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Spec Ops: The Line and the Future of Shooters

This year’s E3 marked a dramatic shift, albeit one that was not immediately noticeable.

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Spec Ops: The Line

As E3’s go, it was not a revolutionary year, no major new hardware announcements were made, nor were there game reveals that left everyone stunned. That is not to say that it was a bad year, for it demonstrated confidence from the industry following the new hardware releases at the end of 2013.

It is still too early to expect anything truly revolutionary from the larger developers, as they are still getting to grips with the new hardware and trying to appease the demands of achieving the coveted 1080p 60fps “gold standard”. This has been reflected with the number of upcoming titles that, on the surface, are playing it fairly safe. EA, Activision, and Ubisoft all have new instalments from their major franchises. Whilst most of these new entries do offer new takes on their respective series’, none are to the extent that they can be deemed truly new to video games.

What became evident from E3 this year was the change in tone and setting found in the industry’s genre staple, the shooter (this includes both First and Third person shooters). Activision’s Call of Duty is no longer taking place in a (relatively) modern setting and has moved to the near future with soldiers that fight for private militaries, use exoskeletons, and are given orders by Kevin Spacey. Activision are also publishing Halo creator Bungie’s new IP Destiny which takes place far into the future on Earth after humanity’s galactic golden era has already been and gone. EA’s Battlefield, whilst still taking place in the present day can no longer be called a military shooter, for it is now effectively a game of cops & robbers.

Kotaku recently pointed out just how many new space themed games are coming out in the coming year or so, and whilst only a couple of those are shooters it is a marked change in setting from the recent console generation which seemed to have a fixation on the modern setting. Space settings can often be symbolic of a desire to explore a more optimistic potential future, but it can also be used to explore the problems of today but through a different lense, either to obscure the link to the present or for the creative freedom it can allow.

Although whilst that can be the case, many of the space themed games mentioned in Kotaku’s list focus more on exploration or combat instead of concentrating on developing fixed narrative (with the exception of Tales from the Borderlands). These titles promote the idea of the player creating their own story based on the experiences they have in the game. That is not to mean that single player narrative based games are in decline (again Tales from the Borderlands counters this), but the move away from a contemporary setting and the current military identity can be seen as a growing tiredness of the modern military shooter.

As mentioned previously, whilst Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (CoD4) was not the first modern military shooter, it was the first to popularise it. Likewise Yager’s Spec Ops: The Line is not the last game to utilise the conventions of a modern military shooter (as there have already been two Call of Duty’s and a Battlefield game since) it can be argued that it symbolised the fall of the genre. Often when game is attributed to a fall of genre it is because it represented the last tired attempt of trying to grasp at the remaining money that can be made from it, or that it was so bad that it put people off from buying more games from that genre and therefore developers from making those games. One such example is the demise of the music rhythm genre which Activision helped to bury after numerous unnecessary Guitar Hero iterations.

Spec Ops is not an example of this. Rather it did such an outstanding job of creating a meaningful modern military shooter that explores the horrors of conflict that can take place in a modern setting (even though it is loosely based on a novella written at the end of the 19th century) whilst also managing to highlight the problems that had plagued the genre. So intrinsic was this aspect that the game essentially played out like a parody of the genre whilst simultaneously becoming increasingly bleak. Throughout Spec Ops presented players with the illusion of choice, yet these choices always provided a desperate result with the possible outcome being either bad or worse; there was no good choice. Ultimately the only real choice that was given to the player was whether or not they wanted to continue. The game was an exercise in pointing out the horrible things that were taking place in games from this genre that were never properly analysed. Spec Ops changed this and instead asked the player if they felt like hero.

In modern military shooters (and shooters in general) the player is tasked with shooting pretty much anything that moves without giving it a moment’s notice. The problem with this approach is that players are willingly led into assuming that everyone who they kill in the game deserved to die, with the only real reason for this being that the “enemy” would do the same to them. During the Death From Above mission in CoD4 the player is tasked with shooting at any humans on screen that are not clearly identified as an ally, but for all they know they could be shooting at civilians. Spec Ops actually takes this notion and makes it a reality.

Spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line from here on

During the infamous White Phosphorus scene, the main protagonist Captain Walker finds his Delta Force between a rock and a hard place and makes the choice that using white phosphorus is the only way to progress forward towards their (his) goal. The way the scene plays out is very reminiscent of Death From Above with the same distorted video screen and the use of heat signatures. However at the end of the scene instead of emerging as victors of a battle, Delta Force are portrayed as the villains, whilst they walk past the scorched remains of the American soldiers that Walker subjected to devastation of white phosphorus. From here the situation only becomes worse, for Walker discovers that the large mass of people by the gates were not a further group of soldiers but instead the very survivors they came here to protect. The intensity of this horror is strengthened by the image of the charred remains of a mother trying to protect her child from the raining death that Walker was unleashing on them.

Towards the end of the game Walker challenges Colonel Konrad, who Walker has fixated upon as being the cause of all of the suffering that has occurred, accusing him of having done all of this. Konrad retorts ‘no, you did’. He then adds that ‘none of this would have happened if you’d just stop’. Konrad may be talking to Walker but he is also addressing the player. If the player had stopped playing the game then the horrors that took place would not have been committed at the hands of the player. They had one real choice, and they chose to continue playing. As Walker is trying to comprehend the situation and his own mental sanity he proclaims to Konrad that he is ‘done playing games’ to which Konrad responds ‘I assure you this is no game’.

It is hyperbolic to claim that Spec Ops is more than a video game, because in terms of the gameplay experienced Spec Ops presents itself as a competent third person shooter. It is better than average to play, but aside from the occasional use of sand to alter the battlefield, provides little that is new to shooters. Although this is a positive element as it prevents the gameplay from detracting from the wider themes that the game is addressing, but is good enough so as not be a hurdle to the player (the game is still difficult, but fair). This is in contrast to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 which after the success of its predecessor, Infinity Ward decided to start the game with a scene designed purely to shock the player. But they failed to make it meaningful in any way, and the end result became another example of video games problem with violence. The lacking importance of the scene was further highlighted due to the player being warned about the nature of the upcoming scene and then asked if they wanted to skip it. Spec Ops confronts the player with shocking scenes, but they are accompanied by meaning, Modern Warfare 2 offers the player a shooting gallery full of innocent civilians with the only justification being that it is what terrorists do.

Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw made an important observation during his “review” in which he compared Spec Ops to a horror game, and due to the deteriorating psychological state of Walker and Delta Force this is rather apt. This is a much more appropriate way to explore war rather than the fun shooting galleries presented in Call of Duty and Battlefield. Even though CoD has abandoned modern military it is still focusing on the role of the military, except this time it looks like it might be taking a page out of Metal Gear Solid’s playbook. Battlefield on the other hand is trying to reinvigorate itself by being more like a modern TV police drama and firmly dropping its prior militaristic gung-ho attitude.

Shooters will always be around, and have been one of the strongest genres since the days of Wolfenstein 3D in the early 1990s. They will continue to evolve and change, but for now people have become tired of the modern military genre (and the real world circumstances that it portrays) like they have done previously with both World War 2 and space settings, both of which are making a form of return, highlighting the cyclical nature of the genre. Yet changing the setting alone is not enough for shooters to develop, for the way that players interact with them need to evolve as well.

One such potential example is Ubisoft’s upcoming Tom Clancy game The Division. David Polfeldt, managing director of Massive Entertainment (the games developer), points out the inherent problem with shooters being the amount of killing that takes place. This might be an oxymoronic statement to make considering that killing is considered the point of shooters, but it need not be. Shooters do not have to be about killing, Portal is technically a shooter as it utilises most of the same conventions, and in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater it is possible to go through an entire playthrough without killing a single person.

Spec Ops may have asked the player why they mindlessly killed hundreds of people, but it still made them in order to drive the question home. In The Division shooting apparently does not always have to be the answer to a situation, allowing for the possibility of more player choice in how they approach a game, rather than the usual of how they can kill someone. Spec Ops was progressive by being self-aware of what makes a shooter and brought attention to the flaws within the genre to produce a memorable experience. The Division could take things further and implement change into its gameplay making it a morally aware shooter.

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Despite studying Politics at Undergrad and then War Studies at Master's level, James managed to write multiple essays relating to technology and more importantly video games.

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