Wednesday, September 25, 2013

State Of Art In Vidya Games. Exhibit 1. Spec Ops: The Line

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One of the most painful things about stepping away from blogging was the really cool games that came out in my absence that I never got the chance to pick apart.

I mean, the Are Video Games Art? argument is stupid, right? Of course they're art. Just usually crappy art. Art is helped by careful criticism. So I want to go over a bunch of games and pick them apart.

(Standard Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers. So what? We're trying to have Real Talk about art here, which means looking at the whole thing. So put on your grown-up pants, come along, and don't freak out.)

The first game I wanted to talk about was Spec Ops: The Line, a game that looked like a totally bog-standard Call Of Duty clone, suffered for it sales-wise, and became a cult classic by being something infinitely more cool and weird.

How On Earth Did This Thing Get Green-Lit?

Spec Ops: The Line is an enjoyable, competently made Call of Duty type shooter, with most of the focus being on the single-player campaign. (Reviews of the multiplayer part would be difficult, as it would require more than one person to have ever played it.)

This is really important to remember when reading what follows ... It's a fun game. Good shooting sections, clever design, some really nice vehicle bits. It's not artsy-fartsy. It plays.

Its greatness comes from the fact (and this is where I'll start to lose people) that it's not just a game but commentary on both the state of video game storytelling and the way people play games without really thinking about what they're supposedly doing.

In any contemporary shooter, you're generally given a long hallway, a vaguely designed mission, a half-assed story, and a bunch of people to shoot. And you do. You trudge forward, center little images of human beings in your crosshairs, and blow them away. Then you get more half-assed story, shoot more simulated people, and it soon becomes hypnotic and repetitive. Soon, it's just a reflex. People. Shoot. People. Shoot.

I am in no way part of the Fox News hysteria about how this process manufactures spree killers, but isn't it just a little bit weird?

This trend is still continuing. We are still trying to find the limit to the horrors gamers will enact if that's what it takes to get to the next mission.

Spec Ops: The Line takes this process and completely turns it on its head, telling the story of a group of soldiers who start to reflexively kill people, and the nightmare that results.

Call Of Duty On Shrooms

You start out as ordinary soldiers, on an ordinary mission. Then, as the game progresses, it gets more violent, the missions more questionable and vague. At the same time, everything about the framing of the game gets more bizarre and hallucinatory (the best touch, in my opinion, being the increasingly hilarious and disturbing loading screen tips).

The most commonly cited example: At one point, there is an artillery section highly reminiscent of the Death From Above bombing mission in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.  It's flashy and fun. Then, immediately after, you wander the land you shelled and see the results. And it's ... not OK.

(By the way, you get several chances to choose whether or not to commit atrocities. I always chose to. You don't play a game like Spec Ops: The Line to NOT commit atrocities.)

It's become an industry joke that every new Call of Duty game has to have some bit that's allegedly surprising and shocking. You can take every 'shocking' bit in every Call of Duty game, wrap them up in a ball, and it's still playschool recess next to Spec Ops: The Line. That is because war, and we should occasionally pay at least lip service to this fact, is actually quite horrible.

The game has a real, visceral emotional punch, which is understandable, considering its source material.

The horror. The horror.

We All Stand On the Shoulders of Giants

Spec Ops: The Line is one of many, many interesting retellings of Joseph Conrad's classic novel, Heart of Darkness. I believe that if you put an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters in a room, they will come up with a retelling of Heart of Darkness in about 2 seconds.

(Even I tried my own Heart of Darkness homage, and it turned out quite well, though it strayed so far from its inspiration as to be unrecognizable.)

The basic Heart of Darkness template is a simple one: Agent A of Law/Order goes off into some sort of wilderness and is seduced by Chaos/Power. Agent B of Law/Order is sent after Agent A to try to control him/her/it. There is a harrowing journey through the wilderness, and Agent B (Law/Order proxy) finally confronts Agent A (Power/Chaos proxy). Awesome drama happens.

It's a terrific story model, and there's a lot of meat on it. The final showdown between these two models of civilization always has a ton of punch, which is why my one problem with Spec Ops: The Line is a big one.

And it turned out he was a robot the entire time. Storytelling!

I Hate Wacky Surprise Endings

As I played Spec Ops, I thought, again and again and again, "I know you're building up to a wacky surprise ending. PLEASE don't have a wacky surprise ending."

It had a wacky surprise ending.

These things are a curse. They lie to the player. They obscure character development. I'll write more about this in another post, but I'll get to the meat of it here. The real problem with it, in this game, is that it's such a less interesting choice.

Turns out, much of what happened was a hallucination of the main character. (YAWN! Things that didn't happen are always less interesting than things that did happen.) The rogue Colonel Konrad you've been hunting, who has been effectively taunting you this whole game? He's dead.

So I'm spending this whole game at the edge of my seat, waiting for this epic confrontation between your character and this awesome rogue soldier. Instead, the game ends with one crazy asshole in a room talking to himself.

Two engaging characters in conflict of any sort (even if they're only arguing about whether cake is better than pie), will always be more interesting than one crazy asshole talking to himself.

But Let's Not Go Overboard

It's a terrific game. It's fun, it's full of awesome little touches, and it brings something unique to the most tired of genres. It feels truly fresh, and I think it's required playing for people who take this design wonk stuff seriously.

Next game, to be written about someday: The Last of Us. You don't think I can go without talking about that one, do you?


  1. Hey Jeff, have you read Killing is Harmless? It's a very interesting companion to the game, even if you don't agree with everything in it.

  2. What I find interesting is that all these new games are coming out for consoles and what not, new computer games-I still want to play the games that look like in 2000 era. Baldurs Gate, Planescape, Avadon, Geneforge, arcanum, fallout (original)-They all didn't rely too much on graphics and more on what counts. If most of the games nowadays had ANY challenge lvls/awesome stories I would be playing them instead. I beat fallout 3 on hard diff. at lvl 8 and it was way too easy. After that I stopped playing new AAA titles.

  3. I liked the ending because it subverted my expectation that I was going to see Kurtz and instead showed me that I was Kurtz. I think that was more effective than having Marlon Brando yammering at me at the end would have been.

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  5. I would love to play this, but I stopped playing modern military shooters years ago because I found them so distasteful (Ditto GTA). I fear it would be lost on me.

    I never get tired of shooting Nazis in the face though, so maybe just hypocracy.

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