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Mostly Harmless?

So, I played through Spec Ops: The Line. Actually, that's inadequate. I studied Spec Ops: The Line: picked at it, turned it over, bit down and sucked out the gooey, uncomfortable marrow. It's all a bit too trendy, maybe. I don't usually play military shooters so I've just been following the breadcrumbs critics have been scattering for quite a while now. I was a tourist in the ruins of Dubai, not quite sure what I was looking for.

I decided to play The Line one chapter at a time, alternating with reading Brendan Keogh's analysis Killing is Harmless. But I didn’t stop there. Since my background was a bit lacking I also read Heart of Darkness, watched Apocalypse Now, and in general went on a short war-movie binge, some familiar some less so. I listened to protest songs, and read Wikipedia articles on cheerful subjects like white phosphorus. I had a sneaking suspicion I was taking this project too far. At the point where I started following up on the torture references I was sure of it.

I always analyse games as I play, hunting for writing inspiration, but this was another level entirely. From the beginning I was scanning every detail, looking for the themes and genre subversions I knew were coming. At that point, The Line couldn't fail to be meaningful. It had found the most receptive player it could ask for.

Early on, while still very much in typical military shooter territory, I was firing at some Middle Eastern men in a crashed plane. Nothing to challenge the status quo so far. Then Walker barked a command to his squad, and I thought I heard our enemy echo the same order at their end of the plane. I'm still not sure if I imagined it, but it's possible that even then the game was subtly hinting at the breakdown of a clear sense of good versus evil; us versus "the other".

The Line doesn't stay subtle. It has subtle aspects certainly, but the core themes hit like a truck full of bricks. I could say the same about Apocalypse Now for that matter, and I'm not saying it's a bad strategy. In a hyperbolic genre it might be the most effective way to get a message across. I just wanted to find something more under it all, but it wasn't that sort of trip. The Line couldn't fail to be meaningful, and it's easy to get swept up and go along for the ride, but after coming out the other side I have to admit it's about simple messages I've seen before. Self-aware games are hardly new.

Although, if I really wanted I could probably write 50,000 words à la Killing is Harmless without covering too much of the same ground, so maybe my idea of "simple messages" is unfair. It seems like something you'd study in English class at high school if games became part of the curriculum.

The Line feels like it wants to take players out of their comfort zones, but shooting soldiers in the head isn't completely comfortable for me in the first place. Military shooters and their immense popularity make me somewhat uncomfortable, so I don't really need The Line to point out how I already feel. It's tempting to play with a sense of superiority: I'm just a tourist so I'm not the one responsible for any of this. I'm just here to observe and analyse. There's a giant hovering question about why I would want to put myself through all this. I don't exactly "like" this game (am I supposed to?), it’s not "my thing", although it is interesting in its way. I appreciated it more in the moment than I do looking back on it.

Many game protagonists slaughter countless sentient beings while being told they're a pure, wonderful hero. If my primary skill is killing I'd rather play at being a psychopath in Hotline Miami than pretend to be the saviour of the world, at least it's consistent. Walker isn't quite a psychopath, certainly not to begin with, but he never feels like one of the good guys either. He seems like someone stuffing up and trying to solve every situation with bullets. In that sense The Line is probably far more comfortable for me than a typical bombastic shooter. Comfort's a complicated thing though, and even if the violence suits me more than usual it's still confronting, no getting around that.

I am a tourist here, but not really such a detached observer. I probably die a bit more than your average shooter fan. If anything that makes things worse because my determination to push through regardless is clearer (no I do not want to reduce the game difficulty, I'd obliterate those "friendly" little difficulty selection reminders from all games if I could).

The Line has a lot to say about being a tourist. So many billboards, travel brochures and voiceovers about what a popular destination Dubai has become since the sandstorms hit. However much the American soldiers are changed by their experiences, and start to lose track of their sense of home, they do technically still have a safe place they could go back to. Not so the local population, who will have no choice but to suffer and die. What is Walker's story in the face of that? It's the utter despairing pointlessness of travelling along with him that really hits me.

I don't get to wave away all responsibility and personal involvement when it comes to game violence, because I fucking love virtual violence. It's really the connection to reality that makes shooters uncomfortable for me. The patriotism and political agendas, not the violence itself. There's been a lot of intelligent, reflective commentary on games and violence recently, particularly in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting and that's a good thing. Our entertainment choices do matter and say things about us. It's worth talking about why we want this.

It's awkward trying to find the right words to explain why I place value in gratuitous ultraviolence. It's a primal thing that doesn't translate easily in to words, but it feels much better to feed these aspects of myself in a relatively safe way rather than trying to pretend they don't exist. In the real world other things are more important, but in a constructed space where nobody is actually being hurt it doesn't have to mean the same things.

The Line isn't gratuitous. It has very particular goals and emotions in mind. It can be hammy and predictable, but it hits the right notes. It can pull on the guilt strings, even if it didn't have much to teach me. The value here for me is simply in the emotional journey. It's a reminder of important things — small moments that have come up in my peaceful, privileged life.

I am a killer in the physical world. Not of people of course, and not often, but if a sparrow comes inside it isn't going to survive. I make it quick. There's no pleasure in it, but I try not to be sentimental, either.

The first time I killed something bigger than a bug was different though. I was stupid, inexperienced, and didn't fully think it through. Most people who kill things have someone to teach them initially, and I didn't gain this lesson until later. I didn't know how to kill cleanly without obvious tools available, and so I watched a mouse die in agony by my own hand. It seemed important not to turn away. It also felt like I had no choice: killing is what we do to mice. It's always been that way in my life… but not like that it hasn't.

It was "just" a mouse, and far more sobering than The Line could ever hope to be. That was when I faced my own power and my own weakness, and had to make a choice about who to be. Because however much guilt and stupidity that incident brings up, it also made me feel strong. I know that feeling's there somewhere. I know I have to manage the fact that deep down people can be kind of sick. It's closer than we usually like to think about.

In extreme situations it's worse, of course, and maybe people do invent stories to cope with the madness. Games can be good at delusions – what's one more layer in the simulation? In this case they are certainly Walker's delusions though, not mine. If The Line wants me to feel responsible for Walker's choices it fails, but I do remain responsible for my own emotional tourism.

Chasing emotion is my primary reason for consuming any kind of media (along with a dash of learning). I will chase pretty much any feeling. It's always seemed like a worthwhile and satisfying way to look at things. Does it matter when the feelings hurt? I'm still not sure. There's more than enough real pain to go around, but I can't stop looking for it in other places. So thank you for that much, Spec Ops: The Line.