October, 5, 2014
Critical Analysis: Spec Ops: The Line
Spec Ops: The Line is a third person shooter developed by Yager Development and published by 2k Games. At face value, the game looks like your generic shooter game, you play as a white American male Commander leading a band of brothers through the game killing all those who try to stop you from reaching your goal. What is unique about this title is that the game is actually designed to raise awareness about post traumatic stress disorder that many of our veterans face when they return home from war. The PTSD-related ideologies represented are deep and one can often look past the hidden messages placed throughout the game on their first walkthrough. The first 30 minute of gameplay is intentionally designed to feel like generic “call of duty” scenarios before pulling off the covers to reveal the true theme of the game. Gee’s principles of explicit information on-demand and just-in-time principle, “psychosocial moratorium” principle, situated meaning principle, and design principle are used to teach the player about the ideology of the game.
The explicit information on-demand and just-in-time principle was used to comfortably introduce the game to the player. The game introduces the control in a cliche fashion, showing the buttons used on screen and introducing them when they are needed to be learnt. Once the player has accomplished these “mini” objective, the buttons are no longer shown. These functionalities vary from moving the player around to taking shelter behind objects to stay clear of enemy fire. This principle is particularly important because it setups the player to expect the game to be just like any other shooting game. Once the expectation is created, the game begins to slowly break down the 4th wall and begins to deliver the core message of the game directly to the player about PTSD by making the gameplay exhibit PTSD symptoms.
Psychosocial Moratorium principle was drawn by designers to allow the player to have options, or so they would think. Very early on in the game, you are approached by a band of armed men right after your team discovered a dead American soldier. As you hide behind cover talking to these armed men you are given the option to shoot them immediately or if you were to wait your comrade would suggest that you shoot at the windows (filled with sand) above the men to neutralize them. Options like these are rare in most shooter games can be found throughout the game giving the player the sense of having the freedom of choice.
Although subtle, the situated meaning principle is implied by the designers to deliver the game’s core message. If the player were to pay close attention, the men clearly stated that they were on a humanitarian mission to evacuate civilians. This is brought up a few times in the first mission as your comrades are hesitant to comply to your orders of shooting armed men who are clearly the refugees you were sent to save. Earlier in the game, before you encounter any men you hear John Conrad’s voice in a megaphone( the commander you are trying to search for). This should begin to smell fishy for the player as in that particular moment in the game. Your team is on high alert thinking that they are being followed. The fact that no one mentioned John Conrad’s voice should hint to the player that it may be just some kind of hallucination (PTSD symptom). When you decide to change the mission into a rescue mission, your comrades questioned your decision citing that it is going against orders. But you stubbornly march toward the city away ignoring your comrades’ warning. As you begin to enter the city, graffitis along the buildings display the thoughts of people stranded in the city. “God”, “water please”, “help”, and “liar” are spraypainted throughout the inside of buildings suggesting that the social order has collapse within the city which may point to the PTSD theme the game is conveying.
The design of the game was the most important principle as it is the most obvious hint the developer give to the player about the PTSD-theme. As you progress through the game, the loading cutscenes change from pro-military propaganda to messages directed toward the player asking if he/she is doing more harm than good, the colorful American Flags are replaced by skulls and building debris illustrating the mental breakdown of the main character. Even the level design suggest that the player is spiraling deeper into his/her PTSD as the levels force the player to continue to go down holes. If you were to step back and realize how much you have been descending, it would be impossible as the surrounding landscape is a flat desert. Advertisements displaying faces show no eyes and as you progress through the game, these images are slowly replaced by skulls or with their eyes “bleed” out in black ink. Although this is my speculation, I think the designers are showing how blind either the player or character is becoming to his efforts of becoming a hero. Periodically you justify brutal action to take out enemy troops at the expense of harming innocent civilians. His PTSD is taking full control of the character preventing him from seeing the true reality of his actions and is shown first-hand to the player as he/she cannot tell what is real and what is only an illusion. When you are searching for the remaining enemy survivors, you can locate them by listening to their dialogs. Their conversations suggest that they do not want to engage the player but are forced to in order to defending themselves. In most games, enemies are not given a personality and are only seen as evil entities. But in this game, the enemies have casual dialog with each other and fight as if they’re defending themselves rather than attacking for some organized military order.
The principles shown throughout the game would seem to support my initial assumption that the game is another run and gun military shooter. Once the game begins to introduce PTSD elements, it quickly becomes obvious that the shooting mechanic is actually meant to support the PTSD themes in the game (through shooting hallucinations and harming innocent lives) . I can understand why the designers decided to do this because the topic of PTSD is something that people like to avoid discussing this mental issue as it is one of the many tragic outcomes of war. By intentionally making the game feel like any other shooter, it allows the designer to slowly introduce the subject to the player without having the player realize their character has PTSD. If the game started out with the theme displayed clearly, Many people would drop the controller and walk away as most gamers would not understand the hallucinations or would not wish to explore the inner psyche of a PTSD victim.
Obviously I have a lot of insight on this game since I have already beaten the game, I will even admit that in my first playthrough I missed many hints and only at the end did I begin to understand the message. During my first playthrough, I was expecting the game to be another first person shooter, and in the first hour of the game, it would seem like I was right, As the stages progress, more enemies and types of enemies increased. Tips and hints were displayed above the player about using new weapons to help aid me overcome the latest obstacle. In fact, after 30 minutes of running and gunning people I had already forgotten that my mission was to rescue survivors. I was tricked into playing this heroic role of trying to save Conrad’s troops from the “evil” rebels. I was tricked by my character, I was tricked by myself.
