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.