2012 saw the release of Spec Ops: The Line, a game that on the surface is just another run of the mill, third-person military cover shooter. The more you play however, you start to realize that not only is it not that kind of game but it hates those games and wants you to hate yourself for enjoying them.
Spec Ops: The Line follows a three man delta squad led by Captain Martin Walker who are sent in to Dubai after it was destroyed by giant sandstorms. They’re mission is to see if there are any survivors from a failed mission to help the civilians and if there are, to call for extraction. So far, so generic. It doesn’t take long before you find out the Americans who were supposed to be helping went rogue and turned the city into a military state. That’s when you start killing them. That’s where the real game begins where Walker begins his psychological descent into madness over the horrors of his actions. You see, the longer the game goes on, it becomes less clear whether the enemies you’re killing are bad but it becomes more clear that you are. For as much as Walker continues to justify his actions to himself and his team, things aren’t what they seem. There are no good choices in the game. Every options the player is given just leads to a different atrocity until eventually, in your quest to be the hero, you drop white phosphorous on innocent civilians.
In Spec Ops, the game does not want you to have fun with killing. Every time you do something horrible, it doesn’t turn it into a Michael Bay set piece like Call of Duty. It makes you reckon with what you have done. You have to see the destruction you’ve cause. Not just Walker the character but you the player. The longer the game goes on the more it taunts you. The loading screen stop giving you tips like “take cover to avoid damage” and they start giving you messages like “Do you feel like a hero yet?” There isn’t a single moment of violence in this game that it wants you to enjoy. This isn’t a game that wants you to enjoy killing, it wants you to see exactly the kinds of terrible things that you have thought were fun before and it wants you to reflect. Nine years later, no game has come close to critiquing game violence like Spec Ops did. Not even The Last of Us 2.
The problem with The Last of Us 2’s attempts at making you feel bad for all the killing is that everyone is a bad person and kind of deserves it. Ellie is a horrible person but so are the people she is killing. Despite it’s attempts to make us sympathize with Abby’s friends during her half of the story, they feel no remorse for their actions and even taunt Ellie about it. They’re just as awful as Ellie is made out to be. Abby gets a pass because at least she learns her lesson by the end of the game and is a changed person, but if she had been killed she also would have deserved it. Specs Ops makes it clear that what you’re doing is not heroic, it is not noble and it is not necessary. You aren’t solving a problem, you don’t have a purpose, and your enemies don’t deserve what you’re doing to them. All you’re doing is making things worse. Unlike The Last of Us in which you can choose to not kill a single person, you can sneak by them and the only deaths will come from the characters who get killed in cutscenes and one dog the game forces you to kill. You can play the game and the only bad things Ellie does is kill people who deserve it in a cutscene and it wants you to feel bad. In Spec Ops you kill everyone. You feel like a bad person because you are a bad person doing bad things, you can’t play it without doing bad things.
That’s the other problem with TLOU2’s attempts to make us feel bad for all the death. The way the story is told, with cutscenes showing all the major beats and you just along for the ride, makes it quite clear that it’s Ellie who’s terrible. Even if you do feel bad, it’s Ellie, not you. In Spec Ops, the player is just as much to blame as Walker. Your username is in the opening credits, you have to make choices throughout the game, choices that have consequences, the loading screens aren’t talking to Walker, they’re talking to you, when Walker’s squad member yells “it’s your fault” after killing civilians, he isn’t pointing at Walker, he’s pointing just off to the side, he’s pointing at the player. For as much as it’s the tale of Walker being a monster, you’re just as complicit. In The Last of Us you play as a character who is a killer, in Spec Ops, you become a killer. You don’t watch Walker bombard civilians with white phosphorous in a cut scene, you pull the trigger and then you walk through the aftermath to look at what you’ve done.
A game like The Last of Us 2 wants you to feel like you’ve just played art, Spec Ops wants you to reflect on yourself. As a story about the violence, Last of Us 2 is fine, but because it’s so cinematic, it’s not a good critique of gaming violence. The Last of Us separates the player from the game, you’re playing it yes but you’re also removed from it. Spec Ops makes sure you always know that even though this is a character in a story, you are controlling him, you are doing these horrible things because you’ve been taught that they were fun. Ellie is a character, Walker is a proxy for you and all the awful things you’ve ever done in Call of Duty and said “Hoorah.”
Speaking of Call of Duty, the reboot of Modern Warfare also tries to explore the atrocities of war. It fails because for any scene that legitimately tries to examine the horrors of war, it has two Call of Duty action set pieces to make you feel like a badass member of Team America Fuck Yeah. There is no choice in Modern Warfare, no player agency, every difficult decision has two outcomes, do what the game wants, or mission failure and what the game wants is to depict your character as a hero who does what’s right. Contrast this with Spec Ops where whenever you are presented with a choice, a choice that usually is between bad and worse, the game doesn’t end no matter what you decide, it continues and you have to live with what you did.
Modern Warfare might try to have some representation of considering the other side of the conflict. We see what it’s like for the Middle Eastern freedom fighters who do what it takes to fight for their home but there’s a greater enemy. The Russians, who are portrayed as, you guessed it, evil Russians who deserve no sympathy so we can feel better about all the killing we’re doing. Because Call of Duty still wants to be fun. It wants you to enjoy killing, it wants you to have fun calling in a drone strike and it doesn’t want you to think about the consequences. Spec Ops doesn’t want to have fun slaughtering people. It wants you to reckon with it. For every time that Walker tries to push the blame of his actions onto the enemy, his squad challenges him and the game challenges you. It shoves the consequences of your murder spree in your face and forces you to think about who really is to blame.
Spec Ops: The Line forces you to confront the pain and destruction you have caused. Not just throughout the game, and not just in war games, but in any game that makes it fun for you to slaughter people with no questions asked. The way it does this isn’t just through the story, it’s through the gameplay. It forces you the player to make choices, to kill and who to kill and it makes you face the consequences. You’re not along for the ride as you watch a character cause suffering, you are an active participant. The story doesn’t want you to think about how violence is wrong, the game wants you to actively feel bad for finding it fun. It’s a game that hates what it is and wants you to hate yourself for enjoying it. Spec Ops: The Line forces you to make bad choice after bad choice because the only right choice is to stop playing it and all the games it critiques and it spends it’s entire playtime to make you realize that.