Extra Credits: Spec Ops: The Line (Part 2)

This week, we continue our dissection of Spec Ops: The Line (SPOILERS AHOY).

Show Notes:

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Recent Comments:

  • The main issue I have with this episode is it makes the leap in logic that because the industry thinks we want to play as heroes, that's necessarily the case, or because they try to portray characters as heroic they necessarily succeed. As Bioshock rather correctly pointed out, the primary trait of the average shooter protagonist is not heroism, it's obedience. In general the character who is painted as heroic, if any, is the character who gives the player their orders; the player is simply a physically accomplished "badass" defined by their ability to follow someone else's orders effectively.

    This means Spec Ops: The Line's criticism is at best misguided and at worst downright disingenuous; it's blaming players for something the industry does, without ever asking them if they actually agree with it. Nevermind that anyone buying the game because they heard it was a darker take on a standard shooter won't have been expecting Walker to be crowned the hero, especially if they were aware of the connection to Heart of Darkness. If you played on because you wanted to see the journey of Walker's character rather than because you thought he'd somehow be crowned the saviour of Dubai, the ending comes across like Spielberg stomping angrily onto the set three minutes from the end of Schindler's List and berating the audience for wanting to see the Holocaust play out. Why would he assume they were watching it for that reason, and what would it say about him as a director if he thought that was why they were watching it but made it anyway?

    With the crowd, would most people really shoot the civvies first? Especially with what Walker has been through so far, I don't think he, or the player, would immediately want to cause more civilian bloodshed.

    See, the problem with that scene is they think they can predict why the player would be doing something. I walked forward, the guy pushed me, I hit melee and pushed him back. Being a petty asshole got me the good guy result. And had an angry crowd who had just lynched a soldier run away like spooked rabbits because I had shown my awesome powers of shoving.

    I read some interviews and the creator said that there is a hidden ending where the player stops playing the game. I refer to this ending as the 'good ending' and I think this is meant to be where that hidden ending 'happens'. You could use the white phosphorous and commit a war crime

    Well, actually...

    Under international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute, the death of civilians during an armed conflict, no matter how grave and regrettable, does not in itself constitute a war crime. International humanitarian law and the Rome Statute permit belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives, even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur. A crime occurs if there is an intentional attack directed against civilians (principle of distinction) (Article 8(2)(b)(i)) or an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality) (Article 8(2)(b)(iv)).

    “It is the understanding of the United States of America that any decision by any military commander, military personnel, or any other person responsible for planning, authorizing or executing military action shall only be judged on the basis of that person’s assessment of the information reasonably available to the person at the time the person planned, authorized, or executed the action under review, and shall not be judged on the basis of information that comes to light after the action under review was taken.”

    Use of WP as an incendiary agent against troop concentrations is not a war crime under any international law. Use of that particular mortar wouldn't be anyway because it can't do what they show it doing, it's a 60mm mortar round (M722 smoke / marker: 3.7 pound shell, less than 1 pound WP, impact fuze) with the depicted effects of a 155mm divisional artillery gun round (M825A1: 102 pound shell, 116 submunitions with 12.75 pounds of WP, variable fuze).

    Even that round would have trouble doing any damage to the things you're supposed to be using it on because the submunitions are felt (as in fuzzy felt) and tend to bounce off tin rooftops, let alone Strykers.

    Nevermind that it's a silly cop-out: there is no narrative resolution from simply ceasing to play a game. Walker doesn't go home. If you try to get all meta like that, does he go home and then come back if you start playing the game again? Does everyone you killed come back to life if you finish the game and start again?

    OH! And I'd like to note; on the train to and from work today, I was reading this on my Nook:
    Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line.

    Having read it through, his methodology is appalling. He doesn't research anything (his point about the Statue of Liberty was made without consulting which hand she holds her tablet in, for example, and also fails to notice the graffiti figure has big beefy arms and therefore is almost certainly male), frequently admits he hasn't bothered to check up on things (effects of WP, fire rate of a minigun), and projects depth onto the game while handwaving the few flaws he even acknowledges. It's more like "an uncritical reading" than anything.

    It can't do that, it can't make you see that if it let you make the "correct" choices.

