For further reading, I sincerely recommend Tom Bissell’s piece on Spec Ops:
Additionally, this piece comparing No Russian to what Spec Ops does is really great:
I find it kind of hard to take anything in this video seriously because the footage is, over and over again, just standard manshooting. I don’t care what some voice actor is saying while you do this shit. You know who also doesn’t care? All the dudebros who buy this at wal-mart because it looks like the latest and greatest war game… the dudebros that were very intentionally focus-tested and marketed to with the game’s box art, art direction, and use of booth babes at E3 this year.
The harder the writers ham-fist it, the more their war critique comes across as supremely insincere and cynical. As you say, good intentions don’t necessarily result in moral action… likewise, good intentions don’t necessarily result in effective communication. Shooting hundreds of dudes, in effect taking the mechanics-led perspective that human lives are garbage and that /nobody/ in the game is a real, actual fleshed-out human at the end of the day, is the real message. People are robots who stop moving when damaged and then you get to take their stuff.
Your points are all excellent and astute but I can’t go along with the implicit assumption that mechanics and fiction speak equally loud. I think in the case of any war shooter, mechanics speak louder than fiction. If the fictional subtext only matters to the people who are looking for it, it is not successful communication. The creators of these games are fooling themselves if they think they’re saying anything substantive and penetrating and powerful about war. I tend to see people digging, however good their intentions, for meaning in these games as helping keep the bar low. In another year or two, someone else will make another “subversive war shooter”, the same people will notice and talk about it, and nothing at all will really change.
“there’s always a choice”
except when you’re making a war game that has to sell X million copies for your parent company’s stock price to stay up so you won’t be shitcanned.
protagonist: “didn’t have a choice” blah blah
I feel like I’m hearing the game designers speaking by proxy, again and again, that they had to make a game where you kill hundreds of people. Because that was their publisher’s mandate, or whatever.
Bioshock didn’t give the player a choice and then taunted them for it. That was 2007. Five fucking years ago now. Are we done with that one-off, simplistic trope yet? We should be. Instead we’re content to beat it to death and pat ourselves on the back between each stroke.
“increasingly horrific output”
Really? Is the death of standard FPS enemy #900 really more horrible than standard FPS enemy #1? Or is it just the people in cutscenes, and the context the fiction is trying to overlay on the manshooting?
Also: GOD I AM SO DONE WITH STORY REVEALS ABOUT THE NATURE OF REALITY. get a new gimmick people.
You know what I’d like to see? A game actually talking about how fucked Dubai really is.
I’m starting to be convinced that it is just categorically impossible to do if you have to shoot 900 people though. Let me walk through that city as a journalist or a tourist, talk with its people, hear their stories, try to do good and see lives crumble. Turn me into a death faucet and all that becomes meaningless window-dressing. The real “monster that only knows how to destroy” is the AAA game industry.
“these [war-glorifying] games it so despises”
I guarantee you these “despised” games were used as reference constantly throughout its development. It despises them only insofar as they are its competition in a marketplace of products.
Here’s my thesis:
Compared even to, say, strategic war games, AAA war shooters are a fundamentally, terminally crippled medium for saying challenging things about war. People working on war games are deluding themselves. Some systems cannot be reformed from within. Some worlds you just have to leave to the serpents.
I'm sympathetic to your argument - a lot of this is a videogame/ludic version of Truffaut's supposed assertion that there's no such thing as an anti-war film. And if anything it's worse in videogames. In film a lot of the glorification is subtext - framing shots in ways that capture the horror of war also simultaneously capture its supposed glories. The opening of Saving Private Ryan was tragic, yes, but it also was "awesome" enough to be ripped off in every first person shooter game for six years after its release.But in videogames, we don't just frame the act - we actually ask that you spend your time shooting people. You know, for fun! And yeah, it's hard to deny that results in a glorification of war even as you might rail against it. The achievements in Spec Ops might have ironic images with the intent of sarcastically rewarding you for killing ten guys, but they still reward you for killing ten guys. The game might intend for you to feel bad about shooting some people, but it still asks that you shoot people while heads explode in slow motion and rock music blares out of some speakers.This is an ugly game that tears down other games for also being ugly, and after a while the bile and violence do get to be a bit much. Really, whether there's any value in those awful feelings this game provokes comes down to personal thoughts on Truffaut's philosophy. Does the fact that Apocalypse Now has a scene where helicopters bomb a Vietnamese village while Ride of the Valkyries plays glorify war to a point where the rest of the film's message about violence can't be taken seriously? Or does subtext and intent override the core tennets of what makes the medium work? Can a game that asks you to shoot dudes for six hours in the name of liesure really be all that against the act of shootin' dudes?As usual, those aren't rhetorical questions. They're hard questions that require serious thought, and the answer may well be different for each of us.
