Note: I’ve been invited to participate in a game culture event in January, a joint venture between the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and the Goethe Institut. This post is me trying to organize some of my thoughts for that event. So if it seems a bit fractured and confused, please forgive.
I guess I find these games insanely irresponsible and also somehow irresistible, which is what I most hate about them. Couldn’t you argue that the men and women who make Battlefield and Modern Combat and Call of Duty are making the world a demonstrably worse place? I think you could. Sometimes I wonder how they sleep at night. Sometimes, when I can’t sleep at night, I play Call of Duty. – Tom Bissell
I keep coming back to Spec Ops: The Line.
It was released over a year ago, and it might seem redundant to keep talking about it at this point. It would be easy to lose it under a swamp of military shooters, most of them looking identical and possessing essentially the same gameplay. I can no longer, at a glance, tell the difference between Battlefield and Call of Duty. I don’t get the sense that I’m meant to. Formulas make money; there’s a reason why they stick around. It’s tired. It’s done. It would be easy to assume that there isn’t much new to say.
Yet I keep coming back to The Line. I can’t stop looking at it; like any scene of extravagant violence it’s beautiful and horrifying and hateful, and most of all I think what keeps bringing me back is the fact that its story could have been told in no other medium. That might seem counter-intuitive; aren’t stories stories? Isn’t it roughly based on Apocalypse Now (it is), which was also based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (it was)? Hasn’t it been done? But I don’t think that’s true. I’ve said many times before that different media afford different kinds of storytelling, and I don’t just mean form and structure but the stories themselves and what they do to an audience. To see and hear is not to read. To do is not to see.
The Line works because what’s important about it is that you’re doing. You’re not being shown a narrative, though the game emphasizes at the end that all your choices have been illusions. You’re not just following a character as he sees and does horrible things and becomes something correspondingly horrible. You’re complicit. The game wants you to know that.
I can’t imagine this being possible in any other format.
It’s been said by a number of game writers that the thing about Spec Ops: The Line is that it hates you and it wants you to hate yourself. I called the game hateful up there and I think that’s a good word for it: it’s full of hate, for itself, for its characters, for its world, for the player. But it’s an ambient kind of hate. Like social power, it’s not really coming from any single source or going to anywhere singular and specific so much as just there, the air that you breathe and through which you move, that exerts subtle pressure on you every second of your life. The structure of the game is hate. The code of the game is hate. The story is hate, and it’s only comprehensible once you grasp that omnipresent hatred.
That hatred is possible in the form in which it exists because the form is a game in which you participate. You are the player, but you are also Captain Martin Walker, and when he descends into the hell of Dubai and his own mind, you descend with him. You arguably pull him down, because you’re the one playing. The narrative continues contingent on your willingness to keep playing the game. As Brendan Keogh points out repeatedly in Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line, you as the player do have a choice: you can put down the controller, turn off the console, and walk away. You can do that at any point. No one is forcing you to be there. But, according to Walker’s namesake, you keep walking forward into madness – which madness is in fact the sanest response one can have to a game in which you murder literally thousands of people. Which, in the genre, is utterly unremarkable.
Keogh clued me into something that I never noticed before – a lot of things, honestly, but out of all of them this one stood out with particular vividness. In the first screens of the game, before you even enter sandstorm-ravaged Dubai, you and your team encounter a sign protruding from the sand. It’s a stop sign, simple and clear. Stop. You don’t have to proceed any further. You don’t want to. Do not enter. Go back.
The game doesn’t necessarily hate you for choosing to ignore the sign. But it wants you to never forget that you made that choice, and that every second you stay in Dubai you’re making it over and over.
I’ve read hateful books. I’ve seen hateful movies. But in none of them have I encountered – and if you can think of any examples, please let me know in the comments – a book or movie that actually seemed to blame me for continuing to read or watch. I’ve encountered stories that have dragged me through the darkest parts of humanity, that have rubbed my face in the ugliest parts of our nature. But in none of them did I get the sense that I was being held responsible for going on that journey. In none of them have I been made to feel complicit in what was happening. I’m a silent, invisible observer; I have no say at all in what happens. I could walk away each time, but these stories are there to be experienced, so my continued engagement is only in line with why they were created.
Yes, The Line was created to be played. But it’s more complicated than that.
The most recent iteration of Grand Theft Auto contains a much-derided scene (full disclosure: I have not yet played the game) in which you as the player torture a character under the direction of the FBI. You’re given tools, and you choose which ones to use and when. If the character’s heart stops, a shot of adrenaline keeps them alive. They are trapped in that scene with you, not even allowed to die.
Human rights groups have naturally reacted to this with horror; I don’t think any other reaction is particularly reasonable. But Freedom from Torture chief executive Keith Best said something that struck me: that players are “forced” to perform the torture, that they are “forced” to perform unspeakable acts.
I have no idea where he’s getting that from. No one is making you play that game. That’s a choice made by you and you alone.
The Line is not arguing for the elimination of military shooters. At least, I don’t think it is. Again, I think it’s more complicated than that. Mostly I think The Line is arguing that we don’t actually understand what it means to choose to play these games, and we should. We should at least try. Anything less is cheating.
I’m a writer of both short fiction and novels, but the storytelling that most impresses and fascinates me these days is in video games. Some of that is that as a narrative medium, it’s still coming into its own; there is a tremendous amount of possibility there that hasn’t even begun to be realized. We still don’t even really know what games are. I find the art vs. entertainment in gaming argument fantastically boring at this point, but I am interested in the narrative possibilities once we let go of whether or not a thing counts as art. What I think presents the greatest arena of possibility, the thing that sets games apart from all other storytelling media, is that aspect of player choice. But I don’t think we understand what that choice means or where it really is. Choice is like consent: it’s a state and an ongoing process, not a singular moment in time. Even in games where our options are severely constrained by design, we still make the choice to be there, to perform the actions regarding which we supposedly have no choice.
I think it’s yet another mark of the continuing ambivalence around the legitimacy of digital forms of technology that we still regard things like games as facile locations for narrative construction; it’s certainly not the only aspect of that attitude, but it’s a major one. Technology is ruining stories, technology is ruining the novel, technology is making us all stupid and distractable and technology isn’t worth writing about anyway. But we all make choices in stories. We’re all complicit in the telling, the experiencing. What video games make possible is the confrontation of the meaning of that complicity. They make it possible to examine why we make those choices, over and over. Why we keep walking.
What The Line wants you to understand is that when you examine that, you may not like what you see. But it doesn’t want you to look away.
It’s been over a year, and I still can’t. But I just started playing The Line again last week.
I’m still walking.
Sarah is complicit in highly questionable things on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry