The following article contains spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line.
"Where's all this violence coming from, man? Is it the video games? I bet it's the video games." A mysterious man on the radio tells this to Martin Walker as the player begins an assault on the man's communications tower. Walker and his squad-mates, Lugo and Adams, have been through hell on Earth while traversing a broken down Dubai. Their goal is pure, rescue as many civilians as possible, but it's not as easy as it sounds. Despite all the dangers that Dubai brings, from duststorms to gunfights, there's one thing people in Spec Ops should fear more than anything else. The player.
Modern gaming is obsessed with violence. Okay, perhaps it's not fair to pin this solely on gaming. All modern media seems predisposed towards violence. That said, it's hard to deny the cracked skull that stares us in the face. At E3 this year, we saw the effects of gaming's violence fetish in full force. Titles that reached critical acclaim for their innovations outside of combat paraded out combat-fueled demos. Assassin's Creed demoed a naval battle sequence, Dead Space 3 displayed an action-packed boss battle, and Splinter Cell Blacklist's Sam Fisher dispatches Middle Eastern target after Middle Eastern target with no regard for their autonomy. Even The Last of Us, a new IP meant to be a modern take on survival horror, falls victim to the temptation of blood-splattering visuals. Combat is the language of gaming, or at least that's the message these trailers send.
So what does Spec Ops have to do with gaming's interest in violence? On its surface, Spec Ops is a tragic story about a soldier who can't cope with the atrocities he's committed in war. He hallucinates nightmare scenarios to rationalize his place as a hero, and passes these rationalizations on to the player. Any casualty is viewed as an unfortunate detour on the road to confronting John Konrad, the leader of the rogue Dubai army. For most of the game, The player is lead to believe the protagonists are heroes stuck in a handful of unfortunate situations. The reality, however, is that the head of the squad, Martin Walker, has fallen deep into insanity and paranoia. As you dig deeper, it becomes clear that he's dragging the player with him.
Halfway through Spec Ops, your squad faces a scenario of insurmountable odds. Walker and Adams decide the only solution is to white phosphorous bomb the landscape to advance, despite Lugo's requests to find another way. After the bombing — a sequence reminiscent of the chopper gunner sequences in Call of Duty 4 — the squad travels through the burning landscape as dying soldiers beg for salvation. To their horror, they discover that many of the images they mistook for soldiers in their radar were, in fact, a group of captured civilians. Lugo can't stand what he's seen and yells "This is your fault" pointing at Walker, but simultaneously pointing at the camera placed facing Walker. "He turned us into f*cking killers" Lugo continues, the final implication being that the murder is not only Walker's fault, but the players as well.
The scene reminds me of Modern Warfare 2's infamous No Russian level. Unlike Spec Ops, the player is given the choice of letting civilians live or die in that scenario. The effect is impressive. I know I couldn't bring myself to pull the trigger on the helpless masses, and I know many others who couldn't either. Despite this, the game never follows up on it. Whether you kill one or one hundred civilians, nothing changes. There is no consequence beyond your own moral compass. Spec Ops, because it forces the player's hand, forces the player to understand some of the horror of making a mistake in war. A mistake that was fueled by a belief that combat is the only viable answer. The violence in Spec Ops comes with consequence, a rarity among games of the modern age.
Spec Ops ends with Walker confronting the fact that the person he believed was running Dubai, Konrad, has long been dead. All along, Konrad existed purely to allow Walker to kill others without remorse. It is perhaps fitting that, after determining the end of so many before him, Walker is not allowed to determine his own destiny. The player dictates Walker's fate, be it dying in a gunfight, surrendering, or reigning over Dubai as it's new king. The only piece of autonomy Walker enjoys in the final hours of the game is if the player chooses to not act at all. In this case, Walker succumbs to his grief and commits suicide.
One of the game's loading screens sums up the violence critique well. "US Military doesn't condone firing on unarmed civilians, but this isn't real, so why should you care?" The quote comes off as callous, and I believe it's meant to. We should care. Gamers have spent the better part of this generation trying to convince ourselves and others that gaming can produce characters that are meaningful and feel real. Mass Effect is a great example of this. The relationships in Mass Effect span three titles and culminate in powerful emotional moments. Why is it, then, that we're so eager to suspend disbelief for relationships, but maintain that killing hundreds of soldiers and civilians in a military shooter is just a game? What really separates us from Martin Walker?
“The truth, Walker, is that you’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not. A hero.”