[WARNING: I’m going to spoil the HELL out of this game. If you have any interest in unique video game experiences, you owe it to yourself to go rent this game, and play it all the way through before you read this. Seriously, do it. I cannot recommend this game enough, and you do NOT want this spoiled for you.]
As far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a hero. Save the girl, save the city, save the world, make things right. I’m not sure if that desire propelled my love of video games, or if video games are what set off that nugget of inspiration, that’s going to be a chicken-or-the-egg argument.
And lord knows I don’t have much in my actual life to fulfill that need, my crippling fear of death keeps me from entering any service in which I could save lives, like being a fireman or policeman, or joining the armed forces, I’m also incredibly squeamish, so I could never be a doctor, and being perpetually out of shape and naturally clumsy indicates that I wouldn’t do well in those professions anyway. My current profession is about as unheroic as it gets, the best I can do to make it more heroic is to say that I occasionally rescue battered paper from vicious, killer printers.
And I don’t have a wife or girlfriend who would call me her hero, and it’s becomingly increasingly more unlikely that I’ll have any children I could be a hero to. And I’m sure one or two of my friends’ first instincts is going to be to comment on this article and say I’m their hero, but that’s kind of like shooting a corpse and claiming you murdered someone: it doesn’t really count, and I’m going to look at you like you’re crazy.
But who needs all those things when I have video games? In just about every video game you can imagine, you are a hero of some sort, or at least you can be, excepting perhaps a couple of Rockstar games and some puzzle games. Sometimes you’re saving the princess, sometimes you’re saving the galaxy, sometimes you’re circumcising a prince while the king and his advisor look on with their jaws dropped straight to the floor, but in every case you are making things right. (Okay, maybe not that last one, but they did save the kingdom in the end of that game….or get drunk in a bar, I honestly can’t remember)
And I love video games for this…there’s a great poster making the rounds saying something like “as a gamer, I don’t have a life…I choose to have many”, and the picture depicts some of the biggest heroes in gaming, like Link, Adam, the Dovahkiin from Skyrim, Commander Shepard, and it thoroughly encapsulates how I feel about being a hero in these games. These characters are, or at least, CAN BE true heroes and I cannot overstate the feeling of genuine pride overtaking my system whenever I beat these games. I can’t even play the evil paths in any games that have them, because they never hold my interest for very long. I love being the hero in video games.
At least I did until Spec Ops: The Line came along and kicked me in the balls so hard that there’s a permanent boot imprint on my scrotum.
Allow me to give a little backstory here: I was aware of Spec Ops as a franchise way back during the Playstation era, but shooters were in something of a slump at the time, and I was far more interested in JRPG’s and survival horror games, so I never gave the Spec Ops games any more than a cursory look, but from what I knew, they were only mediocre shooters, and I still don’t even know if they’re first or third-person. Needless to say, I gave them a pass.
Then, last month, there’s all this hype and marketing like Spec Ops is going to be the next big thing in modern military shooters. “Oh, great,” I thought, “another Call of Duty wannabe.” I recognized the name, but I just figured they were resurrecting an old franchise just for the sake of the fans it might still have, and AGAIN, I gave it a pass.
But suddenly, the internet was abuzz about this game. I saw articles on Reddit about how the designer deliberately tried to make a game that would have players angry at the developer. James Portnow’s Extra Credits is one of my favorite webseries on the internet (not to mention at least partial inspiration for this series of articles), and when he mentioned on the Extra Credits page that he’d been blown away by the game and was going to do at least one episode on the game (he only devotes entire episodes to a single game if it’s really, REALLY good, or really, REALLY bad, and he would wind up doing TWO episodes on Spec Ops), I knew I had to play it, but it was still $60, which was more than I was willing to part with. Then Amazon had a sale offering it, and including Bioshock 1 and 2, all for $20, and the last of my defenses crumbled like a cookie under an elephant’s ass.