    The problem with this line of thinking is it confuses controlling choices with controlling consequences. The game breaks its own rules to force you to do something that makes no sense for the character to think is required (the mortar cannot actually do what it's shown doing, and the character cannot know about infinitely respawning perfectly accurate snipers, not that he attacks the building they spawn from anyway) or for the player to think is necessary (the only thing down there you don't later fight is one Stryker with a mounted gun, which you could probably destroy with an RPG). If there had been something like a Bradley or Abrams down there or it was a base refuelling a helicopter which was about to take off, I could buy into Walker's choice a lot more easily than just a base somewhat smaller than the one he and Adams destroy later.

    A good example of this kind of story disconnection is "No Russian:" rather than think of a way for the plot to respond to the player shooting Makarov that doesn't change everything (say, that it was one of three attacks taking place at the same time, and the guy you were with wasn't really Makarov anyway, because really, why would it be?) it just gives him a magic forcefield and doesn't bother to explain it. Walt Williams, when he talks about the "bad" kind of player choice, echoes this rather counter-productive "NO, DO AS YOU'RE TOLD" attitude that treats the player as little more than an unpaid actor.

    Allowing the player to have a choice just means that the outcome has to flow naturally from the world the game establishes, not that the outcome must be exactly as the player predicted. Changing the rules and pretending you had to isn't how storytelling in games should work, and certainly isn't something that should be lauded or encouraged.

    What Spec Ops: The Line does is like a magician asking an audience member to pick any card, holding out one card, and then telling them they picked the wrong one. The correct option was not to pick a card at all, ha ha!


  • What Spec Ops: The Line does is like a magician asking an audience member to pick any card, holding out one card, and then telling them they picked the wrong one. The correct option was not to pick a card at all, ha ha!

    Im starting to feel like that was the true magic of the game that the only right choice would have been to simply stop playing. Though, doing so would then negate the main lesson in choice it seemed to pushing in that regard. Or maybe you already get it.

    I played the game straight through after picking up yesterday after just getting that far caught up in the series and am still working through my opinions of it.

  • The problem with this line of thinking is it confuses controlling choices with controlling consequences. The game breaks its own rules to force you to do something that makes no sense for the character to think is required (the mortar cannot actually do what it's shown doing, and the character cannot know about infinitely respawning perfectly accurate snipers, not that he attacks the building they spawn from anyway) or for the player to think is necessary (the only thing down there you don't later fight is one Stryker with a mounted gun, which you could probably destroy with an RPG). If there had been something like a Bradley or Abrams down there or it was a base refuelling a helicopter which was about to take off, I could buy into Walker's choice a lot more easily than just a base somewhat smaller than the one he and Adams destroy later.

    I'm still quite simply shocked and amazed that gamers just can't understand this line of thinking:

    John the Marine looked over at the mass of enemy soldiers in front of them. There were hundreds and hundreds of well-armed troops, dozens of vehicles all armed with one or more .50-caliber machine guns. Helicopters patrolled the perimeter with searchlights scanning for the slightest intrusion. 20-foot-high solid concrete walls protected an electric fence, with rows and rows of machine gun nests waiting for their first target. All of that could easily have been missed if you were distracted by the army of steel-plated, razor-toothed bears they had trained, a swarm of pure rage and metal sitting in cages snarling at the slightest movement. John peered down at his half-finished AR-51 magazine, and the one spare he had with him. He knew that he had probably been conserving ammunition more than his two inept squadmates. Facing the circumstances, he turned back to his nose-picking thugs and announced,
    "Gentlemen, we either need a hell of a lot more men, or a hell of a bigger gun."

    By the way, for those who missed it: The Gate's base was almost certainly bigger than the one Adams and Walker destroy at the end-game. They've got humvees with machine guns for instance, which I'm pretty sure don't show up in many other places.

    I'm also pretty amazed that people still expect military-perfect realism out of military games. I would much rather game designers spend their time making plausible, fun games than spend weeks and weeks at Fort Wherever ensuring that all their mechanics and military-related storyline events match real occurrances. Medal of Honor did that. You wanna know how much it helped their sales?

    In terms of narrative resolution, you'll also note that there's no narrative resolution to "not invading X country", as opposed to "invading X country to depose Y dictator". When talking about real war, avoiding it is a very simple choice with no obvious effects; but moving forward with it can have its own horrible effects.

