Videogames suck

Spec Ops: The Line is a Bad Videogame

Spec Ops: The Line is a very bad videogame.

There is a simple test that can be used to identify bad videogames – simply load up a walkthrough of the videogame on YouTube and watch it.

Do you:

A – find yourself engaged in the videogame. Do you find differences in how you could’ve approached each situation? Are you curious to play it yourself and test the outcomes of your choices?


B – passively watch the player go through the motions, knowing that your playing experience will almost exactly correlate with what you’re seeing.

If you answered B – there’s a good chance you’re watching a Let’s Play of Spec Ops. It’s a videogame of the same school of Modern Warfare except even more ploddingly dull. Two friends and I once spent a day on Modern Warfare 2 single-player. We went from beginning to end, passing the controller after every level. Once the credits rolled we never picked it up again; we had finished with it though we each had only ‘played’ a third of the videogame. With Spec Ops it’s hard to even bring myself to watch the boring, shooting-gallery mechanics due to the lack of ‘wow’ set-pieces used heavily in the Modern Warfare series to distract players from the utter dullness of everything else — à la Michael Bay.

Do you feel like a grown-up now?

Not only is Spec Ops rather dull, it’s also insufferably Mature, and it really wants to let you know just how Mature it is. It’s packed with enough swearing and on-screen violence to run the risk of being serialised on HBO. The problem is that the mature nature of the videogame is completely superficial. Under the fucking surface of the all the motherfucking exploding heads and goddamn throat stomping there’s that same shitty shooter with the same fucking goddamn shit-eating tropes.

Did you marvel at how ‘adult’ and ‘provocative’ my last sentence was? I doubt it.

Superficial attempts to somehow justify a cookie-cutter military shooter permeate the entire experience:

  • the allusions to a literary heritage by consistently mentioning Heart of Darkness and naming a character Konrad;*
  • the novel, yet familiar, setting;
  • gotcha moral non-choices;
  • the unnecessary film-school ambiguity of the reality of the tale; and
  • cosmetic ‘final choices’ – as hated by Mass Effect 3 fans everywhere.

*This feels like complete bunk, regardless. The lead writer, Walt Williams, made the vague claim that Heart of Darkness was about “this view of the British,” and how that relates to his carefully crafted guilt-trip is anyone’s guess, as they completely dropped the ball on making a coherent comment on the modern imperialism. That said, they did manage to keep much of Joseph Conrad’s casual racism, so props to them there I guess.

Set Design by Whitey

If you asked me: “How should I set up truly original take on the shooter genre that really pushes the boundaries?” and I answered with: “You should take a few élite American soldiers and put them in a West-Asian city,” then you should move to the opposite side of the room and talk to anyone else. (Of course if you had asked: “What’s the easiest setting to cynically shit-out and turn a profit?” then my answer would have been correct.)

Yet, running counter to developer claims that they had put a lot of thought into this videogame, Spec Ops: The Line plunges straight into this well-picked over locale, and sets itself in the ruins of Dubai. Why? I have two theories.

Theory 1: They wanted to piggy-back on the established emotional power of real images associated with West-Asian conflict zones: fighters with cloth around their head, stonings, waterboarding, and the use white phosphorus.

However, none of those things have actually occurred in Dubai. But as everyone knows, all of Western Asia is just a total hotbed of this terrorist war shit waiting to happen at the drop of a hat, right? And hey, the U.S. Military can pretty much stomp wherever they want because West-Asian states have no right to sovereignty, apparently.

The game conveniently skips over the fact that Dubai does have some very real issues; foremost is the (alleged, depending on what you read) use of indentured labour and abuses stemming from that. This ‘mature’ narrative completely ignores the reality of the city, preferring to rely on established and damaging cultural tropes.

Most damning is that commentators have noted that the locals depicted in Spec Ops speak Farsi. Which is a complete failure to even do Wikipedia-level research of their main setting. Even then, with Arabic as the official language of the state, only about 17% of the population are Emiratis (and very, very few of them are of the working class that hypothetically couldn’t escape the city) while nearly three-quarters of the population are Asian expatriates – many of whom are quite capable of speaking English. Nope, better to otherise the locals by having them speak something sounding like it’s from one of those places.

Theory 2: “Dude, it’d be a fucken cool aesthetic. Dubai! Skyscrapers and sand!”

If this is the case, and it was simply a design aesthetic was after, why even set the game in real world locale? The apocalyptic sandstorm is pure fantasy, and beyond the superficial level design, nothing is intrinsically specific to Dubai.

