enter Carmageddon. Stainless Games developed a spiritual successor of Death Race, only this time the graphics were amazingly realistic (for its time). Basically, you drove around freely in a pimped-out car, running hundreds of pedestrians over. Needless to say, this caused enormous controversy among conservative people, causing developers to release two alternative versions; one featuring zombie pedestrians with green blood, and one featuring robot pedestrians with black blood/oil. (There was also a toggleable Nice & Fluffy Mode, with no pedestrians at all.)
People would have been even more outraged if they had known that the driver giggling like an idiot was a 14-year-old girl.
In the world of Grand Theft Auto, where you run a couple of prostitutes over every time you try to park your car, such a gimmick may not seem like such a big deal, but it was ground-breakingly revolutionary back in 1997. With all the ragdollised, almost cartoon-like physics, even today’s games can’t compete with the visceral dismemberment and disembowelment of Carmageddon or Carmageddon II, which replaced the rotoscoped sprite pedestrians with polygonal ones.
The games also rewarded you if you murdered people creatively.
However, what set Carmageddon apart from other violent games wasn’t so much the violence itself, but the type of violence used. First, it was vehicular violence, meaning that it was instantly relatable, since almost everyone drives cars. Second, it was violence against thousands of screaming innocent pedestrians, meaning that the act was by definition unethical. For example, Quarantine (1994) was pretty much the same thing, but the pedestrians were all criminals in a dystopian prison city, so it didn’t cause as much controversy.
Onwards to Soldier of Fortune. In 2000, Raven Software broke new ground by developing the GHOUL engine, which allowed this first-person shooter to depict the most realistic gun violence anyone had ever seen. In my opinion, it’s still better than many contemporary shooters. Soldier of Fortune was one of the very first (and few) games where a single pistol shot could kill a human being. It featured 26 separate damage-zones in each character model, meaning you could shoot people in different areas of their bodies with different results. A shot to the arm would prevent them from shooting, while a shot to the leg would make them hop to cover, a shotgun blast to the abdomen would spill their guts out, a high-calibre headshot would blow their brains out, and a fine-aimed shot through the throat would have them clutch their necks and stumble onto the ground, drowning in their own blood.
This one time, I shot some dude and walked to the next room to look for health pick-ups, and, when I returned, the guy was still on the floor writhing in agony. I shot him again, in the head this time, to put him out of his misery. He instantly became still, his final breath slowly escaping his lungs, visible in the cold weather. The only other game I’ve seen do this so well was Assassin’s Creed. Unfortunately, as it is with most awesome stuff, this feature was removed in the sequels. Anyway, my point is, Soldier of Fortune was truly an amazing game, in a time before everything became ragdollised and decal-free.
This shit was art, and I’m in no way being ironic here.
In my mind, what actually set Soldier of Fortune apart wasn’t the realistic depiction of violence itself. It wasn’t so much the dismemberment and disembowelment using firearms and surprisingly sharp hunting knives, or the accurately visible bullet wounds that appeared on the models, but what these above elements managed to create. The realism made the violence real for the player, which caused an extreme personalisation of each and every person they killed in that game.
I like to juxtapose Soldier of Fortune with Deus Ex, another great game that came out about a year later. Deus Ex was a masterpiece in many ways, but it failed to deliver on the visceral aspect of death. You would crawl around in the darkness, picking off guards with a sniper rifle as if they were pawns. Through dialogue, the game tried to remind you that you were a law enforcement agent targeting real breathing humans, but it was frustratingly hard to give a shit. There wasn’t any real violence; you just shot them in the head and they fell down. No bullet wounds, no blood spatter, no exploding brains. All humans were nothing but annoyances, irrelevant objects blocking your path to wherever you wanted to go. What was even worse was the fact that the game itself sort of forgot about that whole “killing humans is wrong” thing after the first couple of missions.
