Spec Ops: The Line has ruined gaming for me. I recently completed Far Cry 3, and while it was very good, I ended up disappointed. Not because the gameplay was bad or because the story was sub-par–both were fine and handled effectively–but because I expected a more mature narrative from Far Cry 3 and all I got was something relatively common. I call this problem the Curse of Spec Ops.
Let’s backtrack a little. Far Cry 3 is an excellent game that demonstrates how to reinvigorate FPS mechanics. Instead of starting with dozens of abilities based on established FPS gameplay tropes, your character, Jason Brody, has to learn these skills by earning experience points and leveling up. It’s a rather unique, and frankly, addictive gameplay mechanic. Instead of having these abilities out of the gate you need to choose between learning how to “cook” grenades or performing stealth attacks from above or below. This results in an unusually underpowered hero that can only fire guns and hold a limited amount of items. As you continue on and Jason grows more confident and skilled in the art of killing,more expansive gameplay mechanics become available. This reward system encourages exploration and strategy for the sake of earning experience points. You’ll have to choose whether additional health slots or linking stealth kills together is more useful to your style of play. Running parallel to your exploration and expansion of abilities is the story of Far Cry 3, a story that held promise most of the way through but failed to capitalize on the themes it presented–a story that works in isolation but not when compared to Spec Ops.
The story of Far Cry 3 is basically this (spoilers): boy comes from the USA, parties with friends and family, gets kidnapped and watches a sibling die, then becomes ultimate bad ass savior of the native inhabitants at the cost of either his own humanity or his life. The specifics are actually much more interesting, but we don’t need to dwell on them; instead, let’s analyze what Ubisoft Montreal was trying to accomplish.
In sum and substance, Ubisoft Montreal was trying to create a game that held a mirror up to the player, a game where you progress from a mild-mannered mid twenty-something youth to a borderline psychopath who makes terrible and ineffectual choices. By doing so, Ubisoft Montreal was attempting to make the player question why they are doing the things they are doing but without actually giving the player the choice of stopping or even stepping back from the precipice (absent turning off the game). In Far Cry 3, we are given an all-or-nothing scenario.
Now, some might argue that the speed at which the player completes the game and earns additional abilities is itself a choice. After all, aren’t those of us that choose to only play the main quest opting not to expand Jason’s savage nature? The answer is yes, but these choices are meaningless in the context of the broader narrative. Jason still must kill Vaas through a series of quicktime events and he must also torture his younger brother–there is no getting around these scripted sequences. Bookending these scenes are Lewis Carroll quotes describing a descent into madness. When I reached each of these situations, I initially did nothing. I refused for five minutes to press X to murder Vaas. I waited for 10 minutes before hitting the right trigger to punch Riley. Far Cry 3 didn’t give me a choice, absent turning the console off. Vaas’s cruel. coded fate was pre-determined if I wanted to complete Jason’s journey.
And complete it I did. Twice. The first time I chose to save my friends and I left Rook Island a broken man, a man who babbles through unstable lips about his strength to overcome what he has done, a man who lacks humanity but lies to himself anyway. The second time, I slit my girlfriend’s throat and joined the native populace. Jason then had sex with Citra, leader of the native inhabitants, and was promptly penetrated by a ceremonial knife so his future son could lead Citra’s people in the years to come. Violence begot more violence. Death brought death. Either way, Jason’s descent into madness wasn’t really my choice; it was the game designers’ and it was ineffective, at least compared to Spec Ops.
Everything Far Cry 3 makes you do is purposely over the top. In contrast, Spec Ops relies on smoke and mirrors. You never know why you are doing things in Spec Ops, and that makes for a much more effective narrative. Could you have refused Konrad’s twisted moral choices at various points in the game? Yes, there were always at least three ways to complete different set pieces in Spec Ops. During the hanging scene you could shoot the ropes to free the “prisoners,” or you could shoot the snipers, or you could shoot either of the prisoners. Each of these choices is realistic and feels unscripted. You were given both obvious choices and non-obvious choices. Consequently, the mirror that Spec Ops puts in front of the player is clean and polished while the mirror Far Cry 3 presents is opaque.
I’m not bringing this up to put Far Cry 3 down, I’m bringing this up to demonstrate a fundamental problem in games that offer a binary moral choice system. Without the ability to choose from numerous courses of actions that system of choice will always be superficial. Even games like The Walking Dead, a game which I love and have said to be my favorite game of the 2012, ultimately succumbs to this paradigm. Yes, you can choose from at least four choices, but those choices are mostly false positives that hold no lasting effective on the narrative.
The issue at hand is how to approach gameplay from a narrative standpoint. The Far Cries of the world present very scripted experiences that are enjoyable but superficial, even when they’re attempting to be something deeper. In contrast, the Walking Deads of the world present immersive experiences that trick you into thinking your choices mean more than they do (perhaps the developers were exploring a deeper philosophical question about fate versus free will). Neither of these game types are taking advantage of the unique position that video games put the player in, namely, one that combines interactive narratives with a seamless transition to gameplay. That’s where Spec Ops comes in. Nothing about the choices that Spec Ops presents you with are obvious. You can try different paths and actions, and while you will necessarily reach a pre-determined end to the narrative, you aren’t being forced to go there through a series of binary or illusory choices (with the exception of the white phosphorus scene). This is the Curse of Spec Ops. Until another game is developed that challenges how we approach choice in a similar way all gaming narratives will appear rudimentary and unfulfilling by comparison. Frankly, I’m looking forward to this curse being broken.