This whole idea of wanting to be the hero of the game stems from the perceived notion that players want to be the hero when they play games like these. They want to rise victorious over your opponent and show that you were the best, typically requiring you to kill everything in your sight. And this need also plays a role in recruiting young men and women to join the armed forces. I am not saying their reasons are not honorable and I have complete respect for our military men and women. But many of our military ads try convincing potential recruits that they can be a hero. They claim that you’ll be the hero both at home and abroad by helping oppressed civilians and kill evil men that want to destroy America. Hardly do these ads ever talk about the causation of the political instability in the particular region and simply point that these groups want to destroy America because they “hate” our freedom.
And as I traversed through these levels, I never once asked myself if my actions were right. I just assumed they were right because I saw myself as the hero of the game. I never once saw these rebels as the refugees I was sent there to save. I did not know the horrors they have experienced living in a city abandon by the world, a city where Conrad’s own men have gone rogue and now control the inhabitants of the city.
As I continued through the game, I began to notice something fishy was happening with the environment, in one case I was gunning down enemies to the sound of a happy rock song playing on the radio. It felt so strange because the song just didn’t fit with the moment in the game. This audio cue encourages the player to start picking up that the game is not what the player imagines. This is shown through the images found throughout the game. All images of people had their eyes covered up, and eventually were painted over, symbolizing that the player was blind to see the reality of the whole situation in Dubai. In one particular instance, the player was forced to move slowly by some images of nicely painted skeletons wearing clothes. At first glance, I thought nothing of it and merely saw it as a painting, but then on my second playthrough I thought to myself. How often would you see a nicely painted skeleton in a war torn city? Where graffiti is blastered everywhere, how can this image exist. Is this image really real? And then it hit me, these images of skeletons much like the eyes in ads being painted over are just my own vision and it got me thinking about how people with PTSD must see reality. How can I believe anything shown in the game if what I’m seeing could be fake? This game gave me a first-hand experience with PTSD symptom where I was believing everything I saw without questioning it. And only when I had already beaten the game and was explained what the true theme was did I realize most of everyone was an illusion. It blew my mind, looking back through my entire journey of my gameplay to see how many hints I missed. But then it had me realize that in most cases, people with PTSD do not realize that they even have it. Obviously I will not mention what was told to me at the end of the game, but the one thing I will say is that the game was not talking to the character, but to me the player.
This game has a very deep meaning behind it and to players who are not willing to question their action can easily miss the purpose of the game even when they beat the game. In fact, this may be one of the few games that I believe should be rated mature because the topic involves a lot of self-reflection as the player. Even with the ending, the theme of the game can still be misunderstood by a player who merely wants to play a shooter. And even as I’m writing this, I wonder what other details I may have overlooked. The game divides the genders into two categories. The game had no women soldiers, in fact the only time women and children were seen was when the player had to attack enemies around them harming them collaterally. The women are viewed as defenseless and innocent and were used to make the player feel guilt for his/her action. These action by the player draw a parallels between the use of drones in the middle east. As an American, I am constantly told that what we’re doing in the middle east is right and we’re liberating those people from tyranny. But the game suggest that there are many consequences of our involvement like accidently killing innocent people. From a western pro-democratic point of view, this particular scene in the game makes me question about our actions and if we’re doing more harm then good. And while I cannot speak as someone from the Middle East region, I am curious about how they see this game, do they see it as the reality of their region or do they view this as another barbaric game made by westerns to show how violate their region is.
While all of Bogost’s ideological frames can be used to analyze in Spec Ops,the game play I experienced is most usefully analyzed through the frame of reinforcement. Typically a special operative commander would have ways to communicate with HQ when they’re executing a rescue mission in a city. The fact that you are not given access to HQ enhances the player’s fantasy of being the lone hero that saves the day. In most cases, the commander would have contacted HQ after encountering dead American soldiers and by then they would be given proper orders. In the game, your player simply changes to mission to saving American soldiers. This lack of centralize commands gives the player more command over his/her destiny. The choices given throughout the game is also very limiting as there are only two kinds of choices, a passive one or an aggressive one both leading to the same conclusion in order to keep a linear storyline. When you first encounter the combatants you are given the option to shoot first, or wait and hear what your partner suggest which is to shoot the glass of a bus above the combatants to cover them in sand. Whether you choose to shoot them or the glass the result is that the combatants are dead, you are not able to talk to them about what has happened and you are not able to search their bodies for clues. These lacks of options forces the player to see these armed enemies as a means to an end. Another instance is when you are forced to choose whether or not to shoot the kidnapper as he’s threatening the hostage. Whether or not you decide to shoot him, after a given amount of time your partner will kill him for you. Therefore you are not able to interrogate the kidnapper. In most cases you would shoot in non-lethal areas but the game gives you no choices and you again, are forced to kill enemies. This is also true for the execution feature placed in the game. Whenever you shoot an enemy in a non-lethal area the enemy will go down and crawl around. If you leave the enemy alone, he will be able to get back up after a given time and will shoot at you. Therefore the game gives you two options. The first is to shoot the enemy as he is squirming around, the other option is to execute him. While the execution feature does save you bullies, you can see the player inhumanly execute the enemy. Nowhere does the game allow you to talk to the enemy or try disarming him. You are only given one choice, which is to kill everyone who stands in your way. In the real world, you try saving the enemy if possible because you can gain vital intelligence that can help you on your mission. In the game, you cannot ask for information reinforcing your player’s motif of being the lone rambo-like hero.
Spec Ops: The Line gives a rare spin to a big but very generic genre, it look into how one’s perspective can augment reality and can show the dark sides of war and conflict. It is one of the few games that blew me away when I finished playing and has left me reflecting on what I have experienced and has had me questioning how one’s own view, goals and perspective can alter the reality and environment around you.