[As Read on GIO.]
[Titled: Entering the Heart of Darkness]
[Warning, this is quite a long post, sorry in advance.]
Aka “An Analysis of Spec Ops: The Line’s Similarities to Classic Film and Literature”
Also Aka “That was a Really Long Aka Title”
Aka Again “I’m Going to Start Now”
WARNING! THIS BLOG CONTAINS VERY GRAPHIC AND VIOLENT MATERIAL! TURN BACK NOW OR FOREVER HOLD YOUR PEACE, AND RISING BILE! YOU’VE BEEN FOREWARNED…
Before I start in earnest, I’d like to also point you towards a particularly excellent piece that Polygon.com did a while back on Spec Ops: The Line, entitled “Don’t be a Hero”. It follows a very similar path as the one we are currently on track to continue with this blog, and will also include some points which I will hit on as well- in true story format and analytical fashion. Be aware that this blog is rife with SPOILERS, so turn back now if you do not wish to have the majority of the game’s more questionable and insane parts ruined for you, or if you don’t want to also ruin the cult classic movie Apocalypse Now or equally classic pre to early-nineteenth century novel “Heart of Darkness” ruined as well. Now that you’ve been sufficiently warned several times over of what comes next, and you’re most likely as ready as you’ll ever be- it’s time to dive into the madness…
A Little Background
Allow me to just give you a little bit of background information on the game if you haven’t played it, or have but missed a few things, or simply need a little refresher. Spec Ops: The Line is a shooter, but is vastly different from most of its counterparts in that it tells a very intriguing story- both in terms of moral grey areas and shocking changes. Akin to literature such as George RR Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” it is virtually impossible to determine who is a good guy or bad guy, as every character is so morally grey that the game might as well be called “Ten Million Shades of Grey”. Sorry, couldn’t resist it. The game is as much about the man versus man conflict as it is about man versus nature and man versus himself. It has a revolving plot based on one central core story point, and yet that one point branches significantly throughout- messing endlessly with your mind and that of your main character, Captain Walker (as well as his compatriots).
What’s extremely interesting is that, unlike most games, you don’t know necessarily if you are playing as the good guy or bad guy. Sure, you get to make some choices as to how you go about things, but in the fog of war, pretty much every choice has some bad consequences. Others just have relatively more than better choices, but you can’t tell which are which from the outset. That’s the difficult part. What might at first seem like a generic shooter with a few cool concepts such as cover to cover movement and the intense firefights, quickly becomes an entertaining, engrossing, and awe-inspiring and artistic storytelling experience as you delve deeper and deeper into Dubai and the web of intrigue, betrayal, and chaos revolving around the sand stricken cityscape.
Let’s Get Metaphorical
One of the most intriguing parts of Spec Ops: The Line is its characters- both the ones we know of and discover, and the unspoken, yet most definitely outspoken one(s). The biggest that comes to mind in my honest opinion, is Mother Nature her, cruel, cruel self. I mean, with a story revolving almost entirely for its concept around the sands of a massive super sandstorm taking over the once-regal city of Dubai almost completely, and that being the catalyst for the events to come- I’d say the Green (or is it Tan, now?) Mother is a pretty big player here. Remember, it was sand and dust before, and it will be sand and dust long after as well…
The sandstorms of Spec Ops: The Line are not just the natural (or unnatural, as it may be) events of entropy they seem, but also a metaphorical and metaphysical (in a sense) expressions of the writers of the game, and the malign intent of characters within it. This may be something radical to stomach, but it is no harder than the truth, as we now know, having played the game and experienced its many “mindf**k” moments (vulgar, for lack of a better term). When you recognize just how fragile an alliance we have with nature, it’s a wonder that any of us are still breathing on this planet, when the Green Mother can knock us all down a peg just as easily as the entire city of Dubai in Spec Ops. Combine that with the fact that she effectively causes all of the carnage within the game, being the catalyst and all, and you even have a pretty strong eco-friendly message to go on as well. It really boils down to “Don’t screw with Gaia.”
