Spec Ops: The Line and the progress of video games as art

This article contains spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line.

Several years ago, Roger Ebert made a lot of people mad by saying that he believed video games could not be art. Many in the gaming community responded, unfortunately, with the same emotional effect as a kid being told by his parents that his chosen career is not a real job. Prideful resistance took hold, and gamers began trying and come up with every possible argument to prove him wrong — many of which are so flimsy and nonsensical as to make their stance seem even more unreasonable.

Over the past week, I've seen many people hold up Spec Ops: The Line as one such argument. It has been praised for its story, and some have even gone so far as to call it our generation's Apocalypse Now. Even the lead writer of the game said in an interview before the release that this game was going to try and do things with story that had never been done before.

The community is holding this title up as a triumph for games as art, but doing so only makes Ebert's position stronger. If we use this title as an example of the medium's potential, all we prove is that games are merely capable of poor ripoffs of better works.


The creators of Spec Ops have said repeatedly that this game is inspired by Apocalypse Now, so no one can be faulted for comparing the quality of the two works. In many ways, this game falls short of the standard set by Francis Ford Coppola's war epic.

In particular, I found the lack of humanization of secondary characters to be a big problem. Spec Ops relies too much on assumed patriotism in order to make the player feel uneasy, with only a few lines of bad dialog said by guards caught unaware to try and make the waves of enemies feel like anything more than guns attached to American uniforms. Coppola spends a good solid hour letting us get to know main character Benjamin L. Willard and his crew before things go south, and it makes the sampan river boat massacre scene all the more harrowing for it.

The tragic beauty lies in what comes before.

This lack of storytelling polish could be forgiven somewhat if the developers brought a unique perspective to the tale of good guys gone bad, but unfortunately, this is where the game fails the hardest. Spec Ops has one glaring flaw that supersedes all the more common complaints: It does not utilize the qualities inherent to the medium effectively.

Apocalypse Now, from which the game unapologetically cribs, is a film, and films are passive experiences. This exact quality is what makes Apocalypse Now so effective. Nothing I can do will save Willard or the crew of the Navy PBR he travels up river with; all I can do is watch as the horrors of this place strip away their humanity and turn them into monsters.

Video games, on the other hand, are interactive. I am the one pulling the trigger, and Spec Ops tries to take advantage of this by putting heavy emphasis on my responsibility in the tragedy of Dubai. The unfortunate problem, however, is that the choices given are not true choices. Thus, the game can't seem to decide if it wants me to be a true agent or a passive witness.

Late into the game, the protagonist, Walker, is faced with a hallucination of a dead American soldier. It blames Walker, and by association, the player, for making things worse. Walker responds by saying that he had no choice, and the charred corpse defiantly cries, "You always did, you just fucked up."

Really? I always had a choice?

I went back to the beginning of the game to see if this was true. Your first encounter with the denizens of Dubai involves an ambush. Many rounds of ammo later, we discover that some U.S. soldiers were taken to a place called the Nest. Following tracks towards the Nest, Adams says to Walker that what they are doing is "not exactly inside their mission parameters." Walker justifies the decision by saying, "Orders are not worth following if it means leaving people to die."

Putting human life before duty is a fine character trait, except this game has been pushed as a experience where the player is the one making the tough choices. It turns out that I am not given the option to choose when the decision is most critical because that choice to disobey orders begets the entire tragic affair.

This lack of true choice becomes even more glaring when Walker starts to communicate with Colonel Konrad. The goading of Konrad leads Walker (the player) to make even more horrific choices with no option to ignore them. When it is revealed that Konrad was a hallucination all along, I stood stunned for many minutes — unable to understand how they could imagine this kind of forced change to Walker's psyche wouldn't undermine the sense of agency that I had towards the choices I had been making. That is when Konrad shot me, and I chose to reload from a save.

During the loading screen I was asked, "Do you feel like a hero yet?"

Yes, because the only other option was turning off the game.