Of course, you don’t always need in-your-face personalisation to make violence work. Sometimes the horror itself is in the impersonality itself. The idea of a protagonist becoming so desensitised and distant that human life ceases to be relevant can be quite tragic, if used correctly. This can work great with war games, and the initial Call of Duty series managed to make some progress in this area.
Early shooters tended to focus on the lone genocidal hero. It was the obvious thing to do from the developer’s point of view, because programming friendly A.I. was no easy task back in the day. It was also quite fitting; whether it was Space Invaders or Doom, having to kill an awful amount of bad guys makes convenient gameplay mechanics.
Call of Duty was the first game to pit you in the middle of a huge battlefield as one of the lowliest soldiers. Suddenly, you weren’t the super-commando you were used to; you didn’t matter at all. You were nobody, among millions of other nobodies fighting and dying around you. A buddy of yours died, and another would take his place. You killed a Nazi, and another would take his place. This vainness was even more emphasised in the historically inaccurate Battle of Stalingrad mission, where Soviet soldiers were ordered to charge the battlefield as cannon fodder without so much as a weapon in their hands.
The Modern Warfare series went for a different approach. Although the first title was somewhat modest, Modern Warfare 2 and Modern Warfare 3 came down with a serious case of Michael Bay. While many critics applaud the Hollywoodian take on video games, I find it represents a step backwards in this issue. I mean, yes, the chase sequence in Modern Warfare 2‘s Hornet’s Nest can only be described as the epitome of total fucking awesomeness, but it brings a certain “I do shit like this everyday” glorification that I find distasteful. If it had been just this scene, it would be okay, but almost every extraction in every mission is like that. That’s why I said the first Modern Warfare game was modest; because it knew how to pace itself.
Modern Warfare blew a lot of minds in 2007, when it had a player character die in the middle of the game.
Now let’s talk about Spec Ops: The Line. At first glance, Spec Ops: The Line seems like another Gears of War clone, but it’s not. Compared to it, Gears of War looks more like a sack of Locust shit. So, what’s so special about this game? I don’t want to talk about its great story both in pacing and content nor the profoundly well-made characters — actually, I do, but I won’t, because I don’t want to stray too far away from this interesting subject.
Spec Ops: The Line handles violence in the best way I have ever seen in a game. It’s not Soldier of Fortune‘s mindless violence rubbed in your face, and it’s not Modern Warfare‘s gung-ho attitude. It’s not even the romanticised old-school Call of Duty‘s heroism and glory. Spec Ops: The Line holds your head under the waters of the very worst kind of violence. It tells, on many different levels, the story of heroes becoming villains. The most interesting character arc, however, is that of the protagonist.
Read the rest of the article only after you’ve played this soul-crushing masterpiece.
Captain Walker’s progression of his state of mind is what drives the entire plot. In the beginning of the game, he appears to be both righteous and rational, a capable man to professionally lead his unit to accomplish the mission at hand. By the end of the game, he is a shell-shocked war-criminal. The whole story revolves around the player’s ride through this downward spiral of his, that makes you really wish would eventually end.
The pivotal point in the narrative is the iconic White Phosphorus scene. It’s the mark when the protagonist stops being a good guy and becomes the personification of pure evil. He tries to rationalise his position in order to still make himself to be the hero, but it becomes increasingly hard for him to do so, with his men gradually distancing themselves more and more from him.
While Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare broke a lot of new ground when it came out, Spec Ops: The Line totally destroys its AC-130 scene. In Modern Warfare‘s Death From Above, you get to rain fire down on terrorists like a god, totally detached from the violence. Although I can see how this could be perceived as disturbing in itself, I have to admit that didn’t feel anything while I was playing that mission, or even afterwards when I was thinking about it. It’s hard to give a fuck when you’re so far away from the action, but I guess that’s the whole point. After all, the mission was based on an actual real event.
