Spec Ops and Raising the Bar: Why military shooters must try harder

Spec Ops: The Line

By on July 24, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Plenty has already been written about Spec Ops: The Line. It would be wasteful to tread over some of the obvious points – primarily, that it’s perhaps one of the most engaging and fascinating pieces of commentary not only on games, but gamers themselves.

But there’s something missing from this commentary. We’ve successfully identified the message Spec Ops is trying to portray, and we’ve debated back and forth over what exactly it means. But so far, the next step in this puzzle hasn’t been put into place.

All the commentary seems to be pointing in a clear and obvious direction: that we should cease spending any more money on shooters that don’t do anything.

In fact, let’s go further. We should not even acknowledge their existence. The category is just too saturated, too filled with poor-quality emulators, that we’re doing the medium a disservice by even giving them the time of day.

That’s not so say there isn’t a place for objective entertainment. Battlefield, for example, is a fine game. And it’s a fine game because it doesn’t try to make any sort of point about the futility of war – it’s not remotely interested in doing so.

But what we shouldn’t tolerate any more is the notion that games can offer some sort of commentary on the futile nature of war, and then allow us to bask in that same war’s glory for six-to-ten hours. They are pretending to be something they are not – and we are perpetuating that system by buying them.

We’re at a turning point. The reaction to Spec Ops can either set us on a path to more measured commentary, or risk making the genre worse than it is now.

You are a killer, and you must be made to feel it

I wrote an article in April about how the “death quotes” in Call of Duty clearly show how the series has moved from lamenting war to actually glorifying it. And yet, when you compare those quotes to Spec Ops’ dynamic loading screens – which show different messages based on your decisions in the game – they feel like child’s play.

There is a key difference between using your game to make a political statement, and actually weaving that statement into the very fabric of the game itself.

One key moment in Spec Ops encapsulates this better than any other. The player takes control of a mortar filled with white phosphorus, reigning fire on enemy troops. The team justifies their actions after having watched these same troops seemingly kill dozens of innocent civilians.

But the most dramatic moment isn’t in the aftermath, when you discover it’s actually you and your team who have killed the bystanders. It’s when you take control of the mortar via a computer screen – and you see your reflection.

It’s a clear dig at the Modern Warfare level controlling the AC130, and the coldness of that same mission. This time, you hear the screams – and you see your face staring right back at you as people die. It’s the ultimate reminder of your humanity.

We shouldn’t just dismiss this as a casual design decision. The developers could have simply allowed you to just blow your victims to pieces without any sort of repercussion. But instead, they’ve chosen to do something extra, and actually weave a startling warning through the gameplay.

It’s difficult to take this decision without context. There are few games actually seizing on this type of opportunity.

The competition, or lack thereof

The obvious target is Black Ops II, the most anticipated shooter of the year. Based on the series past performance, we shouldn’t expect any type of measured commentary or analysis, even with the added setting of drone warfare – a topic ripe for bold discussion and exploration.

After all, the first Black Ops game was set during the Cold War. You even run into JFK himself, and for what? What kind of message does it send? Absolutely nothing. If anything, the game could be seen as a type of propaganda.

It’s because of all this we need to be extremely careful with our gaming habits, or we’ll continue to watch the genre be bogged down even further.

Black Ops would have us believe that setting the game in the middle of a drone war would substantiate measured commentary. We know it probably won’t contain any – the previous version had none, and so we have no reason to believe this will either.

The inevitable protest to this call is to suggest the game’s just a bit of fun, that we shouldn’t give up on shooters just because Spec Ops happens to raise some interesting points.

To which I say: rubbish.

We have to lift our standards

It’s exactly because Spec Ops raises interesting points that we shouldn’t tolerate anything less. The game is hardly perfect, but it at least generates discussion. And with a category so filled with garbage – first person shooters are still incredibly popular – we just can’t afford to keep that going any longer.

We’re constantly talking about how games can be the next great storytelling medium, that we have something to add as an art form. But at the same time, we also constantly say how we’re still awaiting our “Citizen Kane” of games. That game that will transform the medium into something to be taken seriously.

