Do You Feel Like A Hero Yet? Psychology Takes On Spec Ops: The Line

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:

  1. Mindlessly taking the first small step.
  2. Dehumanization of others.
  3. De-individualization of self (anonymity).
  4. Diffusion of Personal Responsibility.
  5. Blind Obedience to Authority.
  6. Uncritical Conformity to Group Norms.
  7. 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.

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  • Jack_Green

    Really interesting article, I hope 2K did this on purpose to test us.

  • dmage

    Can we give the correct credit please? Yager is the studio that developed and constructed the brilliant single player experience, 2K is the douche publisher that forced the game to release with a completely shitty multiplayer developed by someone else.

  • Anthony Salvatore

    Article updated in response to dmage’s comment, thanks for pointing that out.

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