The banality of killing, with Spec Ops: The Line
Spec Ops is a smart, but self-mutilating, teenager of a game. It hates every moment of its existence and, since you’ve decided to experience the game, makes certain you experience its pain, its self-hatred, its auto-loathing, too.
[Beware – here be spoilers]
Though a third-person action-adventure, it is set amidst the beloved landscape of Muslim foreigners. Desert, dirt, death: a dollop of old-boy American love and big men with big guns and we have the average shooter, vomited out every year by the games industry. Spec Ops knows this: It knows you know this. And it plays with this knowledge like a cat pawing at the quivering, bloodied mess that was a dove.
As per the usual modern action-shooter, you’re part of a squad, infiltrating a foreign area for unspecific and vague reasons. Again, Spec Ops knows nobody cares why Americans are flown halfway round the world to shoot brown people. It just is: shut up and take the gun and pull the trigger. Enjoy the sights. This is digital tourism with a rocket-launcher and all the locals have welcome mats made of mines. The haze of the desert winds creates both a suffocating and vertigo-induced sense of eternity: but then the line between total freedom and total imprisonment has always been one drawn in shifting sands.
Destinations are thrown up like sudden storms; stages load and you’re suddenly in a new part of Dubai with no knowledge of how the squad got there – or why. But remember: questions died before you clicked “New Game”; the sound from questions is merely the creaking of rope as it kicked the chair made of plot. Now you’re here, soldier: buckle down behind these always conveniently-placed, waist-high covers and open fire. And keep pressing forward.
Always forward. Always towards the end of the game. Because, remember, no one really cares why these three large men are here. You certainly don’t: you’re just installed it to kill things.
But then, a point occurs in the game, when suddenly, you do. Suddenly you recognise you’ve been killing, murdering, butchering, justifying it with self-defence, proclaiming you’re a bunch of saviours. This moment is sudden, but the build up is planned long before. You can almost hear the game rub its hands in glee. Yes, keep killing, keep moving forward: but now ask why? Why are you here? Who sent you? What is your mission?
Sure: you’re meant to be there rescuing survivors, finding out why and whether a well-renowned general went rogue, as per Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the film Apocalypse Now. Yet, your squadmates tell you: this is pointless. They don’t need saving. You’re making things worse. But no, you’re in command – both as player and character.
Only you’re not: the game is.
The game pushes you forward, not because you’re some noble, fighting warrior, defending innocents. It pushes you forward because you bought this game, dammit; you clicked New Game, you have to finish. You have to complete the mission. Even in your continual slaughtering of innocents, you push forward because you don’t care: you must finish the game!
Voiced by the sickeningly-talented Nolan North, your character’s voice starts breaking, cracking, as he recognises the horror of his actions and the futility of stopping: he gets screechy and mouthy and damaged. His face is half-exploded and bleeding, blood and dirt cover him more than skin and clothes. But no: you must continue!
Your squadmates watch you kill innocents and. while shooting at these people who are defending themselves, yell out their worries. The squadmates’ efficiency costs them because it means, when they aim to kill, they usually do. They want you to stop them. But you don’t: you must continue!
And then the moment comes when you gas a large group of innocent, cowering civilians – because, to you, they’re nothing but highlighted blobs on the monitor you’re using. Everyone recalls that moment in Call of Duty where you took control of flying gunship, floating like some god in the heavens, raining down missiles and artillery like Zeus tossing thunderbolts. You weren’t killing people: you were eliminating “obstacles” that were hampering your fellow soldiers. You weren’t eliminating men dying for a cause they believed in: you were helping your men get to safety.
In Spec Ops, you’re forced to walk through the corpses of those who, not moments before, were merely blobs on the screen. Spec Ops grabs you and points and says: “See! See what you’ve done? Do you like it? You’re a big hero now?” You walk through the corpses, while your squadmates look on in disgust, blaming you, themselves, screaming. In that pile of sweaty meat and burnt flesh and ragged clothes, you witness the frozen by fire form of a mother clutching her child. Remember these? This is what you were meant to save but you did exactly what you’ve long known you’ve been doing: making things worse.
But still: you must continue.
Spec Ops is mature in that it recognises the kind of culture which glorifies mass killing. It’s not trying to say such measures aren’t sometimes justified: it’s not forcing pacifism on you like a hippie with white placard and a hidden agenda. Instead, Spec Ops is using its tools as a game to try immerse you in the kind of mindset that lets this game even get made; the kind of mindset which can continue despite evidence suggesting continuing only makes things worse; the kind of mindset that believes it is always on the right side of morality.
You’re supposed to feel disgusted. You’re supposed to hate every step. You’re suppose to be alerted and recognise that the man who is luring you in with his remonstrations and philosophical bravado has long been dead – he is merely a personification of your need to continue. His are no different than the same urges which make you click “Continue Game” even after realising how pointless your characters’ actions are.
But then disgust mutates into banality. Just another bullet, just another chest. Screams and hatred. It doesn’t matter anymore. You push on because you just have to. It must continue. This is a game that communicates more in its silence, more in its showing, than anything I’ve experienced of late and it does it successfully.
As someone who does think there are just wars, it need not negate that any war, any conflict, no matter how noble always ends with exploded chests from men who each believe they’re right.