Spec Ops: The Line and the Depravity of Virtual Killing

I’ve almost had the experience of Spec Ops: The Line spoiled by reading too many reviews before I started playing the game, so before you go any further, I beseech you to stop reading this article if you haven’t played Spec Ops: The Line.  Not just because there will be spoilers up ahead (which there will be plenty), but rather this is the one game I really think all serious gamers should play through once (even if like myself, you don’t really play shooters). And to get the most out of this game, every gamer should walk into this game as free from expectations as possible (i.e. stop reading those reviews!!).  [Note: Campaign takes about 6-8 hours to complete]

[But just in case: WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERZ ALERT!!!!! The rest of the article also assumes the reader is familiar with all the story of the game, including its ending.]

***

In the climatic ending of the story, I had to choose between shooting Konrad or shooting myself, and I had only 5 seconds to choose.  This choice reminded me of the ending of the movie Memento, and the choice the protagonist, Leonard (played by Guy Pearce), had to make.  As a Christian, I cannot do what Leonard did in Memento – I cannot continue to deceive myself after knowing the truth, even though self-deception was in my best interest.  All truth is God’s truth; and I deserve the consequences of my actions, even if self-denial presents itself as an attractive alternate path.  After 5 seconds, Konrad shot me.  Later I would find out that the ending I experienced was only 1 out of 4 possible endings, and I missed out on the epilogue (which included the other 3 endings).  But reading through the other 3 endings, I was convinced I chose the most dignified ending.  I had enough.  No more killing for me, not after what I now know.

***

Is that me? Why do I look like I’m the bad guy?

As mentioned earlier, my experience with Spec Ops was almost spoiled by reading too many reviews.  You’ve probably heard much regarding what Spec Ops would be like before playing the game.  And like me, you’ve probably heard that Spec Ops is about making the player feel bad about killing people (and that’s not untrue).  So, being the artsy game buff that I am, I was eager to play through Spec Ops and experience all this moral anguish.  In fact, I even knew when those moments of anguish were going to come: a white phosphorous scene, having to choose between two individuals to execute, inadvertently destroying Dubai’s remaining water supply, etc.

The problem was, when I actually reached those story moments, I didn’t actually feel bad.  I didn’t feel morally torn.  If anything, I felt frustrated and indignant.  In the Riggs mission, I was intentionally seeking a way out of destroying the water, but the game didn’t let me.  It wasn’t my fault if the people of Dubai had to die of thirst; it was the game designers who forced me to do so!  I even felt indignant and unrepentant after the white phosphorous scene – like seriously, stop showing me a dead mother and child.  When war happens, death happens, and I didn’t have a choice.  (Little did I know that this was precisely the reaction the game designers wanted players to feel)

Casting Irony – Capt Walker is voiced by Nolan North, the same voice behind Nathan Drake, arguably the most nonchalant mass murderer in video game history.  Yager states that North was casted due to his ability and versatility as a voice actor, not for any other reasons.

What saved the game for me was the final 30 minutes: the deaths of Lugo and Adams, the two companions who walked with me through this living hell but whom I ultimately let down, and the great reveal at the end – when I realized that I had let my own self down.  However, it wasn’t until after it occurred to me that some of the dialogue was intended to speak through the fourth wall (particularly, the weird quip about “doing this before” in the helicopter chase) did I appreciate the genius of the game developers, and how some game reviewers came close but missed the point.  The ultimate commentary of Spec Ops was not regarding human depravity in war (although it had plenty to say about that), but rather it was about the self-absorbed hero complex of gamers who play shooters (that’s you and me!), and how our desire to kill for entertainment purposes, even if it’s just virtual killing, is no less sick and depraved.

But if we take that argument all the way, it’s not just shooters.  It’s any kind of video game when the protagonist kills, be it hack-&-slashers, platformers or RPGs.  (Maybe even space invaders may not be exempt – just joking.)  Aren’t we all a little sick and depraved by treating virtual murder so lightly and intentionally engaging in it for hours for entertainment’s sake?

Before folks start to think I’m trying to pursue some argument that video games result in violence – I’m not going there.  Nor am I going to argue for video game pacifism   That really isn’t my point.  My point is whether as gamers we have gone through critical self-reflection on why we enjoy killing in video games, and if there are detrimental effects to our soul for doing this, whether or not we should pursue it any further.

Walt Williams, the writer of Spec Ops, explains:

“we weren’t trying to make people feel bad about playing shooters, although that certainly is one reaction people are having. Our goal was simply to make people think—about the games the play and the reasons they play them.”

I do think we need to think and reflect more critically about why we play videogames.  If the only reason why we play is so that we can give ourselves a self-indulgent trip in faux-heroism, then how could that be a motivation glorifying to God? Playing videogames has to be like any other earthly activity – either we do it to the glory of God, or we don’t do it at all.  How then can we play videogames to the glory of God?  Is that even possible?  That’s a discussion for another time.  Until then, I’ll leave you with the words of Colonel Konrad:

“The truth is, you’re here to feel like something you’re not….a hero”

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3 thoughts on “Spec Ops: The Line and the Depravity of Virtual Killing

  1. Memento was one of my favorite movies. There’s something fascinating about the world of self-deception and that strange sin cycle that Leonard was in. I haven’t played The Line. And I might if I get a chance. Since game time is crazy-limited, it’s not terribly likely. So I don’t mind the spoilers.

    The Line seems to be a part of this thread of games that criticize violence by extreme indulgence – and focus on the horror of the action itself. Hotline Miami also comes to mind. You hit the nail on the head when you talk about the designers of the game speaking through the fourth wall: calling us depraved for wanting to play as the violent war hero.

    The ultimate question you offer is one I had when playing Skyrim.: How then can we play videogames to the glory of God?

    How indeed!

    How do we worship God while playing these games? I think it comes down to practicing His presence and talking to our Father while we’re in it. We need to involve him more. Or at least I do.

    • How do we play videogames to the glory of God?

      I think I can only supply a comprehensive answer to that question in a few months time, after I’ve completed my research and finish writing my seminary paper on this topic (which I’ve mentioned in my email to you). Currently, I’m synthesizing my views from a variety of sources: from both Christian thinkers (theology of recreation, interfacing with pop culture, and theology of aesthetics) and secular writers (critrical theory of videogames, psychology and sociology of videogames, ‘Games as art’, etc.). Will keep you guys updated.

      I think your method of talking to God why playing games is a helpful tool indeed, but I’m not sure if that’s a sufficiently comprehensive framework for all gamers to think about and approach the playing of games.

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