The image of the sandstorm swallowing up Dubai, slowly or rapidly evolving as it does throughout The Line’s story, is one that is not only scarily possible in the real world, but scarily figurative as well. Not only is the storm swallowing whole the city and its inhabitants and would-be rescuers, but it is essentially swallowing their sanity and state of being as well, making for a much darker story and survival setting than one would think. Which harkens all the way back to “Heart of Darkness”i– Kurtz instead being said storm, metaphorically. Sand is the bigger metaphor present throughout the evolving story of Spec Ops, however it is not the only one- merely one of the most important. Sand might sometimes allow you to use it for your own purpose, such as when you shoot out the glass ceiling of a building, allowing the thousands of tons of sand to cascade in and bury your foes alive. But keep one thing clear in your head: the sand is never your ally, no matter how it might help you. It is a snake that will just as soon turn around and bite you as it will another person ahead.
Sand is harsh, brusque, and grating- so what better element to tell a story of harsh reality, and stark horrors of war in? I can’t think of a better one. When you are under constant threat of being swallowed completely- both in mind and body, it’s a little hard to focus on what you were originally supposed to do, and to not lose yourself, and your sanity, as the key players throughout Spec Ops easily learn… For a moment here, I’d like to direct you to that excellent Polygon article again, simply to bring in a quite appropriate and excellently timed quote here… It is as follows:
“It’s not making a statement about climate change or anything like that,” Williams said. “It just started off more as a metaphor of what the characters were going through; how it strips down all of the outer layers of who they think they are and what the city thinks it is, and tears it down to the bone.”
Honestly, in my mind, this hardly needs explaining, as it is basically the culminating factor of what we’ve since talked about thus far in this metaphorical zone of thought. Harkening again, back to the figure of Kutrz, is a character derived almost whole-sale from the film adaption’s (Apocalypse Now) military personae dramati- Colonel Konrad of the 33rd Brigade. Konrad, like Kurtz, is a mysterious figure whom you find yourself chasing for almost the entirety of the story, and then when you find him, not only does everything change (for the thirteenth time or so by then), but you simply…don’t know what to think. If that’s not psychologically scary enough for you alone, as a basis for a mature and honorific story, then I don’t know what is of your caliber.
A Dash of Character
Let’s glance back at Captain Walker once more, as the main character of the game. He has enormous connection to Marlowe (aka that guy from Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse now, most significantly) as an average, everyman, who just happens to also be special in more ways than one. One particular one, in this case, being that he is a member of special forces and of a Delta squad which he leads. I guess if you wanted to rip off Call of Duty and be punny at the same time, you could call him Sandman- he’s just as much of a badass after all. Anyways… It’s quite interesting to see how, like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, he wanders about until he achieves his “goal”- looking upon the insanity and madness surrounding him like a sea (or sandstorm, in this case), and tries his hardest not be swept up by it. Only to fail, of course, for the most part. In fact, it’s amazing he’s as [sane?] as he is after what all he’s been through…assuming he survives, of course (allusion spoiler). Allow me to direct you to another excellent quote from that Polygon article/interview:
“Yes, it’s a shooter, but these guys don’t know what’s happened in [Dubai],” Pearsey told Polygon. “The job is to go out and find survivors, and their perception is evolving of what’s going on. It’s a rescue mission that’s gone as bad as it could possibly go because you kill everyone that you rescue.”
It’s the evolving circumstances that not only provide ample challenge for the game and its narrative, but that strain the tense relationship between Walker and his squad, as well as their sanity and state of being. If that doesn’t build character, I don’t know what does. The most terrifying thing of all is that, because of some of the seriousness and realness of the situation Walker’s squad finds itself in- Spec Ops: The Line is a horror game more so than a thriller or shooter. It showcases the horrors of war first and foremost, truly making you “feel every bullet”. And that is really scary. I mean, imagine if you felt for every Ruski you’ve shot in Call of Duty over the course of one singleplayer campaign in Modern Warfare. You’d be emotionally derelict by the end, and probably suicidal. I know that sounds extreme, but that’s seriously something The Line does considerably well- promote character and emotion throughout every means of the medium.