I quickly installed the game, and started playing. It’s a fairly linear third-person shooter, with some outdated shooting mechanics, and some rudimentary squad tactics, but the writing was solid enough that I could understand there was some serious potential here, so I kept playing.
About an hour into the experience, I started to get a sense of unease that I couldn’t quite pin down. Something was seriously wrong in this game. I wasn’t sure if the first enemies I’d encountered were actually the bad guys or not, and the further I played, the murkier it got. I thought, “Ambiguous situation, don’t know who’re the bad guys or the good guys? Brilliant!” Perceptive readers will note I’d just made a massive assumption.
A few hours of gameplay or so later, things SEEMED to become clearer. The rogue American military unit were the bad guys, or at least, were trying to stop me from helping the people I’d come to save. And you face a steady stream of them until you run across a huge encampment of them. There’s no way you can take them on with your guns, there’s too many of them, and a number of tanks besides. Your character, Walker, despite protestations from his unit, decides to use white phosphorous. Google it if you want, it’s nasty stuff, burns people alive. I wasn’t thrilled about it, but I understood the necessity – without it, we were dead.
The player is then shown a black and white screen, an infrared top-down view of the battlefield. Heat sources, enemies, show up in white, and you guide the cursor over them and pull the trigger. Towards the end, there’s one last tank in your way surrounded by a bunch of enemies, so I pulled the trigger again. I actually smiled because I managed to get all of them with one shot.
Once the zone was clear, you trek through. It was horrific, but I had expected that. Then you check the valley near that tank, and find a soldier horribly burned, but still alive. “Why?” he asks. Walker replies, “You gave us no choice.” He says, “We were helping…..” and dies. You turn the corner.
There were 40 or 50 burned bodies. No weapons, civilian clothing. My mouth popped open. The other members of my unit start arguing. Innocent men and women had been burned alive, and had clearly died in agony. My eyes finally come to rest on a mother who had apparently desperately tried to shield her child with her body to no avail. They were now locked in their death pose forever. Like Walker, I just stared, slack-jawed and numb at what he’d done. At what I’D done.
That was the biggest punch in the gut a video game had ever given me. Until the end of the game, that is.
You find the leader of the rogue American army, and he talks to Walker about how everything would’ve turned out better if Walker had never shown up. And he delivers a line that may as well be delivered straight to you, the player:
“The truth is, that you’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not. A hero.”
I cannot count the amount of times I’ve tried to do the right thing and managed to fuck everything up. This was like that, only on a MUCH bigger scale. My flubs had only ever caused temporary rifts in friendships or employment that healed in a short length of time. This time, I’d doomed an entire city to death.
But I’ve never had a game take me to task for trying to do the right thing before. In essence, the game is pointing at me and laughing, calling my need to be a hero, and trying to fulfill that wish by playing soldier games with guns, entirely pathetic. And in one sense, the game is right, if I wanted to be a hero, I could volunteer, or give blood more often. Hell, I could try anything OTHER than playing a video game, pretending I’m a big tough manly man wearing a cape who eats danger and shits bullets, always doing the right thing for truth and justice and puppies.
No, in this case, I am not a hero, I am a moron that somehow came into possession of a gun. In fact, it paints my enjoyment of similar testosterone-fueled FPS’s like Call of Duty and Battlefield in the same “you’re not the righteous gunhand of God” colors. I can’t imagine playing one of those games now. It’d be like witnessing someone getting burned to death and then immediately going home to cook a steak; it would be incredibly poor taste, and would probably make me nauseous.
But on the other hand, I do not agree that the base desire to be a hero is pathetic. I think there exists real nobility in the human spirit, and for those of us who can’t express it in our real lives, video games are a great outlet. And I think they can become a powerful tool to motivate people to do real, non-imaginary acts of small heroism in their real lives.
I will continue to do the right thing, where and when I can. As long as I keep that in mind, I can be, will be a hero. And who knows, maybe someday, I’ll even actually save someone’s life. But you can bet I’ll be thinking twice about simulating being a “war hero” for a long time to come.