Death in videogames is just as pivotally important as it is profoundly misunderstood. That is not to say that any game—much like any person—has the answer to life's most meaningful and disturbing questions. But the hamfistedness of death's approach in videogames reveals this intellectual and artistic failure more starkly than in any other medium.
YOU ARE DEAD, God of War screams in all-caps, bludgeoning you with the fact as bluntly as everything else in the game does. Red Dead Redemption squeezes it down to a single word as the screen fills with blood: DEAD. Solid Snake's intercom companion screams out his name desperately until a gunshot confirms his mortal state in one of the most famously obnoxious death screens in the history of the form.
And now, this.
When I spoke with Tarl Raney and Corey Davis of Yager about their studio's sophomore effort Spec Ops: The Line, they both kept coming back to one specific word when describing the game: gray. Gray is that intermediate color between black and white, the ambivalent moral position between good and evil, the awkward juxtaposition of enthusiastic PR teams and boyish fans screaming about how awesome it'll be to blow someone's head off, and the sobering reminder from that, this time, a military shooter is supposed to actually be serious business. Much was made of the inspiration Spec Ops drew from the murky waters of war literature and films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon that turned American cinema away from the fierce, uncomplicated jingoism of John Wayne.
The point in all the buildup to Spec Ops: The Line was clear. Games like Call of Duty and Battlefield lacked the moral gravitas to say anything interesting about war. But this game was different. This game was going dark. Weapons, in Davis's words, would be "really fucked up." Heads would get blown off, but not in the awesome way. This time, death was going to mean something.
So then why is the game telling me this, You died!, with such excitement it warrants an exclamation point? Even Call of Duty had the odd quote from Eisenhower or Dick Cheney to add some weight to your death. Here it is just an explicit statement of fact, as glib and excitable as a tweet.
This is the first weird moment in Spec Ops: The Line, the first time I can't tell if the game is purposely messing with me or artlessly juggling weighty themes with no real sense of purpose.
Spec Ops forces you to do something terrible, then walks you through its warpath just to rub your nose in it.
Spec Ops: The Line starts normally enough. So normal the introduction feels brisk and illusive. You walk into a desert full of broken-down cars and bleeding soldiers. Your character Martin Walker, voiced by the ever-present action star Nolan North, intones something about a mysterious message from his old commander. The word "fuck" is sprayed around liberally. These are soldiers, or at least what videogames have taught me are soldiers. That means they say "fuck" a lot and generally have a good time despite the mountain of corpses and charred remnants of civilization around them.
Soon, things get weirder. Much weirder. You stop shooting that bland brand of vaguely Middle Eastern bad guys with turbans for faces and AK-47s for arms and instead start shooting American soldiers. People send you gloomy threats over a radio in a manner deeply resonant of any Ken Levine masterpiece like System Shock or BioShock. Walker gets angrier, screaming "fuck-face" at his enemies and grinding curses through his teeth as he tears more and more Marines to pieces. Your two squadmates press on, increasingly confused by your furious antics.
Confusion more than anything becomes the de facto emotion. Every few moments after a frantic firefight, your teammates stop to ask what exactly you're doing. During combat, everybody continues to scream helplessly trying to ask what the hell is going on. "We need to talk about what happened," one of them says after you've left a makeshift shelter where you hid from a flash sandstorm. There is no progression, only more confusion, more chaos.
All the while, the game itself continues to taunt you in the loading screens after you die.
How many Americans have you killed today?
Time itself is ambiguously paced. While it took me several days to complete the game, coming out the other side of the story I realized I had no idea how much time had passed in the turmoil between beginning and end. Was it really just one day?
This is all your fault.
This message starts to pop up toward the end of the game, when seemingly invincible "heavy" soldiers towering above me continued to shred my squad as we scrambled for cover or, failing that, a simple hiding place to take respite from the growing storm.
Then finally, the most ridiculous message of all.
Heads would get blown off, but not in the awesome way.
You are still a good person.
Given all the hyperbolic expectations of just how dark this journey was meant to be, I couldn't help but laugh.
