Today Brendan Keogh releases his book Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line. Killing is Harmless is one of the first books of its kind, a 50,000 word look at a video game — why is it important, why is it significant? Brendan describes the book as a critical walkthrough, and was very keen to share part of his work with the Kotaku community. You can read the foreword to Killing is Harmless below, which attempts to explain why Brendan decided to go ahead with this undertaking. It's an incredible effort, and I thoroughly recommend picking up the full book, which you can buy here for $2.99.
“The second wave of Western filmmakers (Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood) turned our deep familiarity with the genre in on itself, addressing existential questions and examining the nature of violence. These films were radical departures from the Hollywood formula, not because they rejected the familiar settings or the guns or the hero/villain dichotomy, but because they made these the very subjects of their scrutiny.” —Michael Abbott, The Brainy Gamer.
“We shouldn’t be afraid to question our own medium. It is ours to do with as we see fit. There is no problem in questioning what is your own and asking what it is that you want to do with it, and are we necessarily doing the right thing with it? I mean, that’s the other great thing about mediums, is that there is no right thing.” —Walt Williams, lead writer for Spec Ops: The Line.
In his article “High Noon For Shooters,” videogame critic Michael Abbott notes that as the Western film genre matured, it turned its gaze inwards onto the Western genre itself to ask questions about the ways it depicted violence. This second wave of Western filmmakers were not necessarily trying to determine if what Western films did was ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but they simply wanted to create films that poked at the genre, interrogated it, unsettled it.
Abbott’s point is that the bulging bubble that is videogame’s shooter genre is heading towards a similar introspective turn. Only so many games can be absolutely uncritical and unthinking in their violence before players start to think more critically about what these games are asking of them and developers start to question just what they are creating. After so many years of shooters that don’t think twice about the excessive violences they ask their players to participate in, the shooter genre is set for a ‘second wave’ of games that, much like the Western film genre, turn the gaze back onto themselves. These shooters won’t necessarily be trying to determine if shooters are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but will simply want to create shooters that poke at the genre, interrogate it, unsettle it.
Of course, critics have been critiquing shooters for years. Even those of us that sincerely enjoy shooters can’t shake the feeling that there is something fundamentally unsettling about them. Even though most of the articles I write about shooters are praising positive things about them, I always feel obliged to add caveats. The Modern Warfare trilogy is an absolutely magnificent example of how to tell a scripted story in a videogame—even if that story makes absolutely no sense and the trilogy completely alienates and vilifies the stereotypical Russian and Arabic enemies in really problematic ways. The Gears of War games are a terrific example of how to convey a game’s tone through its core mechanics, with its seminal cover system evoking the intensity and claustrophobia of an utterly futile war—even as the games laughably ask us to weep for a character’s dead wife moments after he trash-talked an enemy while stomping on his brains. Far Cry 2’s open vistas and persistently uncontrollable skirmishes give an intensity to its violence matched by few games—even as it chooses to depict a nation without civilians, a conflict without collateral.
There’s no shortage of shooters that want to be about something. But very few shooters are brave enough to look in the mirror—or to force the player that enjoys shooters to look in the mirror—and question what they see. Not to pass judgment. Not to ask them to change their ways. Just to understand what is going on here. To appropriate Abbott’s post, it is high noon for shooters to take a long, hard look at themselves.
Clearly, Abbott is onto something with his prediction. Not two months after he wrote his article, Yager and 2K released Spec Ops: The Line and made me question everything I’ve ever thought about shooters.
SPEC OPS: THE LINE
The Line is a shooter about shooters. It makes some interesting commentaries on modern warfare and Western interventionism to be sure, but what I got out of it most were questions about the shooter genre itself — the questions that other shooters either willfully ignore or simply don’t think to ask. Is it really okay to be shooting this many people? Does it actually matter that they aren’t real? What does it say about us, the people who play shooter after shooter, the people who have a virtual murder count in the thousands of thousands, that these are the games we enjoy playing? What does it say about us, as a culture, that these are the kinds of games that make so much money?
