Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Year With No New Games-Part 7: "You are still a good person."

[ANOTHER SPOILER WARNING NOW FOR SPEC OPS: THE LINE. We'll be dealing with the game's themes and philosophy, which will require detailed discussions of what happens in the game. I urge again that you play Spec Ops: The Line.]

For weeks after I finished playing Spec Ops: The Line, I would scribble down snippets of thoughts about the game that I would explore at a later date. Maybe it's because I couldn't complete the game on "FUBAR," which prevented me from claiming 100% completion and mentally archiving the game. Let's take a moment to examine some of my takeaways from the game, some parts of the game where execution didn't meet intent, and the concepts explored in the game that I'd like to see explored further. 

I. David Hume Would Be Proud

The fundamental idea behind David Hume's explorations of epistemology is the problem of how people make inductive inferences, or extending conclusions made from observed behavior of objects to their behavior when they are unobserved. In short, his work critiqued the tendency to assume that just because we have seen a ball fall to the earth when dropped, the ball will always fall to the earth when dropped. One of the building blocks our mind uses to make these inductive inferences is continuity in time and space, or how we link thoughts of disparate events to other events that happened at the same time. Extending it further, the mind associates events that were experienced at around the same time or ideas that seem similar.

This is how my brain came to tie Spec Ops: The Line to Silent Hill 2 and The Dark Tower series of books.

While I was playing Spec Ops: The Line, I was also revisiting Silent Hill 2 through a video Let's Play and re-reading The Dark Tower. This proximity of contact blended them all into one associated idea.


At the end of Spec Ops: The Line, the player is presented with a choice. I could have chosen on my avatar's behalf to commit suicide because of the weight of my actions was unbearable or to deny reality, kill the nagging voice in my head, and ask to be rescued by the US Army. Once I requested evacuation, I have one more choice to make. In one possible ending to Spec Ops: The Line, the player's avatar, Delta Force operative Captain Martin Walker, and I could choose to surrender peacefully or to kill the soldiers sent to save me and wander back into Dubai ready to repeat the cycle. That image of walking back into the hell of our creation to repeat the cycle reminded me of what Roland found at the top of the Dark Tower. Once Roland's journey reached its end, he was stripped of his belongings and lessons and sent back into the desert to chase the man in black. His only hope is that he'll one day learn the right lessons during a cycle so he can escape it. At the end of The Dark Tower, Roland and the reader are told that perhaps the next journey may end differently. For the player of Spec Ops: The Line, we can try to play again (perhaps even on "FUBAR"), and we can choose to end the game differently. 

Of course, the hell that we created in Dubai is, as the game points out in loading screens, all our fault. We chose to continue to play after we burned those civilians with white phosphorus. We chose to reload and respawn if we fall. We chose to pull the trigger to kill those soldiers who opposed us. At one point, Walker and I encountered an armored heavy assault soldier who bore the likeness of Sergeant John Lugo, One of Walker's squadmates who perished in our quest for redemption. I was too stunned to shoot back, so I was felled by the enemy's bullets only to respawn to realize that it was a hallucination. In the next attempt, a regular armored heavy assault soldier appeared. This time, I had no problems gunning him down. 

If you've played Silent Hill 2, you may remember Laura, the eight-year-old girl who sees no monsters in Silent Hill because she is innocent. When I first played Silent Hill 2, the realization that James Sunderland only saw monsters in Silent Hill because he was not innocent and that the monsters that he saw reflected reflected his sins shook me. To think that these were all hallucinations of a guilt-wracked mind made James an unreliable narrator deepened Silent Hill 2 much as Walker's hallucination of the armored heavy assault soldier deepened Spec Ops: The Line's exploration of Walker's post-traumatic stress syndrome. 


II. Moral force at the end of a barrel

I can think of no single player narrative that places the player in the position of wrong or evil party. In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, I played as the American or British soldiers, never the insurgent or terrorist. In Gears of War 3, outside of the downloadable "RAAM's Shadow" campaign, I played as Marcus Fenix and his group of loyal, strong, heroic soldiers, never the invading Locust or the parasitic Lambent Locust. Even games like Dungeon Keeper or Overlord, I'm either rightfully resisting invasion or I'm secretly the force of good (or at least less evil) than my antagonist. So, it's only in multiplayer modes of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Gears of War 3 where I can assume the role of the other, the enemy, and it's only there where I'm ostensibly on equal footing with the heroic protagonist. 

Video games have consistently taught us that might makes right. I am a COG in Gears of War 3, so I am right to mow down the Locust, who are trying to escape from an infection for which COG were possibly responsible. I am an American soldier in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, so I am right to kill faceless, nameless people re-classified as enemy combatants who may only resist what they believe to be needless and senseless violation of their block/neighborhood/country. 

