Computer games have incredible potential to change the way people think about the world. There will soon come a day when everyone who was born before video games became mainstream media, will die, and after that time, video games might be considered a relevant and legitimate source of entertainment and enlightenment. This reviewer says this because as it stands now, few people outside the gaming community think that games can be deep or meaningful.
Present, Spec Ops: The Line, a recent release from 2K games. It doesn’t take much to see that this is a truly ground breaking exercise in getting to the heart of the concept of war. This reviewer suggests heading onto YouTube and looking up the title to see a trailer or gameplay.
Before getting into the meat, let’s establish the basics the game is visually beautiful, the engine (gameplay) solid, the pacing brilliant and voice acting, genre-smashingly good.
This game does something that no movie or other form of media could capture; it gives choice. It is a third person shooter which quickly crosses genres into survival horror. It captures a sense of helplessness and moral obligation that all soldiers must face. As the name suggests, the game is mainly concerned with the moral line that all soldiers must face when they make a decision which concerns the lives of themselves and others. This is of course a line which we struggle to define with rules of engagement, and other, somewhat idealistic mediations of the practice of killing people.
This is the first game that truly focuses on the concept of a “just war”. Other entries, notably Call of Duty: Modern Warefare 2, have attempted to shock the player by making them perform morally reprehensible actions but these have in the most part been gimmicky shock tactics without brunt or undertow. Spec Ops: The Line perfectly incorporates the power of ambiguity. For large portions of the game, it is completely unclear which of many factions, can be considered enemies. There are even times early in the game where the characters are literally shooting because they are being shot at, no other reason than survival. This makes for some poignant and dare I say, realistic moments.
It is an interesting concept and although there are so many ideas and ideologies in place in an attempt to ensure the conflicts we engage in are justified, such lines in the sand are hard to distinguish (symbolism alert). This game reminds us that what could be argued to be a just war may not be so “just” when we consider the realities on the ground. We are of course engaging in the business of killing people. One of the most powerful moments of the game which will pop up after a YouTube search is about white phosphorous, which is banned by international rules of engagement and its use is considered a war crime. It really begs the question as to what is too violent or painful to inflict onto another human. The game cleverly juxtaposes the stabbing of a soldier (an action completely overlooked by the soldiers and gamer alike) with the use of phosphorous – two actions that this reviewer would argue are equally awful. The game essentially forces you to commit a war crime, and in doing so, the game is forcing the player to confront the realities of war.