"In another year or two, someone else will make another “subversive war shooter”, the same people will notice and talk about it, and nothing at all will really change."While I don't agree with the overall sentiment the guy has, I do have to wonder if this game - for all the praise it gets - will really change anything because...no, it really isn't all that important. Thing of it is (and no, I haven't played the game) it appears this game's narrative purpose is largely separated from its mechanics. As I understand it, you never do anything much mechanically beyond the core focus of shoot'n dudes, and while the external narrative may work in tandem with that, it's still external...not connected. 'nother words, you could change the story, setting, and characters entirely without effecting the gameplay at all. I understand that the game is aware of this - and indeed appeared to be designed to comment on this, but pointing out a problem without offering some form of alternative strikes me as unhelpful.I already know modern military shooters (I REFUSE to refer to them as 'realistic') are dangerously indifferent to the ambiguity of the real life acts/settings/etc. they 'simulate'. I don't need a game to show me. Games are better when the do, don't show. I need a game to DO me! Uh...I mean...dammit, you know what I mean! Point is, I don't really think a game like Spec Ops is going make that big a big difference in the grand scheme of things if all it's going to do is wag its finger at us.
Commenter above needs to chill, just a bit. Your videos are consistently excellent and help raise the bar for game critique, and games in general. Thank you.
[...] Errant Signal – Spec Ops: The Line games video podcast [...]
The “anti-war message” seemed to get pretty heavily debated back on Shamus’s blog as well and I agree that the sticking to traditional shooter tropes really wound up hurting that particular theme. It leaves the game too open to arguments such as “You are trying to make a statement about how the world works when you clearly don’t understand it yourself. In the real world people don’t spawn in endless, suicidal waves, in the real world you can’t use your third person viewpoint to see everything while safely behind cover. . .” etc. The thing it does have going for itself is being such a subversion of the modern “bro-shooter” genre. But while it did come as a pleasant surprise or a breath of fresh air to many people I’m a little concerned that “Hey, remember how a lot of games in the late 2000s to early 2010s kind of sucked?” won’t end up resonating through the ages as well as a message like “war, horrid war,” and what about the game itself, is it at least innovative or fun?
Also, did anyone else read Moviebob’s Intermission on The Cabin in the Woods? Where he is able to draw out a whole mess of subtlety that resonated with him personally only to overhear other moviegoers say things like “I didn’t know it was gonna be all weird like that!”?
i’m sorry cmmr, but i think you’re just dead wrong.
the implication of your argument is that no genre can ever be internally critiqued; any thing that follows the tropes of a genre to point out its flaws cannot be valid criticism, because they are party to the use of these tropes.
but that denies one of the most effective forms of criticism there is. my view of max payne, for example, has always been that its a series about a man who follows the logic of a shooter in the context of a world that doesn’t work that way. max payne has a problem, so he starts killing everyone in his path until there’s nobody left to kill, hoping that somehow his problems will be solved by the end.
in that context, max payne becomes an effective critique of shooters: no matter how many kills max makes, he can’t ever solve his personal problems, because he doesn’t dare face them. he feels guilt for being unable to protect his wife and child, so he ends the production of V and kills horne. but that does not solve his guilt. he’s still failed to protect her. because max never stops to deal with his issues, but instead drowns them in a sea of alcohol, painkillers and dead bodies, he can never move on from his past.
the thing that gives this critique power is that it follows shooter conventions in its gameplay, but frames the main character as someone who does what he does because of his weakness, not his strength or sense of justice.
spec ops does something similar: the main character slaughters his way through dubai not because he has to, or he’s helping people, but because he wants to be a hero and stop injustice. walker, like max, never stops to think about what he’s doing, or what would be the best for the people he’s trying to ‘save’. all walker really cares about is proving to everyone that he made the right call, and that he’s correct in his judgement. one of the most powerful aspects in this view is that you play the game as an all – american action hero. the way you play spec ops is the way walker sees himself: the good guy dealing with the evil, opressive rogue military and foreign insurgents, defeating all the bad guys and saving all the civilians. the message would only be weakened if you didn’t play it in the modern military shooter way.
both games show the act of killing not as heroic, but as weak, as a form of denial. by letting these subverted stories play out with straight gameplay, they reinforce the message, and bring it across much better than any other form of media could
I think that the whole “dudebro shooter” thing is so ingrained into our culture at this point that we just take many of its tropes for granted. Take the executions present in Spec Ops: in any other game, they’re just another (typically high risk/high reward) way to remove the obstacles in your path. One thing that Spec Ops does with this is make its executions more and more brutal as you progress through the game. The game never requires you to ever perform an execution (and indeed, it only suggests it to you once, to let you know that it’s possible), and, indeed, 90% of the times when it’s even possible, it’s on enemies who aren’t even obstacles anymore, who are already out of your way. They’re already dying, and the game presents you with the option to performs horrific acts against them. Every execution opportunity is a real player choice, so subtly embedded into the gameplay that most people don’t even think twice about it. And if you stop and think about what you are doing and why, that opens up some very deep questions about these games that we so enjoy.
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