On one level, this seems like darkly self-aware humor that Spec Ops is bringing to a genre that has no real sense of humor. Late in the game as you're approaching the lair of one of the radio antagonists, he asks you where all this senseless violence comes from: "Is it the videogames?"
Maybe Martin Walker is trapped in the same bizarre feedback loop bereft of reality that imprisoned Cole Phelps in L.A. Noire. Or maybe this war, if it can really be called a war, is hell. Maybe hell is permanent doubt. Why else would the three main characters continue to scream, "What is going on?" Shouldn't they have some sense of that by now? But, really, none of us do. Looking back over my notes, I come across the line, "still don't really know what's going on, people are yelling and shooting."
That pretty much sums it up. Every so often, Walker is approached with a choice his squad also squabbles over. And every time, more senseless carnage ensues. "There's always a choice," the sniper quips. But more often, the game simply puts you between a rock and a hard place: do something terrible, or fail to advance entirely. In a particularly poignant moment, Walker is deposited next to a cannon that can lob white phosphorous—a weapon notorious for its use by both Saddam Hussein's regime and American military forces in Iraq. I tried to cross the valley below several times without using such brutal force, but every time we were shot straight out of the gate. Spec Ops forces you to do something terrible, then walks you through its warpath just to rub your nose in it.
This isn't subtle, but it's certainly interesting. It's hard to consider the writing in most military shooters given how intensely functional the majority of it needs to be—directing the player to make sense of the battlefield so they don't become overwhelmed by the swarm. What's left to actually construct as narrative dialogue then comes across as grandiose or pontificating as it tries to reflect on what, as the characters themselves ask, is really going on. Spec Ops approaches this form with a tactful sensitivity that sets its dialogue apart, probably because the game’s publisher, 2K, made the wise choice to lead with Walt Williams—a writer with more experience writing outside the genre. But still, try as I might to recall something else, the most memorable line that sticks out to me from Spec Ops: The Line is "Tango Down!" simply because Walker shouts it every few seconds.
But maybe that's why the rest of Spec Ops: The Line is so weird. Writing recently in the Atlantic, Michael Vlahos suggested that the latest iteration of the commercial juggernaut Call of Duty shows that American society is stuck in the morass of a "culture of defeat" given that the soldiers have begun to clothe themselves in the same ceremonial garb of their presumed enemies. Spec Ops takes the opposite approach-fixing the entire focus of the game on the American soldiers and refusing to let your gaze wander to anything else. There are civilians and natives somewhere in this land, sure. But their place in this story is incidental—the real horror is shared between the soldiers themselves. As the story progresses, Walker himself continues to mention the survivors he wants to save. But it sounds more and more like a vague chore he’s trying to remind himself to do, like picking up milk at the store on the way home, than a legitimate humanitarian crisis.
To speak to the form, Spec Ops had to be flawed.
Something is more enticing about the violence itself, Spec Ops clearly wants to suggest, than the promise of rescue. But dealing with a genre renowned for anything but subtlety, the game only knows how to hammer this over your head as aggressively as Captain Walker curb-stomps his enemies. It’s a bold idea, sadly without a voice more subtle than a loading screen asking, “Do you even remember why you came here?” It’s a game waging war with itself on every level, questioning and juggling every motif precariously even as it deploys it. This is not a “culture of defeat” so much as it is a culture of self-cannibalism.
That is the hidden of beauty of Spec Ops: The Line, the greater reason that nothing in the game seems to make sense, why even the title screens are trying to hammer you over the head with the game's supposed moral ambiguity. References to Apocalypse Now are certainly overwrought and invite unfair comparisons. But one thing the two do have in common is their shared weirdness, the resistance to a genre form packaged too tightly and woven too neatly to say anything interesting or meaningful about military conflict.
Spec Ops: The Line is not a perfect game. But those imperfections are almost necessary in their own right. Military shooters, now so deliberately crafted and churned out with brutal efficiency, blur space, time, and narrative together into a giant incoherent mess of turbans and rattling machine guns and scary Russian accents. To speak to the form, Spec Ops had to be flawed. The numerous mismatched references, points of imperfect cohesion, all read like a farce of a form stuck on such a high pedestal it no longer notices how ridiculous it sounds.
And, really, humor is exactly what those kinds of stories need right now.