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  1. #1
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    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.


    Right then.


    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.

  2. #2
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus gundato's Avatar
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    You did in the sense that, as the game repeatedly told you, you didn't walk away. You chose to keep playing, just like Walker chose to keep advancing.

    But that is kind of the point of the game. You could have chosen to walk away at any time. And maybe different choices could have saved everyone, or maybe something else could have been done to make the world a happy place. But "you" were there, and "you" made those choices. Walker felt he had no choice because he was just reacting to the voices in his head. That Walker could only choose from the options in front of him. You felt you had no choice because you were just playing a game. That you could only choose from the options in front of you.

    It sounds like you are more annoyed that there wasn't a happy ending. You feel that without the ability to succeed, you can't be blamed for the failure. You wanted to "be the hero" who snuck around and avoided hurting anyone. And that is one of the things I love about the game: You could never succeed if you were the hero. Instead, you tried to be the hero, and just made things worse.

    From the moment "you" chose to be the hero, Dubai was damned. And YOU chose to be the hero by playing the game. Because nobody plays games like this to NOT be the hero. Even OFP/ArmA puts in quite a few "one man to win the war" spec ops missions to appeal to that.

    Is it the best story in the world? No. But it is definitely something to make you think and presents an experience unlike basically any other video game.

    To quote Batman speaking to a distraught Tim Drake: Sometimes, there are no happy endings.
    And that is the kind of game Spec Ops is.
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  3. #3
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Jesus_Phish's Avatar
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    This and this make most of the points I would try to say here. You should check the videos out if you haven't particularly the second video.

    I don't feel the comment to Walker at the end was meant as "You the player have chosen to destroy Dubai" but rather them saying "Isn't it a bit sad that you came here to play a game that would make you feel like a hero? Well in this game you don't play a hero". Also, you couldn't get the same experience with it as a movie. Dear god let's not let this descend into that conversation again, but because you play as Walker you're more attached to him.

    But why does it sadden you that you didn't male the choice? The story wasn't about you making that choice, it was always going to be the ending to the story. The choices you got to make just add to the experience.

    To agree with Gundato,

    Quote Originally Posted by gundato View Post
    You did in the sense that, as the game repeatedly told you, you didn't walk away. You chose to keep playing, just like Walker chose to keep advancing.

    To quote Batman speaking to a distraught Tim Drake: Sometimes, there are no happy endings.
    And that is the kind of game Spec Ops is.

  4. #4
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    Shooting the soldier, the civilian or the ropes and fighting off the snipers.
    The game sort of does give you that choice, if you're prepared to stop the game at that point.
    I did feel that there were other points in the game where - thanks in large part to Lugo sticking his nose in - the game was offering me a somewhat-honest choice between stopping (and quitting) or continuing. (The use of white phosphorus for example.)

    I think the game, particularly with the somewhat weak handling of the ending, did come a bit too close to a "You'll do anything to advance in a video game, won't you?! AHHHHHH! PUSH THE RAPE BUTTON!" message (which I don't think is a good use of the rest of the game). I still think it managed to reflect meaningfully on what it is to engage in military adventures - both in real life and what we expect from entertaining depictions of them.

    I felt that the limited self-contained choices that you do make in the game (most obviously the overpass, but also how you deal with the crowd) did set it apart from simply being a movie. There's basically no mechanical (extrinsic?) consequences of those choices for the player or even visible outcomes later on in the world.

    I think that normally I would be tempted to say that makes them meaningless but in this case - and I appreciate that this turns in large part as to how effectively you thought the game presented those choices - I felt that the choices had an (intrinsic? Ish.) moral value to them. I made a meaningful moral choice at the overpass (and really I wouldn't want to make it again).

    However the view that this made Spec Ops more of an (interactive?) movie than a 'game' seems perfectly reasonable to me. Which brings us back to how effectively you felt those moments of interaction were presented.

    Something of a tangent - conversely I often find it difficult engage with RPG's properly (that is, as I want to) because I end up treating them purely as games, as systems rather than something telling me a story. (See This post by someone else for vaguely similar thoughts but about other players in MMOs.) I usually know that the choices I make will usually have, frankly, crude mechanical effects that can benefit me in different ways (and damn those wikis and my weakness for them). Spec Ops freed me a little in that respect.
    Last edited by Zetetic; 03-01-2013 at 03:34 AM.

