When I read some fiction about a character, say he’s called Dave, who did something terrible, I don’t feel guilty about it. It’s not my story, right? It’s Dave’s. And Dave is a piece of shit.
But what if the book forced you to act out what Dave did, go through the motions like some puppet? Would you feel guilty then? Would you feel like it was all your fault? Perhaps I should ask an actor.
And this here is THE LINE you should not cross if you want to avoid spoilers for third-person shooter Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development, 2012) and the epic Immortal Defense (RPG Creations, 2007). Okay, maybe Penumbra: Black Plague (Frictional Games, 2008) too.
The initial impressions were not favourable. Spec Ops: The Line oozed the military shooter aesthetic and I was not sold. I’m really clumsy with shooters these days. Somehow my fingers crumple on impact with the keyboard and I end up vaulting protagonists over walls instead of hiding behi– YOU DIED. Jeez, I don’t know which is worse, burdening the player with multiple controls or overloading a control with multiple functions. Space to heal. Space for cover. Space to run. Space to breathe. I get it, I should stick to Canabalt (Adam Saltsman, 2009).
For the first few hours, Spec Ops left me with the feeling I was doing a lousy job in a lousy third-person shooter. The temptation to go AWOL was there, but I stuck at it. Spec Ops was “supposed” to be “interesting” and I “wanted” to know “why”. I had no doubts the game was heading into the Shadow of the Valley of Cheap Tricks… and after those few hours, I wasn’t far off the mark.
Spec Ops is a game that reflects on the shooter concept. It’s supposed to lure players into pontificating about all that murder they get up to in virtual worlds. I want to discuss some of the tools the developers used to do this.
First up is the forced failure, where players traverse an unavoidable story branch which takes them to a bad place. The most notorious example of this in Spec Ops is the white phosphorous scene.
The protagonist, Captain Walker, approves the use of white phosphorous against your apparent enemy, the 33rd Mobile Infantry who have gone rogue. That’s bad enough but it’s not the gut punch. There is no avoiding this choice, although you can waste around twenty minutes trying to use gunfire to take down an infinite spawning enemy if you were initially fooled you had some agency here. (I was fooled.) What follows is a challenge-lite section where you click on targets the game tells you to click on. Once the targets are eliminated, the game reveals that in addition to a bunch of American soldiers, you just incinerated around fifty innocent refugees including children.
Forced failure is troublesome because the developer is abusing their relationship with the player. Jim Sterling made a joke about how art games did this in an old video from 2010.
Throughout the story there were many points at which Captain Walker made a choice that I knew was not the right one. At the start, when his Delta Force team comes under attack from a group of locals, they do not merely repel the attack but pursue the attackers and wipe them out. I kept hesitating waiting for “orderly retreat” or “attempt communication” options which never turned up. “Would you kindly kill everybody?” asked Spec Ops.
Forced failures are not new. At the end of the Half-Life (Valve, 1998) chapter titled “Apprehension”, the protagonist Gordon Freeman is knocked unconscious and the player loses all weapons and ammunition. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward, 2007) was renowned for industrialising the forced failure. Penumbra: Black Plague also had a doozy.
In Black Plague, you spend most of the game trying to reach a certain Dr. Swanson who periodically assists you from a lab she’s barricaded herself into. When you finally reach her, it appears she has fallen victim to titular plague after all and you have to kill her with physics. After you do this, it transpires that the plague in your head messed with your perception, duping you into killing the one person who could have helped make a cure. It’s a decent shock which can make you feel bad for a moment; but are we still falling for forced failure?
Plenty of people won’t go near Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011) because even though the player has bags of agency, the first few games are likely to conclude in ghastly failure. Yet the forced failures of Modern Warfare were celebrated. The nature of the failure is the problem because consumers are more comfortable than they let on with games dialling down the agency. Like any tool in the game design box, careless use will diminish their efficacy. Spec Ops lays out some interesting forced failures, not all of which were obvious to me in advance, but the real issue is that the developer wants the player to take responsibility for these scripted outcomes. I’m going to put this aside for a moment. We’ll come back, I promise.
