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  • Jackson LeJeune

The Inherent Politics of Military Shooters: A Look at Spec Ops: The Line

An analysis by Jack LeJeune

 

            Despite what people think, or what some developers may claim, all video games are political. (This is true for all media and art, but we’ll stick to games.) Some of them aren’t particularly subtle, like Disco Elysium, a game with a built-in political alignment tracker and one that was developed by people who thanked Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their acceptance speech at the Game Awards. Most others are more subtle, but the politics exist nonetheless. Where, might you ask? In their creators, and those creators’ political backgrounds and beliefs. Take Stardew Valley, for example. A game about farming, small-town living, and supporting local businesses. The game starts with your character inheriting a plot of land from their grandfather and turning a grown-over patch of dirt into a booming agribusiness while kicking out the local Walmart analogue, in favor of a fellow small business owner. This may seem non-political to my American readers, but that’s because you grew up in the same society as the creator, a society that values petite-bourgeois "sweat of one's own brow" labor as the platonic ideal. A modern retelling of Manifest Destiny, one that fails to recognize the massive destruction left in the original Manifest Destiny’s wake.

            But does playing Stardew Valley turn the player into a farmer who believes in Manifest Destiny? No. Does playing games like Manhunt or Mortal Kombat turn someone into a violent, sadistic killer? No, and for more or less the same reason. But what is that reason? Well, it’s the nature of expressive media. Media like music, movies, books, and especially video games allow us to engage with concepts or experiences we couldn’t normally, only at arm’s length. It’s the power of media like books, movies, and video games that lets us experience feelings we wouldn’t be able to experience otherwise. We can experience joy, despair, power, and the life and times of others. However, at the other end of our arm’s length, there is still an entity espousing its beliefs, and you’ve got to be conscious of that, lest you start subconsciously bending your arm so that can get closer to said beliefs.

 

 




With that out of the way, let’s talk about modern military shooters and Spec Ops: The Line






Modern Military Shooters


            If you look at the state of gaming today, the military shooter performs solidly sales-wise, with Call of Duty and Battlefield still selling millions of copies with a new installment every year or two. However, they no longer rule the roost like they once did. Back in the “glory days” of the late 2000s and early 2010s, they were juggernauts, routinely topping sales charts with an installment every year. CoD and Battlefield weren’t the only ones around either. Medal of Honor, all the Tom Clancy games, Gears of War, and countless other titles now forgotten scraped and clawed for a market share on the dizzying gravy train that seemed like it would never derail. (And, in this metaphor, the train didn’t derail so much as it just lost steam and couldn’t pull as many cars).

            The core gameplay of said titles are essentially the same: linear cover-based shooting, where you and your enemies crouch behind chest-high walls and take turns popping up to shoot at each other until one side is dead, and you move on to the next section. They also had largely the same types of intervening sections: turret sections, vehicle sections, and a section about operating a supremely overpowered death machine, like a war robot or an untouchable gunship, that melt both enemies and any semblance of difficulty the game might have had during that section. A 5-hour campaign, endlessly replayable multiplayer, and a “special” game mode, like CoD’s zombies. Every year, done and dusted. $60, please.

            The titles also had practically the same stories, as well. Their origins were World War II shooters, where you would often play as soldiers from the U.S., UK, and even the Soviet Union, if only for want of scenic variety. From 2009 onward, though, the games changed, and took on a different, much more sour character. They are primarily focused on the exploits of American soldiers levying superior technology against “foreigners” in Russia and the Middle East, their stated goal being to stop “terrorism.” Their stories became much less defensible, either because Russia was depicted as cartoonishly evil, a depiction that has unfortunately become somewhat less absurd in recent years, or due to the overwhelming firepower used against the soldiers in the Middle East who are fighting you with small arms and the occasional RPG. Presumably, these people are answering a “call of duty” of their own to protect their land from the foreign invaders you gleefully play as. All in all, stories that "justify" the slaughter of these peoples with extreme force. They even tend to make these actions “fun” and “just” in the eyes of their player base, who are nodding along with what they are saying.

            And then, in 2012, there comes a maverick new species to this putrid, stagnant ecosystem. One that is evolved especially to blend in with its surroundings, but completely different in its nature.

                                                                       




Above is an assemblage of only some of the many military shooters from 2007-2012


Spec Ops: The Line


            Spec Ops: The Line is a 2012 tactical shooter developed by Yager and published by 2K Games. It shares its name with a series of tactical shooters from the late 90s and early 2000s, but given that the previous entry was from 2002, it is effectively a stand-alone title. It follows a three-man Delta Force squad consisting of Captain Walker, Lieutenant Addams, and Sergeant Lugo, as they are sent into Dubai to locate survivors after a violent sandstorm ravages the city and cuts it off from the outside world. On the surface, the game looks largely the same as its peers: cover shooting, light squad tactics, and a basic gameplay gimmick, wherein you can shoot out windows to neutralize enemies by burying them in sand. Despite this, its story is what sets it apart, which is what I will recap and deconstruct for you here.

                                                           



           

The Mask (Chapters 1-5): The game opens in medias res with a pitched chopper battle with the player shooting a minigun as the squad flies through a sandstorm before crash landing. Then, the opening titles. Walker informs the player that an American Colonel, John Konrad, brought his men, the "damned 33rd", with him to Dubai to assist in an evacuation. An intercepted broadcast from Konrad, saying, “Evacuation of Dubai…ended in total failure. Casualties…far too many,” and Delta Force, consisting of Captain Walker, Sergeant Lugo, and Lieutenant Addams, is sent in to investigate. Their mission is to find evidence of survivors, leave the city, and radio back to base from outside the storm wall. The trio comes out of the storm wall, all jokes and camaraderie, and Walker says, "Gentlemen, welcome to Dubai." After a brief tutorial, Delta is met with their first hostiles: a squad of locals wearing head wraps who shoot at you despite their attempts to negotiate. After seeing a similar group of men executing American soldiers, Delta force sets out on a rescue mission. This leads the squad into Dubai, where they overhear a DJ mentioning an “end to the ceasefire” in the city, before needle-dropping a song for the upcoming fight. Addams tries to convince Walker that they should leave and radio out, but Walker refuses, citing a need to act fast for the rescue.


            As Delta Force moves deeper into Dubai towards the location of the hostage soldiers, they overhear an American giving orders to a group of local hostiles who is referred to as “agent.” They catch up to the hostage as he breaks free from being tortured and are shocked as he points a gun at Delta Force and claims that they are all CIA men sent to kill him. He drops the gun and backs away to “go tell his superior” that the Delta Force is here to help them. Delta follows him, only to enter a pitched gun battle in a refugee camp: against American soldiers! During the battle, the fleeing civilian will run towards the player, likely getting shot in the process, they will have to shoot out a massive window of sand to bury enemies alive, and afterwards the refugees jeer at them until they leave. Delta Force now moves deeper into the city to try and reach John Konrad but are delayed when Walker falls from a skyscraper down to street level, ending this first section.

                                                                       


From left to right: Captain Walker, Sergeant Lugo, and Lieutenant Addams.


            The Fall (Chapters 6-8): After a battle for survival, Walker reunites with Lugo and Addams, and they move further into the city. They discover a pile of charred corpses numbering in the hundreds, even thousands, and are repulsed. Shortly afterwards, they meet the “CIA man” who has been arming the locals, a man named Agent Gould, who claims he was sent by the agency to help Dubai. Addams again suggests moving back outside the storm wall to radio for backup, as per their mission parameters, but Walker refuses, this time saying Gould needs their help. Delta experiences a white phosphorus shelling by Konrad’s men, watching insurgents being burned alive before their eyes. Gould is captured, and so Delta squad moves to rescue him. Given the element of surprise, the player must make a choice: either save Gould to continue assisting him or save a group of civilians from being executed. No matter the choice, the results are essentially the same. Afterward, Addams and Lugo nearly come to blows, only to be broken up by Walker. It is revealed that Gould’s plan is to steal the remainder of Dubai’s water in an attempt to subdue the 33rd, and use it as a bargaining chip to create peace.


