Editor’s Note: If you don’t want to read an article that spoils the story of Spec Ops: The Line, don’t read this.
Editor’s Note: Updated on 11/15/12 to properly credit Yager Development with the creation of Spec Ops: The Line.
Most games utilize loading screens for one or two things. Sometimes developers use them to teach or remind you of techniques you’ve already learned. Other times they offer inspired quotes or additional story information. Spec Ops: The Line, in contrast, uses loading screens to fuck with your head. You see, this game is a mind fuck through and through. What starts off as a simple third person shooter quickly devolves into a descent into madness and morally reprehensible acts. And when you die, or load up your last save slot, the game offers you a tidbit on how to play here and there but also, every once and a while, it chides you for your actions. For example, a few moments after my character had made a major mistake that I was feeling rather shitty about, the game seemed to sense my guilt and asked me at the next loading screen “Do you feel like a hero yet?” And that effectively is what Spec Ops: The Line is all about: fucking with your expectations.
Fuck with me it did. From the opening scene that starts in medias res to the closing movements of self-actualization, Spec Ops twists the standard military shooter on its head and offers both commentary and insight into gaming, morality, and the role the player has in choosing to commit evil acts. Instead of giant set pieces with explosions where AC-130s provide support or nuclear bombs going off as viewed from space, you are surrounded by insurgents while trying to survive a post-apocalyptic Dubai, an environment that is equally unfriendly to both life and morality. You’re never told explicitly why these people are so distrustful of outsiders and foreign soldiers, but you feel their desperate nature as they frantically attack your three-man squad.
An early action sequence is particularly telling in that you try to reason with the insurgents but all the while look for a way to gain the upper hand. No diplomacy, no real attempt at communication, just shoot first and ask questions later. These acts demonstrate the bias your character already has before firing one bullet in-game– he’s a tactician and a soldier with no life outside war. War–as we’ve been told–war never changes. So, after firing that first bullet, and burying your first group of insurgents in the mountains of sand, Spec Ops quickly spirals out of control.
The protagonist of Spec Ops is Captain Walker an American soldier searching for missing military hero Col. John Konrad, who he previously served with in Kabal. Over the course of the game, Walrker progresses from shooting insurgents to killing other U.S. soldiers–specifically, members of the “Damned 33rd,” a name that seems to imply Walker’s fate as he continues to mow them down in search of General Konrad. How do you rationalize your actions? They fired first. Walker’s dark descent continues thereafter with the game fighting you at every turn. Sometimes, the controls work efficiently, but not always; often it feels like there’s a ghost in the machine, some subtle pushback that makes Walker not quite slide into that piece of cover when you really need it, a seemingly full clip going empty at the wrong moment, an enemy soldier dropping a low powered Uzi when you swore you saw him using an assault rifle that you desperately need to take down a “heavy” soldier. All of these little twists affect the experience and alter your perspective in the game. I have to question whether Yager Development did this intentionally as a means of trying to goad you into giving up by unfairly changing the rules of (virtual) engagement, much like Walker’s psyche deteriorates as he continues to commit heinous act after heinous act and suffers from the psychological fallout of his decisions. Yager Development have effectively channeled the Psychology of Evil.
The Psychology of Evil, also known as the Lucifer Effect, is a term coined by Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo. Zimbardo examined the question of what makes people evil and ultimately defined evil as “the exercise of power to intentionally harm people psychologically, physically, and/or to destroy or commit crimes against humanity.” By virtue of this propensity, humans have the “infinite capacity to behave kind or cruel, caring or indifferent, creative or destructive, villains or heroes.” According to Zimbardo, there are seven specific social processes that grease the slippery slope of evil:
- Mindlessly taking the first small step.
- Dehumanization of others.
- De-individualization of self (anonymity).
- Diffusion of Personal Responsibility.
- Blind Obedience to Authority.
- Uncritical Conformity to Group Norms.
- Passive Tolerance of Evil Through Inaction or indifference.
These processes are particularly forceful when people are placed in new situations becaue their moral compasses are no longer calibrated to familiar stimuli. During the course of Spec Ops, Walker, his squad, and the player experience most of these social processes, ultimately destroying anything in their environment–as well as their souls. Let’s examine each step.
Mindlessly taking the first step
Walker and his squad are ordered to survey the area, find out if there are survivors, and then report in and wait for the cavalry. Instead, Walker disobeys these orders after his first encounter with insurgents. His simple act of disobedience results in the first step down the road to evil.
Dehumanization of Others
As the game progresses, Walker losses his calm demeanor and begins to shout obscenities as he kills “rogue” American soldiers. His melee attacks grow more violent and the “executions” are more graphic. He’s not fighting an enemy anymore; he’s fighting an idea, the idea that he’s done a terrible thing and he needs to find Konrad to make him pay, regardless of the cost to himself or his men. The soldiers he encounters are obstacles, no different than computer code in a video game.
De-Individualization of Self
In the second part of the game, Walker doesn’t even recognize himself anymore–and neither does the player. Half of his face has been burned, his eyes are bloodshot and covered in soot, and his men are questioning his actions at every turn. The player feels equally alienated from their digital avatar. He isn’t a man anymore; he’s a machine on a mission, a mission to find Konrad and make him pay, and nothing else drives him.
Diffusion of Personal Responsibility
This is the big one. Mid-way through the game, you’re required to make a choice: you can either advance in the game by bombing an American forward operating base with white phosphorus, or you can turn off the console. Once you let it rip, you later discover amongst the chaos, death, and mutilation that your actions resulted in the killing of civilians and innocent men trying to protect those civilians. Walker and the player discover the burned remains of a woman and child along with other innocents all while your men scream in terror “Look what he made us do–he’s turned us into fucking killers!” As Walker takes in the scene he calmly turns around and says “We have to move, there could be reinforcements,” all while swearing to make Konrad pay for what he made him do.
Blind Obediance to Authority
Walker is blindly following the idea that Konrad made him commit horrible acts of war. His men follow suit because they need to believe that they’ve done these horrible acts for a reason, all in direct contradiction to the idea that Walker is actually disobeying his original orders.
Passive Tolerance of Evil Through Inaction or indifference
Ultimately, Walker is an avatar controlled by the player; the player has a choice to turn off the console at any given time. By not doing so, we are demonstrating our own inaction and indifference to the choices that Spec Ops presents to us. Yager Development has said that one way to complete the game is to simply turn off the console at the white phosphorus level. The fact that most players (myself included) continue on demonstrates our (my) indifference to the acts of evil we (I) commit in the virtual arena.
Proof of this can be found by reference to my girlfriend’s reaction to the white phosphorus scene. She is not a gamer, but she’s heard of Call of Duty and knows that the series consists of very popular games dealing with World War III scenarios. When she saw the white phosphorus scene and watched Walker calmly brush off responsibility, she told me to turn off the game when she was around because she didn’t want to witness something so horrible, despite its digital origin.
In contrast, I’ve been conditioned to some extent to make these types of choices in shooting games before, and while I found the scenario reprehensible I still continued on and fought to complete Spec Ops, all while the game said “How many Americans have you killed today? Do you feel like a hero yet? This is all your fault. Don’t worry, you’re still a good person.” Upon completing Spec Ops, and choosing to end Walker’s life, I’d like to think that I am, but lingering doubt haunts my mind–and I’ve decided not to pick up Black Ops 2 as a result.