Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Crazy Like Us: Spec Ops: The Line

Judging by its sales figures, not many people bought Spec Ops: The Line. Theyre missing out. Great story. Great characters. Great dialogue. Just as amazing are the little touches, from the way the games physical geography mirrors the characters psychological progression to the use of music. Each of those elements could be an essay in itself.

In Spec Ops: The Line the player fills the shoes of Walker, leader of a three-man military reconnaissance team into sandstorm-wracked Dubai. Shenanigans ensue, and what started as a observation mission turns first into a military action adventure filled with the usual jargon--Hostiles ahead. Lock and Load. Tango Down--before shifting into a mystery/conspiracy involving water, the CIA and left hands not knowing what the right is doing, before taking an unexpected turn to the left, leaping aboard the Nightmare Express into full-on horror.

There are moral choices in Spec Ops The Line. Sometimes you get to make those choices. Other times, the game chooses for you. And sometimessometimes there is no choice.

It isnt always easy to tell one from the other. There were several moments in my first playthrough I made decisions without even realizing I had other options.

The game picked up some criticism for this approach. Players complained the game forced them down a path and then punished them for taking it. I can see that point of view, especially since there are moments when the game actually berates the player, either through the voices of a character or as prompts on the load screen.

Feel like a hero yet? The game asks.

To which a perfectly justifiable reply would be, Dont get self-righteous, Game. I didnt create an experience where in order to progress past a certain point the player has to SPOILER, you did. Were in this together, you and I, so dont start taking a tone.

It was a noble experiment. If nothing else, its something different to read during the load screens. That Hold X while running to Shit. Hold R2 to go blind stuff gets old fast.

In any case, I enjoyed the games approach to morality. It feltit felt like real life.

InFamous is another game with a moral component, but it plays them out in a very different way. In InFamous, when the moment of truth arrives, the game halts, outlines your options, and lets you make your decision. It also lets you know through a handy meter, not only whether youre the good or the bad guy, but HOW good or how bad you are and alters your powers and your experience accordingly.

With InFamous, you always know where you stand.

This is not true of Spec Ops: The Line and its not true of life.

Each day, we make choices. A lot of them

Many times we stop, think, weigh the pros and cons, and make the best decision we can. Sometimes it takes only a few seconds. In other cases, it takes days, weeks, even years. In the end we might be happy with our course of action or we may be stuck choosing the least bad of a series of terrible options. But we made the call, and were willing to live with it.

Thats not so bad.

There are also times we have no choice. Oh sure, technically we might have options, but from a practical standpoint..? Yeah. No. Not if we want to keep our fucking job. Or see our kids again. Or be able to look at ourselves in the mirror. Sometimes it means swallowing our pride or doing something that keeps us awake at night years later. Other times its staying true to our values even when it lands us into a world of shit, shit that could have been avoided if we could just learn to play ball like everybody else.

Those ones tend to bug us. We can always say we didnt have a choice, but that theres always a choice voice still haunts us whether it comes from others or from inside us.

Then theres the one that does real damage. The worst part is, often we dont even notice it.

There are times we make a decision and dont even realize weve made it. We made an assumption. We werent paying attention. Or maybe we grew up in an environment that taught us a specific approach and its never occurred to us to question whether or not that approach might actually be contributing to the very problem we're trying to avoid.

Or perhaps we started with something small and were slowly drawn into deeper waters. We moved our boundaries, changed the limits of what we would and wouldnt accept, didnt notice the line until long after we crossed it. And now that weve seen it, that line seems so far behind us, it feels we've covered too much ground to ever make our way back.  Our only choice is to lock the guilt and horror in a strongbox deep inside ourselves and push on down the river into our own personal heart of darkness, tangoing down the spiral in desperate hope that the results will somehow justify what weve lost or that well somehow come safely out the other side.

They wont, and we wont.

But unlike the game, which can only play out one way, we always have opportunities to turn back. The sooner the better, of course. The closer you are to the line, the less distance back you have to travel--but you can always turn around.

And if you dont have the strength to turn around and start the journey back, you can at least stop where you are and keep yourself from going further away from where you want to be.

The problem with this third type of bad decision is that it can be very subtle. It can be as simple as a thought. Thought solidifies into belief. Belief crystallizes into action. Action ignites the flames of consequences.

Heres an example:

Im writing this in 2013, in the wake of the Aurora and Sandy Hook massacres. Two movies in the theatre right now are Django Unchained, a race revenge fantasy, and Zero Dark Thirty, which tells the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and includes graphic depictions of what some call enhanced interrogation techniques and others call out and out torture.

The conversation about violence is swirling around. We ask about its causes. We ask how to stop it. We argue over solutions--more guns? Less guns?--and we listen and commiserate with the stories of the victims. Some of us see this as a sign of worse things to come and a small portion of us are invested in believing it never happened at all, citing government conspiracies, finding it far easier to believe in a world where everything is orchestrated by some shadowy master plan than a world where children can be murdered for reasons that no one can understand or explain.

Well talk about anything to do with violence.with one exception.

We dont talk about perpetrators.

As of this writing, the closest weve come to a discussion on offenders has been vague talk about doing something about mental health issues. which sounds less like a commitment to research and treatment than a polite way of shrugging and saying. What can you do? Killers be crazy.

When you say doing something mental health issues are you talking about getting help for moms anxiety? Your co-workers depression? Charlie Sheen?

Of course not. Not them. Were not talking about those kind of mental health things. Were talking about, you know, CRAZY people. People who need real help.

By mental health issues were talking about people who might kill us. And by help we mean keep them the fuck away from us. Christ, Brodribb, does everything have to be spelled out?

What can you do?

Killers be Crazy.

 Its our shorthand for saying killers arent like us. Theyre different somehow. Alien. Forces of nature.

Except crazy didnt kill anybody. The second amendment lobbyists like to say that guns dont kill people. Well by that logic crazy doesnt kill people either.

People kill people. We want to convince ourselves it isnt true. We want to believe that killers are damaged or broken or less than human. They arent like us, we tell ourselves.

Which is an interesting rationalization. Because offenders often justify their treatment of victims by telling themselves the same thing.

They arent like us. Theyre half a world away. They arent like us. They dress differently. They arent like us. They dont believe in freedom. Or God. And we need to get them before they get us. But dont worry. In this situation killing is okay.

Because they arent like us.

And we arent like them.

Except that we are.

And by having the both the protagonists and enemies be U.S. soldiers, Spec Ops shows us that in no uncertain terms. Most video games dehumanize the enemy, either literally, by making them aliens, or hiding their humanity behind masks and uniforms and foreign languages. But in The Line, the men we are trying to kill are dressed like us. They speak like us. We see them trying to do good, and we see them in moments of quiet reflection. Long before the final scene, Spec Ops has us looking in the mirror.

I dont believe Spec Ops is saying we are all violent killers. Im not saying that anyone who has walked off the edge of a cliff or shot a non-combatant while playing videogames is a potential mass murderer. Most of us do it out of simple curiosity to see how the game responds when you push away from the boundaries.

But we do want to see the world as simply as most videogames portray it. There are villains and victims, martyrs, heroes, and featureless bystanders.

And that is a mistake, a choice we make without realizing. Reality isnt so simple.

Its simpler.

We are all human beings. We all have opportunities to be victims, villains, bystanders, or heroes in ways both big and small. Our choices make a difference. A big difference.

So let's try to be aware of when we're making them.

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