            In between Delta Force and their next objective is a group of hundreds of soldiers, facing them with what would be impossible odds for the three-man group. Nearby, they discover a mortar launcher with a supply of white phosphorus shells. Lugo protests the use of the weapons, reminding the team of what they saw mere hours ago, and the horrific damage the weapon causes. Addams is hesitant, but goes along with Walker, who says that it is “the only way.” The gameplay in this section is one of what I’ll call “armchair death machine” sections in military shooter games. These are sections where players are given control of a weapon or vehicle, like a tank or gunship, where the player cannot be hurt and is provided with an arsenal of overpowered weaponry to the point where the gameplay becomes little more than pointing and clicking with no other thought. The player uses white phosphorus to destroy foot soldiers and armored jeeps, and one last group of targets, one hundred or so, grouped together behind a wall. Of note is that as the flames engulf this last target, the screen becomes white enough to see Walker staring at his own reflection the screen, and at the player.



            The player is then forced to walk through the valley of the shadow of death of their own making. A distinction made by the game is that movement is reduced; you can only walk slowly and stare in shock at what you have just done. You cannot skip through the recognition of what you have become. You hear the soldiers you have just burned scream their last in agony, and see torched, shambling husks collapse to the ground around you as the life leaves their bodies. You walk in this manner for a minute that feel like an hour, before coming to the area of the last target. And, if you noticed anything strange about this target’s appearance, or my description of it, you were correct to do so. Delta Force discovers not an encampment or reserve of soldiers, but scores of civilians, all dead. Military or civilian, Walker’s white phosphorus burns all the same. Addams and Lugo fight in the background, Addams defending Walker and Lugo against him, but Walker doesn’t hear them, his gaze fixed on a burned mother, cradling a small child close to protect them. The same people he claims to be protecting, slaughtered in agony by his own hand. But their mission goes on. They have to keep moving.

                                   


Do you feel like a hero yet?

           


The Line (Chapters 9-14):

            Shaken, but determined, Delta Force continues their path towards the water supply, to complete Gould's mission. Walker finds a room with the five charred corpses of Konrad's "inner circle," executed from disobeying him. A portable radio with a direct line to Konrad offers his running commentary throughout the rest of the game. Walker decides that everything that has transpired is Konrad’s fault, and he sets Delta Force’s new mission: find and confront John Konrad to make him pay for what he's done. As they go outside, they are confronted with a choice. Two men are suspended from a highway sign, one a civilian who stole water, a “capital offense” as Konrad calls it, and the other a soldier who killed five civilians in an attempt to apprehend the first. Konrad orders Walker to kill one, to “enforce justice,” lest he and the rest of Delta Force be shot by the snipers keeping watch over the road. Lugo and Addams are confused no matter which choice you make and continue to express doubt in your actions, the thought of leaving having been burned from their thoughts.


            Continuing their march, Delta Force meets another member of the CIA named Riggs who convinces them to continue with Gould's plan to steal Dubai’s remaining water. Konrad tells Walker that this plan only serves the CIA's interests, and not the civilians of Dubai that Walker and the CIA are ostensibly there to protect. They obtain the last water after a fierce, prolonged shootout, which is stored in three tanker trucks. They begin a drive through the city to make off with their loot. Civilians throw stones at them as they leave, watching invaders condemn them to a drawn-out, painful death. Thus begins an on-rails shooter section with a grenade launcher, in an attempt to protect the water, even as Konrad’s men shoot at you and leave holes in the tanks for water to spill out from. The 33rd blocks the road ahead, and Riggs decides to crash the convoy, yelling that “if I can’t have the water, then no one can!”



Be a good soldier and follow orders.


