More Context-Sensitive Spec Ops

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My friend and Iraq War veteran R. had a chance to go back through Spec Ops: The Line again recently and elected to send me his blow-by-blow impressions by email. I believe those who enjoyed the first post on his impressions will like reading through R.’s second look below.

R.’s notes are reproduced in full with only minor touch-up for clarity. Again, I am expressly not the US Marine here, so I’m trusting the accuracy of his observations.

Oh, and also- spoilers for the game again, obviously.

Foreword/Note

I’m writing this having just completed my second playthrough of Spec Ops: The Line. My first reactions on my initial playthrough got more attention than I expected, getting re-posted to Kotaku and a couple other sites, as well as referenced on TVTropes. I don’t expect this article will be as widely read; my initial reactions were posted when there was still a bandwagon for Spec Ops that probably has something to do with Brendan Keogh’s book on the matter. By now that bandwagon has crossed the horizon. [Not if I have anything to say about it. -ed] The world of video games and writing about them moves at a rapid pace. I never really intended to do any kind of follow up on that first conversation, but as I replayed I found more stream of consciousness to send to Kris, and felt my summation deserved a more coherent follow up.

CHAPTER 1

-Konrad has a medal of honor? Those take years to process, and are normally given posthumously.

-Attempts to guilt trip civilians about supporting the troops during opening monologue. A nice juxtaposition to what will come later.

-Why does an infantry battalion have helicopters, and tanks?

-Capt. forces Lugo to take his issue up the chain of command, slightly weird for such a small team, but well within the Capt.’s rights.

-I think those are fairly accurate for Army HMMWVs [humvees -ed]. Not sure, didn’t work with the army much. But if this is set in the near future, why HMMWVs instead of MRAPs?(High Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicles / Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, respectively.)

-What sick bastard goes rappelling without thick gloves? Rope burn, shithead.

-Lugo feels like the most real character. 2 minutes into the game.

-Predominantly Muslim countries have the Red Crescent, not the Red Hot Chili Peppers. [He means these things:]

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-I do like the cover/vaulting system, i just wish they’d done it better. Less reliance on context sensitive buttons.

-Why do these three not have an assigned marching order, with someone checking the rear, the other two watching either side?

-This “spare parts” non-military distress beacon is made ENTIRELY OF MILITARY RADIOS AND LAPTOPS.

-That’s a lot of weapons crates. Far too many actually. Usually each soldier carries his/her assigned weapon, everything else either goes into the armory, or special weapons like AT-4′s are assigned to someone to carry.

-No, seriously, why does Lugo not have a spotter? The recoil on that gun is ridiculous. Think back to Rudy and Pappy [in Generation Kill] sniping those guys.

-These guys lack body armor. They have no helmets, no throat or groin protectors. A full flak jacket with the bullet-proofing shields inserted on all 4 sides weighs 60lbs and severely restricts movement. They should barely be able to turn their heads, nevermind sprinting though the desert in summer.

-Hey dumbass, you encountered steeper resistance than expected, you should probably try to contact someone. Do a little investigating, get out of danger, and then TELL SOMEONE.

-Why aren’t they wearing sunglasses? Oakley ballistic sunglasses are issued. Protect from the sun, and can stop a small bit of flak from blinding you.

-”Head on a swivel” is actually a valid thing to say.

-Sending Adams out alone to check for tracks? Never send anyone anywhere alone in a combat zone.

-No, your mission did not change from recon to rescue. The three of you aren’t rescuing an entire battalion by yourselves. “Nobody left behind” applies as much to corpses as it does to living people. Shitty situation, and most people would want to help, but the smarter thing to do is to go tell someone what’s going on and get more soldiers into that city.

CHAPTER 2

-Finally ran out of ammo for my M4. Picked up an AK47.

-It’s a sandstorm guys. Might want to cover your mouths/noses.

-The sandstorms in this game let you see more detail than real ones that bad do.

-Well that was a really short chapter. Mostly fought the locals.

CHAPTER 3

-Yes, run from the C4 like an action hero. That’s not a slight against running from explosives. It’s either that, or jump on top of them, just how goofy they look doing it.

-A CIA agent who’s working with the locals to kill the 33rd. This doesn’t strike any warning bells to you guys?

-Hang on a second, if the CIA agent was close enough to immediately be on the lower floor of the building, why couldn’t he stop them from dropping C4 if he’s so pissed off about it?

-The dialog between the main 3 is lacking in curse words and racist slurs.

