You Want Some Gum?
How Spec Ops: The Line Condemned Video Game Violence by Embracing It
George Sutherland Howard
Author's note: This paper was originally written for my Aesthetic Expressions class, and so at times approaches the topic as if the reader knows little about the details of the development of video games. Still, my friends encouraged me to post it and I feel that many users of this site will hopefully find something of value in this bit of writing.
As with any other medium, video games have their "flagship" entries - works that are ubiquitous with the medium itself in the minds of those unfamiliar with its broader reaches. The problem is that video games are a fledgling industry, one that has not fully matured and is still working towards reaching its full potential. The most widely-recognized games among those who do not play them tend to be the ones that appeal to the widest audience, and due to the unrefined nature of the industry, these games do this by appealing to the lowest common denominator. The Call of Duty series was once an underdog game with roots in the portrayal of World War II battles, and a title that showed a relative amount of respect for the conflict compared to other World War II series. Nowadays, it is a bombastic corridor of dramatic explosions and military jargon, in which the ridiculous guns and pseudo-near-future gadgetry are better-developed characters than the ones who wield them. It is game of mindless twitch reflexes for its main consumers, many of are which too young to have legally purchased the game themselves (Call of Duty is rated M for ages 17 and up in the US by the Electronic Software Ratings Board, and Ages 18+ by the Pan-European Game Information in Europe). The single-player story, once a deep, respectful look at the battles fought across the world by men who died in shit and mud, is now barely more than an extended tutorial and advertisement for the online multiplayer.
Is the Call of Duty series fun? Of course it is - I enjoy playing it, and the series sells millions of copies year after year. The studios working on the series have the gameplay down to a formula. But it lacks depth - I don't come away from a Call of Duty game feeling any different. It doesn't engage me on any mental level, let alone an emotional one.
Unfortunately, shooter games like Call of Duty are now so well-known that they are seen by many people unfamiliar with games as nearly the entirety of what games have to offer - nothing more, and nothing less. Video games as a whole are denounced for being violent, mindless affairs with no value, and some even accuse video games of being emotionally and mentally damaging.
This is untrue, of course; games like ThatGameCompany's Journey show that video games can be incredibly relaxing, soothing experiences, and Quantic Dream's Beyond: Two Souls goes so far as to almost deliver an interactive movie rather than a game. The Portal series of puzzle games are a shooter series in which you cannot kill anyone and your gun shoots only linked portals. But the stigma of video games as being mindlessly violent remains.
Yager Development's Spec Ops: The Line intended to change part of that stigma.
Released on June 26, 2012, the game looks and plays unremarkably, perhaps even generically. It is a standard third-person cover-based shooter featuring American Delta Force soldiers fighting in the Middle East - just like so many other games. But therein lies the rub, the catch. While The Line plays and looks like every other shooter title out there, everything about it - the story, the voice acting, the blood and guts - was crafted to make the player feel worse and worse about the on-screen, virtual atrocities that they were committing in the name of good - the same reason many other games give for the player to commit similar actions. Yager Development took a violent shooter game and turned the entire genre upside down by forcing players to recognize the violence.
To do this, the designers at Yager embraced the ludonarrative dissonance so common in other shooters. In game design, the ludonarrative refers to the aspects of a video game storyline that are controlled by the player. It is contrasted with the fixed narrative, the single storyline created by the developers and experienced by the players through non-interactive elements of a game. Ludonarrative dissonance occurs when a game's gameplay conflicts with the storyline. In the story of Grand Theft Auto IV, you play as an immigrant supposedly trying to restart his life and escape his shady past. The gameplay, however, consists of vast amounts of shooting, explosions, and death. The contrast between the character the player is supposed to be and the actions that the game encourages the player to commit jars the player and mentally removes them from the in-game world - not a good thing.
In The Line, you play as Captain Walker, whose mission is to search through the sandstorm-wrecked ruins of Dubai with two other squadmates for a missing US Army battalion. Walker also has a personal connection - the head of this battalion, Colonel Conrad, saved his life years earlier. In the start of the game, Walker is a decorated career soldier and member of the elite Delta Force - stereotypically one of the "good guys", and Walker believes he is as such. You begin by fighting "insurgents", who seem like the "bad guys" of so many other shooters that you just accept them for enemies as soon as they pop up. But soon, things become complicated. The lost battalion appears to have gone rogue and started heaping atrocities upon the civilians they were supposed to save. Now, the player's conventions of "good guys" and "bad guys" been completely reversed, but things get even murkier from there.
The rogue US soldiers are portrayed in the most sympathetic light possible; although no excuses are made for their horrific actions, the game subtly-yet-constantly reminds the player that the soldiers they are shooting are people, too. In battle, many games have enemies shout "chatter" - noise made to immerse the player and stop battles from becoming eerily silent. When Yager had the voice actors for the nameless, nigh-faceless soldier- and insurgent-enemies deliver their lines, they instructed each actor to deliver their lines as if they were the protagonist. This small change boosted the perceived significance of each enemy, leveling the "plot importance" playing field between the player and the enemy. After all, in the real world, each of us has a story that is different from everyone else - no one is just there for others to interact with.In one instance, the player stealthily rounds a corner and sees two soldiers from the rogue battalion talking on a balcony. One soldier offers the second a piece of gum, but the second soldier refuses, saying "Nah, man, that's your last piece!" The two then talk for a bit about who they have waiting for them back home - a home they will never see, as the player must then shoot them to proceed.