Spec Ops also embraces the hidden choice, where players can choose the obvious shooter-ready violent solution or an alternative, whose existence is not signalled to the player. The strongest example of this is when Captain Walker and one of his men, Adams, are surrounded by an angry mob; instead of mowing them down, just firing a shot into the air or ground is enough to encourage them to disperse.
I tend to feel that hidden choices are like the unmarked interactive hotspots that were common in environments of games past. Something became interactive on developer whim. I’m thinking of something like Mafia (Illusion Softworks, 2002) where most of the game is free of interactive elements until you hit the harbour segment of the chapter “You Lucky Bastard”. Now, the player must notice interactive track switches and wooden blocks preventing a train car from moving. I lost two nights trying to figure that one out.
How is a player supposed to guess that choice exists in a game where you’re normally hemmed in? The player will actually perceive a hidden choice scenario as a forced failure. Spec Ops is rife with knee-height barricades you can’t step over and Would You Kindly design that propels the player into murder. I could just about sell this juxtaposition as deliberate: here’s what shooters make you do and here’s what shooters never allow you to do – see what you’re missing?
The point is that a large proportion of players will discover the additional choices only after completing the game and, the developer hopes, make them feel bad for jumping to trigger-happy conclusions. This is classic Stop Crying About Choice territory: it’s about the impact of story in its aggregate hypertext form, not about agency to make your own tale.
If Spec Ops was as riddled with hidden choices as GTA III (DMA Design, 2001) was with side missions, it would thrive as a secret box rather than an exercise in player manipulation. Spec Ops is full of forced failures – and the developer has arbitrarily thrown in an alternative option here and there to make the player feel bad down the line. LOOK HOW QUICKLY YOU FIRED YOU GUN WHEN YOU COULD HAVE SAVED THE BABY ORPHANS!
(I made up the baby orphans.)
(At least I think I did.)
At this point, you probably think I hated Spec Ops… but I didn’t.
See, Spec Ops takes a dive into the weird. As the player stomps through the sand-shocked ruins of Dubai with some big-ass boots, the developers rattle the fourth wall. The loading screen stops offering tips and lobs a rock at you like “How many Americans did you kill today?” And, just like that, Spec Ops slips into the subversive.
The divide between the virtual reality within the game and player reality without gets smudged real good. Late in the game, Captain Walker inherits the player’s memories, becoming confused that a ‘copter chase sequence has happened already, simply because the player already experienced it during the flash-forward opening sequence. Sometimes the game will taunt you after death and compel you to stop; and once Walker is back in business, you can see him try to shake the feeling from his head that something is very wrong.
Spec Ops is not going to crown you the hero but the-only-way-to-win-is-not-to-play has been fast approaching cliché space for a while now. There are still clever ways to spin it out such as in The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013), which, at one point, makes the cynical suggestion that the only way to resolve the battle over authorship between developer and player is to quit playing. But the narrative that Spec Ops blasts through is most reminiscent of Immortal Defense, a science-fiction tower defence game that spans thousands of years.
Now, I’m about to spoil the greatest tower defence story of all time, but I reckon if you haven’t played it already, you probably aren’t going to. If you’re not sure whether to read on or play the game, maybe you want to stop by the spoilerless Electron Dance review from four years ago to help you make that call.
In Immortal Defense, you play a man who takes a one-way trip into “pathspace” to defend his homeworld Dukis from the dreaded Bavakh. Pathspace lies above hyperspace and “path defenders” have almost divine abilities to wage asymmetric war against spacecraft traversing hyperspace (i.e. tower defence). You are joined by another path defender called Pul Wat Aa and it’s all hugs up in pathspace as you take on the Bavakh together. It appears to be a good-versus-evil pot boiler until the end of the game’s second chapter in which Aa betrays you and, surprise, the Bavakh wipe out your homeworld.
