Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Overthinking : Spec Ops, Conscience and Consequences

"Well, you see, Willard, in this war, things get confused out there. Power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity. But out there with these natives, it must be a temptation to be God. Because there's a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and irration, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature."
- General Corman, Apocalypse Now

Video games were supposed to be an escape - they always had been and I thought they always will be. I've always said that I'm a sucker for good storytellers and from a gamer's point of view this is doubly important because truth to be told, it isn't always about who can collect the most gold coins or align the most colored blocks or shoot down the most faceless enemies.

It's an unspoken rule between developers and players that there exists a certain degree of emotional disjoint from the game's characters and the events around them - especially if choice is involved (which is a luxury that books or movies do not have).

Maybe that's why I tend to play as a renegade in such games - apart from the fact that we get away with the choices we do, there's virtually nothing that goads us into some form of introspection - and we only get to watch the results of our actions behind cutscenes or dialogue choices.

Maybe I felt horrible when I chose to let Shepard shoot Samara's daughter after the justicar's sacrifice. Maybe it was a bit depressing to see Tali end her life in despair after watching the remains of her people burning through the skies of Rannoch - after all, I was rooting for Tali and Shepard. Maybe there was a sense of hesitation and desperation for a third option when JC Denton was ordered to execute Juan Lebedev because a part of me wondered if there was another way. Maybe that's why I refused to participate in Makarov's plans in No Russian, even if I didn't opt to skip it. And maybe that's why I had the bright idea of shooting Starchild, even if it wasn't hinted anywhere that this was even an option.

Yet these games could only hint at the brutal question, always seemingly afraid to ask it.

What is wrong with you, the player?

Then Spec Ops: The Line happened. It was supposed to be another one of those run-of-the-mill shooters, set in another one of those lost cities (in this case a post-apocalyptic Dubai) featuring yet another soldier playing the part of a hero. The initial choices are tired tropes, and it seemed like another walk in the proverbial park.

At some point early in the story, the first real moral situation plays out - in the form of deciding whether to commit a war crime or not (by using white phosphorus on what appeared to be a camp of hostiles). Only this time it wasn't an option, because the two other choices would lead to an eventual game over or simply turning off the game.

It was at this point that Spec Ops decided to stop being a game and started mocking the players, or rather, the players' conscious choice to continue playing.

In my opinion, this was the best example of creating a perfect machine out of imperfect parts. There was something about the shoddy controls that sowed some sort of frustration (which I swear was strangely timely and only happened during the story's more depressing points). This caused a lot of reloads, and the load screens changed from the usual helpful tips to questions that were hard to answer (Do you feel like a hero yet? You're still a good person.). It was subtle at first, but it becomes highly noticeable when the characters degenerate physically and psychologically and one cannot help but ask who the bad guys really were in this story.

Perhaps it was the way that the game allowed players to sneak around and hear bits and pieces of enemy casual chatter (which showed a human element to them) that added a face to what we normally consider as obstacles to take out. Or perhaps it was because the game reminded me so much of Sartre's No Exit  - it was never made clear which parts were real, PTSD-induced or an interpretation of the personal hell that the characters went through.

To be quite honest, this game was tiring and was difficult to finish due to the psychological stress that it evoked - in the same sense that Donnie Darko or Tarkovsky's Stalker was mentally taxing (at least for me).

I don't feel like playing any shooter for a good while after this one.

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