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Crossing a line?
September 1, 2012 10:00 AM   Subscribe

"Video games have for so long been like, 'Look, war is when you go in and kill people who deserve to die, because they are destroying the things that you love—and have fun.' It was such a strange disconnect for us going into this project that we had allowed war to become such a spectacle-based entertainment, and we wanted to make a game in our medium that spoke to the truth of war just like every other medium had done." Warning (,although all the linked articles state as much, all links include spoilers for the videogame Spec Ops: The line)

Spec Ops: The line is a videogame that attempts to tackle the subjects of PTSD, justified war, player/player-character connection, and the problematic way that videogames have tackled violence in general. The guys over at Extra Credits think it may be one of the first triple-A titles to focus on the dramatic exploration of an idea rather than spectacle. Yahtzee, of Zero Punctation, believes that such an un-fun yet engaging game may be videogames finally growing up (fart sounds not included).
posted by sendai sleep master (44 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

I'm all in favor of having more realistic portrayals in all types of media of how horrible war truly is.

But the article definitely seems to act as though playing or simulation of "go(ing) in and killing people who deserve to die.... and have fun" is the new province of video games.

As though, just a few decades before video games existed, kids weren't playing Cowboys and Indians with die-cast fake six-shooters. Then growing up and often discovering for themselves how horrible war really is.

As though, for centuries before that, kids weren't hitting each other with sticks or firing homemade arrows from homemade bows at each other. Then growing up and often discovering for themselves how horrible war really is.
posted by chimaera at 10:10 AM on September 1, 2012 [12 favorites]

"Video games have for so long been like, 'Look, war is when you go in and kill people who deserve to die, because they are destroying the things that you love—and have fun.'"

maybe the recently made american ones
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:18 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

What's new, and what the author sites, is this play being a skill. This play being guided by a value system dictated by authors you cannot communicate with, a system of points and progress. What's now is people you don't know encouraging you to play -this- way. And this game is new because it questions within its mechanics and plot the value of that way.
posted by persona at 10:19 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

And I think therein lies the interesting discussion as far as videogames are concerned. There's a point in Spec Ops where one character shouts over a speaker that the violence the character/player is seeing is rated "E for everyone...Bring the whole family!" The bulk of the game is more subtle but engaging with this concept bluntly points out the odd split that exists in videogames as a medium.

They began as toys. Just like die-cast fake six-shooters and yet here they are trying to say something serious and figure out if it wants to be something more, something like art. Yes, playacting war is certainly not the sole province of videogames but it is more accepted in them because to a lot of people videogames are still toys (even if acceptable to be played by adults).

Reconciling the mediums history as "play" with its desire to become art is really the biggest and most interesting hurdle facing videogames.
posted by sendai sleep master at 10:20 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd argue that video games and kids pointing at each other and shouting "Bang" are two very different levels of interaction. Kids pretending to be soldiers or cops and robbers or whatever don't have malevolent intent towards each other, they're not actually intending to hurt each other. There's no visceral feedback, visually or otherwise. Your friend shouts "Bang" and says he hit you, and you decide whether or not you're hit.

Video games are the polar opposite of that. The game design, narrative and focus is to get you to want to kill these representations of people on screen - or dehumanize them to the point where it's less like killing people. There's a huge degree of feedback encouraging you to commit violence on your virtual fellow man - from the spectacle of the violence itself to the design of the game itself. The first Escapist link goes into that, the desire to master the game, be the best you can be at killing digital people.

Video games might not be the brainwashing murder machines that their opponents fear, but they certainly do make violence something that we can more easily ignore or even anticipate.

Actually, Spec Ops does something rather interesting - the gameplay isn't really all that great. It plays well enough, but it's clunky enough that it's hard to get into a groove relative to games like CoD or BF3. Extra Credits looks at that as a way of creating cognitive dissonance and unease, not to mention highlight the artificiality of the experience. I do agree with EC that it's probably a consequence of budget and design limitations (as well as with their assertion that it's a great example of turning a liability into an asset), but I'd add that it prevents getting into that "groove" that the Escapist piece mentions. The game forces you to interact with it on a narrative level rather than a mechanical one because the gameplay is just that little bit clunky.
posted by Punkey at 10:22 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am not sure how I feel about this, as a soldier what has fought in a war and had other friends who fought in different parts of that war.

