Note: Maybe this will be a series, maybe not – it’s mostly to just put down my thoughts about games that I’ve played, that I feel need to be talked about – beyond just, “This game is awesome! go play it!”
First off, I try to stay away from console-oriented games as much as possible – mostly because the design focus differs quite a bit from the more open-ended focus of the games I tend to enjoy. However, when such a game is noteworthy enough, to get positive reviews from those few game reviewers I trust, I’m willing to bite the proverbial bullet, and give it a shot. Puns may or may not be intended.
Spec Ops: The Line was lauded for its narrative, and its portrayal of the psychological effects of violence. They’ve gone so far as to proclaim it as a true example of games as an art form. I’ll address these points; but first, I want to talk about gameplay.
The gameplay is…well, exactly what you should expect from a game with a console focus. Linear gameplay, checkpoint saves, auto-regenerating health, rail-shooter elements, and the general impression that the developer finds the story and production so important, that they can’t trust players to discover it on their own. Then toss in a wonky context-based control system, and a third person camera that ceases to be useful at all when firing a mounted machine gun, and said gameplay becomes pretty obnoxious – even by console standards.
But, hey – I’ll even “suffer” through what amounts to be an interactive movie, if the story is good enough. Unfortunately, it stumbles through that as well. See, the general concept of the story, is to portray the main character as someone who was driven insane, by a chain of events starting from a couple of “no right answer” scenarios. But the heavy-handed approach to development, and the insistence of having a pre-created main character, completely voiced and scripted, doesn’t work well with this goal.
See, in a movie, or a book – you can watch the main character lose control, and feel for them. You can sit from the outside, and watch the descent to madness step by step. You can do the same thing with a character in a game as well, but only if the perspective is the same. You can also achieve the same goal for a player character; but you have to make sure the player feels like they’re completely in control, while slowly distorting their perspective. Due to the nature of the player character, they had to attempt to use both methods. While that could, theoretically be done – its success depends heavily on the individual player. And all it takes is a couple of “Wait, why did he act that way?” and the entire thing falls apart.
The second issue was with the “no right answer” scenarios, and this ties heavily into the trend of binary “morality” mechanics, where the game forces you to into two decisions, or even one decision, by proxy. The first scenario was a situation where you come across a large group of soldiers, wearing the same uniforms as the ones that have attacked you through the previous levels. At this point, one of your squadmates points out a convenient mortar with white phosphorus shells. The other squadmate then voices his opposition, as it’s an especially cruel and inhumane method of killing people.
But here’s the thing – you literally have to use it. The game gives you no other choice. No attempt to talk, no option to merely walk away, merely walking out there will have them open fire on you, and if you attempt to take them out using more conventional methods, the game will deliver a literally endless flow of enemies until you’re dead. So, effectively – there is no decision at play here. So you go ahead and play the game the way the developer forces you to, and lo and behold, these soldiers were escorting civilians out of the area. So congrats, you just horrifically murdered a ton of civilians, which the game is all too happy to force you to see the gruesome results. At that point, the main character gets that numb gut wrenching expression on his face, and voices is intent to kill whoever is behind this. Presumably the first step towards his eventual insanity. Meanwhile, as the player, I’m just sitting here going “What the hell, devs?!”. That’s not a “no right answer” scenario – that’s a “you’re picking the wrong answer, because we’re forcing you to” scenario.
And then a bit later in the game, you’re forced into a situation where two people are suspended from a girder, both with enemy snipers aiming at them. You’re now told you have to chose which one dies – the civilian who stole water, or the soldier who killed the civilian’s family in the process of apprehending him. And of course, the game won’t progress until you do – but will immediately cut off all player control once the decision is made, while you watch (another) cutscene of the other one running away.
So, in the end, it’s a victim of its own focus. The player is merely the actor following the script, and held in check by the director, in what amounts to be an interactive movie in a shooter’s disguise. Roger Ebert once claimed that a game can never be considered art, because the player element comes between the creator and the work. Personally, I’ve always disagreed with this, despite understanding where he was coming from. But it’s games like this, that make me wonder if he might’ve been right after all. Because Spec Ops: The Line, might very well be a work of art; but it’s certainly not much of a game.
The industry needs more developers like VALVe and Bethesda – that understand that the player’s involvement in a story, is what makes the story have a purpose in the first place. Instead of just giving players something to do, until the next cutscene.