Spec Ops: The Line, Heart of Darkness

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A man who is always angry misses the beauty of life.  So after beating this game in a few days, I admit this one fulfills my desire for art in games.  Spoiler alert: if you are so slow on your gaming schedule that the ending for a game that was released in 2012 is still unknown to you, fuck off. Stop here, go play and come back.  In reality, I served in the military for 2 years and this game would not disturb me any less if I never had.  But that is the key to art, isn’t it?  Beyond just being a nice painting or a pretty song, its goal is to make us feel something.  And the feeling from this piece is a mixture of dark and sullen emotions that directly confront the joy and fun of playing a game where you run around killing people all the time.  The worst, I think, that anyone who is a huge fan of Call of Duty, Battlefield, and any of the other “power fantasy” military games in this genre, can say against Spec Ops: The Line is that it didn’t make them feel right.  And in that it has done its job.  Note that I do interchange between you, your character and Walker when talking about the main character as you experience this through him and, because you control his actions, identify chiefly with him.  What happens to Walker happens to you.

You start this game doing reconnaissance on a post-disaster Dubai, a city known for being a major tourist destination in the Middle east for the ultra-wealthy.  Massive raging sand storms have brought unfathomably large waves of sand that cover everything in their path, and the only survivors huddle in between a few luxury hotels and casinos hoping not to die horribly.  Well, America sends in a Battalion led by Lieutenant Colonel John Konrad, said to be the Patton of his time.  After Konrad gets a couple thousand people killed trying to lead a convoy out of Dubai, he pulls back, hunkers down and tries to survive.  Military Brass orders Konrad and his men to pull out and give it up, but they stay put.  At some point a group of insurgents forms among the surviving civilians and they start to attack the men of Konrad’s Battalion, known as “The Damned” 33rd.  We find that this insurgency is led by the CIA with the aim of bringing down Konrad, his men and anyone left in Dubai in a final move by the CIA to cover up the failure of Konrad and thereby avoid bringing the ignominious facts to the world.  As far as the US government seems concerned, Dubai can just get buried and everyone remember it as a tragedy for which we did all we could.  Avoidance of disgrace.

When you first come on the men of The Damned 33rd, they are rounding up civilians with a DJ announcing loudly over the radio that they broke a ceasefire and that he had the perfect song to “play them off”.  He then starts playing some Vietnam era classic rock which makes the gunfight that much more exciting.  Now by this time you have seen a ton of dead bodies and are travelling from one CIA operative’s corpse to another trying to figure out what the hell is going on.  You never try to negotiate with the men of the 33rd, you just assume they are rounding the civilians up for unstated nefarious purposes under Konrad’s command.

After dispatching the civilian-corralling soldiers (whom, I might add, you never explicitly see shooting civilians but shooting upward to scare them) you move on to find a CIA operative being tortured, but it turns out he’s been long dead and you’ve been lured to an ambush by Konrad.  Another operative, named Gould, helps pulls your team’s ass out of the fire and you watch him get captured shortly thereafter while leading a diversionary insurgent attack against the 33rd.  Once you find Gould, you have the choice to save him or some civilians.  Gould dies either way.  Your character then decides to exact revenge on “The Damned” 33rd.  You infiltrate their camp and fire bomb them with white phosphorus, which, I might add, the 33rd used themselves in an engagement against the insurgents only a short time ago.  So you torch them like bugs.  As you walk through the devastation of the aftermath, charred men crawl from under humvees, you hear one man trapped in a tent begging for aid.  He dies shrieking.  Unless he was screaming for ice cream.  Which I doubt.  As you wade through the carnage, one surviving soldier with half a face left claims they were “helping”.  Your character Walker thinks a solid minute before turning to a tent at his side.  A large tent.  At the back of the base.  You enter to find the crispy remains of some deep-fried civilians.  To top it off, in the center is a woman corpse crouched clutching a child corpse, thus dissolving all notion of good will and, incidentally, Walker’s sanity.  While your friends nearly get into a brawl over their newly earned status as war criminals, Walker is just like “No, we have to push on.  Konrad made us do this.”

Honestly I would be struggling with a crippled psyche to comfort the gaping hole where my soul died, too.

Honestly I would be struggling with a crippled psyche to comfort the gaping hole where my soul died, too.

So it goes, you all push on, Walker thinks he sees some guys hanging by ropes with snipers trained on them.  A soldier and a civilian.  He hears Konrad’s voice tell him to choose one to live and die.  Later you find that they were desiccated corpses and there were no snipers, but, hey, you’re losing your last nut.  Why stop there?  After discovering a talkie with the corpses of Konrad’s former chief officers, you find later that the talkie never worked.  When a group of civilians lynches your sniper and translator, Lugo, you and your hitherto sane/reasonable assault squaddie just gun them down like dogs.  Sidenote, in true “shits about to go down” form, Lugo is the wise-cracking and likable squaddie.  They always kill the guy you really like when shit’s about to go down.