I don’t want to overstate this but… I was stunned. With everyone dead, where could the story go from here? (The demo version stops at this point and money left my wallet immediately.) Not to worry! It turns out a small group of survivors including your granddaughter escaped the planet to settle in a secret location. Later, they also figure out immortality and have a plan to resurrect Dukis. Yay, that’s okay then.
You then take the fight to Aa and his people, the Oss, who have since enslaved the Bavakh. First you kick Aa into touch and then, with the help of the enslaved Bavakh, dismantle the Oss Theocracy. The icing on the cake? With the gentle encouragement of your granddaughter… you kill all of them. You read that right. You commit genocide.
The game continues as you struggle to keep the Dukis survivors a secret, killing anything that comes close to revealing their existence. But at some horrible facepalming moment, the player will realise that the godlike protagonist has gone utterly insane with grief. His granddaughter is a terrifying, paranoid figment of his imagination. This madness eventually corrupts both hyperspace and pathspace and it is no longer clear – millennia after the game’s beginning – how much the player sees is real. The game ends in an orgy of destruction, with the protagonist obliterating everything to desperately preserve the lie that holds his world together: that there really are Dukis survivors. As ships burn in their thousands, the last thing the imaginary granddaughter tells you is, “I love you, grandpa.”
Powerful stuff. But what does it do to a player?
During the late game, before the player has figured out the insanity angle, the player might feel a smidgen of guilt about working against supposed allies at the behest of his granddaughter. But the protagonist eventually parts company with the player, as it becomes clear that the player is just here to fight through tower defence puzzles while a god goes mad. Here’s L. B. Jeffries on Immortal Defense:
A first-person narrative would involve the character you’re playing talking and having their own separate identity. Given that this is a game about becoming a divine being and questioning the very reasons you exist any more, the choice of second-person is a problematic one. My connection with the game starts fine: whee, being a God is fun. But as the sophisticated story and events start to take me in strange directions, that connection begins to break down, and I separate my identity from the protagonist. It’s me having the break-down within the game, in other words.
What developers are trying to achieve in games which feature a strong protagonist personality is player-protagonist communion. This communion could be viewed as a hypnotic trance with the game acting as hypnotist. The game-hypnotist makes suggestions to the player that the player goes along with – and the communion persists. However, the idea that hypnotists can make their subjects do things “against their will” is argued to be a myth, which has some scientific support from Ernest Hilgard’s theory of a “hidden observer”. If the hypnotist attempts to suggest an act that the subject would find objectionable, the trance will be broken. In a game, once the game-hypnotist tries to make the player do something that the protagonist wants to do but is alien or wrong from the player’s perspective, the player-protagonist communion breaks. If I question the game too much, immersion is extinguished.
Immortal Defense and Spec Ops share a core theme: protagonist goes mad and unwittingly commits some heinous shit. Just like in Immortal Defense, the Spec Ops player is likely to detach from the protagonist communion and lose any sense of complicity. It’s a nice story with pixels as a side dish. This is the reason why bad guys are always painted bad and villains keep getting more violent with every year – zombies that kill, psychopaths that have no redeeming characteristics, gun-toting bandits who surely have no loved ones of their own. It’s why developers have to think up increasingly depraved crimes for villains to carry out to give meaning and justification to our bullet hunger.
We can always talk about this on some meta level, like the madness of the game reflects the madness of the player trying to integrate themselves into the damaged systems of the game, but that’s unsatisfying. Probably the only solution to this player/avatar divorce is to offer genuine choices instead of forced failures, but prod players towards the failure, so that they make terrible mistakes willingly. (Not only is this expensive but quicksaves/checkpoints can undermine the impact of these choices.)
But let me return to Stop Crying About Choice. Getting players to buy into a scenario – that what happens to these digital actors is actually their responsibility – is extremely hard so it’s okay just to provide a gripping story with an additional “interactive” dimension to give the story more bite. I don’t have to feel the pain of the protagonist, but it’s reprehensible if I’m also yawning through the second act.
