Spec-Ops The Line and Western Heroism

In June 2012 I was sent into Dubai on a mission to track down Col. John Konrad, a US Army officer who disappeared along with his battalion trying to evacuate people left in the city after it was engulfed in a biblical sandstorm. We quickly lost contact with the outside world and over the next few days I slaughtered the entire battalion, massacred crowds of innocents, burned children’s flesh off with white phosphorous and finally damned everyone left to die slow, horrific deaths from dehydration. Why did I do all these things? It’s simple really.

I did them because I’m the hero.

2012 was the peak of the modern military shooter (MMS) genre, when Call of Duty was king of the world and every child spent Christmas day saving it from terrorists. Like all immensely popular videogame genres MMSs quickly ossified into a rigid formula. The hero is an American or British soldier who fights whoever Americans were scared of at the time (the Russians, the poor, people who don’t like America and have orbital doomsday satellites, etc) to save the world from whatever WMD they’ve cooked up this time. The gameplay is very linear, consisting of killing everyone in your way along a set path until the world is out of danger. By 2012 however players had begun to tire of this genre’s rigidities, with next year’s Call of Duty: Ghosts’ financial and critical disappointment sounding its death knell. The time was right for Spec-Ops: The Line.

Spec-Ops: The Line presents itself as just another low-budget MMS tailgating in Call of Duty’s slipstream. The player assumes the role of Captain Walker, a grizzled American Delta Force soldier on a mission to save a missing battalion of his comrades. The gameplay is straightforward, guiding the player along a linear track on which they kill everyone in their way. The game constantly gives the player reinforcement that what they’re doing is the right thing, and the only possible choice in their situation. But it is neither.

Midway through the game the player is presented with an overwhelming enemy force and instructed to drop white phosphorous on them from a mortar to clear the way to their objective. While the player does this the game switches to the infrared eye in the sky view seen in countless real-life airstrike videos, and which is popularly used in MMSs to let the player rain large-scale explosive death on the villains, but unlike those games Spec-Ops doesn’t let its player enjoy their carnage. After they’ve incinerated all resistance the player is made to walk through the scorched wasteland they’ve created, watching the charred bodies writhe in agony until their death rattles finally cease. At the end of the wreckage they come across the full horror of their crimes, as it turns out the area they just bombed was a refugee camp. It’s here, after half a game of misdirection, that Spec-Ops finally begins to reveal its true purpose: to violently deconstruct MMSs and everything they stand for.

The MMS genre flourished in the War on Terror years, properly kicking off in 2007 with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (which ironically does not embody the jingoistic, murder-happy nature the genre took on almost immediately), and its political outlook is that of the Western military interventionist mindset which lead to the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan during that decade. This worldview proliferated in the West after Reagan was elected after a decade of economic and civil strife. Reagan set out to revitalise his country’s sense of purpose by turning all political issues into simple moral fables of right and wrong, and presenting the world as one in which good would inexorably triumph over evil. He began effecting this by sending money and arms to Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviets, who became the symbol of his vision for the world. He presented this conflict as a simple story of innocent Afghans threatened by evil, with America’s role being to intervene and save those innocents. This simple reading of the situation obscured the reality, in which a loose confederation of tribal warlords rebelled against the prior communist government over their poorly-executed land reforms, and the Soviets deposed that government in favour of their own as they feared the country would collapse into anarchy. Reagan’s narrative also assumed the country would be at peace once the Soviets left, but once that happened the warlords, no longer receiving American aid, ramped up the heroin trade to fund themselves and turned on each other. The resulting war levelled what remained of Kabul and eventually the Taliban prevailed as kings of the ashes.

When the Coalition invaded Afghanistan after 9/11 their idea of Afghan politics was equally simplistic, that of a land of good, noble people who really want American democracy, but are ruled by a singular, villainous organisation called the Taliban responsible for all evil in the country. After they overthrew the Taliban they appointed the local leaders who helped to run the new government, in the belief they supported everything else America wanted and would run a corruption-free democracy, as the Western good/evil binary does not allow for the idea that the ‘good guys’ may not be perfect or may disagree with you politically. But many of the new appointees were in fact the old warlords the Taliban had seized power from, and they immediately cornered the opium trade and embezzled hundreds of millions in American aid to spend on Dubai penthouses. When the Americans forced President Karzai to remove them from power he just appointed them elsewhere, reinstalling them with even more power thanks to American funding. The Coalition’s unyielding belief in their knowledge of the simplicity of the situation is what led, in the end, to the disaster Afghanistan has become.

MMSs adhere strictly to this good/evil binary. The heroes and villains are always clearly defined, and the most morally complex a story gets is if one of the good guys turns out to be the villain, but after the reveal the story simply shifts to a new clearly defined good/evil binary. Near the end of Modern Warfare 2 the player’s commanding officer is revealed as the bad guy, but the story simply becomes a slightly different story of the morally upright heroes fighting a new Saturday morning cartoon villain. He’s even aligned with a villainous PMC so as to avoid presenting the US army (to which the player character belongs) as in any way unheroic.

