Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Walking the Line


Since its coming close to Christmas things have slowed down for me as the year is wrapped up. So I decided since I had a few hours spare I'd play Spec Ops: The Line, a game I'd heard a some very interesting things about. The next thing I know, I've finished the game, my body aches from lack of movement, its three in the morning and I have a bunch of unanswered messages that I promised I would get to in a minute.

I also went absolutely nuts with Steams screen shot feature as you'll see shortly. A few years ago like most teens was mad about first person shooters (FPS) and war games in general. Well I've kind of grown weary of the genre, I wasn't sure why at first, the simplistic flag waving patriotism and the obligatory D-Day landing levels were annoying but they've always been there. In fact the games I found least appealing where the "Modern Warfare" set games with their promises of "Ultra realism". I've finally figured it out playing Far Cry 2 and Spec Ops helpfully confirmed my suspicions. Its a conflict with setting and tone. In most modern FPS especially the ones whom market and style themselves as stone faced  and gritty, you're usually a member of that nations (usually western, and usually America) special forces, Delta Squad, SAS, or something along those lines. This is clever from a design point of view as it justifies some outlandish missions, the squad vs an entire army conflict and how and why your getting every fancy piece of hardware your nations defence budget can afford to cook up.

But there's a inherent drawback to this approach too, it means the threat psychologically speaking anyway is lessened by your opponents. You're the hero, in these games, the one guy (well your squad mates help) whom defeats the bad guys, and saves America, problem is there aren't many credible threats to the West nowadays. The Taliban simply isn't in the same league as the Wehrmacht or Red army. Which in the 90's wouldn't be a problem just have a war between fictional nations, or have Albert Einstein travel to the past to kill Hitler before he rose to power and thus allow Stalin's military build up to take on Europe. But both those tricks are to silly for this generation of "combat realism" shooters. So it looks like were stuck with macho super soldiers gunning down wave after wave of peasants whom we outclass in every way imaginable. Or ridiculous beware the Russian Bear scenario's where Russia despite decades of decline somehow manages to take on its Cold War nemesis.

 In Modern Warfare 2 for example you have both until the Russian's invade you spend your early levels taking on third world rabble. In one level your fighting a Brazilian gang in a favela, Kevlar and precision assault rifles against football shirts and AK's. Oh and you have loads of ammo to carry out your demographic reforms. Then the Russians somehow get across the Atlantic (yes I know they use that Satellite's codes to trick the yanks radar that isn't the only problem here) even though there fleet isn't up to it and the only way to get to America would be noticed by Europe, and you finally get to go toe to toe with a foe that looks to be close (but not quite) to your level of capabilities.




The good guys


Brazilian                                Russians


Spec Ops doesn't have that problem, ok you are still a Delta team (the name of the series is Special Forces after all) but here it makes sense, your orders are to Scout out the area and try to make contact with friendly forces. Your ammunition is limited because you can't carry that much which makes scavenging clips and guns essential, and a lot of the enemies you face are rogue US Soldiers. It also explains why they've gone rogue in a way that seems plausible if not realistic. So Spec Ops fixes some prominent flaws right from the off. Also instead of saving the world, your supposed to meet the guys who are saving Dubai. A bit of background the United Arab Emirates, experiences a lengthy period of sandstorms (lasting over six months) which effectively cut off Dubai, Colonel Konrad Commanding officer of the "Dammed" 33rd the most highly decorated Division to operate in Afghanistan defies orders to leave the city in order to help the civilian population evacuate. That was six months ago, the storms cut the city off soon after. No contact has been received since that time, until recently when Konrad broadcasts a grim request for support.

That's why you (Captain Walker) are sent in, to find the 33rd and some information regarding the situation. However its not long before things go awry. You meet a strange band of "insurgents" whom are instantly suspicious and hostile of you and your American accents and army fatigues. It's not long after, that the team finds evidence of the 33rd going off the rails, and the CIA seems to be involved in some way. Thematically Spec Ops is very similar to Heart of Darkness (Colonel Konrad is named after its author) and like most works inspired by that Novella it is also quite reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, at one point early in the game your chased by a helicopter whilst music blares from a sound system.



The ruins of Dubai
It also looks beautiful in that strange dystopian way. Dubai after months of unrelenting sandstorms has been covered in sand dunes. Most of the early levels involve fire fights on top of the cities many glittering skyscrapers, though often it appears to be round level given how many levels have been buried. The interiors are also pretty unique, in a genre now dominated by grey concrete walls for military bunkers or ruined Western landmarks looting ammunition in between fire fights in an abandoned carcass of Dubai's decadence is really intriquing and adds to the sense that something significant has been lost here.