Spec Ops: The Line confronts the idea in video games that the player derives moral force through violence and condemns it primarily through my massacre of civilians. But it also forces the player to reflect on this through smaller but no less dramatic scenes that I mentioned last time. The game, through Walker, lectures the player about how I am only a passive observer while the soldiers do the real work. But what work are we really seeing them do? I can try to save a CIA operative instead of three civilians, but he dies anyway, so it was ultimately pointless. I can try to save a civilian, but he was killed in the crossfire between my soldiers and the enemies. I can try to ally myself with a CIA-led insurgency, but I ended up dooming anyone left alive to death by dehydration. I can reach the top of my personal dark tower, but I just found that I was the villain all along. 

The game's dialogue with the player extends to something that we, by inductive reasoning, assume to be useless. Just because most loading screens offer useless advice doesn't mean that all loading screens can be safely ignored. As I progressed through the game, the game began to communicate with me through messages in the loading screens.

At at first the game condemned me: 
-"This is all your fault." 
-"Can you even remember why you came here?" 
-"Do you feel like a hero yet?" 
-"If you were a better person, you wouldn't be here.".

Then, the game tried to provoke me to think:
-"Freedom is what you do with what's been done to you." 
-"Cognitive dissonance is a feeling caused by holding two conflicting beliefs simultaneously."
-"To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless."
-"The US military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants. But this isn't real, so why would you care?"

Finally, the game tried to console me:
-"You are still a good person."

As I did in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, I killed countless enemies in Spec Ops: The Line. Not only was I a survivor, but I was the victor. I was the unstoppable force capable of feats that no other character in the game could achieve. (That is I appreciated the Grunts' exclamations when I was spotted in Halo 3: I had become, in their minds, more than just an enemy soldier. I was a force of nature, a god who was able to deal death to them and resurrect. And that is why I appreciated the enemies' panicked shouts when my squadmates or I were spotted in Spec Ops: The Line.) Because I was special and because all who opposed me fell to the wayside, there was no alternative. I was right because I was mighty. 

Through in-game events and the loading screen messages, Spec Ops: The Line forces the player to reflect on how far the idea in video games that the player, because the player's avatar is usually the protagonist of the story, is not necessarily the hero or moral force of the story. 

III. Please Learn from This

The deterioration of Walker and his men, particularly in their chatter, needs to be copied in future games. There is no reason, in the next Gears of War game for example, that I should hear Marcus and Cole banter as though what they were doing didn't affect them. The characters should react to what's happening in their world as much as producers ask us to react to what we're seeing on screen.

I hope that other producers see the reaction that Spec Ops: The Line has received as incentive to take chances. We don't need another dumb blockbuster action shooter. We need more games to explore the wider spectrum of emotions beyond "excitement" and "fear" and to treat what we do on screen in their game worlds with gravitas. The unreliable narrator who may be reliving experiences on his deathbed might be a popular trope, but it's not one that's commonly used in video games. We can accept more interesting framing devices in our stories.

IV. What Could Have Been

For all the right decisions that the producers of Spec Ops: The Line made, there are some decisions that should be critiqued. 

With an unreliable narrator comes a set of problems about what can be interpreted as "real" and what should be dismissed. The game's producers have posited that Walker may have died in the helicopter crash (which is why Walker asked out loud when we played the helicopter sequence the second time whether they had done this before) and that everything after was just Walker's dying hallucination. But ambiguity enters the picture at that moment. Are we to interpret that everything we played was Walker's hallucination, and that the only moment where we actually see Walker is the helicopter sequence? How seriously can we take the game's critique of "might makes right" if that's the case? 

Within the game's world, we are meant to take the revelation that Konrad has been dead as a breaking point. But it also raises questions about the chain of command if Konrad and his high ranking officers are all dead. It's possible that the conflict between the Damned 33rd and Walker's men is the result of a misunderstanding (you fight them for the first time when you see them chase civilians in the mall by firing guns into the air, which Walker and his men interpret as intent to collect them and possibly kill them). Even so, why wouldn't what remained of the 33rd make an effort to reach out to Walker and his men, especially when the 33rd controls the airwaves? 

There are points where the game gets in its own way. The edged weapons expert strain credulity, but the armored heavy assault soldiers (the game's mini-bosses, though there really isn't an end-game boss in the traditional sense) bend it to the breaking point. The fact that enemies spawn and react pretty much the same way from load to load feeds the idea that this is Walker's deathbed hallucination, but the fact that executing enemies creates more ammo, various turret sequences and the infinite grenade launcher sequence go past cognitive dissonance to almost ludonarrative dissonance. The worst example might be the random placement of collectibles that unlock more background information about what happened to Dubai. But then that opens the door to a conspiracy in Dubai that seems ludicrous at face value.

And that brings us back to association. Conspiracy theories are comforting because they create causal associations between random events, giving order to chaos. It can't be my fault because larger events have guided us to this moment, and I cannot be held responsible for my actions. And then game emphatically says otherwise and insists that we evaluate how responsible we are for what we do, even if it is in as harmless a form as a video game.