6 min read

Just an illusion.

The treatment of illusion in Spec Ops.

There is something fascinating with Spec Ops, it is its work on illusion. It fooled a lot of people. Then again, most of the players and journalists. You just have to read the reviews to convince yourself: they didn't get it. The image I use in the magazine to explicit the depth of the game is that of the russian dolls: the matrioshkas. Because each time you open it, you discover something new.

What makes the illusion great in Spec Ops is first that it worked. Almost everybody believes that the hero Martin Walker snapped at chapter 8 after using phosphorus on civilians. But, there were a few elements you can notice that would make you think the opposite. I personnaly had a weird impression while playing it the first time. But the repetition of the helicopter scene put me on the right path. The fact is that the whole game takes place in Martin Walker's head like in the movie Jacob's Ladder (it’s more complicated but…). Of course, thinking the game is really about PTSD is not wrong. What makes Spec Ops great is that, as for religion and war, it is also about illusion. Just like an iceberg, there's more than meets the eye and you have to dive to see the most important part of it. But instead of a great revelation at the end (climax), the game distills pieces of information through several layers. In Icarus, I want to make sure that the articles respond to each other, that there's a dialogue. So even if I wrote a specific paper on the illusion, I still came back to it several times. Anyway, here a sump up of how the illusion works in Spec Ops:

1) The Art Direction

If you ask me what the greatest thing in Spec Ops is, it's definitly its art direction. It's so full of details, so smart. For example, if you replay the first level of the game (according to me, to yield a good review, most of the games must be done twice), you will see a portrait of the main enemy, Colonel Konrad, on a truck. This proves the hero is delusionnal from the beginning, seing his Nemesis everywhere. After that, the game will also show numerous time Colonel Konrad on publicities.

Of course there is all the psychedelic environnement. If you want to know more, I encourage you to read this article:

2) The Music

The OST is amazingly full of psychedelic rock too. Feel the atmosphere:


3) The Gameplay

The gameplay is far from realistic. I think the developers didn't want it to be to prevent the game from being the very same thing they criticize. You have some very striking mechanics. The first is one of the two techniques to get ammo: you need to execute the wounded soldiers. Again, I was pretty surprised that people didn't noticed it (I watched a lot of walktrough and read a lot of reviews just to see how people were tricked by the game). I think it's mostly because of the tutorial of Spec Ops, too short and forcing you to integrate all the information quickly. But I remember reading in french reviews that journalists was complaining about the lack of ammunitions. True. But it was to push you to kill, to put down your victims. The fact is, it's probably the best way to get grenades (check that previous article, it’s like a cycle: ).

The headshots in slow motion are also a pretty good way to tell you "this is not real". Same thing goes for the level design which put you through a "fall". During almost all the game, you just have to go down, follow a slope, continue down the stairs, enter in many holes. Even at the beginning, you come down from the sky.

4) The genre.

I think nobody in the movie industry will call Apocalypse Now or Jacob's Ladder a realistic movie. But for Spec Ops, I have read such qualifications. Why ? I think it's because the game is very political. As the ideas are stronger than their representation, it makes you believe it's very first degree. It is true that the game interrogates the war, the pacifism, the US army, the heroism. But obviously in the middle of fantastic and horror. The violence is pretty exaggerated, you see burning corpses, a lot of hanged men, crimes, murders. Your hear supplications. The story's basis is like that of a disaster movie. It's a huge storm that emprisoned Dubaï, trapping everybody inside. You are like Rambo killing everybody, making it through improbable situations (like falling from a skyscraper). Last but not least, the 33 third battalion you are fighting against doesn't exist in the US army.

5) The own lacks of the game

If you talk to people from Dubaï, they won't recognize their city. And it's normal. Because of the legal issues, it was impossible for the team to reproduce the official buildings. So they made an assembly. It's a proof you can easily take an imitation for reality, espacially because you have integrated the limitations of video game. But make no mystake, it's not very close to Dubaï. Play Ace Combat: Assault Horizon if you want to take a look at the city in a video game.

Technically, the explosions are quite poorly designed in. You can't take that for real, for sure :D Even the flaws of the story reinforces the idea of illusion.

6) The metafiction

The developers literally tell you that the game is not what you think. For example, the trophee "Rabbit Hole"shows the watch of the rabbit. It's an explicit reference to Alice in Wonderlands. The inscriptions on walls like "Liar's lair" must be seen as ironic. But I think the greatest way to understand the vision of the developers is to look at the names of the boats in chapter 13. A big one is named SERENDIPITY (it's the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident). The developers literally tell us how they built the game, passing from ideas to ideas, and how to understand it.

Furthermore, the developers also break the 4th wall. The game is speaking directly to the players, analysing their thoughts, their gameplay. A lot of people talked about this so, you probably already know...


I wanted to show how the game distills the illusion in all of his compartments, even if it's a very succint way to sum up the explications and the analysis I wrote in Icarus:  Next time, we'll try to answer very specific questions about the game and the diversity of its themes.



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