            Crushed under a burning truck, Riggs reveals his true mission: the CIA was sent in to ensure the death of every person in Dubai, to “prevent a regional war with the U.S.” By ensuring the success of Riggs' mission, Walker and the player have sentenced the 33rd and Dubai to death in a few days. The player is presented with another choice: perform a mercy kill on Riggs or leave him to his fate under the truck. Walker, alone, has another slow-walk scene to allow the player to understand what they have done, before moving to re-unite with his squad in a mall. Walker has two hallucinations in quick succession, one seeing a deer lapping at the spilled water from the trucks, and another while fighting a heavily armored opponent in a darkened section of the mall. Delta Force moves to the tower where the DJ has been broadcasting from, and they issue an evacuation order to the remaining civilians. Lugo executes the surrendered DJ out of spite before Delta escapes by helicopter and spends several minutes shooting down the multi-level broadcasting tower to “send a message.”


            They fly away in their helicopter, only to be engaged by other choppers as they fly into a sandstorm. This section is the exact same as the opening gameplay segment, and Walker recognizes this, saying “Didn’t we do this before?” to confusion from Addams and Lugo. After the crash, Walker suffers a major hallucination, Konrad’s confronts him before a burning tower in an ocean of sand and charred corpses. Konrad remarks that “Dubai should have died a long time ago: we were ordered to leave it. Instead, we chose damnation.” Walker insists he was only trying to help, and that he "had no choice" when confronted with the facts. Trying, weakly, to explain away his crimes with "It's not my fault," Konrad reflects: "Five thousand people were alive in Dubai, the day before you arrived. How many are alive today, I wonder. How many will be alive tomorrow? I thought my duty was to protect this city from the storm. I was wrong. I have to protect it from you."



You are still a good person.


Awaking, Walker finds himself separated and having to rescue Addams. After reuniting, they push on to try and find Lugo, whose desperate cries for help are much further away. They rush through a refugee camp as his voice grows more desperate, only to find him being lynched by a crowd of refugees. Despite a desperate attempt at CPR, they cannot save him, and the civilians are getting more confident as they crowd in closer, and Walker must shoot one to scatter them. Walker remarks to Konrad, “If you're listening Colonel, here's what happens now. I'm going to kill every last one of your men, and then, I'm going to kill you. Sergeant Lugo is dead. For that I give no quarter. You brought this on yourself.”



All this time on a rescue mission, and you can't even save your friend.


Delta Force, now a squad of two, continue their trudge towards Konrad’s location, in the tallest and most opulent tower of all of Dubai. Before them lies one last firefight, against the last of the 33rd. When a “heavy” enemy bursts onto the scene, Walker sees Sgt. Lugo shooting at him, yelling “Don’t you understand? It’s all your fault! You left me to die!”, in parallel to an earlier scene where Walker was forced to shoot an enemy that took the appearance of Addams. After a firefight that lasts upwards of fifteen minutes and across four distinct locations, Delta Force is surrounded by a platoon of armored soldiers and a helicopter gunship, ordered to surrender by Konrad. Walker, perhaps finally, realizes that they should surrender, if only as a way inside Konrad’s tower, but Addams refuses, saying he “didn’t come this far to surrender”. He cannot be talked down, and commands Walker to run as he opens fire on the 33rd. Walker makes it across the bridge separating him and Konrad as the earth shakes with explosions behind him.



Welcome, Captain Walker. The Colonel is upstairs, waiting for you

                                               

The Revelation (Chapter 15):

Entering Konrad’s tower, which is surrounded by running water fountains and plumes, Walker finds himself in a lobby flanked by floor-to-ceiling aquariums at least forty feet tall, and hundreds of feet long. Not only aquariums though-filled aquariums, inhabited by fish, sharks, and all manner of underwater plants. Past them, he is greeted by nine uniformed men, the leader of whom proclaims that they “are the last of the 33rd. Dubai is yours, sir.” Directed to the penthouse suite when asking about Konrad, Walker is asked by Konrad, “Do you feel like a hero yet?” as the camera pans around him, allowing a detailed look at the damage he has sustained. Walking around the penthouse to find Konrad is accompanied by some chilling musings, until Walker comes across Konrad painting an accurate rendition of the mother and child Walker fixated on in the aftermath of his white phosphorus bombing of civilians. Confronting him with, “What the hell is going on,” Konrad responds, “Your eyes are opening for the first time. It hurts, doesn’t it?” Walker retorts that Konrad was the one responsible for the white phosphorus, where Konrad reminds him, it was his decision, and that “Someone has to pay for your crimes, Walker. Who’s it gonna be?” Walking behind the painting to follow him, the sole survivor of Delta Force instead finds Konrad’s corpse in his dress uniform, several days old, in a chair with a hole in his head and a pistol in his hand.

