A game examines war in all its glory and horror

By Glenn Battishill

People’s resistance to change continues to astound me. Every time a new medium rises to prominence, some of the snobs from the established and respected mediums look down on the new-comers and continually insist nothing serious will come of them.

The up-and-coming medium in question is video games and the established respected one is the film industry, which continues to ignore video games despite being beaten by them in sales.

In my last column about this subject I said that video games should be considered an art form because they trigger an emotional response and I stand by that. Plenty of video games have brought me to the brink of tears, a few actually pushing me past it. But sometimes like all great storytelling mediums something comes along that sticks with you for days, something makes you stop and reevaluate how you think and act. For videos games, that has finally arrived.

“Spec Ops: The Line” at a glance looks like your standard modern war shooter. Its color scheme is tan and dull; the objective is still to shoot your way from the beginning of the game to the end, and the main characters neatly fit the established war game stereotypes. You play as Delta Force Captain Martin Walker whose squad gets sent into Dubai after a massive sandstorm has sent the city into total anarchy. His objective is to learn the whereabouts of missing U.S. Army Coronel, John Conrad, who stayed in the city with his entire battalion to help rescue the stranded citizens. The plot is a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” but the story is completely different and is never predictable.

While the game presents itself as a gungho action game, akin to “Call of Duty” or “Battlefield,” after about ten minutes the game stops being fun and starts dragging the player through a story that will not only challenge the way players feel about war games, but also how they feel about themselves.

It does this from the moment Walker and his squad realize they aren’t fighting terrorists, Russian soldiers or mercenaries but are instead shooting and killing American soldiers.

At first Walker, and the player, tries to justify it by claiming self-defense and the game makes sure you feel like you are defending yourself for the first few fire fights.

The game doesn’t demonize your enemies either; they aren’t dressed in bloody uniforms wearing rings made of ears or anything insane, they are just wearing standard U.S. Army uniforms. It gives each bullet a tremendous weight.

During combat, I kept finding myself attempting to disarm or disable my enemies, trying to avoid kill shots and attempting to stun my way through the waves of soldiers.

On a deeper level, the developers of the game have made the actual act of shooting looser and not nearly as clean and sleek as “Call of Duty,” and makes players really work for their shots.

It doesn’t reward players in the standard video game way either. Your squad mates aren’t talking trash to the other soldiers – they are pleading for them to stop shooting. They ask you, as Walker, over and over if what they are doing is the right thing.

One particularly heavy moment involves Walker ordering his sniper to use excessive force on the enemy soldiers. He doesn’t jump right on it. He protests and sternly asks, “Is that an order, sir?”

The game gives you morality tests as well, but they never present a black and white option and often times the choices lie between choosing one atrocity over another. There is no system keeping track of how many “good points” and “bad points” you have allotted.

I can’t continue very far without spoiling some of the heavier moments of the game.

The game is mean, too. Just when you have justified to yourself that all of your actions are for the greater good it reminds you of the horrible consequences of your actions.

The game seems to be sending a message to the player. A message that reminds them that more often than not a trigger pull means a life being taken. It seeks to put the consequences of war at the forefront of the game rather than it being subtext.

So can it be just a game if it isn’t fun? It’s not trying to be fun. It’s sending a message. “Spec Ops: The Line” is harsh, cruel and downright painful at moments.

Its themes aren’t those of patriotism and “the greater good.” They are examinations of post traumatic stress disorder, the horrors of war and their costs.

Frankly, it’s scary to see how naturally I adapt to the rules of the game. It’s a hard thing to realize just how desensitized to the whole thing I actually am.

The game challenges WHY you do what you do in video games. Are you killing because it’s a game and that’s just how you are supposed to do things?

The game shocked me, and I even went in knowing what to expect. It hit me on a level that only the heaviest of war movies or novels have. The ending of the game wasn’t a happy ending, nor was I rewarded with a shiny “CONGRATULATIONS” screen. The game fades to black and the credits roll.

People may still think that video games are just for kids even though a majority of best-selling games are geared toward adults. I don’t think modern war games are bad; I just think that some of the audiences participating in these mature games are hardly old enough to stay home by themselves. I still play “Call of Duty” and “Battlefield 3,” but I do it with a different perspective now, a perspective I’m old enough to understand and a perspective I’m afraid will be lost on younger gamers.

Video games are a hobby and a pastime for me, and they probably will be for the rest of my life. And having played them all of my life I’m starting to see them grow up. While growing up is a great thing, it requires that the industry and the player to step back, look at their actions and remind them of their meaning.