on Aug 23, 2012
Last post. This will wrap up our series on the game. Just a reminder that the stuff in the gold boxes is Taliesin.
“I get it. This is like Heart of Darkness.”
Walker finds a radio that can reach Konrad. The two of them talk. It’s clear that Konrad has failed in his efforts to evac the city. He’d been ordered to stay out, but he broke from those orders because he thought he could help. His men mutinied, and he ended up killing his own soldiers. He now runs Dubai. The fighting between the CIA, the locals, and the 33rd has torn this city apart.
Konrad must be removed. Walker decides the best course of action is to cut through the 33rd and bring him to justice.
Your team is falling apart. You were a tight-knit unit when you arrived, but the civilian deaths, betrayals, and gunfights with fellow Americans has eroded everyone’s identity and sense of purpose. Compelled either by the tropes of the genre or sheer bloody-mindedness you march onward, shooting people and destroying what little of the city there is left.
I love how the story takes its toll on the characters. Yes, Walker & friends do get beat up, cut, and bruised as the game goes on, but it goes deeper than that. In most games character development is relegated to cutscenes, but here their unraveling creeps into gameplay. At the start of the game your combat messages and banter are clean, measured, and professional. As the game goes on they become more angry, desperate, and eventually sadistic. Walker’s melee attacks start out as clean maneuvers and degrade into savage beatings.
Executions go from a quick, merciful headshot or neck-snap to a dying enemy, through shooting out their kneecap prior to the killshot, all the way up to brutal beatdowns, or forcing the barrel of his gun into their face and pausing to soak in their fear before pulling the trigger.
But it’s more than just anger. Walker was angry halfway through the game. By the end several of his voice clips sound out of breath, in pain, even scared. He’s at the end of his rope, if he hasn’t run out already.
As a secondary concern, I’d like to take this point to mention that over time, the game also adds some nuance to your squadmates characters. Lugo, your wisecracking loose cannon, is happy to let orders go hang in pursuit of the objective, but he’s also the quickest to balk at the murky things you do. He’s the one who speaks out against the use of White Phosphorous, and he’s the one who comes closest to speaking out against Walker’s growing instability.
Adams, who could so easily have just been The Black Guy, turns out to have a core of sentiment to him. He’s more loyal to Walker and willing to put up with more. He tries to be decent, but his defining trait is definitely his loyalty. He trusts Walker, trusts that he’ll do the right thing even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
This is a good point, and I didn’t notice it until Tal pointed it out, but he’s right. The characters get deeper as we get to know them. Adams feels very bland at the start, like Jacob from Mass Effect 2. Lugo feels like a generic wise-cracking guy at the start. But as the game goes on we see their values and frustrations expressed as they react to or encourage certain decisions. They start off as NPC combat buddy sidekicks, and grow into fallible human characters. What’s most painful is that their biggest flaw is their trust in you.
If you’re paying attention to his character arc, it’s more than a little painful when, near the end of the game, Adams unshakeable faith in you is quite visibly fraying. It adds a personal touch to Walker’s faliure that complements the grander, more abstract disasters.
Yes, Konrad botched his mission. And the CIA made it worse. But the whole time, the real villain was you. Flashbacks offer you a few helpful reminders of your orders, and your actions.
Why did you keep going? What pressed you? Why didn’t you follow orders? You thought you knew better than everyone else. You thought you could fix everything by shooting people. You did things the CIA told you to do, even though you don’t answer to the CIA and you didn’t understand their goals or their place in the conflict.
American soldiers died. Civilians died. The CIA operation was a success, meaning all trace of their actions here have been removed. You didn’t bring Konrad to justice. You repeated his mistake.
You’re the problem. You’re the bad guy.
Konrad is dead. Long dead. He was dead before you reached the city. He’s been playing Tyler Durden to your Jack all this time. Walker broke after he dropped the white phosphorous on the civilians, and conjured up Konrad to take the blame. The radio he found was actually broken, and Walker was just imagining their conversations. (It’s interesting to imagine what the real Konrad would have said if he’d been alive at the end. “What? I said what? We’ve never spoken!”)
Playing through a second time, you can see the game doesn’t cheat on this point. There are even moments in the game where you’re talking to “Konrad” and your teammates can’t make sense of what you’re doing or saying.
The writers could have botched this so many ways. They kept it personal, so that this feels like a statement about the horrors of war and the casual attitude towards killing in other shooters, and not like a ham-fisted political statement against Americans. They played fair with the dialog, not cheating to make the big Konrad reveal work. The story begins with the voice of Michael Bay and gradually transitions to the voice of Stanley Kubrick. It puts you into un-winnable situations without feeling like it’s just being unfair and arbitrary.
You should know this scene. A lynch mob of civilians has just killed Lugo, and now they look like they’re a hairs breadth away from doing the same to you. If you try to push through them, they’ll bludgeon you back. After a few seconds, they’ll start throwing rocks. If you wait too long, they will literally stone you to death where you stand. Beside you, Adams’ blood is up. He’s demanding permission to open fire on the crowd. The game offers you no alternative.
A friend of mine did it. Sprayed bullets into a group of screaming civilians, because he couldn’t see another way out. I didn’t do it, but I’d spoiled the moment for myself beforehand, something I curse myself for in hindsight. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d gone into that scene, not knowing there was another way. I had to very gently inform my friend, who was adamant that he “didn’t have a choice” that yes, he did have a choice, and he chose to slaughter civilians.
The developers, apparently, laboured hard over this section of the game to put the player in Walkers shoes: Boxed in, under a lot of stress, with no apparent alternative. It worked. Bloody hell, it worked.
During this sequence I fired my gun in the air, afraid that Adams was going to hear the shots and decide to start killing. I was afraid I was being railroaded into killing people in an “us or them” moment. Like Tal, I was really feeling the pressure here. I’d wanted to help these people, I’d screwed everything up, and now they understandably wanted to kill me for it. There was a sense of relief when Adams joined me in shooting guns into the air to disperse the crowd.
This is one of the big reasons I urged people not to spoil the game. The whole point of moments like this is so you can react under pressure and see how you respond. Now you know how to “win” at this section. But would you have done the right thing if it hadn’t been spoiled for you? You can claim so, and nobody can prove you wrong, but it’s not quite the same as doing it.
The game really makes you care about the civilians even though you can’t understand them and the only time you see them is when they’re cursing you. There’s one image that’s used now and again during the game: A snapshot of a mother shielding her child from an attack. It’s just a glimpse. You never speak to them. You don’t see the kid frolicking and happy before the disaster. The writers understand that you understand how such an image would impact the mind of a man, and so they don’t feel the need to belabor the image to the point of melodrama. Silence can be sadder than long weeping and angst. Compare this to the “You can’t help me!” little boy in Mass Effect 3 and you’ll see how two different writing teams handle the same concept. BioWare bungled the idea, while developer Yager nails it.
Is the game condemning Walker? The player? The genre itself? Or is it critical of Soap, Price, Sweetwater, and Preacher? Is it critical of the USA? Of the general public portrayal of warfare as a simple conflict between good and bad? You can make a case for any of these. When I got to the end, the main question on my mind wasn’t “What is Spec Ops saying?” but instead, “What exactly are all those OTHER games saying?”
This is a superb game. I don’t know if I’d call it “fun“, but it’s a game about something. It’s a conversation-starter. The game itself is a series of questions, and it’s brave enough to let you come up with the answers for yourself.
I have no idea how they got the dang thing green-lit, that’s for sure.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.