Almost on queue following my recent posts: Spec Ops: The Line. Billed as Apocalypse Now of the military FPS genre, The Line attempts a morally conscious military FPS “that understands its own ugliness and base urges.” The game has gotten a good deal of attention the past few days in anticipation of today’s release. Though I don’t have time to play it right now, I thought it was an appropriate moment to address the prospect of such a game given the recent discussion of realism and authenticity in shooters.
In fact, The Line lead designer Cory Davis, in an interview with Kill Screen’s Yannick Lejacq, describes the game’s invocation of ’70s war films in just these terms:
Think of Apocalypse Now, films like Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter, Jacob’s Ladder. These are not realistic movies that try to be a perfectly accurate rendition of what happened on the battlefield. But they are authentic to the emotions that soldiers felt on the battlefield. The most traumatic moments in wartime are often very surreal for the people who actually experience them.
From this quotation–and some other bits I’ve read–it seams like The Line straddles the line between Tom McShea’s harrowing war-is-hell realism and Greg Goodrich’s playbly fun authenticity. And I think that ambiguity might be the extremely productive.
Note the emphasis on playable character Walker’s face and its unflinching expression in the game’s launch trailer.
The camera placement for an FPS means players go through most of the game without seeing much of a reaction from their protagonists. Roach, one of the main playable characters in Modern Warfare 2, never faces the camera, and so didn’t even get a head model. As Lejacq points out, when FPS do present players with the faces of characters it is significant, it humanizes them and identifies them as persons to care about. Watching the trailer for The Line, however, I cannot tell how I am supposed to respond to Walker’s panning indifference at all that is happening around him. Is this a cool guy who doesn’t look at explosions? Am I to revere his stoic masculinity, his unwavering perseverance before what must be done, no matter how horrible? Or, is this the face of a man broken by conflict, beyond empathy or emotion, to be both pitied and feared?
All of the reviews I have read thus far praise the game for presenting the psycholgical and ethical toll of warfare while simultaneously critiquing the deftness of its satire. The gameplay is, according to Allistair Pinsof at Destructoid, pretty standard FPS fare. The Edge calls it a “po-faced imitation” of games like Gears of War. The Line, therefore, goes out of its way to point out that things are bad, lest we confuse it for the games it is mocking.
Chris Suellentrop of the NYTimes writes, “Spec Ops is a thoughtful and harrowing contrast to the power fantasies of its competitors. But it is not confident enough, alas, to trust players with much subtlety.” Again, from the Edge review: “It would also be an overstatement to call it profound: in any other medium such themes would hardly be revelatory, and although The Line is a thoughtful and well-intentioned game, the level of its writing is carefully engineered to be accessible to those expecting a brainless bullet exchange.” As a result, Suellentrop writes, “Spec Ops is so heavy-handed that I began to wonder if it were intended as a black comedy about Walker’s obtuseness regarding the genuinely horrific consequences of his actions.”
I am relying here on too much quotation, having not played the game myself. Still, these reviews outline a very precarious position for The Line. Together, they suggest that the military FPS has taken the genre to such horrifically violent places that it is almost beyond satire. How are we supposed to know when The Line is showing us extreme violence? With so much outlandishly nasty killing going on, how do we recognize these particular anonymous button presses as self-consciously grotesque?
Sullentrop explains that the game’s answer is to tell us:
And yet it is hard to believe that Spec Ops is a satire of dumb games when it assumes it has such dumb players. The game is not satisfied with having a character ask Walker, “You got a plan beyond killing everyone you see?” No, a loading screen has to explain the moral of the story: “Walker’s obsession with Konrad has brought nothing but destruction — to Dubai and his squad.”
But what if the issue isn’t that players are “dumb,” but rather that players are “numb.” By that I don’t mean that gamers have seen so much violence they are immune to it. Rather I’m thinking more of something like Peter Sloterdijk’s cynical reasoning as interpreted by Žižek:
Cynical reason is no longer naive, but is a paradox of enlightened false consciousness: one knows the falsehood very well, one is well aware of a particular interest hidden behind an ideological universality, but still one does not renounce it. (Sublime Object of Ideology 29)
Perhaps players know very well that war is “just another name for death” in the way Tim O’Brien describes it, that it leads to moral compromise, and that there are “no heroes in war. Only killers,” and choose to play on anyway.
At the end of the Kill Screen interview, Davis explains that he wants his game to make players aware of their position in relation to “real” warfare:
Whether or not we’re paying attention to it, it is happening, and these conflicts are something we’re involved with because we live here, we take advantage of the circumstances that are here, and the things that keep our nation in the state that it’s in.
But if we play in a condition of cynical reasoning, then the challenge presented to the morally conscious FPS goes beyond teaching players that war isn’t a game. Indeed, even though it may be innovative for the genre, The Line might not tell us anything we don’t already know. Even so, its ambiguous attempt at satirical ultraviolence might help us define the problem differently.