Self-Aware Game

Look, You're Inside the Machine

by by Milan Koerner-Safrata

illustration by by Diane Zhou

Eminent game designer Tim Schafer recently asked himself a question: “Are games art?” His response: “Oh man, who cares.” But as this concept gains momentum, gamers are eager to find larger forums for canonical, concept-driven games. In March 2012, The Smithsonian staged an exhibition called “The Art of Video games” which explored “the forty-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium.” Later that year, MOMA adopted 14 games into its collection with the intention of aquiring forty in total. The Smithsonian stated “visual effects and the creative use of new technologies” as its focus, and the MOMA clarified that it chose “a design approach.” In categorizing the videogame as art, interactive design and graphics are favored over the system of play. I see this as a loss.While museums continue to grapple with the intricacies of the genre, exploration of video games for affective and expressive purposes will progress. One example is Spec Ops: The Line. Released in 2012, the game does not try to be fun, rather it exists to subvert the medium.

Spec Ops: The Line is a third-person shooter game by Yager Development—a studio of modest size—with cinematic graphics and functional gameplay. The game narrative follows a Special Forces team investigating a rogue battalion sent to Dubai to evacuate civilians from a series of devastating sand storms. The premise draws heavily from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and to some extent from the Vietnam War-era film adaptation Apocalypse Now. The title is one of many in a trend of modern-warfare shooters, a genre currently dominating mainstream gaming. Spec Ops is a reboot from a series of the same name, likely dug up for the purpose of entering this market. As such I wasn’t able to discern anything unique from the launch trailer. The action appears comically over the top, the content gratuitously violent, and the tone mistakenly serious. I quickly dismissed it: a modern warfare title in a sea of modern warfare titles. Yet after its release, many game reviewing websites praised Spec Ops for being a smart, provocative shooter. Though the game copies the modern warfare genre down to a T, it’s evident after playing Spec Ops that it does so with ulterior motives, and to brilliant effect.

The team at Yager Development intentionally made the combat unsatisfying, the action ridiculous, and the gameplay repetitive. This aesthetic is a bait-and-switch. The game’s feel cozies the players up to the familiar escapist shooter gameplay, only to surprise them with severe moral repercussions for their in-game actions. Less interested in the narrative safety of modern shooters, Spec Ops depicts the psychological horrors of war—not simply as mimesis, but by forcing the player’s hand. At various times in my play-through I caused civilian casualties under the game’s direction. My efforts to combat the rogue battalion, either by cutting Dubai’s water supply or by dropping white phosphorus mortars caused disastrous collateral. The guilty conscience the game attaches to killing is anathema to the desensitization and ennui characteristic of combat in games today. In certain scenarios I had to decide between a greater or lesser evil. In one instance, I had to choose whether to intervene in the execution of a civilian or to leave undetected; in another, in another, I had to choose whether to fire into a lynch mob.

Spec Ops pits the gamer’s desire to win against a conception of what is ethical. For example, the game makes the player scavenge for ammunition; arbitrarily, the best method for this is to execute a fallen enemy while he is down. In one set piece, I was firing a rifle at enemy soldiers while they broadcasted back the names and details of those I’d killed. As the narrative progresses, the player’s conscience becomes increasingly fraught. I began to feel mistrust of the protagonist and a wariness towards combat that I had never felt from a game. The avatar becomes increasingly psychotic and his motives for killing are suspect in the context of the story. The extent to which the avatar represents its player is seldom explored in shooters. Consider the mute protagonists that populate Halo, Call of Duty, and Killzone. The avatar’s motives are often a vehicle to justify gameplay, and the player’s role is little more than piloting. Spec Ops’ ending inverts this. At the finale of the slaughter Spec Ops offers no justification for the atrocities I performed, effectively turning around to shout “it was you that did this, none of it would have happened if you hadn’t played this game”. It then shows a cutscene epilogue evaluating the horrible in-game choices I made—putting the responsibility fully on me. The lead writer admits one ending is simply when players “can’t go on… put down the controller.”

Though Spec Ops tries to have it both ways by creating a monstrous game and shaming the audience for participating, the paradox challenges presumptions common to the genre. First is the idea of shooter games as entertainment, and the action of shooting as a mere game mechanic. Unless the guilt trip goes over the player’s head, Spec Ops won’t be fun. My feelings towards the excessively gruesome, morally questionable combat left me reluctant and distanced from the avatar instead of enjoyably immersed. If the gameplay is good, shooting can be incredibly engaging; it demands a level of strategy and dedication. Spec Ops—in the most dull way possible—puts a clunky gun in my hands and sets me on a linear path of senseless killing. And yet, halfway into the game it tells me, “you probably shouldn’t have been doing all that shooting.” It’s unheard of to encounter a game that makes itself purposefully redundant. I stopped enjoying the game and simply decided to become complicit so that the narrative would run its course. This fundamental inversion of killing—from a game mechanic to a moral choice—is the primary way that Spec Ops undermines the genre. The game mechanic  necessitates that the player must become better at killing. The moral framing offers no reward for violence despite the fact that it remains the sole means of progression in the game.

This catch-22 is tricky. The need for the player to win takes primacy over any sense of loss they might feel from the action. Except for a select few scenarios, the game requires you to kill people. The full effect of the narrative coincides with the apathy that most games have associated with killing. The bait-and-switch works to create cognitive dissonance, since the player is complicit in the slaughter. But is this fair? If you like the game’s message, your victory is moral. If not, the game causes you to regret things you might formerly have been comfortable with. Spec Ops shrewdly enters the genre against the grain at a time of over-saturated, thoughtless content. Yager Development challenges the homogeneity of modern war games by interrogating their shared moral assumptions.

Is it a game? Yes. Is it fun? Not particularly. The game putters along with lackluster gameplay, and I’d wager the narrative feels heavy handed to most. But it isn’t trying to replicate the prose of Heart of Darkness. What makes Spec Ops an exemplary piece of interactive design is how it imitates the feeling of war’s psychological horror—not vicariously—but experientially. The general player response to this is well represented by the user reviews on Metacritic. The reviews oscillate between appreciation of the narrative and ire at the gameplay. Many rebel against the psychological payload that results from the game’s narrative linearity.

The fundamental takeaway from Spec Ops is “did I have a choice?” It begs the question, “Was I responsible for what the game coerced me to do?” The greatest realization is that the avatar might not represent you, but rather you on the game’s terms. And when the player is alienated from his avatar, he might be bound to stop participating. But this hypocrisy is exactly what Spec Ops tries to elucidate. Though the game fools the player into thinking his play is simply a response, it brings about the realization that he has agency within its world. This idea of a reactive game-world is powerful because it stops seeing the interaction as “directed” by the game and puts the onus on the player. This system calls for the player to engage with how the play-space is constructed and to be conscious of how this provides or restricts agency. This results in an appreciation of the reasons why one enters game worlds—it goes beyond mere entertainment. Was I brought into this game world to be taught, challenged, entertained? As far as the inception of games into art institutions, aspects of graphics, technology, aesthetics, and interactive design should not be sieved away as disparate artistic facets of the medium. The total expressive effect of games must be considered.

This still hasn’t stopped MILAN KOERNER-SAFRATA B’15 from playing Call of Duty.