You could go through Spec Ops: The Line, choose all the “right” or “correct” or “good” moral choices, and still not come out unscathed or heroic. You wouldn’t be lauded, hauled up on the shoulders of the civilians you saved, or even survive- for that matter. It is realistically impossible to make it through the storm without getting wet, for lack of a better metaphor. You are going to have to make tough decisions, in a limited amount of time, where any number of things can go wrong- and often will. Wait too long, and something bad will happen; decided too quickly and something worse happens. You have to economically balance things and refute the bad choices, as simple as that may sound. But it’s really not, and rarely works well. That’s life. You can be involved, you can be detached- but you’ll still be a part of the atrocities, and there’s nothing you can do aside from ignoring the game completely. If you thought “No Russian” was bad, you’ve got another thing coming…
The game is pretty free with how you can decided to go about things. Obviously, it’s a shooter, so your gun is as big a playable character as you are. You can mow through “enemies”, allies, and civilians alike if it pleases you, and if you don’t care that you are a monster that you once sought to stop. You can put down your arms and refuse to fight, most likely at the loss of your own life, if it pleases you. Nothing is really pleasing, but there are plenty of options- it’s just that not many are favorable ones, for you, or for your friends. The worst part? The game doesn’t even help you decide, or hint at what the right answer is. There isn’t an obvious choice in most scenarios, so you’re left flapping in the wind until you figure what else there is to do to finish things.
Sometimes, ironically enough, you’ll even make a decision, and by making that decision, the opposite will happen, and what you didn’t intend to occur will occur brutally and horrifically. That’s another wakeup call for most gamers- used, as we are, to games playing by our rules and following our instructions. If I didn’t know better, I’d almost thing 2K and Yager created a malevolent, self-aware entity to torture our souls with an endless sporadic of horrible decisions. But I don’t see GLaDOS, so I suppose we’re alright.
Your squadmates, while you have them (allusion spoiler), won’t always go with or agree with your decisions either, showing how both sets of thoughts- yours, and theirs, are mortal and prone to mistaken in happenstance. Mistakes happen often, and expect severe consequences when they do. Hell, even your “victories” and “good” choices have consequences, just to show how brutally unfair life is here, and how horrific it can be. This is a war, and at its center, on the opposing side is…you. You are truly your own worst enemy (literally, as you will learn), and there’s not a single thing you can do about it.
This isn’t a story where you get one good choice and one bad choice, both being painfully clear to you. This is almost an experience as deep as a role-playing game such as Elder Scrolls and Fallout, where the choices are often hazy and not clear, and there are more than you can count of one hand. Not all of which are favorable, often none, in fact. Combine this with the fact that things continually evolve as you go, and even Black Ops 2 is put to shame with its semi-branching narrative and endings. In The Line, there are no less than five possible endings (two major ones and three epilogue options), and the story evolves so dramatically throughout the game that no two persons’ gameplay should be the same, but instead remarkably different in most aspects. A perfect explanatory description of this would be:
“There aren’t many games that change the end user experience,” Pearsey said. “They want you … to come out there like a hero and a badass and they do it and that’s fine. That’s one type of entertainment product. Another type is ‘hey, let’s convert players and let’s [turn] things on their head.’ Not in a malicious way I don’t think, but we want to establish the ground rules that we’re going afield of your normal shooter in terms of how you experience it.”
The Mind Bender
Spec Ops: The Line is an experience which I feel has really mastered the art of bending and twisting things so far out of proportion, that they are entirely too believable, and not innately recognizable as evil at first. I mean, the game itself taunts you multiple times throughout, bending what we thought we already knew (not only in the game, but in life) on its head for purely narrative purposes and the end result of overthinking each choice we receive from then on. That alone should get you truly invested in what happens throughout the story. This excellent Polygon quote sums up everything that more people should take to heart, hard as it is to stomach:
“They tell you when you’re in dangerous situations: ‘Don’t be a hero. Being a hero gets people killed,'” Williams said. “There’s a reason that you’re training so much into muscle memory, so that when [crap] hits the fan that training kicks in and everyone knows what other people are going to do. They know who to follow, what choices to make because of all of this training, and being heroic has a tendency to go outside of that training to do something that is unexpected that is possibly going to do more bad than good. And that’s this big theme within the game.”