As you play the videogame you’ll notice that just about everyone is American except for the faceless and ignorantly realised locals, who become nothing but just some more towelheads to gleefully slaughter. Except when they’re not carrying guns, then you’re meant to feel bad about it.

Now, if everything about the game is American why not set it in America? Russ Pitts goes to great pains to tell us that the team at Yager Studios is well acquainted with the devastating power of American weather, and with a record drought having recently scorched the American Midwest, it’s not like they had to look far for inspiration. I’m also wondering how they managed to overlook a flood-ravaged New Orleans as a ruined urban setting with far more potential for narrative exploration, less need for cultural assumptions, and more obvious thematic ties to Heart of Darkness.

Instead the developers took the easy, well-trodden, and unthinking route; they choose the glitzy, exotic unknown, and in the process, pissed all over the reality of the setting with cultural ignorance. Makes one wonder how much thought actually went into this very serious and Mature game, when the nicest thing you could say about the setting is ‘uninspired.’ Sure, the narrative bar in shooters was already so low that it might as well have been lying in a roadside ditch somewhere, but to pretend this mash-up of crude and often offensive tropes, stitched to the back of a bland shooting gallery, is some kind of videogame revelation is patently stupid.

This Is Where You Feel Bad

Let’s look at the white phosphorus section, ignoring the fact Yager Studios seems to escape the obvious criticism that the jarring transition from technological detachment to real-world consequences had already been well-covered by the Modern Warfare series.

This scene is the narrative turning point that the producers proudly trot out time after time, and is commonly cited as the most personally affecting moments of the videogame by a number of people who apparently managed to transition to adult life, while still retaining the same level of emotional resilience as the target market of a cartoon about magic ponies (hint: children.)

In order to proceed through this section of the game the player is tasked with firing white phosphorus on an enemy position. Once wiped out, the game then walks you through the devastation you’ve caused, where you discover that civilians were sheltering with the enemy, and – oh no – they’ve all been horribly killed. It’s a pure gotcha moment, and doesn’t even give the player the opportunity to think or weigh his actions against the lives of digital civilians before firing. In the context of the videogame, the firing of the white phosphorus is explicitly justified because it is the only way to continue to the end of the game. In narrative terms, it’s easy to read this as ‘sometimes you have to do horrible things in war’ or ‘accidents happen,’ but the writers heavy hand descends and makes the characters rationalise the event by blaming the enemy for the things they have done.

Now, type ‘white phosphorus civilians’ into Google and see that most of the first page of links refer to Israel’s indiscriminate firing of white phosphorus into civilian areas. The obvious connection between the use of white phosphorus in Spec Ops and the implicit justification of such acts is offensive, poorly handled, and had hundreds of players stroking their neckbeards and posting on forums about how they understand that sometimes when you’re involved in imperialist conflicts in densely-populated foreign cities, you don’t have any good choices.

The easier connection is that it can easily be read as defending unnecessary real-world war crimes.

The whole scenario seems to make some very broad assumptions about the military attitudes towards civilian deaths. Who do they think invented the term ‘collateral damage?’

The man who planned and flew the bomber that dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima said he slept fine at night and would do it again. Watch the Collateral Murder video and see the Apache crew practically begging for clearance to open fire on an unknown vehicle whose driver stopped to aid a wounded person, and after being informed that they seriously wounded two children riding in the back on the vehicle, one says “That’s what you get when you bring your kids to a warzone.” Astute readers will note that ‘warzone’ refers the city where the children live, despite the reclassification by an invading foreign military. It’s similar to the constant blame shifting in Spec Ops but with one critical difference:  they are blaming the victims themselves. I’m not trying to imply that this way of thinking is the rule, but there’s enough evidence to consider it a pervasive attitude.

Then there’s the fact that civilian appearances are incredibly contrived. For some reason, despite setting their game in a densely populated city, the American military takes centre-stage, leaving civilian appearances subject to a “strict rule.”

“… we had a strict rule from the beginning – there can be no civilians in the scene unless they’re [sic] is an absolute, real reason – there had to be an organic and narrative reason to have them in the scene. We didn’t want to just have civilians constantly running around the line of fire, because then we would be ‘The game where you can kill civilians all the time.’”

—  Williams in Kotaku

Yager instead chose to take the military-apologist route and became ‘The game where you can only kill civilians in situations where we make you feel forced or threatened.’ And why doesn’t ‘set in a city inhabited by two million people’ count as an ‘organic reason’ to have civilians running around? Especially given that they’re fearless enough to throw stones at armed, homicidal maniacs. My guess? It’s because giving a player the choice to kill/spare civilians during dynamic play undermines the narrative impact of their ‘non-decision’ decisions, and as we all know that the Narrative is sacrosanct — so all civilian interactions must be discretely staged scenes.