            The truth: Konrad has been dead for a while, if not the entire time Walker has been in Dubai. Konrad’s voice over the radio has been Walker, projecting his actions, his crimes, onto another, someone other than himself, to blame, because he could not live with what he has done.. Suddenly, alive Konrad strolls out from behind Walker to begin the final confrontation. What ever happened to Delta’s original mission, to find evidence of survivors and leave? But no, he just kept going, and condemned all of Dubai and the 33rd to death. Walker claims that he tried to save Konrad and the 33rd, but Konrad reminds him of all the death and destruction he’s caused. Then, he lays out what happened in reality, instead of Walker’s hallucinations. Seeing Lugo? It was just a regular heavy. The radio Walker found? Busted. The two “criminals,” one of whom Walker had to shoot? Sandblasted old corpses, as Addams and Lugo stare at their frozen leader, who “just stopped moving.” Then, the death knell. Walker is here, in Konrad’s penthouse, and in Dubai, because he wanted to feel like something he’s not. A hero. Maybe that’s why you’re here, too? You wanted to feel powerful, like a hero, by playing this game? Too bad. There are no heroes in war, and there aren’t any in video games either.

             

(Here is a link to the ending conversation: I can hardly do it justice in text alone)

 

The End(ings):

Finally confronted with the full truth of what he has seen and done, Walker breaks down, and sputters out weak attempts at denying what is right in front of him. But he cannot, the veil is pierced. Konrad pulls a gun on him and begins a countdown until he shoots. Walker, too, pulls a gun on Konrad, and then the player is given control. There are four endings to the game, each depending on how you approach this situation. In true Spec Ops fashion, there is no “best” ending, or even a “good” one. Each of them are worth exploring in their own right, albeit with some with more to explore than others.

 

Continuing the Lie:

If the player shoots Konrad, Walker marches onwards, ever the soldier. Konrad remarks on his resolve in cutscene, as he shatters into glass: “It takes a strong man to deny what’s right in front of him. Even now, after all you’ve done, you can still go home.” Approaching from behind Walker, an officer from the surrendered 33rd in the lobby asks Walker for his orders. Walker replies, “To complete our mission.” When the officer replies in confusion, Walker yells at him, demanding a radio and spinning around, only to realize that he is alone. The skyscraper, and Dubai, is empty, except for him.

The next day, a small convoy of Humvees approach Konrad’s skyscraper. Walker sits outside, wearing Konrad’s dress uniform, with an AA-12 on his lap. As the soldiers disembark from their Humvees and approach on foot, Walker rises unsteadily to his feet, clutching his weapon. The commander approaches and asks him to “Put down [his] firearm, we are here to take you home!” Suddenly, control is restored to the player. Your ammo counter and crosshairs pop up, and now you have one last choice to make.

If Walker continues in his sworn vengeance against the world, the fight is relatively easy. You have the most powerful gun in the game and the element of surprise against a force of ten soldiers who haven’t been hardened by Dubai like you have. When you win the brief firefight, Walker hears frantic questioning over the commander’s radio from the backup outside Dubai, desperately asking what happened, and if the squad is alright. Answering it, Walker grins and says, “Gentlemen, welcome to Dubai!” Should Walker die in the firefight, he is given one last exchange with Konrad. Konrad says, “You can never really go home. If you’re lucky, you do something good, and die,” to which Walker can only offer, weakly, “All I want is peace.”