If we ignore Spec Ops, and continue to eat up pure entertainment for entertainment’s sake, then we risk missing out on that game ever coming along.

There can be no middle ground any more. Spec Ops has raised the bar too high. Shooters either need to stay away from providing any sort of commentary at all, or make it their sole focus. They’ve been proven capable of doing so.

Spec Ops is not perfect. Far from it. But it should give us pause if we find ourselves finishing it and yet still waiting eagerly for the next Call of Duty. If so, we’ve completely missed the point.

19 comments (Leave your own)

I’ve read so many interesting things about Spec Ops, that I am really intrigued to play it. Although I’m a little disappointed by the name, imagine if we were having these same discussions if it was just called The Line. We could talking about it drawing a line between other shooters, or a line in the sand. Anyway I blather on.

I agree with the outlook of this article, we have a chance to push the genre into something a lot more legitimate. Which isn’t to say that the entire genre has to move forward; there is always room for blockbusters. But what we have now is 90% of shooters that have nothing to offer but entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Which again I stress is fine, but war has always brought these two polar opposites when it comes to narratives, it is something that we should be seeing because it can be enhanced by the interactive nature of the medium.

 

Call me naive, but sometimes I like my video games to be just that: video games. It’s entertaining when a game comes along and is perhaps a little more thought provoking than average but I honestly think people need to chill the hell out with the push to make everything artsy.

Most of the time people play games because they want to escape the SSDD feel they get from life, I quite enjoy a shooter with a half decent story and fun game play elements (which is how most of them are currently) because it’s a GAME. If I want to be bombarded by the horrors of war in reality I’ll switch on SBS or turn to ABC News24, most of the time I don’t WANT some stupid moral agenda pushed on me… and if every game starts doing it then i’ll just stop playing games.

Insisting that war games need to reflect realistic moral decisions and consequences is like saying that Wii-Tennis needs to reflect the years and dedication you need to be a real tennis pro.

I have a set of morals which is pretty firmly established (hell, I’m 28) and even if they weren’t then I sure as hell wouldn’t be getting that kind of thing from a video game. People need to chillax the hell out and let me relax by killing pixelated Nazi’s and terrorists… it’s not hurting anyone.

At the end of the day we play vidya because it’s FUN, I’m not against a high quality, realism reflective game, but It still needs to be fun rather than just preachy bullshit.

 

I completely agree. As I said in my post, I’m not saying all war games have to be deep with some fundamental message about war. Just that they should either stay away from having any sort of commentary at all, or go all-out and make it their core focus. No middle ground, essentially.

 

I agree with nekosan

Apparently the mechanics are absolute crap and for that reason alone I won’t be buying it

I do like the sound of screaming enemies being toasted by phosphorus though…..

 

People need to chillax the hell out and let me relax by killing pixelated Nazi’s and terrorists… it’s not hurting anyone.

Are you sure? Are you sure it doesn’t normalise the things it depicts just a little bit every time you play? Have you never seen some news report about special forces in action overseas and thought for a moment about Modern Warfare (or similar)?

I think the problem is that the killing gets more and more realistic in the sense of the way the weapons are simulated, the near-photorealistic world presented, etc, but what isn’t made more realistic is what happens to human beings when you shoot them with high powered military weapons.

If people just wanted an obviously unrealistic shooter, then everyone would be into Serious Sam, Tribes and Team Fortress, right?

For some disturbing reason, people want really realistic killing simulators, but not ones which present them with the human consequences of their actions.

Imagine a shooter where most people you shoot don’t die straight away, for example. Where there are civilians running around all over the place. Where your orders are constantly unclear, where it’s extremely hard to identify friend and foe.

Edit: of course interesting that you identify wanting to shoot ‘terrorists’, who are the bogey man we’ve been taught to fear since 2001, and which the games industry has for the most part embraced with gusto. If, say, the movie industry so blindly trumpeted propaganda we’d all be appalled.