The Line isn’t interested in answering these questions; it is interesting in asking them. Or, rather, it is interesting in having its players ask themselves these questions. Just like the many times that Walker is forced to look at his reflection throughout the game, The Line forces the player to look at their own reflection in the television set. It turns its focus outwards to not ask questions about shooters as they are designed but as they are consumed.
In The Line, the city of Dubai has been destroyed by the worst sandstorms ever seen by humankind. Before the storms intensified, US Army Colonel John Konrad volunteered his entire battalion—the 33rd—to aid in the evacuation of Dubai’s citizens. When ordered to leave the city as the storms intensified, Konrad disobeyed and stayed in Dubai. His men followed him, and the entire 33rd effectively defected from the US Army to assist the people of Dubai.
Presumed dead after no contact is made for six months, a distress signal from Konrad is intercepted, and a squad is sent in to Dubai’s ruins to look for survivors. This squad is Delta Squad, lead by the playable character, Captain Martin Walker, and also consisting of Lieutenant Adams and Sergeant Lugo.
As Delta venture deeper and deeper into Dubai, they make difficult decisions that they then have to live with. These decisions change them. They force the three men to look at their own actions in a new light and to question everything their own identities are based on.
As the game progresses, Walker loses track of Delta’s original orders to just make contact with survivors, instead becoming obsessed with finding Konrad. What follows over the course of the game is a slow and uncertain descent into madness—or, at least, that is how most want to categorise it. For me, I don’t think ‘madness’ is the right word. What follows, for me, is a slow and uncertain descent into darkness. As Captain Walker leads his men into Dubai and struggles to deal with the violence he is ‘forced’ to commit, he doesn’t so much go mad as come to terms with who (and what) he truly is. Reality itself begins to unravel as the game progresses, and the game ultimately refuses to offer the player any clear answers as to what is ‘real’ and what is imagined by Walker. As I said above, The Line isn’t interested in finding answers. Only in asking questions.
Much has been made by both critics and the developers themselves to The Line’s allusions to the film Apocalypse Now and the book Heart of Darkness. Colonel John Konrad is a clear hybrid of Heart of Darkness’s author Joseph Conrad and the character Kurtz. The fact he is a colonel also makes a nod to Colonel Walter Kurtz (the renegade figure of Apocalypse Now who is himself obviously inspired by the Kurtz character of Conrad’s novel). It is misguided to say that The Line is ‘based on’ these previous works, but the questions it demands of its players are indeed influenced heavily by the questions Apocalypse Now asks its viewers and Heart of Darkness asks its readers. Like both of these, The Line is not looking for easy answers but wants to expose complex dualities.
Critic Tom Bissell, in his fabulous Grantland essay, notes that The Line is about Nathan Drake going insane. By this, Bissell is alluding to the voice actor that Uncharted’s Nathan Drake, The Line’s Captain Walker, and countless other videogame characters share in Nolan North. Bissell is suggesting that The Line is about watching the playable everyman character go insane. I would alter this slightly, however: The Line isn’t about Nathan Drake going insane; it is about how Nathan Drake was always insane to begin with.
By contrast, Walker may be the sanest character we have ever occupied in a shooter. The violence he causes actually affects him. He spends the entire game in denial, to be sure, but the acts themselves get beneath his skin and his consciousness to affect him on a fundamental level. What makes The Line so fascinatingly unique is the slow, gradual development of its characters. As Walker is forced to commit increasingly terrible acts, who he is changes. What he looks like changes. What he sounds like changes. Perhaps what is most disturbing about Walker is that the more damaged he becomes, the more like a normal playable character he appears. If Walker goes insane over the course of The Line, Nathan Drake and the many other playable characters that came before must have been insane long before we joined with them.
