The holiday hiatus here at Amateur Professional is officially over – and I’ve decided to start it off with a massive, bloody, gruesome explosion.
Well, figuratively, of course. I’m not about to detail the particulars of my bowel movements or anything, so don’t get all indignant or offended.
Instead, we’re going to talk about a rather hot-button issue, considering how many tragedies have been in the news lately: violence. Violence in media, such as television, film, and especially video games to be exact, and how so many are pointing the finger at these games as being responsible for horror and death in the real world.
Thanks to the Steam Holiday Sale that’s been going on over the past few days, I’ve been able to add a few new games to my backlog. In addition to buying Sim City 4 and that staple of self-loathing masochists everywhere known as Dark Souls for next to nothing, I also dropped a few bucks on Spec Ops: The Line, a cover-based third person military squad shooter. I’m not necessarily one for the whole Call of Medal of Duty Honorfighter: Warmonger series of games, but Spec Ops caught my eye because it was a modern adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” which inspired “Apocalypse Now,” one of the best films of the latter part of the 20th century and one of the most scathing indictments of American interventionism and rampant violence.
How these themes could be adapted to a modern video game intrigued me and prompted me to purchase the game once I saw it was on sale. I wound my way through the game over the past few days, finishing it last night, and I can say with 100% certainly that Spec Ops: The Line is less a “violent video game” and more a post-traumatic stress disorder simulator.
The major premise of the game is that the city of Dubai has been cut off by massive sand storms that have buried much of the city. A US Army group, the Damned 33rd Battalion, and its commanding officer John Konrad, had been near Dubai when the storms started and had volunteered to aid in an evacuation effort, actually going so far as to desert after being ordered to abandon the city to its fate, and several months later the Army sends you and your squad on a reconnaissance mission to discover what happened to the 33rd and Konrad – only to find out that the survivors within the city are in a constant state of war, with the 33rd declaring martial law, using Draconian methods to maintain order, with Konrad ostensibly calling the shots.
The game starts off as your run-of-the-mill “tactical shooter” experience, with you and your two squadmates hunkering down behind conveniently placed waist-high walls and mowing down hordes of brown foreigners that come screaming at you. It’s okay to kill these people, as they’re labelled as “insurgents,” wielding AK-47s and other standard implements of destruction – and your squad goes through the motions with well-oiled, almost mechanical, dispassionate professionalism. However, things get dicey the farther in you go as you realize that you’re not just getting shot at by “insurgents” but by members of the Damned 33rd – American soldiers – and the behavior of you and your squadmates begin to unravel as the game begins to show to you the effects of long-term exposure to violence – true violence – of great magnitude, and what the consequences of perpetrating this violence is and how it erodes the human soul.
Spec Ops: The Line is the only modern “bro shooter” military action game that actually depicts the consequences of constant and rampant violence, unlike games such as Call of Duty or Medal of Honor that have main characters that stand triumphantly perched atop piles of bodies without the slightest hint of uneasiness or moral reproach. Where the typical shooter is more of a Michael Bay movie, Spec Ops is a Coppola or Kubrick film – it’s the Battle of Agincourt as depicted by Ken Branagh’s gritty, violent, and mud-speckled movie instead of how it was shown in Sir Laurence Olivier’s whitewashed film adaptation: real, and with a price that will be paid.
As the death toll mounts and the “heroes” wade further and further into the bloody sands of Dubai in their quest to confront Konrad, the wheels come off in a major way. You and your squadmates do more than amass a collection of bruises, ripped clothes, and bloody bandages, as their psychological health begins to fray. Calls and responses between the main character and his subordinates go from professional to gruff to tense to overtly violent, and your character’s actions become needlessly cruel – while early in the game you might see your character execute a dying soldier with a relatively merciful bullet to the head, but deep in the game, especially close to the end, you’ll instead sadistically pounce on your dying opponent, jam the muzzle of your weapon into his mouth, and take a moment to look into the man’s eyes before pulling the trigger. It’s brutal and horrifying, and it’s accompanied by auditory and visual hallucinations as your character’s psyche degrades even further with every over-the-top act of violence committed.
The game stands as a damning indictment of the Bro Shooter genre and its callous, over the top, mindless approach to high kill counts. The gruesome, uncomfortable, and absolutely appalling crimes against humanity depicted in Spec Ops are just as bad as those in Call of Duty; the only difference is that after you call in a white phosphorus air strike in Spec Ops, you don’t get to skip seeing the consequences of your actions.
The prospect of war, violence, and bringing death to another human being should give you nightmares. Playing Spec Ops. unlike a CoD game, will do just that, and while it won’t be as “fun” as mowing down wave after wave of bad guys and suffering no moral or psychological consequences, the impact of Spec Ops will most likely stay with me for the rest of your life; doing so gives you insight into what “paying the butcher’s bill” really entails.