  5. #5
    Lesser Hivemind Node Juan Carlo's Avatar
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    I didn't really like the ending twist. It not only struck me as kind of implausible (for a number of reasons), but it also just struck me as kind of unoriginal. I actually wondered at one point right before the end, "I wonder if they are setting up a 'Fight Club' style twist here?" but I dismissed the idea as silly. But then we get an ending taken straight from "Fight Club."

    As much as the game is lauded for its story, I think its story's a bit weak. I did think the civilian bombing moment was effective and that did surprise me. I also liked the fact that, after the bombing, it seemed that they were setting you up as the villain in various ways, so I was expecting some sort of a reveal. I just thought the "Fight Club" thing was too silly, implausible, and a way too on the nose of a way of making that point. I think they could have done it in a more subtle fashion (especially since, as I said, the game was already making that point perfectly fine on its own, without having to spell it out so literally via the "main character is crazy!" reveal).

    Still, I find it hard to criticize just because it's so rare that a big budget game even tries something like this that I think it's a nice step in the right direction. So I don't regret playing it or anything and I'd actually recommend people play it just because there really isn't anything else like it out there right now. And I think it at least gestures towards the potential of games, even if it doesn't fully accomplish everything it tries to.

    Plus, even when the plot falters towards the end, I think it nails an effective and consistent "tone" throughout. It's very good at creating a growing sense of horror and dread as the game progresses, which I admired a great deal as "tone" isn't something that most games seem to worry too much about.
    Last edited by Juan Carlo; 03-01-2013 at 03:59 AM.

  6. #6
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus SirKicksalot's Avatar
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    There is a choice in the mortar scene, but it's futile. You can't progress if you try to shoot the enemy. Using the mortar is the reasonable choice, and that's what the main character understands. If he wants to fix things, then he has to do it.

    Then the game points out that reasonable choices can go awfully wrong. The main character wants to be a hero and makes a choice that is reasonable for his goal but turns out really bad for everyone else.

    It calls out the assumption that progress is good because you're the hero. There is no redemption and things can't be fixed by such carnage.

    You can't divorce the main character's goal from the narrative just because there's no choice X. There are predetermined outcomes to all choices you make in life. Just because the degree of predetermination is more limited in that scene than what you would like it to be doesn't mean it's not valid. Complete agency does not exist.

    I find this moment sort of similar to Ryan's golf club scene in Bioshock. The point of Bioshock was the lack of choice. In order to make that point, that scene was very limited. It's not even playable. The point would fall apart if the game allowed any other action (think of Bioshock 2's decisions). The mortar scene of Spec Ops allows a secondary choice - and if you go full meta and drop the controller, a third. The game is designed to make the primary choice reasonable given the context, but it does not provide a satisfying outcome like pretty much every other game does.

  7. #7
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus jnx's Avatar
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    As I've said before, the only way to win with Spec Ops is not to play it at all. That's also the cheapest route to take.
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  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by gundato View Post
    You did in the sense that, as the game repeatedly told you, you didn't walk away. You chose to keep playing, just like Walker chose to keep advancing.
    What bullshit.

    This argument would hold some water if the game was some kind of abstract puzzle with no story to it whatsoever. And free to play.

    Spec Ops is, in a way, a mystery. What happened in the city? Why the general dude went rogue? Who are those people shooting at me and why are they shooting at me? If you followed the game even a bit before release, chances are you'd want to know to find these out even before you started the game. And unless you really don't give a fuck about anything but shooting guys you would want to find these out as soon as you started it.

    The entire assumption of the devs - that people play the vieogames to "be a hero"(hero in the morally positive aspect, not as in "the guy the story's about") - is complete bullshit. It's like saying people play economy games to feel like a CEO or god games to feel like a god. It makes this much sense. As in, fucking none.

    This isn't my story. I am not Walker. Argument "Well you could have stopped playing" is nonsensical; I'm playing to see what happens to Walker himself; I'm playing to see what happened to the city, to the general; maybe I'm playing because I just find the gameplay to be fun. Saying "Well you could have stopped playing" is like saying "Well you could have walked out of Batman Begins when Batman goes to fucking Tibet to train with the secret tibetan monks".

    Yeah, that was retarded beyond belief. But maybe the story can still be saved. Maybe there will be more of Scarecrow, who was the coolest character in the movie. Maybe they'll show Katie Holmes' nipples. Maybe who the fuck cares, I already paid for it so might as well sit through to the end, the chair's qutie comfy and I have popcorn.