This is, for me, how The Line delivers its critique of shooters. We often joke that Nathan Drake, Niko Bellic, Marcus Fenix, Sam Fisher must be sociopaths to do what they do in their respective games. The Line suggests our characters are sociopaths because of what they do in their games, and then it draws attention to just who it is that is making these sociopaths do these things that they do: the player. Suddenly joking about sociopathic characters isn’t so funny when we are indicted along with them.
Towards the end of this project, in the conclusion, I call The Line a “post-Bioshock” game. I typed that weird, pseudo-academic, and somewhat pretentious neologism and then just stopped and looked at it, trying to figure out what I meant by it. Bioshock, through its “would you kindly” reveal, made a statement about videogame play. It noted how, as a player, I have never made a choice in a videogame. It noted that every time I thought I was making a choice of my own free will, I was, in fact, just doing what the game permitted me to do. This is as true for Sim City and Minecraft as it is for Final Fantasy VII and Dear Esther.
Post Bioshock, then, I think there has been an absolving of the player’s responsibility in gameplay alongside, paradoxically, a determination to hang on to the player’s agency. That is, players still demand the ability to make ‘choices’ but refuse to accept responsibility for those choices. We are happy to assume that the responsibility for what happens in a game lies with the developer—it is Naughty Dog’s fault that Nathan Drake is a sociopathic killer, not mine. I was just playing the game. I can’t be held responsible for my actions. I had no choice.
The Line, I think, reacts against this. It agrees with Bioshock that the player, for as long as they choose to play the game, doesn’t really make any choices that the game has not already made for them. However, unlike Bioshock, it insists the player is still responsible for these actions because of the one choice the player did make: to play the game in the first place. If we laugh at the way Nathan Drake is a sociopathic killer, what does it say about us that we are still happy to share his company for three games and dozens of hours?
Critics Matthew Burns and Sparky Clarkson have written excellent essays that, on the contrary, don’t see The Line exposing the player’s responsibility so much as retreating from the developer’s responsibility. These are perhaps fair criticisms, and I think developers and publishers are, without a doubt, responsible for the kind of games that get produced. Yet, I don’t think that negates what The Line says so powerfully: we as players are responsible for what we play.
There is a loading screen tip towards the end of the game, when Walker’s cognitive dissonance is nearing its most extreme: “To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.”
To kill for entertainment is harmless.
These loading screen messages, as we will see later on, are kind of Walker’s subconscious. Some of them question his actions. Others, like this one, seem to cement Walker’s denial of what his actions are doing. It is what he tells himself in order to justify what he does. So often we justify playing shooters with “It’s not real” or “It’s just a bit of fun”. Or, for me as a critic, I justify my interest in them as “Well, I know they are problematic, but I still enjoy them. I would rather understand that enjoyment that dismiss them outright.”
The real trick of this loading screen message is that it doesn’t specify ‘virtual killing’ as harmless, but “killing for entertainment” as harmless. It is still labeled as killing. The statement seems to imply that when we play shooters, we are, on some kind of metaphysical level, still killing. At first this seems ridiculous. Of course we aren’t ‘actually’ killing when we kill in a videogame. But after playing The Line, I‘m no longer sure the answer is that simple. On some level of my brain, when I choose to pull my controller’s right trigger while the crosshair is aimed at a group of polygons made to look like a man, am I not choosing to kill someone?
This is the beauty (the ugly, ugly beauty) of The Line. It doesn’t pass a value judgment on shooters. It doesn’t just try to tell us that shooters are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Such a message would be hypocritical as, by all accounts, The Line is a shooter. It does not attempt to offer an alternative to the shooter, nor does it suggest that we even need an alternative. Instead, The Line shows that neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ are adequate labels for the complex, contradictory position in culture that the modern shooter holds. Instead it ask us to simply think about shooters with a bit more nuance, about what it is we are actually doing in these games, about what is going on in our minds while we play them, and why we are playing them in the first place. That’s all. Just think. The Line isn’t interested in offering answers, only questions.
