Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line

Brendan Keogh

Created on Wednesday, January 30, 2013.
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A in-depth analysis of the gameplay and setting of ‘Spec Ops: The Line’.


“Only so many games can be absolutely uncritical and unthinking in their violence before players start to think more critically about what these games are asking of them and developers start to question just what they are creating. After so many years of shooters that don’t think twice about the excessive violences they ask their players to participate in, the shooter genre is set for a second wave of games that, much like the Western film genre, turn the gaze back onto themselves. These shooters won’t necessarily be trying to determine if shooters are good or bad, but will simply want to create shooters that poke at the genre, interrogate it, unsettle it.”


“Walker wants to hurry: Every minute we waste could mean the difference between a soldier going home alive and going home in a bag. The phrase is drenched with irony. Walker is wasting his time in Dubai, and countless soldiers will be dead because of his future actions. Every minute that Walker wastes in Dubai will mean another soldier going home in a bag.”


“Videogame worlds, generally, are so peaceful until we come along. It is in the act of playing that their content, happy little worlds become destroyed and chaotic. We come along and we kill so many people in these worlds! More than is ever really possible. And, as long as these worlds are videogame worlds, we kind of need to kill so many of them. Sure, it is probably possible to make a game where every single, individual kill feels significant, where we kill maybe five enemies in a game instead of five hundred. We already have games like this (Shadow of the Colossus, for instance). But by and large, we need countless targets to take out. We enjoy the rhythm of aiming and shooting, aiming and shooting, aiming and shooting over and over again. And that requires lots of targets. The Line doesn’t offer an alternative to that model, but neither does it ignore its incredulity.”


“Mannequins are uncanny. It’s the implied movement of things not real, of humans not human. The Line doesn’t quite have that movement, but as the heavy teleports all over the shop and as the people transform into mannequins (or are they revealed to having always been mannequins?), it’s truly unnerving. What the mannequin scenes seem to suggest in each of these games is that human enemies are more terrifying when they are not human. It’s something that Bioshock plays on, too, in its Fort Frolic sequence. In Bioshock, the mannequins are more terrifying because they actually are humansor at least they were. Each one is a papier-mch corpse. Some of them jump to life when you aren’t looking at them. One question that The Line wants its players to ask themselves is: When I kill in a videogame, am I actually killing? The most obvious answer is of course not. But what is actually happening in my mind? Throughout the game, I’ve been using snippets of dialogue to turn waves of animated polygons running at me into real people in my imagination before I shoot them down. I can relate to them, think of them as human, but I kill them anyway. This scene in the clothes shop forces me to face the unreality of it: these aren’t real peoplethese are mannequins. What this scene seems to suggest is what I find really terrifying is the possibility that I’m not killing people. Do you actually kill when you kill in a videogame? It seems like I want to feel like I am actually killing people, so off-putting do I find the non-human mannequins, and that is terrifying. Or another reading: maybe The Line is rubbing Walkers and my faces in our desire to other our victims. We other them so much that they start to appear as not human at all. It forces Walkerand meto see what a real un-human looks like and, in turn, to accept that the people I am killing are human, be they actual or virtual.”


“And, well, they really are. I’m not really killing anyone when I play a violent videogame. These people aren’t real, they actually are just digital mannequins. Just 0s and 1s made to look like flat triangles on my screen that in turn are made to look like 3D human beings. Yet, at the same time, I really am killing. In my brain, I am not choosing to pull the right trigger while the white pixels of my crosshair overlaps with the pixels of the enemy triangles. I am choosing to shoot a man in the head. Videogame violence sits in this weird, pluralised middle ground. I’m not really killing, but I really am. The mannequins are men are mannequins.”


“Got the son of a bitch! Walker shouts. Another 33rd soldier turns and fires, hitting Walker a few times. Walker stutters and shouts, Fuck you! as I hide him back behind cover. All of his military discipline, all of the distance he built between himself and the people he is murdering, has crumbled away. He is no longer just dropping target or boasting about kills or even keeping score. He is shouting at his prey. The violence has reached a new level of intimacy.”


“I think the loading screen messages work as a jumping off point for the player to find the duality of man that has messed Walker up so badly inside of themselves. Sitting there, waiting for another chance to murder the 33rd men that just murdered me, I am forced to ask myself if I am a good person for doing this. What’s the point? Why carry on? Why not just stop now? I know this is not going to go anywhere good. Why am I still going? The Line doesn’t want me to stop playing; it wants me to realise that I won’t stop playing. And it wants me to question what the fact that I refuse to stop says about me.”


“Indeed, the senseless violence of the tower did have an affect on my men. I feel so bad now, in retrospect, knowing I felt nothing while I did it on my first game. It was just a turret sequence to me. Nothing more. Such a heinous act was just so ordinary that I didn’t even notice it was heinous. Walker says what he always says: They didn’t leave us any choice. YOU didn’t leave us any choice! Adams responds. They are both wrong. Walker didn’t need to shoot up the tower, but he persuaded himself he did. Adams didn’t have to follow Walkers ordershe had the pilots seat; he couldve just flown away, but he followed orders. I couldve stopped playing the game at any time, but I keep following orders. Everybody doesn’t have a choice, but only because we choose to have no choice.”


“At no point is our encounter with the civilians flagged as a choice. To shoot in the air is to realise you have a choice even when none present themselves. You have to think of it yourself. On my first game, I didn’t. I just shot the civilians. Even after everything I’ve seen, I just killed them. Few people, I am sure, will think to shoot in the air before they think to shoot the civilians.” (I did! — Desi)

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2022.