Spec Ops - Not Crossing the Line
So I finished Spec Ops in a single sit down. Five hours. What follows is something I hope will foster discussion on not only this game, but on narrative and player agency in gaming.
Warning: Spoilers ahead. And this is even more important than usual. There is absolutely no reason other than narrative/story to play this game. Reading this thread before you do so will absolutely destroy the experience to the point where you will have wasted the $10 you just spent on the game in the Steam sale.
Spec Ops the line would have been a far better experience had the developers remembered they were making a game and not a movie. That's the short version and some of you clever folks will doubtless glean the entire point of this rambling post from that single sentence. Call it a Thesis then, for this post.
The longer version, as I wrote on my blog just today, goes something like this (I won't paste the entire blog, no worries):
I didn't kill Dubai. Despite the game's insistence to the contrary, it was not me, but Captain Walker, that destroyed what remained of the city. I know the developers intended for me to feel this emotional gut punch at the end of the game. I think I even wanted to feel it. But I never did. It simply never manifested. Finding out why took me a few minutes of careful consideration.
In the end, I figured it out: There was no emotional gut punch, because I didn't make the decisions. Walker did. Like Adams and Lugo I was just along for the ride. A reluctant accomplice to madness, perhaps, but its source. I didn't make the decision to burn civilians with white phosphorous or kill a soldier where he dangled from an overpass. I didn't even decide to push into the city when I had no need. And I didn't decide to show boat in a helicopter until other choppers arrived to pursue us, leading to Lugo's death. None of these decisions was mine, and therefore, the emotional fist in the stomach Walker doubtless felt in the end...that wasn't mine, either.
Which is not to say I did not appreciate the narrative. I did. And I believe pushing through the whole thing on Easy is the right way to play this. The only challenge you are going to receive is letter-perfect generic game play copied and pasted from every 3rd person shooter ever made, complete with clunky, half broken cover system that leaves you in the open far too often. Getting through the exhausting day and a half or so of Walker's life at the pace the writer intended is far more important than trying to find a challenge here. I really believe that and highly recommend it. In order to fully appreciate the ending of Spec Ops the beginning must still be fresh in your mind.
And I liked the ending. I also liked playing a game which does not hesitate to reveal the horrors of turning modern soldiers loose in modern cities. Bruce Willis says in "Under Siege" that the Army is a Broadsword, not a scalpel. Walker single-handedly wields that Broadsword here in spectacular fashion, to horrifying effect. And those horrors are each one on display. They are not thrown in your face to the detriment of the narrative; they belong here as much as Walker does, because they are his horrors. His penance, of a sort. They are his, but they are not yours.
And this is, I feel, where Spec Ops comes up short. I wanted to feel that punch in the gut. To be part of the madness. Because this is a game, and games are interactive media. Interactive. I wanted to face down choices: bombing the camp, or sneaking around. Shooting the soldier, the civilian or the ropes and fighting off the snipers. Stealing the water supply, or helping to secure it. Killing everything in sight, or fighting armed insurgents and the rogue 33rd in order to go get real help for Dubai. Had I faced those decisions, and made those choices myself - had I been able to sit here and tell you I chose to bomb the camp because it was easier than sneaking around, and only then learned the truth of the horror I had inflicted - I would still be reeling from the fist in my gut some 24 hours later. But I'm not. Because somewhere along the line, as great a game as Spec Ops was and as much as the military shooter genre needed this, the developers and the writers failed to remember they were making a game, not a movie.
Could Dubai have been saved, if someone had made different choices? Could help have made it in, if escorted by Delta operatives who knew the truth? Could securing the water have bought the time needed for a real rescue? Could killing the radio man and broadcasting messages of peace and hope helped things? We won't ever know, because we never got to make those choices. To make any choices, really.
I did not make the choice to kill Dubai.
And oddly enough, in this context, that saddens me a little.