As the game continues, Walker's actions (i.e., the player's actions) become more and more depraved even as his quest to save Conrad and be a hero becomes an obsession. At one point, the rogue battalion retreats and brings hostages for cover. The player, as Walker, drops phosphorus (incendiary) mortar rounds on the battalion anyway. When, in the horrific aftermath, the squad discovers that the battalion had brought the civilians to shelter them from the upcoming battles, Walker becomes enraged - and blames the battalion for forcing him to do this. Walker becomes more and more unhinged as the game continues; with his/the player's actions deviating more and more from whom he thinks he is.
This transition is particularly reflected in Walker’s in-game dialogue. In the first act, Walker is the professional soldier, a good leader, a just man - he think he is who he thinks he is. If he kills an enemy, he will say "tango down", "target neutralized", etc. When helping a squadmate up, he will reassure them with lines like "You'll be fine" or "You're going to make it". In the second act, Walker is no longer quite who he imagines himself to be - he is starting to slip under the stress - but he continues to keep it together and lead, if tersely. Shooting an enemy will result in Walker barking "Got him" or "He's dead!", while saving a squadmate will give the player lines like, "Get up!" or "keep moving!" And by the third act, Walker has lost it. He is so caught up in the idea of being a hero that he cannot even acknowledge, let alone own up to, his/the player' own horrific, villainous deeds. After killing an enemy, Walker will laugh in glee, shouting things like "Got the fucker!", "Headshot", or "Fucker's dead!" Helping up a squadmate will have Walker say "Get the fuck up," or "You're just slowing me down."
So far, the game has built up this ludonarrative dissonance through the use of horrific actions on the part of the player, manipulating the player to sympathize with the same enemies they will be shooting, and directly contrasting the actions of the player/main character with whom the main character thinks he is. The nail in the coffin, the point that tops off this already-uncomfortable, mind-bending experience is the small things that make it feel like the game itself is judging you. In many shooters, the still graphics that the game shows between levels while the second level loads will give you tips to help you play better and information on the characters in the game. Spec Ops: The Line starts off doing this, so these tips become essentially backgournd noise-text when they appear. Then, after a certain point in the game (the incendiary mortar attack), they change. They don't offer help, just sarcastic jibes and messages that mock the player, asking them things like "Do you feel like a hero?" Additionally, small intentional inconsistencies like game erratically changing between fading to black and fading to white before a cinematic cutscene add a whole other layer of mind-bending, as the writer of the game heavily implies that moments in the game after a fade-to-white are a hallucination from Walker, taking place in his head. Towards the very end of the game, you crash in a helicopter - the cutscene then fades to white before going to the final level and the end of the game. The lead writer has stated that he interprets this as Walker/the player having died, and thus the final level of the game takes place entirely in some sort of purgatory (Dyer).
Spec Ops: The Line takes what seems to be a standard - even generic - military shooter title and makes the player actually think about their actions in-game, often with uncomfortable results. Several times during playtesting, players would put down the controller and walk away for a break, as they felt so badly; indeed, lead writer Walt Williams has stated that putting down the controller and refusing to play is a legitimate ending to the game (Dyer). The game accomplishes this terrifyingly brutal experience by taking several key routes. First, it overcomes the limited sensory input of the player by ramping up the violence to extremely uncomfortable levels. Next, it uses voice acting and narrative points to build the player's sympathy for the nameless in-game character they will be killing. Third, it intentionally contrasts the idea of who the main character thinks he is - that is, who the player believes him to be at first - with the horrific actions that the main character/player commit, using changes in dialogue and mannerisms to highlight this descent into madness. Finally, The Line itself, as a game, seems to judge the player, constantly reminding them of the virtual atrocities they have committed to the cause of being a hero, then hints that some event of the game might not have even been real - that the player, as the main character, hallucinated them. This leads to even more unease - which atrocities did I actually commit and which were a figment of my character's imagination? asks the player.
There is, of course, no answer, save for the sound of desert winds and agonized screams playing through my PC's speakers. But that matters not. In the end, Spec Ops: The Line is a visceral, uncompromising, unforgiving analysis not only of video game virtual violence but also of the triviality with which players commit such ridiculous levels of violence, one that uses and smashes genre conventions with impunity even as it both draws in and demoralizes its players.
The fact that The Line was a “AAA” game who’s developers received funding and advertising from a larger publisher is even more important - most mind-bending, thought-provoking games have a tendency to be smaller, lower-budget projects made by independent studios who have less of a need to turn over a large profit. That The Line was even considered by the publishers, let alone funded, is a milestone in the maturation of the video games industry and the content it produces.
Dyer, Mitch. "The Story Secrets of Spec Ops: The Line."IGN. 20 07 2012: n. page. Print. <http://www.ign.com/articles/2012/07/20/the-story-secrets-of-spec-ops-the-line>.
Williams, Walt, perf. We Are Not Heroes: Contextualizing Violence Through Narrative. GDC Vault, 2013. Web. 7 Apr 2014. <http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/188964/Video_Spec_Ops_The_Line_contextualizes_violence_through_story.p>.
Spec Ops: The Line. (Yager Development) 2K Games. 2012. Video Game