Later on you help the last CIA agent steal the water supply of the city and in a last ditch effort to keep it from enemy hands the fucker crashes the trucks and destroys it.  This ensures the complete annihilation of everyone left in Dubai in 4 days.  Oh I forgot, at some point before Lugo bites it you storm the DJ’s hideout and the sniper aerates him with a pistol. You fly a helicopter as an exit strategy, leave the tower a smoldering ruin and engage in a replay of the opening sequence to which Walker says “We did this already!”  At that point you should be like, am I losing it too?  Well, after a while your assault squaddie gets wiped out Alamo-style and as you run off you only see the flicker of multitudinous explosions behind you.  But nothing really concrete.  Either way, you know that a ziploc bag might be too big to send his remains home in.  I might add that during this last sequence the loading screens say things like “It’s not your fault” and  “You’re still a good person”.  Well, the reassurance did nothing to ease the growing knot in my guts.

So, you climb the stairs to the tower and enter under the premise of surrendering to Konrad only to discover “The Damned” 33rd surrendering to you.  I was confused since, usually, if they have enough firepower to make you surrender, there are at least a few of them left.  In the lobby though the so-stated remainder of the 33rd is like 12 guys.  Konrad summons you up to his loft where you find him painting a rendition of the above image like some kind of serial killer therapy patient.  Best part is, Konrad was never there.  How could he paint this?  Simple answer, he wasn’t and this was painted by Walker.

A little happy blue here and you capture that incriminating glare.

A little happy blue here and you capture that incriminating glare.

He disappears behind the painting and you follow him only to see a person sitting in a chair. Konrad’s corpse wearing something totally not his above hippy-gamer look. So he monologues to you over a montage of earlier events explaining that you have fucking lost it.  At one point you see Walker even talking to himself.  Now this is where the “Fuck me I am a horrible piece of human trash” realization kicks in.  In the final boss battle you basically shoot his reflection in a pane of glass before he shoots you and then radio for evac.  Among imaginary Konrad’s last words he says that after all this you can still go home. The final epilogue gives you the chance to surrender to some recon force or mow them down with an AA-12 and grumble cryptically over their radio “Welcome to Dubai” to their superiors.

So. There are a few things that piss me off here. Not in a typical rage sort of way but in a more “my brain won’t stop running over it for days” way. First off is Konrad.  As you and imaginary Konrad stand over Konrad’s corpse he says “Looks like Konrad’s survival was vastly overstated.”  Cheeky fuck. This implies, however, that he has been dead a while. Possibly the whole time, but you pick up the broken talkie further along in the game. So either your character lost his mind the first time you crashed the helicopter or Konrad died sometime after you heard him over your operational receiver but before you pick up the talkie.  Another thing to consider is the helicopter sequence.  Why do we see that twice? And how is it that Walker knows that this is the second time this has happened?  One theory I have is that everything that happens between the beginning of the game and the second helicopter sequence is the you reliving the horror of what happened up to the point where he truly loses all grasp on reality: the gunning down of civilians. As you gun down those civvies it seems weird as shit that suddenly your previously rational squaddie suggests and even begs to mow them down. So that makes it seems possible that maybe your squaddies have been dead this whole time and your character is sifting reality through his broken psyche alone and dying in the desert sun that his squaddies tried to stop his carnage, but in reality they were never there at all.  Perhaps even these are the events as they were imagined to justify a lunatic engaging in a murderous rampage?  And if Walker did paint the above masterpiece, that means he sees a whole lot of shit the wrong way.  Honestly, the implications are just too vast to be fully expounded upon.

The game makes you feel like an absolute piece of shit for finishing, too. As if somewhere that tent is still sitting huddled in an abandoned Dubai full of charred corpses. I mean, Konrad even says to you “None of this would have even happened if you just stopped” which automatically sounds like he’s talking to YOU.  The goddamn player.  Like, YOUR bloodlust and YOUR insane desire to see the game out to the very end and impassively dictate the actions of three Special Operatives as they murder Americans and torch civilians is more to blame than the videogame character Walker himself.  Not sure about you, but this one had me wiping the fingerprints off my mouse and keyboard.

Overall, this game made me feel.  And not just fucking feel but hard, deep and powerfully. Like ouch. It is a masterpiece of gaming that makes you ask way too many questions in what is supposed to be the conclusion and has been hailed by many as a redux of Heart of Darkness, a book written by Joseph Conrad. O, yea, that last name look familiar? It’s the ‘K’ threw you off, wasn’t it? And that was artfully redone by Francis Ford Coppola as Apocalypse Now.  Wasn’t the famous line from that “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”?  Well, Walker favors the sizzle of white phosphorus, but the homages to the film don’t stop there.  The DJ is a hippy-lingo slinging wastrel with trippy visuals in his broadcast hideout and a sort of “fight the power” vibe to him. AND he plays Vietnam-era classic rock over the radio for the murderous audience. AND the game’s opening screen starts with Jimmi Hendrix’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner! So, yea, this is a hat-tipping frenzy to rival an earthquake in a haberdashery.

My honest opinion is that this game is an example of what I feel videogames struggle with most: legitimacy as art.  This game sits in the same genre as Call of Duty and its ilk, but it is far beyond them all in scope.  I now feel I have to do this game a duty and reread Heart of Darkness (since I forget mostly everything about it) and watch Apocalypse Now (since I’ve never seen it).  If this game doesn’t make you feel at least a piece of all that, then fuck you.  You may be beyond redemption.  Anyways, this is my blog. Deal with it.

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