Archive for May, 2013

Spec Ops: Dubai Horrowshow edition

May 23, 2013

Some spoilers ahead

“Home? We can’t go home. There’s a line men like us have to cross. If we’re lucky, we do what’s necessary, and then we die.?

Where is the line, in Spec Ops: The Line? At what point does the blood spilt in the sand becomes too much? When you have to ask yourself, as one loading screen tauntingly does, “How many Americans have you killed today?” When you become not just a soldier, but an executioner? When you bash an unsuspecting combatant’s head into a bloody pulp? Or when you go in a scant few hours from saying “It’s about doing what’s right” to “kill everything that moves”?

“But”, you say, “it’s just a game, so what?” To which I say, “parts of it made me feel terrible, like I would expect some movies to do”. Spec Ops inverts the Call of Dudebro paradigm of modern shooters, with its callous attitudes towards war, death, and suffering, but here I want to consider it simply as a piece of media; not in relation to the development and growth of the game genre of games in general.

Thematically inspired by Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness (the primary antagonist is, after all, named John Konrad), Spec Ops deals with the awfulness of war and what it makes of the people caught in it. In the opening credits, we learn that six months ago, the 33rd Infantry Battalion of the US Army, fresh out of Afghanistan and led by Colonel John Konrad, volunteered to assist the evacuation of Dubai as it was battered by enormous sandstorms. Disobeying orders to leave the city as storms intensified, all contact with the unit was lost till two weeks ago, with a transmission by Konrad announcing the complete failure of the evacuation.

Enter Captain Martin Walker and his two fellow operators. Their reconnaissance mission into Dubai goes FUBAR and what we get is the tragedy of Spec Ops. Dubai has turned into a disaster zone, a house of horrors that drives Walker and his team slowly mad. Like war, the game provides an illusion of choice: there are points where I was left agonising over two equally distasteful choices, or had my hand forced by the situation, yet the choices made did not seem empty and devoid of meaning, but a reluctant erosion of the human spirit.

Huge Spoiler
A major plot point in the game has Walker faced with a huge host of the enemy, with the option of using white phosphorus (incendiary munitions) against them. The player can try to find alternatives, and squadmates disagreement over its use adds to the illusion that alternatives exist and that a more humane solution is possible. It seems like the player has free will over his decision, the same way real soldiers can choose the noble course, but the reality, in both game and actual war, is that in situations of extreme stress anyone can become a monster.

In the aftermath, Walker and his team discover their mistake. Walking past dying soldiers, one of which moans “we were only trying to help”, they discover they have slaughtered innocent civilians being held at the enemy’s position as well. And thus begins Walker’s accelerating slide into madness.
Spoiler End

The game is primarily two things. Firstly, a horrorshow of the darkness all people are capable of in extreme circumstances. And secondly, the growing numbness to that horror and the potential for madness. The ambiguous finale (and multiple endings) leave it as an exercise to the player as to just how much madness the human mind can take. Also, it’s a mostly meaningful inversion of the shooter genre with decent enough mechanics. Play it.