Pretty much everyone thinks video games are nothing more than a means of entertainment. In the good old days, where video games used to be about killing demons from hell (Doom, 1993), there wasn’t much necessity for a narrative. It’s just to make kids happy while their parents go to work. Cassettes evolved to CDs, DVDs and Blu-Rays and Steam; gradually everything changed; everyone under the age demographic of 7- 35 started playing video games and now, it’s a multibillion dollar industry, an industry much, much bigger than Hollywood. And like the ancient Roman Gladiator spectators, people started losing interest. They wanted more bang for the buck; they wanted a narrative, even an incentive to care about the characters. Military shooters started with Doom, then moved on to Goldeneye 007, Later EA (electronic arts) made graphical advancements in FPS (first person shooters) and started the Medal of Honor Franchise, set during World War II, and other franchises like Call of Duty and Battlefield followed suit. Cue the Greek spectators again, Activision came up with a new concept of modernising the FPS genre by releasing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which yet again, takes the cake for becoming one of the most popular and profitable video games in the world. Everything was going well and good, they’re making money, we’re happy, win-win situation right? Until I realised it wasn’t.
If there’s one thing any millennial 12 year old trigger happy “gamer” wants out of a modern military shooter, it’s lots of guns, no lag and loads of bad guys to kill. As the gaming technology gets more sophisticated, developers strived to deliver gamers a hyper-realistic modern warfare experience.We hear all these authentic military phrases and codewords like “We’re Oscar Mike” and “Kilo One, this is Delta 1-2, requesting air support, over”, all these weapons and detailed graphics that make us feel like we’re actually there. This is where all the hyper-realism ends. The story writers don’t seem to care about the psychological trauma soldiers endure in battle or show the other side of the conflict. They fail to explore the darkness in the characters, the traumatic-stress, the horrors of war. They try to make it feel like something that looks and sounds awesome, like something out of a Michael Bay film. They portray the “American Pride” that goes into making those “killshots” from predator drones on some Ultranationalist insurgents because the game tells us that the guys shooting us are always the bad guys right? That’s what Spec ops is here to prove wrong. It throws the concept of making us feel good about murdering people in a military shooter, out of the window. It’s supposed to make you feel miserable and guilty because that’s how war is. You have to make cold hard choices that always end in mass-murder and destruction. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Spec-ops: The line is inspired from the critically acclaimed movie Apocalypse Now and has a similar story line. It places you in the shoes of Martin Walker, the leader of a three-man Delta Force team sent in to perform reconnaissance in Dubai after the United States Army fails in their evacuation attempt after a catastrophic sandstorm. The bulk of the 33rd American Army infantry battalion has split into two factions. The main force is led by Colonel John Konrad and acts as an occupying force while commiting atrocities against the civilians, while the “exiles” are a splinter faction of the 33rd who staged a coup in response to the atrocities. In addition to this, the CIA has organized insurgent forces from the shadows and directed them to attack both the 33rd and the “exiles.”As the group gets caught between the crossfires, Walker is forced to kill his fellow countrymen and make decisions like either killing a civilian for stealing water, or a US marine, because he slaughtered the civilian’s family. Gradually, his mental state worsens and he starts suffering from cognitive dissonance and hallucinations, until he has to make choices that either make him completely lose his grip on reality or just live with his guilt.
The game rewards you with achievements or trophies and constant reminders in load screens like “You’re here because you want to feel like something you’re not. A hero” for every horrible choice you make, which is the game’s sick way of mocking the whole concept of achievements in military shooters. In one particular scene, Walker fires a white phosphorus mortar when he believes his squad is hopelessly outnumbered only to be horrified to find that, after the smoke clears, he was firing on a group of the 33rd who were sheltering civilians, civilians that the mortar killed down to the last one.
Now it’s not the scene itself that is notable, it’s the whole execution of it. When Walker fires the White phosphorous round, the screen looks like one of those predator drones from Call of duty or Battlefield or Medal of Honor, where you just have to wipe out all white blobs on the screen.
It gives you a satisfying ego boost where you get all these cool shells and you start raining down hell on those soldiers, probably hysterically laughing like a maniac. But perhaps, like the Ender’s game movie, if you’re not aware that it’s just a game, a simulation, would you hesitate for a moment? Of course not. The game gives you the power you need, and immediately shows you what you’ve done. It doesn’t explore the darkness in the main character, it metaphysically explores the darkness in you. As the popular videogame critic Benjamin Croshaw said, “This, Roger Ebert, is how video games can be profound”.
Spec ops is one of the greatest examples of how video games can be viewed as art. It’s one of the shining examples in the history of video games which shows how choices in video games can not only affect characters, but us, as human beings. Where realism is not only restricted to technology but extrapolated to an emotional connect. Where video games are not just used as tools of catharsis, but also leave a lasting impact in a world of “realistic” modern military shooters.