Part of me thinks it is great realism and the other half wants to find the people who made this game and scream at them about the fucking unmitigating gall of thinking they can convey the horror of war in a neatly packaged video game. You burn people alive, but you can't smell them, you can't..I don't even want to continue further down the line of things you can't do or see or fear in a video game. I am angry and unsettled. Unless the protagonist of the game went home and hung himself in a bathroom after an alcoholic fit during which the VA wouldn't see him because he was intoxicated, I have a lack of faith in its realism.

I will never play this game, because I don't do those kinds of games. But it's's not even "war is shit", it's "being a special ops team with no rules is morally icky." I just...I can imagine people going "oh? Is this all this is to that war-is-terrible shit?" No. No it is fucking not.
posted by corb at 10:28 AM on September 1, 2012 [40 favorites]

corb: Well....

You really should play it. You might hate it, you might not, but I think that you should give it a shot.
posted by Punkey at 10:33 AM on September 1, 2012

"We wanted to make Apocalypse Now: Dubai Deathstorm." Parsed.
posted by Brocktoon at 10:39 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd love a military FPS that dealt with the mundanities and frustrations of life on base.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:40 AM on September 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

As he knew I was pretty much never going to play it a friend comprehensively outlined his experience playing it, sort of simultaneously enthusing about it as a piece of art and revolted by the experience of playing it. As a result... Well, I respect what they are doing, it certainly has more balls than the bullshit that was No Russian, but yeah, double or triply unlikely to ever want to play it now.

My favourite videogames-making-me-feel-like-an-asshole moment is my teammates reaction to me gibbing every single terrorist in the first level of Deus Ex. I actually went back and redid it with minimal casualties after that.
posted by Artw at 10:41 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

the man of twists and turns, you might enjoy Ultra-Realistic Modern Warfare[video]:
Ultra-Realistic Modern Warfare Game Features Awaiting Orders, Repairing Trucks
Designers say the new game explores the endless paperwork, routine patrolling a modern day soldier endures in photorealistic detail.
posted by autopilot at 10:50 AM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I guess one difference there is the game gives you a choice - as I understand it The Line just railroads you into every bad thing. Though in a way that's preferable to the kind of false choice that affects nothing you so often see, like in Bioshock with the sisters.
posted by Artw at 10:52 AM on September 1, 2012

I get nervous when people start talking about realism in entertainment.

Whose reality?
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:58 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Artw: Kinda. The Really Big Moment is a railroad, but most of them actually provide a choice - and usually at least one non-obvious choice. Beats the shit out of "Would you like to choose: Good/Neutral/Evil" menus in my book.
posted by Punkey at 10:58 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think my friend might have failed every one of those choices then...

I'll try not to tell him, I think he has PTSD from it.
posted by Artw at 11:02 AM on September 1, 2012

Well, the story provides choices - I didn't say those choices always affected the outcome. A lot of the time, Walker is fucked no matter what you do - it's just a matter of how far into Hell he lets himself fall in the process.
posted by Punkey at 11:05 AM on September 1, 2012

Part of me thinks it is great realism and the other half wants to find the people who made this game and scream at them about the fucking unmitigating gall of thinking they can convey the horror of war in a neatly packaged video game.

Personally, I don't believe realism is the goal, here. On the contrary, I think the point is to help players understand in a visceral, impactful way, that these games aren't realstic; that they're no more like real war than porn is like real sex, no matter how big the explosions or how strong the production values; to help them realize they're just masturbating with violence.
posted by davejay at 11:05 AM on September 1, 2012 [11 favorites]

I'd argue that video games and kids pointing at each other and shouting "Bang" are two very different levels of interaction. Kids pretending to be soldiers or cops and robbers or whatever don't have malevolent intent towards each other, they're not actually intending to hurt each other.

Maybe I played with a bunch of bad kids, but I would assert that in many cases (especially when there are 3 or more present) these "simulations" as kids are where many of the interpersonal issues among the kids are actually played out. Hidden resentments, shifting alliances, ingroup/outgroup dynamics, some kid hits another one just a little too hard, precipitating a no-shit confrontation which occasionally escalate into proper fights.

And the times that these mini dominance games are played out as part of the interaction, the kids end up going home and nursing more resentments or hatching personal schemes to figure out how to shift the ever-slippery alliances into their favor should the game take a darker turn again next time.