When the game loaded, I paused it and loaded from the same save again. This time, the loading screen said, "You cannot understand — nor do you want to."

It was at this point, I realized how deeply the designers misunderstood the nature of interactivity in video games. If you set me up with only bad choices, you can't scold me for being an asshole. If you don't give me the opportunity to do anything but blindly move forward, killing everything in my path, you can't blame me for not taking the time to understand why it is happening.

Anyone who has been moved by this game is so moved because he was open to being moved; this game used a few simple tricks to manipulate players rather than engaging in a true investigation of choice and consequence. This highly manipulative form of game design and storytelling wouldn't pass for anything but cheap and heavy-handed in film. Because it is a game, however, we seem to think of it as praise-worthy.

The game is trying desperately to make the same statements about humanity and the capacity for cruelty that Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness make, but by trying to shoehorn a passive experience of tragedy into a medium of choices, the developers make themselves look at best foolish and at worst unable to understand what made their inspiration so great.

Games need to be more than mere regurgitation of the good ideas from books and films, and they can do this by using the unique qualities of the medium to reexamine themes in a new way. Merely trying to make an interactive movie and claiming that it has the excitement of choice is a let down even when it is done well. I argue that games can and should, on the whole, be more than the sum of other mediums.

Cinematography was an accomplishment of film; what will be games'?

When cinema was born, filmmakers were lauded for using a static camera to film everyday scenes, but cinema came into its own when directors realized that the power of film lay in that ability to change the image on screen in ways that were impossible in the medium of photography or painting.

Georges Méliès shocked the world with his film A Trip to the Moon because it showed the power of film to make magic possible. We can shock the world by taking the interactive nature of games and using it in a way that is impossible to replicate in any other medium. That must be our goal.

This doesn't mean that every game has to be completely open-ended; some games have used the idea of forced choice in interesting ways. In the Nintendo Entertainment System game Rambo, you are asked by Colonel Trautman if you want to leave prison and fight for your country. Choosing "yes" unlocks the game and choosing "no" causes the game to end. This isn't a great choice, but it is a true choice with an outcome that makes sense. It is a small, awkward, first step into the true potential of video games.

Since then, we have had games such as Passage, which used the interactive nature of games to make a very intelligent and meaningful statement about the inevitability of our mortality. These are ideas that are full of promise, but they are still the first steps.

The medium of video games is brand new. If you start the timeline at Pong, we've only been tinkering with it for about 40 years. Even a conservative analysis of cinema's history (ignoring all the proto-film animation devices such as the Praxinoscope) puts video games 77 years behind film. In "film years," that puts video games roughly at 1935.

Up to that point, cinema had produced films such as the The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariM, and Gone With the Wind. These are all films that contributed to the progression of the medium while also being great movies in their own right.

We should remember, however, that to get these films many perfectly awful works had to be created — movies that are worth studying to remember how not to do things. This isn't a perfect analogy, but I would say that the video game industry has produced similarly good titles up to this point and that, similarly, they have produced a lot of crap to get there. The fact that we are keeping up with the pace of discovery set by film is worth being proud of, but we have to realize that there is still a ways to go before we will have our own Citizen Kane and many more years before our own Apocalypse Now.

In the end, the real problem I have is with the community's response to Spec Ops. This isn't a game of potential but rather of mistakes; we need to acknowledge that instead of pretending that it is more than it is.

This isn't giving up on the idea of games as art; it is acknowledging the difficult process of growth and humbly admitting that more needs to be done. What we should be happy to realize, however, is that we are just taking our first steps as far as the medium is concerned. Developers will make masterpieces, but those are going to take time, and any attempt to use games unworthy of that title to prove that the medium is farther along than it is makes us look foolish in the light of the past.

Does that mean we dismiss Spec Ops? No. But we should study it rather than defend it. Understanding the mistakes it made will allow us to move the medium forward — just like filmmaking pioneers of 80 years ago.

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