 

hotblack:
I agree with nekosan

Apparently the mechanics are absolute crap and for that reason alone I won’t be buying it

I do like the sound of screaming enemies being toasted by phosphorus though…..

Apparently the mechanics are crap? How so?

I’ve been bored by most all FPS games the last few years. Very few have held my attention. Be it bad or non existent story, bad gameplay/controls.
This game however excelled in all areas.
The story took a while to become interesting and at first seems like just another blackops specops ops ops war ops army shoot shoot game. Once you get about an hour into it though, it’s pretty great.

All in all. Great story, great graphics, great controls and the usual cover system gameplay. Not a whole lot to complain about.

 

I don’t think we have realised yet our “Citizen Kane” was in the golden era of games, it was Deus Ex towards the end of that glorious era from 1990-2003.

We have been going downhill ever since and trying to reach any of the peaks we once achieved, as the technology gets greater so too should the games, what we once worked hard on and delivered isn’t getting easier with technology as once expected. But its getting harder.

It’s because unlike the Golden Era of games which continued with small developers that owned themselves and created what they wanted, they slowly got greedy CEO’s and managers that ruined and smoothed out the details, the character of a game til today when we have everything being much the same. No detail is allowed.

Yet some games try and they do bring back memories of the era, but they still have those details forbidden to rise. Due to the suits holding the work back and making sure its still within the mainstream that it won’t become risky to the market.

Through failure we learn, so we must be allowed to fail. And so do games fail today but they don’t fail because they try something new and something with character. They fail because they are so without character. Yet the suits don’t see this, a game that is seen to be risky is what was successful in the golden era, a game of character.

 

edward: Through failure we learn, so we must be allowed to fail

Interesting you mention failure. I’d like to see a military shooter where the game world doesn’t magically cease if you “fail” a mission, and instead there are degrees of success or failure, just like in real life.

It’d also be interesting to have a much stronger “morale” factor in games, where seeing/doing appalling things affects your performance and the performance of other soldiers in your group.

 

hotblackI do like the sound of screaming enemies being toasted by phosphorus though…..

Yeah, war crimes are great for the lulz. Especially when we and our glorious allies have a nasty habit of using white phorphorus in heavily populated areas. This is particularly hilarious:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_phosphorus#Effects_on_people

 

caitsith01: Are you sure?Are you sure it doesn’t normalise the things it depicts just a little bit every time you play?Have you never seen some news report about special forces in action overseas and thought for a moment about Modern Warfare (or similar)?

I think the problem is that the killing gets more and more realistic in the sense of the way the weapons are simulated, the near-photorealistic world presented, etc, but what isn’t made more realistic is what happens to human beings when you shoot them with high powered military weapons.

Never, I don’t once EVER remember associating combat footage with a video game, the two are separate in my mind.

I think the problem is that the killing gets more and more realistic in the sense of the way the weapons are simulated, the near-photorealistic world presented, etc, but what isn’t made more realistic is what happens to human beings when you shoot them with high powered military weapons.

For some disturbing reason, people want really realistic killing simulators, but not ones which present them with the human consequences of their actions.

There ARE no human consequences to killing somebody in a computer game, not unless they get pissed that you beat them and their unrelated mental illness makes them shoot you in real life.

caitsith01:
Edit: of course interesting that you identify wanting to shoot ‘terrorists’, who are the bogey man we’ve been taught to fear since 2001, and which the games industry has for the most part embraced with gusto.If, say, the movie industry so blindly trumpeted propaganda we’d all be appalled.

The word “terrorist” in this situation is used in a totally different context than what you’re assuming, you could make the enemies Nazi’s, Allied troops, zombies, crab fishermen with beer hats on… it doesn’t matter, nobody over the age of 10 associates a terrorist in game with actual real people.

Terrorists have also been the boogeyman since long before 2001 fyi.

caitsith01: Yeah, war crimes are great for the lulz.Especially when we and our glorious allies have a nasty habit of using white phorphorus in heavily populated areas.This is particularly hilarious:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_phosphorus#Effects_on_people

So you’ve never enjoyed an action movie before? Because that’s exactly the same thing as what you’re talking about, I would say that the fact that you associate actions in a game with anything in real life makes YOU the one who has issues (no offense intended).

