Video Games are an art form. A beautiful outlet for developers to share a story with the player in an interactive capacity. I’ve said it time and time again, video games are an underrated art, possibly the most underrated art. While the influence of games is at its highest point of all time, reaching millions of players around the world, its influence as a critical art form is still widely misunderstood. Progress is being made with each passing day to work against the stigma attached to gaming. With every Technomancer comes a Last of Us. Inside is the most recent example of a game that can only be described as artistic. Inside and many games of that ilk are more concerned with challenging the person than the player.
Spe Ops: The Line is the thinking mans shooter. It has a deep, thought-provoking canpaign that will leave you haunted long after the credits roll. It’s a game that will stick with you and make an impression. It will leave a high bar for which most other shooters will only wish to attain. The reason it sticks so well is due to the fact that it is, narratively, identical to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; widely considered one of the most influential pieces of western literature. The work is only 93 or so pages (depending on what copy of the book you pick up) yet it is one of the most dense works ever devised. Every word, sentence, and syllable is masterfully organized to portray the horrors of colonization. Heart of Darkness was groundbreaking for its time, and is monumental even today. Apocalypse Now, the film adaptation of Heart of Darkness is equally as revered by scholars and critics alike. While it is a faithful adaptation of the book, and a fantastic modern retelling of the work, what it is most known for is being an excellent example of film literacy. The film utilizes every technique in the book to visually convey the story to the viewers.
Spec Ops: The Line is cut from the same cloth as Heart of Darkness and Apocalyspe Now. This story is meant to push forward whatever medium it is attached to. Spec Ops does, in fact, push forward storytelling in Video Games. It uses gameplay as the driving force for major, consequential decisions that will affect the course and outcome of the narrative. Spec Ops is a study in Video Game literacy, it shows the very best of narrative in gaming while also using the core mechanics behind a third person shooter and manipulating it towards the purpose of the story. Two key moments from the game stick out to me for their sheer brutality and simplicity.
The first is at the end of the game, in its final moments. Captain Martin Walker and John Konrad stand before each other, the culmination of a traumatic struggle that exposed the horrors of war. In the final moments it is revealed that Konrad, the man who Walker had chased across Dubai had actually committed suicide prior to his arrival and the man who stood before him was nothing more than a hallucination, a mental projection created by Walker as a coping mechanism to explain the horrific events he had witnessed. It’s terribly tragic and incredibly human, it’s not often that a video game protagonist is explored in such depth. Characters in Shooters witness the absolute abomination and swine of the earth, the filth of humanity, and are often left mentally unscathed by these atrocities. Those who have seen combat are forever changed by their experiences, and depending on the severity of the combat, are left mentally tormented for the remainder of their lives. It’s heartbreaking since the effects of PTSD are severe depressions and, sadly, the trend aims towards suicidal tendencies. When we see this side of Walker we are immediately aware that he will never be the same. Even if he survives, it will only be physically, for emotionally he is dead. In this sequence Walker either shoots at a mirror that is reflecting Konrad or he shoots himself in the head. Either way, Konrad has won. There’s a futility in that, an understanding that no matter what you choose, you will lose.
So, you make the choice. If you decide to kill yourself, Walker adds his name to the lists of those that PTSD has taken. It’s bittersweet because he has found a sense of peace away from the horrors of war and the tormenting cavern that is his mind. If you decide to “kill Konrad”, Walker shoots the mirror and waits for the cavalry to arrive. Walker sits outside of the hotel where the final sequence occurred and patiently waits. It’s a scene dripping with melancholy and pain. When the platoon finally arrives, you stay in control of Walker, as the unit nears towards you, you are unknowingly presented with your final choice. Do you go home with the unit knowing that the rest of your life will be filled with despair and sadness? If you choose this option, you see Walker hop into the Humvee and drive away with the unit. The expression on his face says it all; it can only be compared to the ending of The Graduate. Happy… until you really think about it. The other option is… shooting the soldiers. This wasn’t the option I choose but it is completely understandable to the character of Walker. These are the actions of a broken man, and of a broken player. We, as players, have never been trained to feel these emotions. We’ve never been given such a glimpse into the psyche of a broken character, and a part of us is lost with him as we experience these truly awful events. It’s one thing to read these awful events unfold, it’s one thing to watch these events unfold, it’s another thing entirely to partake in these events. Control someone who is experiencing these events. It’s psychologically destructive to experience these horrors first hand.
And some of the events in this game are truly horrific.
The horror, the horror!
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