The game does something most games fail to even try, the contrast. Living in the ruins of these golden palaces and dried up swimming pools and artificially grassed Tennis courts are the thousands of poor citizens left behind by the rich and powerful surrounded by the discarded jewels and expensive electronics which have now become completely worthless. In some optional dialogue (the game does that telling back story through collectibles gimmick, only here its designed like an investigation with Captain Walker using the collectibles as clues)  its revealed that the UAE government had delayed reporting of the Sand storms and there severity for several days whilst they evacuated the government and wealthy citizenry. They also refused aid until the last minute in an effort to cover up the affluent exodus.


This abandonment by their leaders is what spurs Colonel Konrad to disobey orders and stay behind to try and organise a full evacuation. Unfortunately as the civil war and the proliferation of bodies hanging from lamp posts attests it seems things quickly got out of hand. Oh and its made abundantly clear that the failure of the war in Afghanistan in which Konrad was the most praised and distinguished commander in that theatre has left him with some serious self worth issues. Not exactly your standard bad guy, even though he certainly acts like one.


Another era that sets Spec Ops apart from all the other kill the foreigner shooters out there is you character. In most shooters you and your squad are tough warriors from a forgotten age clad in Kevlar. One of the team will be Stoic the other Flippant, with you if your character gets any dialogue being on the middle ground. Spec Ops starts out this way, one of the guys Lugo makes jokes while Adams keeps insisting on completing the mission, with Walker doing a balancing act between the two. That's how it starts, but it certainly isn't how it ends. The things they see shake them up, the atrocities that were committed sicken these men, the fact they have to fire on fellow servicemen is a sore point for them from the beginning to the very end, and a couple of accidents along the way almost break up the squad. They start the game as sort of friends with a clear mutual respect, by the end they're clearly unstable and on the verge of turning on each other.

You really don't want to see what he's staring at
The game also tackles something that's never touched upon in war games and even very rarely discussed in military fiction in general. Playing this game involves a very graphic illustration of some of the destructive effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD or shell shock is perhaps the dirty little secret of soldiering that polictical leaders and Generals would like to surpress the most. Since 1918 the idea that War is great and glorious has been thoroughly discredited and most of the really awful things that happen during war time, (civilian deaths, torture, rape, use of incendiaries and chemical weapons) have been exposed and condemned but the Defence departments and Arms company PR teams have done a very good job at if not justifying those acts then at least "contextualising" them in a way that diminishes the horror they elicit. Civilian deaths? Well that's either an unfortunate accident (Collateral damage) or a rare and tragic collapse of discipline and an isolated incident (when a unit destroys settlements or guns down obvious non-combatants). Chemical weapons are a sad but necessary addition to overall arsenal to keep the nation safe from more untrustworthy regimes whom don't hold human life to be quite as valuable as we do.

PTSD on the other hand is different, it can strike anyone involved in a conflict even if physically speaking they and their entire unit came out of the conflict unscathed. And despite a lot of time and money being put into psychiatric evaluations to date there is no reliable way to identify vulnerable individuals and take proactive steps to prevent a case developing. A soldier or Officer may be judged to be sound in mind and body prior to deployment but a few tours of action could easily change that.

 Regardless of which war or conflict you look at, high rates of PTSD in veterans have been found. Throughout history, people have recognized that exposure to combat situations can negatively impact the mental health of those involved in these situations. In fact, the diagnosis of PTSD historically originates from observations of the effect of combat on soldiers. The grouping of symptoms that we now refer to as PTSD has been described in the past as "combat fatigue," "shell shock," or "war neurosis."

The simple fact is killing isn't nice (obviously) and combat adrenaline only gets you so far, its the lack of interest in showing this part of a soldiers life that I think video games are most guilty of being negligent. Time and again playing anything with "War" in the title has you clocking up a kill tally in the hundreds with your character and his squad mates and allies suffering no psychological consequences. Now fortunately not every soldier does succumb to PTSD and amongst veterans whom were experiencing some issues there are coping strategies, but its total absence in modern video games just shows up how empty the marketing departments promises of "realism" is. Off the top of my head the only other games I can think of that deal with this side of conflict were Far Cry 2 where your character and his friends are all callous mercenaries whom live moving from one war zone to the next with no ties or friends outside a few "colleagues" and the Jackal the villain (on the surface anyway) is clearly working through some issues if his speeches and audio diaries are anything to go by. And Iji a fun independent game about a young girl turned cyborg whom fights an alien invasion. You see you can play the game without killing an enemy (turrets don't count) doing this makes the game easier and gives you a more positive ending. Killing everything in sight however makes it much harder and contributes to Iji's mental instability making her more crazy and miserable.

I'm serious this game is more intelligent then MW
So, in conclusion Spec Ops: the Line is a refreshing if extremely brutal addition to the FPS genre and a glowing example of how a game can be used to explore complex issues whilst still being an enjoyable why to spend a few hours.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Search This Blog

 
#blog-pager { display: block !important; float: none!important; } .blog-pager-older-link, .home-link, .blog-pager-newer-link { background-color: #FFFFFF!important; }