Normal people just don’t make that connection.

 

This looks like a good shooter (even though im not really into Third person shooters I am enjoying Max payne 3 which has a good story). I would have picked it up if it wasn’t so expensive on AU steam.

 

Mother of god I hate not having an edit button…

 
Black Patriot

The main problem I had with Spec Ops was that it gave the appearance of giving the player choice, but it was just an illusion, there were no choices that I could see in the whole story.

Take that mortar incident, the bit where you kill all the civilians is completely unavoidable. I figured out exactly what the game designers were planning as soon as I saw all the thermal signatures that were huddling in a ditch, it stood out like a Christmas tree, and of course they park a humvee or some other vehicle on a bridge over the ditch so you have to attack. You can’t aim the phosphorous accurately enough to only hit the humvee, as it has a wide area attack, and you can’t aim to the side so that the blast misses the civilians, the only option is to burn them all. On top of that if you refuse then the humvee guns you down.

That’s the problem I had with the game, if there is no choice then how can the player feel guilty, the only way to survive and to complete the game is to kill all those civilians, there’s no way around it. I don’t know, maybe that was the point, but it still didn’t seem to work.

Having said all that, the game is still worth playing, if only to highlight how most the action heroes popular culture worships are really just monsters with good PR.

 

Damn, I gotta get this game.
Its nice that some people like to put a little bit of moral ambiguity in their creations. Its more interesting.
Also, inaugral: Max Payne had a good story? I thought it was kinda chiche and simple. The first 2 were waaaay better, especially the 2nd.

 

caitsith01,

IT IS A GAME

IT IS NOT REAL

There is a difference

 
jerichosainte

hotblack: I agree with nekosanApparently the mechanics are absolute crap and for that reason alone I won’t be buying itI do like the sound of screaming enemies being toasted by phosphorus though…..

Lol, nice job proving this article correct. Your a perfect example!

 

jerichosainte,

Perfect example of what? I enjoy games because they’re not real. I can escape from reality for an hour or two.

I deal with life changing decisions while you’re enjoying your coco pops and milk so don’t preach about something you know nothing about.

 

Patrick Stafford:
I completely agree. As I said in my post, I’m not saying all war games have to be deep with some fundamental message about war. Just that they should either stay away from having any sort of commentary at all, or go all-out and make it their core focus. No middle ground, essentially.

Why? You actually make no real argument on this front. Other than it’s ‘bad’ when games (such as the latter CoDs) pay it lip service. What is so bad about it?

Games don’t make killers any more than killers make games. In fact… this article makes as much sense as the horoscope guy in The Age today:

“A questioner asked how astrology has any credibility given that it’s simply based of the positions of objects in space at a given time which can be reliably predicted by simple sets of mathematical equations. I responded by saying that it’s much the same as looking at a cookie jar… when the cookie jar is getting low you can tell that soon, you’re going to need to fill it up.”

That was his defence of astrology. I digress.

Not saying your argument is as tenuous as this. But what’s the point? You seem to elude to us as consumers driving the quality of the genre using buying power. But clearly that doesn’t work. CoD exists (though it looks to be going the way of Guitar Hero now). There’s always going to be blockbuster style games as there are movies as the market is there. There is also the equivalent of HBO’s grittier, more adult style portrayals (the section of the market seems to be growing funnily enough with games like The Line, BF3 had a bit of a crack at it also).

So what if someone enjoys The Line and then enjoys CoD? I personally don’t, but I don’t see why you feel the need to make a moral judgement on it. Why is it that ‘we just can’t afford to keep that going any longer’? The sky’s not going to fall if it does continue, and you can pretty much guarantee that it will.

 

I still feel bad about those people and I finished it a week ago.

There was also a point in the game where I felt so bad about my actions that I walked out into crossfire to kill myself.

 
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