Spec-Ops however goes to great lengths to subvert this, deliberately obfuscating the situation in Dubai and who is meant to be sympathetic, in order to deconstruct the genre’s good/evil binary. Initially the player finds American soldiers being shot by militiamen who are taking orders from CIA agents, so they initially see the soldiers as sympathetic (this also exploits the player’s conditioning to see US soldiers as heroes and Arabs as villains). But they then discover the US soldiers shooting innocent civilians and rounding them up to be taken away and killed, and the player finds themselves working with a seemingly sympathetic CIA agent, so they assume the soldiers are the real villains and they should be siding with the locals. Then they find out the soldiers weren’t killing the civilians they rounded up after the player drops white phosphorous on what turns out to be a refugee camp the soldiers set up, and then in helping the CIA agent they end up destroying the city’s water supply, condemning everyone to a slow, horrible death. After this relentless upending of the player’s moral compass they’re left adrift in a moral no-man’s land with little more of an idea of the actual political situation than they had when they started. Ultimately Spec-Ops manipulation of the player’s desire to see everything in black and white terms is what lets it guide them to commit atrocity after atrocity, in their belief that by killing everyone in their way they will inevitably save the day.

This is another cornerstone of MMSs, the player’s sure knowledge that if they continue on their given mission and kill everyone who opposes them the forces of good will inevitably triumph. Even in games where the player commits horrible acts for shock value on the game’s part, like in Modern Warfare 2’s airport massacre level, they know that it will all end well in the end.

This ultimately stems from the strongly messianic element of American democracy, in which it’s seen as society’s perfect end point (when the USSR fell it was proclaimed ‘the end of history’). The problem with messianism though is that when you believe your message is perfect and its spread inevitable you can never believe anyone would honestly choose anything else. If they do refuse it there must be nefarious forces causing them to do so, and if those forces can be removed the world will be made better, and because the society this will lead to is perfect any means are justified in doing so.

The implication of the war in Afghanistan’s narrative’s discrete separation of good, freedom-loving Afghans and the evil Taliban was that if the latter were simply killed a peaceful new world would appear out of nowhere. But by 2006 many Afghans were beginning to fight back against their incredibly corrupt new government and the country was descending into anarchy. The simple narrative however did not allow for sincere disagreement, so the Coalition assumed the Taliban had returned. British troops were sent to Helmand to protect the regional government, assuring the locals that was their goal and that they were there to defeat the Taliban. When they went into towns to support the police they ended up unwittingly helping them oppress the locals in their violent control of the opium trade, so the locals started attacking the British, who laid waste to their towns assuming they were Taliban. This caused more people to join the fight against the British and the actual Taliban returned from Pakistan to join them, and the province plunged into a bloodbath as the British clung to their belief that no-one could oppose them unless they were Taliban and therefore had to be eradicated. Many locals also exploited this, as they realised the British would shoot anyone reported to them as Taliban, and so used the British as their own personal hitmen.

Spec-Ops exploits the player’s assumption that peace can be achieved simply by killing those standing in its way to convince the player to continue no matter how awful the consequences of their actions are. The game uses the standard guiding mechanics of the MMS genre in this regard: the linearity of the its levels and the use of markers and objectives telling the player where to go, the player proceeding wherever enemies are coming at them from after killing them all, and the characters simply telling the player what ‘needs’ to be done. The player’s familiarity with these tropes causes them to dissociate somewhat from their own actions in a moral sense. Their implicit trust of the game’s implication that everything will turn out okay if they continue on this path prevents them from really contemplating the consequences of their actions, keeping them from really questioning whether they’re doing the right thing until near the end.

The last aspect of the MMS and Western interventionist mindset Spec-Ops deconstructs is the firm belief in the inherent righteousness and innocence of military intervention. In both the soldiers involved are presumed to be inherently good and innocent people, and even if they do something horrible this is taken to be the exception, rather than the rule. Modern Warfare 2 dumps the player in an airport as an undercover US soldier taking part in a terrorist massacre, but the lack of buildup or foreknowledge on the player’s part distances them from it. For them the act is not premeditated and the game never confronts the player about it afterwards, so it can be easily dismissed as ‘it’s not my fault, the game made me do it’. At the end of Spec-Ops however the game takes the player to task for everything they’ve done, asking why they continued in their mission after each and every atrocity they committed made it clearer and clearer that their attempts to save everyone just racked up an increasingly absurd bodycount. It also initially presents both Walker and Konrad’s missions as inherently noble. The presence of American soldiers intervening in a foreign disaster at first appears to be a sign of hope, but in both cases it’s slowly revealed as a disastrous force.

Spec-Ops’ ultimate purpose is to deconstruct the blind, dogmatic belief of your own inherent righteousness and refusal to criticise your own ideals inherent in both in its genre and the Western interventionist mindset. Everyone who plays through it inevitably clings tighter and tighter as they go on to their own assurances that it will all be okay if they just keep going as a coping mechanism. Few people will ever take a step back to examine either the situation they’ve created or themselves, relentlessly narrowing their field of view until they don’t have to worry about it anymore. It’s not until the end when the game flat-out tells them that they realize the truth. That sometimes life is about realizing you’re not the hero.

 

References:

Bitter Lake (2015, dir. Adam Curtis)

America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism by Anatol Lieven

Ex Machina and the Art of Character Identification by Film Crit Hulk

  • Andrew Clark

    Love this piece. Now that I am finally getting next-gen games, this is on my to-do list.