Should you surrender your weapon, Walker gasps, “It’s over…” He limps into the back of the closest Humvee, and stares blankly out the window as the convoy winds its way through the broken city. The driver comments, “You know, when we were driving through here, we saw some things. What was it like here? How did you survive?” To which Walker says, simply, “Who says I did?”


Walker opening fire against the rescue soldiers is the only way I can see the story ending, personally. Call it the "true" ending. He quite literally shot his conscience, in Konrad, and continued living the lie of his innocence. He has "un-personed" himself, just like what he did to the thousands of bodies he has created in his rampage: riddled with lead, buried alive, or left to die of thirst. He is no more than a machine with an input for ammo and an output for death and destruction: a walking, bleeding automatic turret. It is all he knows anymore, so he either goes down fighting his rescuers or self-destructs later in Dubai when he runs out of things to kill.

While Walker's body goes home in the ending where he surrenders his weapon, obviously not all of his mind goes with it. If war is hell, then Walker has just been through a 10th circle of Dante's Hell of his own making, and it's no walk in the park down there. Walker is forever scarred by what he's seen, and, more importantly, what he's done. But he gets to go home. What about the five thousand residents of Dubai? Don't they deserve a chance to grieve, or recover from the horrors inflicted upon them? Of course not. Soldiers own the exclusive right to kill indiscriminately "for their country" and then go home as a hero.




 

 

Acceptance:

If the player lets Konrad shoot Walker, or makes Walker turn his gun on himself, the result is the same. They are given a brief closing cutscene, panning up from Walker and Konrads’ corpses on the penthouse balcony to the ruins of Dubai, aflame and crumbling. Konrad’s broadcast, the message that called Walker in originally, is played again in cruel parallel to Walker’s own mission. “Evacuation of Dubai…ended in total failure. Casualties…far too many.”

Walker is dead, and the nightmare is over. We even see dark, heavy clouds forming in the distance, suggesting that if Walker hadn’t engaged in his wholesale slaughter of Dubai, the city would have been given a chance to live. It is of no consequence now, however. This is Captain Walker’s promise, fulfilled. “Sergeant Lugo is dead. For that I give no quarter. You brought this on yourself.”

Perhaps this is the best ending for Walker. Confronted with the monument to all his sins, and having regained clarity, he does the only thing he knows how to anymore. Violence. The final target, to stop the violence once and for all. Practically the same as all the others, another spent shell casing. Just one last pull of the trigger…

 




No matter which ending the player gets, when they are returned to the title screen, Dubai is in ruins. It doesn’t matter what Walker does in the ending, all that matters is what he did.



This is what you have wrought

 

What does it all mean?


Playing the Hero: The story’s premise is entirely based on the desire to “be a hero,” both for Konrad and Walker. Konrad and the 33rd are only in Dubai on his orders. After a tour in Afghanistan, they were meant to come home, but Konrad refused, instead marching his men into Dubai to try and help. He fails, however-a disastrous evacuation attempt and his implementation of martial law to try and “establish order” leave civilian casualties in the thousands. Around the time Delta Force arrives, he has finally reached at least some semblance of clarity. He has reckoned with his actions and mistakes and taken his own life. The coward’s way out, some may call it, but he is no longer living in denial like Walker soon will be.

We’re not sure why Walker joined the military in Spec Ops. Maybe it was patriotism, or a similar desire to “serve his country.” Maybe he had family members who served, and he wants to live up to them and their accomplishments. Maybe he wanted to feel like a hero by joining. It doesn’t matter. Once he stepped foot into Dubai, trying to save the hostage American soldiers, his fate was sealed. He would always refuse when Lugo and Addams would remind him of their mission parameters: find evidence of survivors, leave, and radio back to HQ. But no. Walker’s hunger for heroics is not yet sated. Onwards he marches, killing everyone that crosses his path, a trail of misery and death blooming out from behind him as he continues. He can never fulfill his need for heroics because he never commits a heroic act. There are no good deeds that can grow from the barrel of a gun, but Walker cannot see this. By the time he is able to remove his own blindfold, everyone in the city is dead, and Walker is alone in the looming shadow of the valley of death of his own making.

