Failure to Deal

This is a few years too late, but today we’re going to talk about a game called Spec Ops: The Line. The plot of the game is thus: Dubai is overwhelmed by sandstorms. A US Army unit tries to help evacuate the city, but deserts en masse when ordered to leave the locals behind, and all communications cease. Eventually, a signal makes it out, and a three-man team is sent to investigate the area. Things then proceed to play out very much like the developers were going for a “Heart of Darkness” motif, with the commander of the unit serving as Kurtz. The player character ends up doing numerous horrible things along the way, like firing a white phosphorus mortar into a crowd of soldiers and civilians (for those of you who don’t know, white phosphorus inflicts truly horrific burns on its victims. DO NOT Google.) At the end, the player character walks into the commander’s headquarters and finds out that the commander, who he seems to have been talking to for the last half of the game, is dead, and that he’s been hallucinating the conversations in order to rationalize the atrocities he’s committed in service of his fantasy of being a hero by saving Dubai from the mad commander.

In other words, it’s essentially a deconstruction of the first-person-shooter, or FPS, genre of video games, which tend to be about killing villainous people in job lots with you as The Hero (Doo-doo-dooooooo!). A lot of people were really annoyed by the way the game went, particularly the WP mortar sequence. One of the game developers responded by saying that their anger was a feature, not a bug, and that one of the endings for the game was for players to just stop playing.

This last bit is what I actually want to talk about, and points to some of the issue with video gaming. First, claiming that the player deciding to quit the game in disgust as an ending is called “metagaming”, which is okay when done well, but when done poorly comes as pretentious and annoying, as it does in this case. The reason is because a video game, like most other forms of entertainment, tells a story. Just leaving a story in the middle is…unsatisfying at best, completely pointless at worst–especially if the game begins in the middle of the plot, then flashbacks to the beginning, like this one does.

Thing was, they could have still thoroughly deconstructed the FPS genre (which I enjoy while acknowledging its complete ludicrousness) and, well, reconstructed something in its place. For instance, the whole thing really kicks off when the player character disobeys orders by rolling on into the city instead of radioing back that there appears to be people still alive and staying put to be evacuated. A game that was actually interested in reconstruction would have provided both options instead of railroading you through there. And then, in order to actually have a game, you could be ordered into the city in order to further determine what on earth has been going on in Dubai for the past few months–in other words, you would act like an actual professional soldier instead of an idiot with delusions of grandeur. Rinse and repeat for the various other moments of evil/questionable goodness in the story, and have different endings based on which decisions the player made at each point.

Fact is, this would also have been a more enjoyable game to play, as well, because most players like having some degree of agency in these matters, largely because people have agency in these matters. One of the strengths of video games is that they are interactive, meaning that you can steer the story, at least a bit, which is how we perceive our lives. Spec Ops: The Line did not do this, and did us all a disservice.

My point is this. Deconstruction by itself doesn’t make for a good story–you have to construct something.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness


2 thoughts on “Failure to Deal

  1. Lowell, I hate to say this, but I think you missed the point of the game. The fact that you don’t have a choice is part of the deconstruction. It is trying to pull the rug out from under you psychologically. If you had a choice, it would fail in that regard. If the player were not thrown off balance, then, the message that perhaps shooting wave after wave of people isn’t necessarily a good or even a neutral thing wouldn’t be nearly as effective. The player cannot go back and “redo” the game to fix the character’s mistakes.

    Yes, it is a storytelling cheap shot, I’ll give you that, but I have a feeling the scriptwriters (and they really shouldn’t be called anything else at this point) wouldn’t have it any other way.

    I have to ask, did you chose to surrender or fight to the death at the end of the game?

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