The following is the final installment in a Heave series by Tom Harrison on the recently released third-person shooting game Spec Ops: The Line and how/why it pushes gaming as a medium while also retaining some of its most frustrating habits. Parts 1-3 can be found in the sidebar to your right.
I’ve made the “evil” choice in games before. It’s nothing new. Mostly, I’m just trying to see where the story goes on that particular “evil” path. When I betrayed the elves who paid me to kill werewolves in Dragon Age: Origins, I didn’t feel bad about it. I thought ha Ha! Silly elves. Now my werewolf bros are free to roam. I’m not really making those choices from a moral, emotional standpoint—I’m weighing options as a player on a couch, detached from the plot and the characters, seeing the situation as a series of branching game paths rather than anything real. SO:TL’s crowning achievement is, as part three argues, the scene where Walker mows down a mob of civilians, tearing the game/player detachment to the ground.
Am I sure I’m a good person? Did the game make me shoot that mob of civilians blocking my path? The answers don’t come so easy when you can’t pin the responsibility on it being the only way to move forward. “You are still a good person,” that disingenuous loading screen reassurance stuck in my mind. I wasn’t still a good person. I wasn’t just along for the ride, I wasn’t just some guy on a couch. I did this shit myself. The loading screen is the game’s facile attempt to rationalize it away.
But to have made that decision is something that can’t be ignored. Killing those civilians is murder, and that can’t be justified. There’s only one person responsible, and it’s not Walker. I felt sick after this scene. I’m used to me-as-presence-in-game-world being a bad guy. That’s not news. SO:TL made me ashamed of me-as-player, of the guy sitting on the couch. I wasn’t feeling sick over my morally repugnant character, but my morally repugnant self. It’s not a pleasant emotion, but art doesn’t need to be pleasant. The fact that any art can make me feel so strongly is fucking incredible, and I’m proud that games are proving they can do this.
Thing is, though, this is the only moment in the entire game that works so well. The player has no say in the rest of the game’s events. It’s baffling how they could get it so right and then fuck it up so bad. “You are still a good person” is, for a moment, a deeply cutting insult, an absolutely devastating ironic assessment of what you are at that moment, what you have done, which playfully blurs the line between player and protagonist in a stunningly creative way. For the rest of the game, it might as well be unvarnished truth. What other options do you have?
Which brings me to the third and final way SO:TL could be one of the best pieces of media ever made: 3. Make leaving the game a viable option. The reason the aforementioned moment worked so well is that me-as-player’s need to move forward aligned with Walker’s as we both chose what was easy and wrong. Never again do I get to make a choice about what moving forward means to me.
The only way to stop Walker and yourself is to stop playing the game, and I wasn’t about to not play a game I had paid big money for (another reason to lower the price), especially when I would get no feedback from that decision except from myself. The rest of the game so hangs on the shared experiences of Walker and the player, but when it matters most, when the player has to decide how much their progress is worth, they are ignored. The only method you have to tear yourself away from the evil that saps Walker’s mind is to stop playing. This sucks for an interactive medium, because this is something that has to occur entirely outside the game, severing the interactivity loop between game and player. Take that option and move it inside the realm of the media itself, and you have created something wonderful.
At SO:TL’s climax, it’s made clear how Walker’s obsession and insanity have kept him pushing on through his rescue mission even after he had become, by far, the biggest threat to the survival of Dubai. Oh no, the player thinks, what a bad thing to have done. Bad Walker! What a short leap it would be to think Bad Walker? Bad me! I did all those things too! My desire to move forward despite all costs led me to this dark place, much the same as what happened to Walker! Look at the emotions this piece of media is making me feel due to its inherent interactivity! And yet it’s so easy to write this feeling off as eh, I’m not so bad. The game made me do it.
Think of how much more powerful it would be to feel those emotions and know that you could have deleted your save file at any time, and instead of having to imagine the import of that decision, the game would have reacted, either by showing Walker leaving Dubai, or by having you symbolically relinquish control of him, or by having him be killed by his men, or any of dozens of possibilities. Walker doesn’t feel remorse until he realizes he did have a choice. So much potential emotion is left unfelt by the player because they know they don’t. GIVE IT TO THEM, GAME. YOU ALREADY DID IT ONCE. DO IT AGAIN. GIVE THEM THE CHOICE.
Oh, Spec Ops. It’s not every game that makes me write nearly 3,000 words for free. Despite all the hours of shitty, awful, no-good, very bad shooting I had to suffer through for this game, it’s still one of 2012’s best. What’s left to say? All I can hope is that this game turns a profit and the game industry realizes that it was not the third-person shooter action that drove that success. This may be difficult, as it seems that the game’s marketing (and even its bland title) revels in the samey shooting rather than the masterful brilliance. I said earlier that it would be easier to swallow SO:TL’s worse parts if they didn’t drag down such amazing heights, and while it certainly would aggravate me a lot less and make me less likely to write an article like this, it’s better this way. Gaming needs moments like the ones this game presents: moments that shock you, that make you think, that make you feel.