  • By the way, for those who missed it: The Gate's base was almost certainly bigger than the one Adams and Walker destroy at the end-game. They've got humvees with machine guns for instance, which I'm pretty sure don't show up in many other places.

    There's a Humvee with an MG in the car park and they drop another one about twenty yards from you at the end of the water depot, then you kill two more with a grenade launcher during the chase. You can take the first two out with the RPG, and you can have an RPG at the Gate if you picked it up in the area where Gould is. In real terms a 5.7 pound RPG-7 warhead is a more effective weapon against vehicles than a 3.7-pound light mortar round anyway, so it's not a bigger gun in any meaningful sense.

    You kill about a thousand people during the course of the game and Adams personally destroys at least two Humvees and a helicopter with just his LMG. There is nothing about the base at the Gate which requires the mortar, and if it weren't for the stupid building full of infinitely respawning snipers (which you don't target with the mortar anyway) you could camp out on that rooftop shooting people forever because it doesn't spawn that many at a time anyway and both your AI squadmates have infinite ammo.

    Like I said, if there were something specific to that base that you clearly couldn't take on with the resources available to you I could buy it, or something that made it clear you didn't have time to pick through it like a helicopter being fueled. But it's just a base full of dudes and light vehicles, and in terms of what's actually there it's no more dangerous than the base at the foot of the ersatz Burj Khalifa.

    Never mind that if you hold fire on the final Humvee Walker dies for absolutely no reason when the camera's altimeter hits zero, and you could certainly have dealt with one boxed-in Humvee and the one soldier who magically appears in the trench where there wasn't a soldier on the IR. It would probably have surrendered, given the crew had no way to know there were only three of you.

    I'm also pretty amazed that people still expect military-perfect realism out of military games.

    If you're going to show the real horrors of war it helps if what you're showing is not completely impossible. Especially when it's propaganda-level untruths like imagining a light mortar round can replicate the effects of an artillery shell (and then some) and burn people to an extent that isn't possible under the conditions shown (but only if they're civilians, because they need to be extra burned so it's extra sad). It's not 'military-perfect realism' to realise that a mortar round can't contain three times its own weight in white phosphorous, it's common sense; it's as stupid as showing someone making a car accelerate by pulling on the handbrake. It takes five minutes on Google to find this stuff out, and not doing so shows a crass disregard for the truth.

    And you want to argue realism over not attacking the base on foot, but it's ok for the method they do use to attack the base to be totally impossible? Make up your mind, please.

    I would much rather game designers spend their time making plausible, fun games than spend weeks and weeks at Fort Wherever ensuring that all their mechanics and military-related storyline events match real occurrances. Medal of Honor did that. You wanna know how much it helped their sales?

    Well, since Spec Ops: The Line isn't plausible (a 3-man team to search a 1,200 square mile city full of tower blocks?), isn't supposed to be fun and didn't sell well, how do you think that helps you?

    In terms of narrative resolution, you'll also note that there's no narrative resolution to "not invading X country", as opposed to "invading X country to depose Y dictator". When talking about real war, avoiding it is a very simple choice with no obvious effects; but moving forward with it can have its own horrible effects.

    Actually, there is narrative resolution to not invading a country. The dictator's actions will play out, for better or worse, and you may find yourself in an even worse position than if you did invade. Then you're left watching genocide on the nightly news and pretending it isn't your problem even though you have the power to stop it.

    You can't turn suffering off by ignoring it.

    However, a story, unlike reality, does not continue without you if you cease viewing it. Nothing is resolved; if you load your save in a year, you won't find Walker at home taking anti-depressants and having counselling, he'll be right at the last checkpoint. And if you start over once you're done, everyone is suddenly alive again.

    The whole meta argument is complete nonsense. The attempt you made to compare it to reality is just :shock:

  • Honestly, I'd like to see a game where in addition to the standard shooter levels, they throw in areas where you're playing as a civilian back home, away from the front lines. I want to see this because you don't always have to be on the front lines to make a difference. For example, in one scene, your character sends a care package to the military base where the main soldier character is stationed.

    After the next shooter mission, your soldiers receive the care package and get a morale boost. Another scenario is that you play as a member of the American Red Cross who is sent to deliver good news to a member of the squad, like his wife having given birth to their first child.

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