    A proper way to do a game like this would be some kind of team-based tactics game in a mercenary setting where you can pick your missions and also make decisions during missions. Then have x missions where you can try and be a hero. And every time the player tries to be a hero, slap him in the face: ooops, you just accidentally killed like 50 civilians. Ooops, you just destroyed this small village's only well. Ooops, your dumb ass just ended killing half of your team and you still didn't achieve the objective.

    But anyway... to sum it up, Spec Ops: The Line isn't a great commentary about how people play games and shit because its basic premise couldn't be more flawed("people play the games to feel like a hero"). And it doesn't work even as a single story because it doesn't give the player (almost) any choices to guilt him about later - and "you could stop playing" is not a viable choice, it's nonsense. And it definitely isn't some stepping stone in shooter history and "every FPS released after it should be ashamed" as some douchebag pointed out(Wasn't it Yahtzee?). Hey idiots: before Walker makes even single bad decision, he already kills like 50 people with his regenerating health powers. Yeah I can see this is the fucking end of the line for the entire genre already

    I wonder how the game would be received if devs didn't make the fuss about the whole hero thing. Would anyone even care? Would anyone make the conclusions they are making now? Or would the game be just received as a game about a man who makes several bad decisions and goes crazy, the end? You know, which is what this game actually is about?

  9. #9
    Lesser Hivemind Node Spider Jerusalem's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by gundato View Post
    You did in the sense that, as the game repeatedly told you, you didn't walk away. You chose to keep playing, just like Walker chose to keep advancing.
    so if i walk away from the game does walker also walk away from dubai?

    Quote Originally Posted by jnx View Post
    As I've said before, the only way to win with Spec Ops is not to play it at all. That's also the cheapest route to take.
    it's not only cheap, it's cowardly. if one makes a game hoping the player stops playing said game, that person might be in the wrong industry. perhaps they should be writing essays. or doing performance art.

  10. #10
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Heliocentric's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Spider Jerusalem View Post
    it's not only cheap, it's cowardly. if one makes a game hoping the player stops playing said game, that person might be in the wrong industry.
    I didn't even humour buying it or playing it, that makes me the most winnerest of winners.
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  11. #11
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Similar's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Spider Jerusalem View Post
    so if i walk away from the game does walker also walk away from dubai?
    yeah, exactly. There's not enough sense of being your own person for the 'you could just stop playing' argument to work. It just feels like you step into Walker's shoes for a short while, so there's no feeling that events will stop if you stop playing.
    The game even sets things up so that a large part of the story has already happened when you start the game (which doesn't seem to make much sense at all considering the premise).
    And the game is in third person. First person might have created slightly less of that disconnect.

    For me, I think the only time I felt I did something bad, that could have been avoided, was [spoiler] when using a zip line and knocking a soldier down at the end of the ride [/spoiler]. While he was down, I just automatically hit the 'execute' button which resulted in Walker beating the guy's brains out with the butt of his rifle. His team mates get kind of shocked at that, and, whether the game allows another action or not (I don't know if there's a choice where you don't kill the soldier), I felt I'd gone too far into the 'kill everything' mindset.
    That bit worked for me, perhaps mainly because there was no set up for the scene, it just happened without warning.

    There's another bit which I think was supposed to be the same way, with a civilian woman who suddenly comes running at you in the middle of a battle. I'm guessing you were meant to shoot her by accident, but I never even came close the two times I played that mission.


    I don't think the developer's premise for the game works (as others have said, I don't play games to be the hero either. In fact, it's a relief the few times I'm allowed not to be one), but it was worth playing anyway and I'm glad they at least tried something a bit different.
    Though, it's possible I might have felt a bit differently if I'd paid full price for it and not gotten it in GMG's sale.

  12. #12
    Lesser Hivemind Node agentorange's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Similar View Post
    There's another bit which I think was supposed to be the same way, with a civilian woman who suddenly comes running at you in the middle of a battle. I'm guessing you were meant to shoot her by accident, but I never even came close the two times I played that mission.
    I shot that woman by mistake.

  13. #13
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    Quote Originally Posted by agentorange View Post
    I shot that woman by mistake.
    I've actually been wondering why I didn't. The whole thing is set up for it to happen.
    I don't know if it was the shape being different from the soldiers or the clothes or lack of weapon or maybe the animation, but my brain just put her in the 'different' category.

  14. #14
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus DaftPunk's Avatar
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    Is it really 5 hours long because i stopped playing the game after 5 hours,couldn't stand gameplay any more.