-How are you going to see tracks in the sand during a sandstorm?

-Wow, these chapters are short.

CHAPTER 4

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-Those kids’ drawings on the wall are kinda creepy.

-Killed my first Americans. Good example of a simple miscommunication.

-Why does Adams have the SAW and the shotgun?

-If you believe the 33rd is no longer acting as part of the Army, and you only went into Dubai to rescue the 33rd, why not leave and radio for some backup?

-The unwilling led by the unknowing to do the unnecessary for the ungrateful.

CHAPTER 5

-Okay, so jumping ahead a bit here in terms of story: if Konrad is dead, and the 33rd is just trying to keep the peace and wait for rescue, why is the DJ still preaching the word?

-I like the conversation between the two soldiers on the staircase. It’s nice, peaceful, gives a short break to the player and reminds you that these are American soldiers you’re killing.

-I don’t know if it’s stupid AI or intentional, but some of the 333rd just tried to use mobility warfare against me. That is, some shoot while others move up to cover, then those guys shoot while the first group move for cover. I hope it’s intentional, because it’s a nice touch. Didn’t work out for them, but a nice touch.

-So if you just kill the two guys on the staircase and rush down to the big room, you hear a conversation that shows the 33rd was trying to rescue those civilians in the last chapter, not execute them.

-The DJ seems to think he’s in Vietnam given his music choices. I guess it’s appropriate based on the little I know about the source material.

-I shot some guy twice in the foot and he died. Ah, vidya gaems.

CHAPTER 6

-It’s the first appearance of the magical Desert Eagle what shows up from nowhere.

-A helicopter with Wagner. Goddamnit.

-Why does this one, almost cutscene, moment with the helicopter keep killing me?

-Did Adams just get shot in the calf and keep running like it was nothing? Oh, okay, next cutscene addresses that. Although offering Adams morphine is odd. Lugo, are you foreshadowing Adams death? Back away from the fourth wall Lugo.

-Oh, finally a justification for why they can’t leave the city to get help. Granted, it only works now that they’ve severely pissed off the 33rd, but it’s a reason.

-So the 33rd started shooting at you because they thought you were working with the CIA, so in order to help you’re going to work with the CIA?

-Yes Adams, kick that door in with the leg that got shot. That wont hurt you at all.

-That chapter felt really long compared to those before it. I’m fine with the chapters getting longer, because the first few were too short, but that one felt too long.

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CHAPTER 7

-So the radioman recognizes Capt. Walker. That should probably be a sign for a ceasefire, but from the 33rd’s perspective, Walker’s actions show he’s intent on killing the 33rd.

-And the first White Phosphorus scene. So much worse to come.

-This is in relation to a bit of intel I found. Once again, it’s the Red Crescent in Muslim countries, not the Red Cross.

-Your mission is not to save Gould or rescue people, your mission is recon. Anyway, I tried to save Gould last time, so lets try saving the civies this time.

-So if you save the civies, it turns into a much slower stealth based scene.

-Lugo gets really pissed off if you save the civies. The team all start threatening to shoot each other, but in a joking way. At least, I hope their joking.

-That fight between Lugo and Adams after Gould dies is not something I expect out of someone in the military, let alone Delta Force.

CHAPTER 8

-Adams, you should know that stabbing someone in the neck like that is a rather loud way to kill them. The blood gets in their esophagus and bubbles as they try to breathe, making a gurgling sound.

-Lugo insists there’s a choice to use the WP on the 33rd, but the game does not give you that choice.

-I just noticed when firing the mortar you can see the exact moment you kill the civilians the 33rd was trying to rescue, and Walker’s face reflected in the laptop. His cold, uncaring face.

-This reminds me of Hamlet and the debate about precisely when he goes crazy. When exactly in this story does Walker go crazy? It’s hard to say. He’s certainly going in opposition to all the evidence before him that the 33rd are still trying to help the locals.

-”It’s his fault. He wouldn’t listen. He turned us into fucking killers.” That takes a very different, and I would say somewhat darker meaning on a second playthrough when you know what Lugo is talking about.

-Captain Walker does at least have a short discussion with Lugo about the fact that war isn’t nice, and sometimes you have to do things considered bad even by the military’s standards. Although as I said on my first playthough Walker’s actions go from justifiable to crazy.

CHAPTER 9

-Not sure, but I think last time at the “test” I shot the soldier. Let’s shoot the civilian this time.

-Shooting the civilian doesn’t make much of a difference. Just a short speech from Konrad about loyalty to your men.