Why is the player playing this game? The same reason they play any game, probably. To have fun and relax. But it would be reductive to say that leisure is the only reason. People play games for more than that, and those playing shooters are probably looking for simulated heroics. And who can blame them, really? Media is all about experiencing things we normally couldn’t in our day-to-day lives, and the pride of being a hero is one of them. Unfortunately, the vast majority of shooters mirror real-life American conflicts, which mostly involve using overwhelming technological and industrial firepower to raze a vastly inferior foe. Which, depending on who you are, is either as heroic as “defeating” grass with a lawnmower, or is not going far enough, and deserving of the Medal of Honor. My point being, it’s fine to want to feel like a hero, just be mindful of how you get that feeling.


            Contemporary War Shooters and The Player: If there’s one thing Spec Ops strives to criticize above all else, it’s its peers in the military shooter genre. Most modern military shooter stories are all the same: American soldiers trek across worldly locales, often the middle east, using superior firepower and cartoonish bravado to slaughter “enemies” by the thousands. When you, the player, are told to shoot someone in these games, do you hesitate? Do you think of the possible civilian casualties when you rain death from above in an untouchable gunship? No, you don’t, because it’s a video game. And anyway, they’re terrorists. They deserve it!

            Do you see it? All of the sudden, the player has abstracted away the act of killing, because the “other” deserves it. The game has reassured them that, for the crime of resisting an invader, every further opponent will be killed without mercy. This is where Spec Ops sets up a reversal. The enemies for the first three chapters are what one might call “traditional” “terrorists”: middle eastern men, wearing head wraps and shouting at you in Arabic or heavily accented broken English. The first shootout is even preceded by Delta Force trying to negotiate with them, before Delta is fired upon. Then, just like that: it’s the 33rd you’re negotiating with before they open fire on you and the killing starts again. For most players, this is their first hint at what the game truly is. Whenever one is killing white people in military shooters, they’re either Russians (either Soviet or modern-day), or they’re Nazis. To be shooting (mostly) white people not in these categories, even Americans, is a watershed moment. On a deeper level, the player has already killed several hundred enemies that aren’t American, so if this inclusion troubles them, it reveals their implicit bias against combatants that aren’t abstracted away as “enemy.” After that, they fade into the background, both to Walker and the player: another squad to wipe out, to riddle with bullets, to drown under a mountain of sand. Conversely, the civilians that Delta squad promise to “save” are all middle eastern, not American, but by the end they are all sentenced to death anyway by Walker’s campaign against Konrad.

            Additionally, Spec Ops takes advantage of the interactive nature of its medium. Several of Walker’s “choices” have alternative options. When the civilian runs towards you in the refugee camp in chapter three, you can hold your fire to not kill her. When presented with the two hanging “criminals,” you can shoot their ropes and let them run away. Even after Lugo has been killed, and you have to disperse the crowd, you can shoot into the air, or shove someone in the crowd to make them back off, instead of opening fire. But you, the player, are the one truly responsible. You are the one responsible for wiping out the 33rd, for using the white phosphorus, for sentencing Dubai to death by dehydration. In the final confrontation with Konrad, as he threatens to shoot Walker, his gun is angled so that it looks like he will shoot over Walker’s shoulder, hitting you, the player, instead. The only way to stop the violence is to stop playing.



Behind Walker is the person truly responsible: the player. Taking them out stops this for good.

 

            The Politics of Military Shooters: As discussed above, when you’re shooting white people in miliary shooters, it’s either Russians or Nazis, who are abstracted away as evil and perhaps even subhuman. Killing them is justified, and perhaps even a good act. And, on the rare occasions you shoot (white) Americans or western Europeans, it’s because they are traitors for the “bad guys.” In comparison, when players are asked to shoot someone of any other skin color, it's given much less explanation. Hispanic? Drug dealers. Black? Gangbangers (if American) or pirates (if African). East Asian? Communists. And the shooter’s favorite target, Arabic? Terrorists. All lined up for you to shoot, grenade, and bomb into oblivion, because they are “bad guys.” Have you ever stopped to consider their perspective, that they may “be answering a call of duty of their own?” As foreign invaders destroy their homes and family with fire from the sky that your poorer, weaker nation cannot possibly contest, what are they to do? Just lie down and die quietly?