  15. #15
    Lesser Hivemind Node Spider Jerusalem's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Similar View Post
    yeah, exactly. There's not enough sense of being your own person for the 'you could just stop playing' argument to work. It just feels like you step into Walker's shoes for a short while, so there's no feeling that events will stop if you stop playing.
    or not even that events would stop, but that your rejection/removal/etc. matters at all (even if only to yourself). the problem with trying to tackle an issue this way in this particular medium is that if you aren't playing the game, it doesn't exist (for you).

    in something like abramovic's rhythm 0, watching her get stabbed, burned, injured, violated, etc. makes you complicit (as you're a member of the audience that's perpetrating the harm), and removing yourself then from the audience is a meaningful choice, as is staying and saying nothing (or participating).

    but in spec ops, the "social experiment" only matters as long as you're paying attention; it's an experience aimed at a single person, relying on that single person to be its co-creator. chasing off your lone audience member is pretty much a critical failure, and allowing for it as the no in your binary choice system is a fundamental betrayal of the art form, whatever the art form may be.

  16. #16
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus jnx's Avatar
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    Thoughts behind the creation of the game are rather imcomprehensible. Were they really trying to critize shootybangs by doing a shootybang?
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  17. #17
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus sonson's Avatar
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    Spec Ops fails for me becuase it relies on the conceit that makes fundamentally all FPS games completley unbelievable. In most games you, a supposed mortal, kill hundreds at least while you never die once, and you can never truly die anyway. The majority of game mechanics force you into the role of a hero in terms of your abilities if not behaviour or intent. It doesnít come down to ability, because mechanic are available to you which prevent you from dying at the point all your enemies do. You are literally endowed with powers which make you superior by default. Your foes donít have bandages or painkiller or food(?!) or whatever contrived idea that fixes them up from being shot in the face six times. Of course, Spec Ops doesnít change this either.

    Games which recognise this tend to be more coherent gaming experiences in my opinion than ones which try to play it straight. Quite simply, the whole notion of partaking in and winning a firelight against five times as many opponents as yourself is so ludicrous that itís always going to feel broken unless it takes part in a knowingly fantastical context.

    The real way to challenge violence and death in video games is to make the protagonist feel itís consequences to the same degree without it being a short or shitty game. Not even HL Miami mangaes this becuase you are immortal for all your fraility. Maybe there needs to be more of a Risk: Legacy or Iroman approach in terms of the finality of death. Obviously thatís incredibly hard to do.

    The only genre that gets remotely close to this I think is strategy, in that lives tend to be cheap and require that they be lain down repeatedly for you to get anywhere. If a vertern unit dies in a good strategy game, or a powerful leader, I feel that loss more keenly than I ever do when I just die in a FPS skirmish.
    Last edited by sonson; 03-01-2013 at 12:31 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by agentorange View Post
    I shot that woman by mistake.
    That reminds me of one mission in Modern Warfare 2 where I always flank along the level edge* which inevitably ends up with me accidentally shooting one of my teammates since any reinforcements end up arriving from the general direction I'm shooting in. It once happened to me three times in a row. I restarted the game from the last checkpoint every time.

    * - which as we all know is a blatant lie since COODY is an on-rails shooter

  19. #19
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    Gotta be quick - work this morning.

    Firstly, I'm honestly not annoyed at the lack of a happy ending. In fact I was relived to play a game that shows the horrors of war. Especially urban war, in a modern setting, with modern weapons. I was relieved, as someone else said, to not be the hero for once.

    My annoyance came with not feeling the emotional gut punch. That punch was what this game was developed to deliver. And because none of the choices Walker made were mine, I felt nothing. Well, maybe regret for him. Maybe I felt a little sorry that his own Hero or Power Fantasy lead him so badly astray. But I felt nothing of an emotional sort myself. Why should I feel an emotional burden for someone else's bad decisions? I've got enough of my own to worry over, thanks.

    That said: I did enjoy the game...well, ok, the narrative. Not the game. And I am glad someone had the guts to make it. The shooter genre needed something like this. What it did not need were more turret systems, another clunky cover system...all the same old genre tropes woven into yet another story. But all in all, I am glad I played it. I would do it again, even knowing.

    But I am sorry they did not capitalize on the medium. It would have been perhaps an all time classic had they done so.

  20. #20
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    I have to say that the whole "well you are responsible because could just stop playing the game" argument is possibly the most idiotic argument I have ever heard in gaming.
    Irrelevant on further examination of the rest of the thread.

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