-So this is what, the 3rd or 4th sandstorm I’ve encountered, and they finally put on some goggles.

CHAPTER 10

-”I trust you Walker. I just don’t agree with you.” Good line from Adams.

-”He uh… he didn’t make it.” Second time Walker has said this line. He’s not exactly doing a great job at his self–declared mission to save people.

-Just realized it’s been a few chapters since we got to just sit back and listen to the 33rd have some conversations. I miss those, they flesh out the story.

-How does Lugo pick up the 33rd’s comms? Shouldn’t they be encrypted?

-It’s also been a while since there was a good chance to use the environment against your enemies. Why did that go? It was a pretty good mechanic.

-Riggs doesn’t feel like a good character. Just a stereotypical “badass old man.”

-I really like the stealth sections of this game. They feel well thought out, and there’s a punishment for getting discovered, instead of a failure state.

-That blurry shot of Konrad after the water trucks crash reminds me of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.

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CHAPTER 11

-Even the DJ’s speech after the water gets blown up reinforces the idea that the 33rd is trying to save the civilians.

-Why does this game have shaky cam during cutscenes? To me, it just removes me from what’s going on.

–Oh hey, environmental kills are back.

-”Cognitive dissonance is an unconfortable feeling caused by holding two conflicting ideas in your head.” Thanks loading screen.

-DJ, you can shut up with your Vietnam bullshit.

-The military doesn’t user service numbers, we use social security numbers.

-Yet another reminder that the 33rd is trying to save people.

-The 33rd has so goddamn many snipers. Not sure how Army does things, but I’m fairly sure it’s more than realistic. Unless they just took a bunch of guys who are good shots and handed them some sniper rifles.

-When blood hits the “camera” when Lugo shoots the DJ, that takes me out of the game also. Isn’t the whole point of this game to be immersing yourself as Walker? Everyone is the hero of their own story.

-And now Walker is abandoning all pretense and just swearing revenge on the 33rd.

CHAPTER 13

-And the magic Desert Eagle makes its reappearance.

-You already swore revenge on Konrad. I know Lugo is dead, but now you’re just repeating yourself.

CHAPTER 14

-What do you deserve indeed, Adams?

-Adams is so pissed off even basic squad commands are treated with contempt.

-Die like a man Adams, you badass motherfucker.

CHAPTER 15

-That line “I’m as sane as you are Captain” also takes on a darker edge when you know what’s going on.

-Show my own reflection this time, instead of Konrad’s. Interesting bit, when you aim it at your reflection, the reflection points the gun at his own head.

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Reflection/Summary

This is a very interesting game. Not in terms of how it plays, because although there’s some interesting mechanics the gameplay is below average on the whole. No, the interesting part is the narrative.

However before we get into that, I’m going to start very early on in the game with something probably overlooked by many professional writers. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not traditional wars. The enemy is not some other nation’s military that wears a uniform. They look like anyone else you find on the street, and in Iraq it’s legal to own an AK-47, so you can’t judge by who is carrying a weapon. Women have snuck IED’s into checkpoints by stuffing them up their dresses and pretending to be pregnant, and the insurgents pay farmers to bury IED’s by the roadside late at night. For the first few chapters of the game, these are your enemy, the insurgents. Granted, because it’s a game they all shoot at you and are all the enemy, but that gives the player an idea of what America’s and other nations’ armed forces face over there.

Rather quickly though you find your enemy becomes US soldiers. It starts as a simple miscommunication and grows from there. Trust me when I say that miscommunications happen in a war zone, and they can be deadly. A loading screen helpfully informed me that “Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two conflicting ideas in your head” and that is what this game is about. Not just the cognitive dissonance of the protagonist Captain Walker, but also the player’s cognitive dissonance. This dissonance arises from the idea that everyone is the hero of their own story. No one truly believes themselves to be the villain. This game makes you the villain.

Throughout the course of the game Captain Walker’s actions go from reasonable, to questionable but justifiable, to heinous. I’ve heard many critics claim that this game is anti-war. I didn’t see that on my first playthrough. But now having replayed and distanced myself from what’s going on, and also gathering the majority of the in-game collectible intel, I can see why they say that. I don’t agree with that sentiment, but I can see why they say that. It’s certainly
critical of how things in Afghanistan and Iraq have been handled but that’s a known fact. It addresses the stress placed on people heading into war, and the psychological problems so many return with. Captain Walker does not have PTSD though. If Adams and Walker had survived they would most likely have had PTSD. Walker goes far beyond that, but I’m not a psychiatrist so I’m not going to attempt to diagnose him. I think the man had deep problems and the situation he was put in brought them to the fore.