In Spec Ops: The Line, you use a UAV to drop White Phosphorus shells on American soldiers. The gameplay is quite similar to the Modern Warfare mission, with the minor, albeit important, detail of being able to view your character’s own mirrored face when the laptop screen is brightened by the explosions; a nice touch. But here’s the game-changer: when you’re done, the game then makes you walk through the kill zone. It makes you witness what you actually did up close, finishing off with slapping you in the face with the realisation that you have just burned dozens of civilians to death, whom the soldiers were trying to help.
White phosphorus is serious business.
Walker never manages to recover from that. He starts having both visual and auditory hallucinations, but what I really appreciated was the little things of how the unit’s behaviour changes throughout the game. In earlier stages, their battle chatter is professional and cold. They sound calm and formal, just like you would expect from trained killers. (In fact, in the very beginning, they’re even joking with each other, even at the prospect of danger.) In later scenes, they seem to have lost all composure and resolve, and resort to simply screaming out curses and insults full of hatred at the top of their lungs.
“Waste the motherfuckers!”
Another thing is the mêlée executions. In the first act, Walker kills downed enemies quickly and efficiently, like with a bullet to the head, but later on he starts doing some really nasty shit, like needlessly shooting them in the kneecaps first, or bashing their skulls to paste with the buttstock of his rifle, after which he swears at them.
What Spec Ops: The Line essentially does is deconstruct the entire modern war shooter. Earlier war heroes in both movies and games were kinda like John Rambo; all-American genocidal psychopaths. Captain Walker is basically the same thing, but this time it is presented in a much more believable way. You are not a lowly insignificant soldier like in Call of Duty; you are a deadly Delta Force operative and, instead of being the action hero (or even anti-hero) Cold War era movies would have depicted, you are a monster, because that’s what you’d realistically be in real life.
I had noticed this trend with the release of Duke Nukem Forever. When I was a small child, I literally thought Duke Nukem was cool. He had huge muscles, a badass voice, I thought his one-liners were witty, and I mistook his misogynistic bravado for sexual potency. Today, Duke Nukem comes off as a complete and utter douchebag who has either been punched in the face way too much or not enough. I don’t know whether I’ve changed or society has changed, but judging for the various articles I read at the time, it seemed that most critics agree with me. The idols of yesterday are the obnoxious outcasts of today.
James Bond, the archetypal alpha male of a whole generation, was an absolute ponce.
Spec Ops: The Line destroys this idea and reveals these heroes for what they truly are, and what makes the experience even more compelling is the interactivity. The game not only exposes the protagonist; it exposes you. You are the one who wanted to kill a bunch of people and see things explode. You are the one who smiled smugly as the white dots disappeared under the clouds of white phosphorus. Even the game itself taunts you, replacing loading-screen tips with lines like: “How many Americans have you killed today?” You are no longer the hero.
I have always thought that guilt is one of the least utilised motivations in games. This is really a shame, because I believe it has the capacity to be the strongest and most visceral of emotions. Planescape: Torment tried to do this in 1999, but the guilt referred to something the player had nothing to do. However, it did contain one of my favourite quotes of all time: “Every living thing has a weapon against which it has no defense. Time. Disease. Iron. Guilt.” Sleeping Dogs seemed to do a much better job at this, as did I Am Alive at some points.
I hope to see more games try to walk down this path. In a time when the term “realistic shooter” has come to mean “one cool guy kills a bazillion terrorists”, Spec Ops: The Line skillfully deconstructs the genre and shows what an actual realistic shooter would be like, and, man, that wasn’t a pretty sight. It’s as if this game holds a huge mirror for all first-person shooter enthusiasts (both developers and players) to see themselves in.
This marks a very important point in the history of video game violence. It seems to be a turning point in the industry’s trajectory, where a player can experience something much deeper than blowing shit up (while blowing said shit up). Up until now, games, especially shooters, have mostly been just power porn, but they can be a lot more. Spec Ops: The Line proved it.