True to certain theories on the purpose of play, it's a "fun" and (relatively) risk-free way to work out those issues before, when these things play out as an adult, rather than a couple bruised limbs or bruised egos, they are subject to real life and death issues.
posted by chimaera at 11:09 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Kids pretending to be soldiers or cops and robbers or whatever don't have malevolent intent towards each other, they're not actually intending to hurt each other.

The Milgram experiment strongly suggests that the distance between things is a lot narrower than you might think.
posted by mhoye at 11:13 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes, but but how is the multiplayer? If you want to compare video games to kids pointing toy guns at each other then you need to be examining the multiplayer not the single player. Playing a solo game is like reading a book as far as experience goes, at least it is in my opinion. The characters in a game are no more important to me than fictional people in books.

I spent a whole 5hrs in MW3 single player but I have around 100hrs in multiplayer. Same goes for all the other war games I have played. I don't find myself invested at all in the characters, I usually just play the single player to get a feel for game mechanics so I don't hop into multi as a clumsy fool.

When you are t-bagging CGI avatars of real live people that you've just fragged you get far more emotional payoff than ripping the wings off of a scripted CGI fly. Game developers can create a vivid, trauma inducing horror world that will go mostly unplayed by a large part of the gaming community because most of us just want to play team sports against other people. The violence in multiplayer is quick and less visceral, they can't let the pixellated bodies pile up because the bandwidth is limited and the respawn timers are short.
posted by M Edward at 11:24 AM on September 1, 2012

Some years ago now a friend tried to get me to play a game he was really into at the time; it's hardly realistic, but I was completely freaked out by it.

It was Medal of Honour Frontline, and after watching him play through the Normandy landings sequence (video here) I, for the first time ever, basically declined to play what was clearly a 'good game' in many ways.

What freaked me out was precisely the tension between the violence porn presented as fun in the game itself and the level of attention to realism and historical detail being - while still poor in many ways - sufficient to remind me of my visits to Normandy beaches and cemeteries and of my knowledge of the actual history of D-Day.

Games can take you to so many places. Why would you want to go there? I just couldn't figure out what the fun part was supposed to be.

I still like FPS games but not the war simulations.
posted by motty at 11:27 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Kids playing Cowboys and Indians got their ideas of what Cowboys and Indians are like from how those groups were presented in TV shows and movies and comics. Then they took those ideas and centred their play around it. Maybe they bought the Real Cowboy Nickle-Plated Revolvers or whatever.

The novel part of video games is the vertical integration, that the media presentation of the Good Guys and Bad Guys and the play mechanisms used to act out the conflict between them come together in the same package.

So these guys, seeing they had that level of control, decided this was what they wanted to do with that control.

M. Edwards: I saw the Extra Credits videos, but haven't played the game. I gather a number of reviewers docked marks because they didn't like the multiplayer mode.
posted by RobotHero at 11:32 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I should note that the first shooter I ever played was America's Army. Which touted ultra realism because before your character could "treat wounds" on the battlefield you and your character had to sit through a traumatic injury "class" where a CGI professor would give a lecture and you would take a multiple answer test. Also, whenever you would hit the sprint button your little CGI character would pause and visually activate the safety on whatever firearm it was carrying because everyone knows when you are under fire and need to run you turn the safety on. Another interesting thing about America's Army was how it always rendered your team as US Soldiers and the other team as "other." Even when the map would change and team roles reversed. Now, to me, that is crossing "the line" in all sense of the idea. Even MW2 that had you killing innocent civilians didn't go that far to distance us vs them propaganda.

Realism in video games can really only go so far. I saw the commercials for this game and rolled my eyes at the pretentiousness of it. This game's going to cross "The Line."
posted by M Edward at 11:43 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, no-one liked the multiplayer. Not even the developers. It's definitely not the point for this title.

I look forward (somewhat) to playing it in a few months once it comes down from full price.
posted by figurant at 12:00 PM on September 1, 2012

"There is no such thing as an anti-war video game." -- Francois Truffaut
posted by straight at 12:05 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

America's Army was financed by the U.S. Army as a recruitment tool. So yeah, that's probably as blatant as it's going to get.