In terms of characterization, Walker and Konrad are most interesting. Adams, Lugo, and the radioman could have used more fleshing out, but they are merely victims of how focused this story is.

Is this game worth a playthrough? Definitely. It’s worth two playthroughs. Not just selecting to pick up at chapter 15 and seeing the other ending, but a full playthrough. If your experience is anything like mine your second playthrough will find you more detached from events, and able to notice the small details of the narrative.

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So, there you have it. Like R., I was pretty surprised when Kirk Hamilton chose to run excerpts from the original post on Kotaku. I didn’t find the idea of interviewing a veteran friend about a military game to be that novel, but apparently it was sufficiently interesting to pique Kirk’s interest. (And I’m not complaining in the least. Cheers, Kirk, you Jazz Man Dreamboat.) And, on reflection, it is a bit of a novelty still, isn’t it? And I feel that it really shouldn’t be.

I find it’s valuable to keep in mind just how significant a demographic active servicepeople make up in the consumption of first- and third-person shooters from one year to the next. Lack of support from the US military can outright kill a game’s commercial chances, lead to a ban on military bases, publishers dropping the title, and more. Spec Ops: The Line, remarkably, managed to somehow duck most of that, but the fact that we’re still not seeing an awful lot of criticism about it from a serviceperson’s point of view strikes me as a troubling oversight. All of us know at least a handful of people in the armed forces, so why aren’t we asking them what they think about these games? And why aren’t more coming forward of their own initiative to discuss it?

The second question is probably more easily answered, looking at R.’s notes above. R. may be a highly-trained killing machine of the US Marine Corps (and I can get away with saying this, because I remember when he just was a scrawny mop-headed thing in high school), but he’s also a typical gamer with a typical gamer’s concerns, and it’s true that this game initially shuffled by most players’ watch lists from a combination of lackluster marketing and so-so gameplay. If you hear the writers tell it, the so-so gameplay is part of the “point,” but I don’t know. I don’t think we need to have one or the other there. I think we can achieve both and lose very little.

As for “gosh, where is all the military criticism in games?” I should note I’m personally a huge fan of Robert Rath’s Critical Intel column on The Escapist, and I’d consider Rath’s writing invaluable for anyone looking to dig deeper into the industry, politics and economics of war and entertainment. But I’m also hoping to see more material in the vein of W.’s “Call of Apathy” on Medium Difficulty. As media consumers we’re already completely saturated with artists’, writers’ and directors’ interpretation of war; its purpose and its effects- these days I find I’m more interested in seeing what people like my buddy R. think.

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Comments

  • fpiesche  On 12.28.12 at 1:48 am

    With regards to the Red Crescent thing – the reason for this is very likely that the Red Cross emblems are legally protected, and the Red Cross has recently grown more protective of them and has repeatedly requested that game developers not use them as a generic symbol for aid or medical support.

    Specifically, one instance of this that caught a bit of media attention was the Canadian RC making a press release about it: http://www.redcross.ca/article.asp?id=16637&tid=001

  • Vítor Amaral  On 12.28.12 at 5:23 am

    Great read.
    A pity I spoiled myself for this game, or maybe not because I only bought it after learning about its message.
    Hope I can still feel the weight of its story even though I know most of the details already.

  • kat  On 01.01.13 at 4:53 pm

    i don’t think walker have any psych disorder; he’s just acting like a video game player, believing himself a hero no matter what, maybe hoping that in the end theres a redeeming moment that will make everything all right, like video games usually do
    in war games we bassically kill entire armies by ourself but in the end we always came out as the hero, this game plays on that expectation by making walker act like a gamer and holding on that belief as the game makes it clear that this time , we are the villian

Trackbacks

  • [...] ADDENDUM (12/27/2012): R. had the chance to revisit Spec Ops recently and elected to send me some more long-form impressions. [...]

  • By Space & Times on 01.20.13 at 11:32 am

    [...] Take Two The second take seems to mostly be concerned with technical inaccuracies (there seem to be quite a few), but his reflection/summary at the end is a good look at the game in the context of today’s American conflicts, and the nature of heroism: “This [cognitive] dissonance arises from the idea that everyone is the hero of their own story. No one truly believes themselves to be the villain. This game makes you the villain.” [...]

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