If there’s one thing Spec Ops does, it’s manage to convince you that being a hero, or even altruistic for that matter, is bad. Now, this doesn’t in any way reflect the mentality of any one person who developed the game, or try to be anti-morals and values. No, it simply provides a means to an end- the means being insanity and the end result being an excellent, gripping story. Akin, once more, to Kurtz’s figure in both the film and book, Colonel Konrad travels to Dubai in the wake of the ongoing storm in order to help its inhabitants, out of the goodness of his heart. When he “goes off to war” so to speak, he winds up so far off course, having been twisted and distorted so much by the realities and environments around him, that its any wonder he’s survived at all. And even better, as with Martin Sheen’s characters’ own dive into insanity in the last twenty or so minutes of Apocalypse Now, Captain Walker follows along right behind Konrad, attempting to figure out the same things as he once was. Is it any wonder we’re all crazy?
Twisted as it is in more ways than one (many more ways, definitely), Spec Ops: The Line is quite an invigorating and thought provoking experience, as well as a true work of art. Underrated though it is in most cases, from a story perspective alone, it should forever be commemorated with, and rank up with the likes of Bioshock, System Shock, and Shadow of the Colossus. Seriously, no joke, just try to wrap your brain around it and see what happens. It’ll probably drive you crazy if you try too hard. In a game such as Spec Ops, it should be obvious as the time goes on that there isn’t going to be a truly happy or upbeat ending, even with the best one. The fact that you’ve steadily watched your character and his friends fall to pieces throughout means that it’s either going to be impossible or very difficult to put them back together again afterwards. You can’t just “put a band-aid” on the wound and keep on trucking- that’s just highly unconventional and improbable. No, you’re going to be quite scarred by the experience… Much as the player is going to definitely remember the tough choices they had to make, and what all they did right and wrong- if they can even differentiate. In a shooter, that’s all but unheard of. At some points, I almost thought I was playing Mass Effect. It’s crazy, and it shows.
The Line is Drawn
There’s a certain line that is drawn in the making of a video game, and Spec Ops has most definitely crossed it, for better or worse in terms of sales I guess. There are some things you just don’t talk about, or try to avoid when making games, but 2K and Yager just went right on and talked about them- in detail. That to me is impressive, in that they truly cared for this single experience more than any number of potential sequels or money they could make off of them. That’s some real grit. I mean, when a game even thinks of killing off nearly every character of importance, even in an alternate ending or whatnot, it’s a pretty huge step and risk (allusion spoiler). And that’s exactly one they were willing to take here, all in the name of science! story. And for that, I respect the immensely.
The best way to explain this uncrossable line that will be crossed many times before you are even remotely near Spec Ops’ ending is to give it a figurative example. Say, for example, you are shooting your enemies and manage to clear out a heavily populated area. Later, you might realize that you hit some explosive barrels, or some bullets ricocheted and struck a heavily populated civilian area. You’ll probably feel bad, as you were coming to rescue them, and have instead killed them. This is often, literally and figuratively, one of the most striking conundrums in situations within Spec Ops. The is no good choice, because if you fight- people die; if you choose not to fight- people die. It’s an uphill battle and quite the lose-lose situation in most cases. You’ll legitimately feel bad about your actions at times, and even partly responsible for those of your enemies as well.
“Seeing gamers go into the experience hoping to have a fun, shooty bro-romp through a middle eastern environment … killing soulless, villainous enemies who are difficult to relate to (and thus easy to pull the trigger on), and then slowly finding themselves falling down the rabbit hole into a darker, more contemplative, more surreal, and character-driven experience has been amazing for me.”
And now it’s time to come to the end of this incredibly lengthy and detailed blog. I apologize if the walls of text or the multitude of perfect quotes from Polygon have hurt your eyes or sanity, but recognize that they were entirely essential to getting the points I made across. I really hope you have enjoyed what I’ve offered you today, as day eight of thirty, and that it was a worthwhile experience for you to read it. Allow me to leave you with a parting gift to you until my inevitable return tomorrow. Yes, it’s another quote. And a pretty awesome one, actually. Goodbye and good luck folks. I’ll see you tomorrow for day nine’s blog…
“It was a huge risk and I hope, I really hope that people get to do that again in the future and the industry doesn’t tell us that they aren’t ready, that gamers aren’t ready. Because I think they should be and they are. But money is a part of this equation and that’s the world we live in.”