In the Extra Credits video, they specifically say the game is unrealistic, but it does interesting stuff with the way it's unrealistic. That plus some of the stuff about the "unreliable narrator" makes me worry it's going to be all, "Yes, one guy can't really mow down hundreds of enemy soldiers, it's all IN HIS MIND, WOOOO!" But maybe the comparisons to Heart of Darkness means it's a little more subtle and complex than that.
posted by RobotHero at 12:09 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Making an anti-War videogame is like making an anti-glacier videogame." - Kurt Vonnegurt
posted by Artw at 12:11 PM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Potential DLC: a mode where the minimally armed player must scurry from house to house while spec ops forces kick in doors and indiscriminately shoot everyone inside. Call it "Modern Warfare: The Dark Descent."
posted by Nomyte at 12:22 PM on September 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

"There is no such thing as an anti-war video game." -- Francois Truffaut

I don't know if that's a universal truth. But compare

- Lost and alone behind enemy lines, our hero has to fight through an enemy stronghold to accomplish his mission and find his way home.


- Lost and alone after his honorable discharge, our hero has to fight through PTSD, addiction and a missing limb he can still feel to navigate the Veteran's Affairs bureaucracy and get the minimum amount help he needs to live some approximation of a normal civilian life.

One of those sounds very realistic, and it's not the one that sounds like a fun game.
posted by mhoye at 12:58 PM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

TBH honest I'd sooner be blasting robots and zombies in a thoroughly cartoonish setting than participating in some kind of "realistic" military game that's basically some fascist bullshit, but these guys deserve props For addressing that head on.

Art game where you fill in some forms is probably a different thing and not likely to be much cop except as a gimmick concept.
posted by Artw at 1:04 PM on September 1, 2012

The video game "ludology" vidblog Errant Signal, has a more detailed analysis of the complexities of this. (massive spoilers)

In it he discusses realism, the moral problem realism creates—especially when combined with moral absolutism, how all that ties into the problem of puppetry, and so on.

Errant Signal tries to be a serious take on the meta, mechanics and messages of first person video games from a gamer. As someone who rarely plays FPSs, but is very interested in the theory of humans doing things, I appreciate his (infrequent) vidblog posts a lot. Even when he's kind of out there, or silly, it's great to see someone passionate and thoughtful.

He also includes a link to Tom Bissell's musings on the subject.
posted by tychotesla at 1:25 PM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Chimeara, that sounds like a pretty good summary of the actual dynamics of kids playing... Boy kids, anyway. My utter horror in the face of that stuff was one of my early clues that I was transgender. Playing with boys often literally felt like I was in the monkey house at the zoo, there was all this weird, barely sublimated aggression that would occasionally boil over into actual fights, and I just could not deal. I still have problems hanging out with a group of adult males. When the "joshing" turns nasty and I can see that one of the guys is getting his feelings hurt while everybody cracks jokes about him being fat or whatever, my instinct is to defend the guy and scold everybody for being too mean. Over the years I've learned that that's usually a really, really bad idea, the guy tribe freaks out and the picked-on guy is not at all grateful for your defense. Guys are weird.

Corb, thanks for the perspective... I've often wondered how veterans feel about these games set during wars that are happening right now. Really realistic WWII games are one thing, because the Nazis were so horrible and they've been so (justly) demonized in pop culture that killing them in a game doesn't seem so bad, it's almost like shooting zombies or something... But games set in (for example) Vietnam or Afghanistan can leave a sour taste in my mouth. Those conflicts are really complicated and sad and awful, and it feels icky to turn them into playgrounds. While you're pretending you're a sniper on a rooftop in Kabul, people are actually getting killed doing this crap for real, right now.

Fortunately I can still play sci-fi games and blow up robots and evil aliens without guilt! Years ago I played the (pretty darn good) game Star Trek: Voyager game Elite Forces, and it was fascinating to see how they tried to fit the aggro space marine stuff into the IDIC Star Trek universe. Most conflicts ended with everybody making peace, which was very nice and Trek-y, but along the way these Starfleet space marines would be blowing up shit and hollering COME GET SOME!!!! Something tells me they'd frown on such behavior at Starfleet Academy.

Sorry, this comment really got away from me. In sum, video game violence is awesome. Except when it's terrible.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:55 PM on September 1, 2012

Thank you very much for those links, tychotesla. I found them very interesting.