I feel like I should also point out to Williams that ‘the game where you kill civilians all the time’ already exists and it’s great. There’s more interesting narrative on the impassive horror of war-by-numbers in the emergent play of a twenty-minute game of DEFCON, than could be found in the convoluted narrative and painstakingly-modeled guilt-proxies of Spec Ops.

Burn Victims Spec Ops

For mature adults, by mature adults

In a professional dummy-spit, adult professional and eXtreme lead designer, Cory Davis, reveals his maturity and emotional depth by equating a business motivated request with sexual assault.

“The multiplayer game’s tone is entirely different, the game mechanics were raped to make it happen, and it was a waste of money.“

— Cory Davis

‘What game mechanics?’ aside, can you really blame 2K, who sunk millions into a videogame cobbled together from other successful military shooters, for requesting the addition of the one aspect that made the other videogames so successful? Nope, when 2K acts like a business trying to ensure they release a profitable product, and not a charitable patron of the arts, it is rape.

Does it surprise anyone that a videogame devoid of nuance trying to portray heavy themes, but ending up juvenile and offensive has a lead designer who seems unable to describe his feelings with any subtlety or nuance, instead resorting to offensive hyperbole?

Also strange was that the regular Offended Crowd, who seemingly never miss an opportunity to curry favour with female readers by weighing in with their opinions on David Jaffe’s latest gaffe, failed to muster up the usual Twitter-storm of faux-outrage at the state of ‘their’ industry.

Finally, note that being beholden to financial interests who require you to produce a marketable product, and have already selected genre, style etc. is a good clue as to the answer of the question — “Is this game art?”

Still to Come…

Videogames, are unique among the mediums in that participants are able to have radically different, emergent experiences. So why aren’t developers aiming at creating games that facilitate interesting discussions about divergent player experiences, and are instead simply attempting to get the people to hold hands in a circle and talk about how they feel bad when they’re forced to confront the developer-created war-crimes that artlessly regurgitate the same material as countless film and books. It’s as infuriating as the legions of tweens who discovered Africa through the KONY2012 campaign and managed to wax liberal for just enough time to re-tweet their deep feeling of injustice. Where is their global consciousness now that there is a very real crisis emerging in the DRC?

Spec Ops is not a mature game — it is decidedly immature. The reason it is identified as such lies with videogame writers who consistently fail to apply their long-term memory, critical facilities, and cultural knowledge. This is one of the things we will explore in later posts.


11 thoughts on “Spec Ops: The Line is a Bad Videogame

  1. A few points:
    1 – The fellow from eXtreme who uttered that bilious nonsense is named Cory Davis, not Chris Davis.
    2 – This sentence is missing something: “Astute readers will note that ‘warzone’ refers the city in which the children, despite the reclassification by an invading foreign military.”
    3 – Spec Ops’ WP scene’s redundancy and misguided judgment is not a criticism I’ve seen much elsewhere, but it is a very good one to make. They’re doing the same thing MW did (seeing as half the mission is played from the perspective of the soldiers supported by the AC130) but with less grace or care. I can’t believe I’m saying this but I think Infinity Ward thought too highly of the intelligence and sensitivity of their audience.
    4 – At Space Ramblings (I don’t know if I can hyper link) the game was compared to a Michael Haneke film (Funny Games in particular) and it was denounced for using the same sort of manipulative setup.
    5 – The game did justify the dearth of civilians by way of a bit of backstory: apparently large numbers were evacuated quietly prior to the storm. So there’s only about 5,000 civilians in the city at that point. But that only serves to tie into my next point.
    6 – There’s an article at All Were Thematically Revolting (google Spec Ops The Line Maginot, should be the first result) which goes into some detail on how the basic setup is more full of holes than…than something with a lot of holes in it! It’s a good read and it helps complement the growing body of destructive criticism leveled at the game. My three choice gripes are that the group is the wrong size (there should be nine more people travelling with Walker) the evacuation was idiotic (Dubai is a coastal city, but they tried to leave by the highway) and the entire setup is impossible (someone of Konrad’s rank would not be able to plan and carry out any of the operations he did, even just getting to Dubai, on his own authority) but there are more.