            For those of you saying something along the lines of “They’re terrorists! We’ve got to defend America!”, answer me this question. When was the last time America was tangibly threatened by a foreign force or power? 9/11? Sure, but was everyone in Afghanistan part of Al-Qaeda? Were the 46,000 dead civilians part of the Taliban? Oh, Iraq you say? You mean the criminal invasion that was started on a fabricated tale of WMDs? A campaign of bombing and terror so severe it led to an estimated six hundred thousand civilian deaths? The last time America was threatened by a foreign power in a way that necessitated war was in 1941 and at Pearl Harbor. For over thirty years, America and its allied European client states have been invading and re-invading the middle east in aid of “defending democracy,” but it never seems to stick. Maybe there’s a reason for that. Like, for instance, the region’s vast oil reserves that are nationalized, and thus out of the reach of U.S. oil companies. Just a thought.

            For nearly twenty years now, after the release of Modern Warfare in 2007, the video game industry has been churning out games set in the Middle East. You’d think the developers or the players would get tired of it. Why keep setting it in the Middle East? Well, like indie dev Rami Ismail says, it’s an easy, uncomplicated setting: “Violence is only politicized in one direction: against us. It’s normal. That’s only fair. I’ve said that Arab blood is the cheapest blood on earth…You can spill as much Arab blood as you want, not political, no context required because they’re bad guys. But if you want to hurt somebody else in the game, assuming it’s not a Nazi, or a Russian, or a South American, you need a justification. You can’t shoot an American. That is bad.” And also, maybe it’s also due to the close ties between military shooters and the U.S. government? A rather explicit example exists in the series “America’s Army,” existing from 2002-2022 as a recruitment tool, but titles like Call of Duty and Battlefield are no stranger to the defense department’s office.

Who do you think supplies the triple-a studios with planes, tanks, and guns for use in modeling? Who advises them on military command structure and the life of a soldier? Who gets them access to military operations and documents that are as-of-yet unclassified? And in return, who is it that gives the studios “corrections” or “guidance” when writing their stories. For instance, when Modern Warfare (2019) depicts the Highway of Death, where the U.S. bombed a column of retreating Iraqi soldiers during the first Gulf War, Call of Duty instead paints it as an act of terror carried out by the Russians.

Maybe the reason we keep virtually invading the middle east over and over is because the U.S. government has a vested interest in convincing its population that doing so is “deserved,” or “justified.” Perhaps in a few years, provided the genocidal settler colony known as Israel still stands, we shall see a video game about defending a colony of white settlers in the middle east. Maybe you’ll be able to re-enact the use of internationally banned white phosphorus on civilian populations. Maybe there will be a mission about dressing up as medical staff to infiltrate a hospital and execute “key targets” as they lay sick or wounded. Maybe you’ll even get to use a rapid-fire machine gun on starving civilians as they crowd around food supplies. Regardless, my point stands. As long as shooters focus on the actions and troops of the U.S., they will be political by nature of having had to pass through the State Department’s press and media censors.

 

 

 

The Verdict

            All things considered, Spec Ops: The Line is a masterful piece of storytelling, and a brutal take-down of the triple-a shooter industry. Its story still holds up to this day, unfortunately even more so in regards to both the game industry and the U.S.’s acts of imperialism upon the global south. The gameplay may be generic, even if it is deliberately so, but the moments of ludo-narrative cognizance and the vocal performances alone earn it the right to be experienced by anyone “serious” about games and their narratives. Unfortunately, it has been de-listed from Steam, so you will require a secondhand hard copy to play, or failing that, finding a playthough on YouTube. From the river to the sea, and keep rocking, you crazy diamonds.

 

-Jack LeJeune

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