I think there's probably two different kinds of conversations to be had about this-- the conversations between people who don't particularly care about video games, and the conversations between people who care deeply about video games. I'm not sure that people from each camp have much to say to each other though.

Video games haven't reached their potential yet, and nobody really knows what that potential is yet, not the way that we know what novels can do, not the way that we know what films can do. I think that this game-- a game that everyone is saying is unpleasant, a game that everyone is saying is important-- is an important part of exploring that potential.

It's hard for those of us who care about video games to get out of our defensive mode and talk to each other about how games affect us. Our defensiveness is understandable, and it's justified. But it's one thing to stand fast in the face of reactionaries who tell us that games are turning us into sociopaths, another to insist that games are only effect and never cause.

I think anybody who's ever tried to craft a narrative has discovered that it's hard work, and that there are conveniences that make it easier. Sometimes, those conveniences are incidental, things like amnesia. But sometimes those narrative conveniences can be more vital, more fundamental, conveniences like moral absolutism. It's intriguing to me to wonder, if life ever imitates art, about how many of our attitudes are just an accidental effect of this narrative convenience.
posted by nathan v at 4:39 PM on September 1, 2012

I won't believe this game is an honest reflection of war unless Oliver North says so.
posted by homunculus at 5:16 PM on September 1, 2012

No game will ever depict war realistically so long as war itself is unreal.
posted by TwelveTwo at 6:04 PM on September 1, 2012

I'd love a military FPS that dealt with the mundanities and frustrations of life on base.

I'm sure a First Person Sweeper would top the charts.
posted by ersatz at 7:52 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just finished this and... I'm not sure how I feel about it, but I'm glad I played it. Some of the things the protagonist did - I did, I suppose - hit me in a way MW2's No Russian level didn't.

There was definitely some clever metacommentary - the one that sticks in my head right now is how the game starts in media res - and when the level reaches that part of his journey again, the protagonist complains that "This happened already". I was also taken aback by the loading screens near the end of the game.

If anyone else wants to try, Amazon has a special going on with this and Bioshock 1 and 2 for $20 - all redeemable on Steam. I can see some similarities to Bioshock 1 - a good story (for a video game) with less than stellar mechanisms.

At least there wasn't some crap boss fight to finish off Spec Ops.

Wait, scratch that - there was an epilogue I had missed after the credits. Wow, that is a much better ending than Bioshock.
posted by dragoon at 2:44 AM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

so wait, works are obligated to be moral now? didn't oscar wilde say something about that that we can disregard because he was 'totes' creepy

i like the direction that our country with a crappy gini coefficient and politics that are sliding ever rightward, even on the alleged "left", is headed in (image macro of car driving into burning city)
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 6:18 AM on September 2, 2012

Pretty sure most game makers feel no obligation whatsoever - as I've said the current FPS market is saturated with overly earnest odes to fascism and likely to stay that way.

Still, there's been a few interesting experiments in injecting a feel of moral cinsequence into games lately, which is a story telling mechanic rather than an obligation to make your game "morally correct" or whatever. Though I suppose that in tackling everything the fascist military games avoid head on you could argue that The Line is trying to do the later as well.
posted by Artw at 6:32 AM on September 2, 2012

it's not really about the game makers or the games, it's about how the critics talk about them. for my own part, i haven't played a shooter for a long time.

yes, there are question you can ask about "um omg what kind of person does a thing where you shoot people" but why aren't they being asked about the people who go out and sign up to do it for real
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 6:51 AM on September 2, 2012

Those people are heroes and patriots, how dare you?
posted by RobotHero at 9:33 AM on September 2, 2012

Games are getting crazy. Check out this incredibly bizarreDayZ hostage situation in which the hostage players don't seem the realize they can log out at any time seem actually afraid of virtual hostage takers.
posted by Ad hominem at 7:23 PM on September 2, 2012

"There is no such thing as an anti-war video game." -- Francois Truffaut

I don't think that is true. As games get more immersive people experience real psychological horror. You are connected to your "guy" in a way that simply does not exist in movies. If the argument is that no video-game(or movie) can be anti-war for all people, that is probably true.
posted by Ad hominem at 7:30 PM on September 2, 2012

Forget violence: Do co-op games make us less aggressive?
posted by homunculus at 3:32 PM on September 3, 2012

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