Dramatic Irony (noun): “irony that is inherent in speeches or a situation of a drama and is understood by the audience but not grasped by the characters in the play.”
Video games are not movies. Video games are not books. Video games are not plays.
One of the many concerns floating through the minds of parents at any given second is whether or not playing violent games will make their children more violent. Because you are the actor in the scene. You are the shooter. You are the one running over the pedestrians with no consequences. And it’s fun. And it’s addicting. And you can have all of the adrenaline – the thrill of the kill – with none of the regret, none of the fear, and none of the pain.
Literal “war games” like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor have diluted the experience of being a soldier into 1) killing faceless enemies, and 2) being rewarded for your actions when you perform well. If you shoot better than the enemy, you win. The locations change, the guns change, and the faces change (although the enemies’ faces… really don’t). But you are the good guy, and you kill the bad guys. There have been a few moments that tried something different, like Modern Warfare 2‘s “No Russian” level, but – to me – that failed to truly capture what is terrible, what is scary, and what (worst of all) is far, far beyond your control when you’re just doing your best to take orders and stay alive.
What if that changed?
Spec Ops: The Line released in the summer of last year with a generic name and a “me too” look that guaranteed bargain bin status and sales of less than 400,000 units across three platforms combined. But the critical reception… that was different. The few that played it were able to look past its flaws (namely, some generic third-person shooter gameplay) and see it for what it was: something that had never been done in games before. Spec Ops tackled issues like PTSD, following orders when you know in your heart that you probably shouldn’t, and becoming that which you fear most.
This is some heady stuff, normally reserved for war documentaries on PBS. But video games have an advantage over those. Here, you are the one having to make the decisions that determine if your team lives or dies. You are the one that chooses to use the weapon that destroys literally everything, including collateral damage you could never have expected. You are the one that has to keep your team alive in the middle of a city full of people that want you dead.
You. You. You.
As such, you are given only the information that Captain Martin Walker has. And as he starts to unravel, because of the stress, the death, and the heat, you begin to unravel as well. You have two other members on your team – some of the strongest side characters in games last year – but they aren’t in charge of the mission to get into storm-locked Dubai and see if there’s anyone still living. You are. They become just another barb in your psyche as everything within and outside your mind cracks, breaks, and crumbles.
As the game progresses, you begin to dissolve, both mentally and physically. Your team falls apart. You do things that scare even yourself. This isn’t a survival horror game, but the psychological wringer that Spec Ops runs you through will make you question… so many things.
“Am I doing the right thing?”
“Where am I going?”
“Why did I come here in the first place…?”
“Is this what war is really like?”
There is no way to truly replicate the fear and uncertainty that a typical American soldier must endure each and every day when deployed overseas. At any second, a bomb could drop, a stray bullet could have just the right trajectory, or a refugee who doesn’t feel “liberated” after all could show you how he really feels about your occupation of his homeland. Sitting at home on our couches, it’s easy to forget that war – real war – isn’t a game, and it isn’t fun.
You sacrifice so much of yourself, and for what? For your family? They’re all the way across the ocean, innocent of this litany of excessive violence. For your homeland? It sent you here to die. For these locals with barely enough food and water to make it through the week? They were better off before you arrived. For what, then? For nothing?
There is no glory in war. There are no happy endings. Even the survivors will have to live with the memories of the things they’ve done and the pain they’ve caused for every single day of the rest of their lives. The mistakes that were made with the best of intentions. The orders followed. The Catch-22’s.
You are Captain Martin Walker. You are a soldier. You are on a need-to-know basis, and the things you are about to learn… you don’t want to know.
Terrible things happen across the world every moment of every day, and putting us in the role of an individual that is ever-present but also so easy to take for granted – the fallible, brave, doing-the-best-he-can soldier – can change your perspective on video games, what we commonly accept as entertainment, and, well… human beings. Things aren’t as black-and-white as they used to be.
Spec Ops: The Line is one of the most important games ever released. It’s been so easy to hide behind our high-definition screens and plastic peripherals, living a fantasy life where the good guys always win and the bad guys always lose. Games and gamers have grown up, and a game with something to say – and the skills to say it – is worth its weight in gold.
5 responses to “Spec Ops: The Line – A Complete Lack of (Dramatic) Irony”
Very good article. I think that Dramatic Irony is a terribly tedious trope, and in video games it is even worse as it creates a barrier between the protagonist and audience, even when they should be one.
Another reason why this game is important: it proves that the gaming industry is not an outlet for clever or thoughtful works, for they do not recoup the cost. In a way, Spec Ops shows that gaming is the world of TV reality and cooking shows, not the world of Oscars and Cannes.
It’s the game we deserve but not the one we really need. For all it tries to do, it could have done a lot better if it didn’t insist on the bro-shooter mechanics, which really blur the line what actually makes sense in a war in reality. Three dudes, no matter how well trained, could never achieve what you and your team can in this game. When the game tries to tackle all these very real and serious issues, the gameplay keeps standing in mockery of what it tries to accomplish. It’s hard to relate to the characters and immerse in the story, when from the get go you’re a goddamn superhero as far as the gameplay is concerned.
There are other games out there which have made better job at telling a somewhat serious war story from over ten years back. Vietcong, being a personal favorite, and (mostly the initial part of) the single player campaign in Operation Flashpoint. They’re nothing too deep in comparison, but they manage to portray war in a much more meaningful manner than most any other game ever has. The Brothers in Arms series comes closest from relatively more recent titles.
Except its more about violence in games, rather than the horrors of war.
Well, it’s about both, but more specifically about thinking about the actual consequences of your average COD game.
It’s kind of hard to see that sort of commentary when the story tries to sell itself so hard with its seriousness. What are these consequences supposed to be anyway? If it’s about people indulging themselves with the power fantasy, then it’s hardly saying anything new. Do we really need somebody to make a game to point these things out? Scenes like the white phosphorous mortal shelling are ultimately pretty cheap, since they would rely on your average players ignorance of these things to evoke the proper feeling in the player. It failed to impress me personally, since I realized what the effect would be a few seconds into the shelling. The hamhanded introduction of the dead civilians just made the scene the most outlandish thing in the whole game. For consequences it’s ultimately pointless, since you’re not really given much of a choice anyway. The only effect all the “choices” in this game had for me was just making feel resenftul against the writers for trying to goad a reaction out of me and had me looking for ways to try to derail the stupid story.