A METHODOLOGY, OF SORTS.
So what is this ridiculously long thing that you have just started reading? As a freelance critic, The Line is, at first glance, exactly the game I rely on to make my pitches to editors: it is a game about something. It should have been easy for me to take a part of it and write a thousand words or two about what it ‘means’.
But almost immediately I came across a problem: I want to say more about The Line than I could fit into one or even several essays. When I tried to write shorter pieces about The Line, I realised it was practically impossible to take any one segment or scene of the game and write about it in a vacuum, separate from the rest of the game. Because of how the game works with the way its characters and themes slowly evolve over the course of the entire game, no one chunk of the game can accurately depict what the game is about. Instead, the entire arc, from start to finish, has to be examined.
I don’t just want to talk about broad themes. I don’t just want to try to answer the questions the game forced me to ask myself. Instead, I want to understand how the game was able to make me ask these questions in the first place. To do this I need to talk about specific moments that can’t be easily separated from the context of all the other moments around them. So many themes emerge gradually over the course of the game (such as the progression/regression of the characters) that a critical reading of the game in its entirety is the only way I can think to truly critically appreciate The Line.
So that is what this is an attempt to do. Across the following chapters I will perform a “close, critical reading” of The Line. Over the following chapters I will talk through an entire playing of the game, from the moment I click on ‘New Game’ to the end of the epilogue. I will point out scenes, objects, sounds, and dialogue snippets, and I will discuss how I interpreted all of these. I will build up from these moments to see just how The Line asked the questions it asked. Or, more accurately, how it managed to motivate me into asking the questions I asked myself.
Ultimately, this is an act of interpretation. Like any reading of any text, it is necessarily a selective reading. The meanings I get out of it are unlikely to be precisely the same as those that you get out of it, or precisely the same as those that the developers intended to put into it. I’m not trying to claim that I know, objectively, exactly what The Line is ‘about’. I am simply trying to understand my own experience with this game.
It’s my hope that those readers who got something out of the game but can’t quite describe what that something is will read this and find the words they need. I also hope that those readers who played the game and found it to be no more interesting than any other shooter can read this and see what others took away from the game. And, finally, I hope people who never plan to play the game themselves will be able to read this and get an idea of what the game is doing.
That said, it isn’t my intention to spend 50,000 words trying to convince you that The Line is a great game. I think it is a significant game, and that is why I am writing this. However, I will try my best to acknowledge other people’s criticisms and perspective. Similarly, it is also worth noting that many people will play the game as a generic third-person shooter and take away little more than that. I returned multiple times to a YouTube video series that plays through the entire game to check my references. The player that produced these videos spent much of the time trash-talking the NPCs and reveling in the violence with hardly a moment’s reflection. As he gunned down civilians towards the end of the game he shouted, “Die you faggots!” over his mic.
But I don’t think that other players getting nothing positive (or nothing at all) out of The Line negates the richly meaningful experience that many others and myself have taken away from this game. So what follows is not a defense of The Line nor is it a praise of The Line. It is simply a reading. It is an attempt to pick apart this game from start to end to try to understand just how I was so powerfully affected by it. For me, The Line made me question just what my responsibility is as a player of military shooters, and the following chapters are an exploration of how it made me ask those questions.
So as Walker leads Lugo and Adams in Konrad’s footsteps into the unknowns of post-storm Dubai, so I’m leading you, my reader, into the unknowns of a kind of videogame criticism I have never attempted before. I learned as much about my experiences with this game in writing the words on the following pages as I did in the three plays of the game that preceded it. I hope that you, too, will find something that may enlighten your own experiences of the game. So let’s enter the storm and see what we learn about shooters, and what we learn about ourselves.
Welcome to Dubai.
You can buy the full version of Killing Is Harmless here. Thanks To Brendan for allowing us to republish this section.