That’s why, at first, I resented Spec Ops because all I could see were the tricks being played on me. When I was able to rise above that, ignore all the marionette wires, I found a surreal, shocking military thriller that takes a left turn into Fight Club. I’d guess it’s the presence of those wires that hold some back from embracing the story, but it’s a complicated game; reviewers have complained that the actual shooting parts are sub-standard and the writing lacks nuance.
I’m not the only person to write this, but I am staggered that Spec Ops came from an AAA stable. Just take a look at it. The story has no redemptive element. How much of the narrative is actually “real” is open to interpretation – the 33rd seems to be a battalion with with an infinite supply of combat choppers and grunts. The developers deliberately thwart understanding by breaking the fourth wall. Pretty much everyone you kill didn’t deserve it and the list of your victims includes incinerated children.
We would be wise to avoid labelling Spec Ops as revolutionary because it isn’t. But, for all its flaws, it defies AAA conventions and is something quite out of the ordinary.
notes in the margin
- I can’t help nodding at most of the points made in Badger Commander’s restrained review of Spec Ops.
- When reality begins to flicker out and the statues move around in the middle of a firefight? Loved that.
- Here’s a ramble and a half without a punchline. Critics – and I don’t exclude myself here – have been complaining for years about how shooting games are just murder simulators with an ethical void where a little self-reflection should be. Body counts in shooters are way higher than their equivalent blockbuster movie (unless you’re using The Raid (Gareth Huw Evans, 2011) as reference material) because shooting is all the player does. Games high-five players into killing the enemy-soup-of-the-day and players only think as far as the game encourages them to. Being less charitable about this perspective, it implies the average player is dumb and happy to gorge on a diet of virtual violence with no questions asked, thus it is the responsibility of the smart critic to address it. Because, frankly, no one actually seems to give a shit about “ludonarrative dissonance” and videogame consumers continue to support big budget shooters. But if players are smart enough to see through forced failure, then maybe they’re smart enough to see through the mindless shooting? Are we just replacing one dumb mechanic, bullet euphoria, with another: you must touch the peach?
- I cannot be the only person who wished to explore Spec Ops’ virtual Dubai at will. But the whole game is full of invisible walls and gating.
- One of the standout character moments: after Walker’s team incinerates civilians with white phosphorous, he bellows that he’s going to make Konrad pay. He’s going to make Konrad pay for his own mistake. The game doesn’t bat an eyelid as Walker shirks responsibility for his actions, the only way he can move forward. It’s possible to argue that, at this point, Walker becomes the truest player avatar of all shooter protagonists: he ignores the dark implications of every bullet fired, because he wouldn’t be able to continue and finish the mission if he did.
- Did anyone at Yager wish for the headline “The Citizen Kane of gaming turns out to be the Apocalypse Now of gaming”?
- The gradual transformation of Walker’s team into damaged, broken people is something to behold. Walker himself begins to look pretty nightmarish about halfway through and his combat barks degenerate from the formal “enemy target is down”, to yelling incoherently “enemy is fucking dead” and “fucking stay down”. His animation sequence when executing a dying combatant also becomes more chilling.
- I never felt Spec Ops was telling me something about the military. It doesn’t really question American military authority or how we might expect too much of soldiers in urban conflict. There are some obvious pokes at CIA interference in foreign affairs but the game just isn’t offering that kind of story. It’s not about war at all.
- I haven’t read Brendan Keogh’s book-length critique Killing is Harmless but I found the critiques of the critique by Darius Kazemi and Shaun Green interesting. Similar to Kazemi, I groaned when I discovered the alleged antagonist of the game was called “Colonel Konrad”.
- On a similar note, Kris Ligman’s two interviews with an Iraq veteran was also revealing in terms of military accuracy. The first interview is about impressions while the second reconsiders the game after letting it all sink in.
- I sensed more Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006) in Spec Ops than Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979).