    Overall, I would say Spec Ops: The Line is a predatory game. It preys upon the ignorant, the biased, and the weak. Those who have sufficient knowledge of the military will note the game makes no sense as an analog of reality. Those who aren’t favorable biased towards its attitude will find its ‘war is bad, m’kay’ anvil intolerably smug. Those strong enough to think and act for themselves won’t fall for the game’s rug pulls one tiny bit. Few such people are to be found writing about video games.

    • One minor addendum:

      Joseph Conrad’s attitudes must be assessed in the context of his time. Heart of Darkness is a scathing indictment of then-fashionable attitudes about imperialism. The particular flavor was Belgian imperialism, it must be noted, not British imperialism. Which leads me to wonder if Williams ever actually read Heart of Darkness. Judging by the random (and vacuous) pulling of names from other Conrad works to no significant intertextual effect I’d guess not. If there’s one level of ‘did not do the research’ below Cliffs Notes and Wikipedia but above ‘they just didn’t care’ this game is the poster child.

    • Thanks for 1 & 2, they shouldn’t have made it through. 3, I agree. 4, Part 2 of the column is already being edited, and I do mention that blog. As for 5 & 6, they are also dealt with in the next blog — Yager Studios is trying to have it both ways here. Spec Ops’ set-up, story, and gameplay are exactly like the other over-the-top, unrealistic, shlocky shooters, but over that framework, they drape serious meditation on player responsibilities. They undermine each other, and as a result, both fall flat.

      • Oh I agree with you. Just thought I’d offer some extra bits. As far as the ‘strong enough to think for themselves bit above’ I was thinking in particular of a Let’s Play by Mikeefunks, and a video summarizing his thoughts after he was done. It’s very funny how, when the game is supposed to be shocking him (the mother and child bit at the gate) he’s already somewhat soured on the game but at that moment it starts to really piss him off. The only first person shooter I can think of (I’d count Fallout: New Vegas but it’s a stretch to call it a shooter) which combines the fantastic with the realistic to successful result is STALKER. The shooting and player survivability are realistic, the environment is fantastically deadly, and its inhabitants (human and otherwise) are very dangerous. The realism of handling and shooting a rifle helps augment the bizarreness of things like mutant dogs hunting people in packs.

        Another minor bit that I picked up on watching Let’s Plays and such was a line lifted from Predator. The setup and context and word-for-word structure of ‘I knew these men’. Given the sheer tone-deafness in other attempts at intertextuality (oooh, look, there was a guy named Gould in some book by Conrad, we have a guy named Gould in our game! We totally read a Wikipedia article about Conrad’s writing!) I’m leaning on straight-up plagiarism rather than homage.

        Looking forward to part 2.

  2. I rather like the second article you wrote on The Line, and I agree with your general opinion on the game, but I really feel that this section is a pretty weak indictment of the game as a whole.

    Pointing out that a work of fiction that isn’t necessarily priding itself on reflecting real world events doesn’t reflect real world events isn’t good critique, it’s essentially nitpicking. It’s interesting and humorous that they failed to research some key details on the setting they picked, but it still doesn’t target the core issues of the narrative. And when the time comes to move on to other points, you spend the rest of the article waxing poetic about how it’s possible to construe something grim as “OMG EDGY” if you read it with a cynical filter, which is once again less nailing a good point on the head, and more smarming between your teeth.

    You’ve also missed a lot of good chances to strike at the core of a lot of what makes the plodding depressing trudge, well, a plodding depressing trudge. Narrative twists can’t be instantly dismissed as “gotcha moments” every single time, and there really isn’t a lot wrong with the presentation at the level that you examine it. You constantly wear down on the creators of the game for trying to create a grim experience by forcing the hands of the players with ineffectual moral choices or consequences that are out of their hands, but is there really any way to present that message without it being part of the intrinsic circumstances put forward to you? If you let the player make the right choice every time and have everything turn up rainbows, that would be as much of a failure to communicate the themes that you set out to convey in the first place as the game currently fails to do so for different reasons. I fully understand that at this point, it’s very easy to feel like the way the game shepherds you from twisted scene to twisted scene is exasperating and overdone, but what part of allowing the moral choices to take you down a path where redemption is found and great things happen would make The Line a better game?

    Like I said, you do a fantastic job in the article you wrote after this, I’m not trying to deny that The Line ultimately fails to justify it’s message under the weight of it’s own flaws when you apply any close examination, but I honestly can’t say I find many of the points you make here to be very sound ones. If anything, after reading this article, I felt a bit less judgmental of the folks who got sucked into the game, let it play out like a sad little film, and then came out feeling a bit weary and far more impressed than they should have been.

    Very much looking forward to more of your writing, though, thanks for doing what you do!

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