Losing to Win: ‘Spec Ops’ and Tragedy in Video Games

This post contains spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line

Defined in the broadest sense, traditionally comedies are narratives that resolve in a positive way. They are expected to result in a happy ending. The tragedy, however, is a lesson taught via witnessing the ultimate demise of an individual, a demise brought about through steadily declining circumstances. Within this broad context, modern video games could be associated more easily with comedy than they could be with tragedy.

Pac-Man (and maybe all early arcade games) is a tragedy of sorts. It is a “story” about a creature obsessed with consuming dots that will inevitably reach a bad end, since the game cannot be won, cannot be resolved. Modern video games are seldom like Pac-Man, concerned as they are with winning the game and resolving a narrative arc that represents that goal of games, “winning.” Indeed, perhaps games in general, when they take on the trappings of plot, character development, and other aspects of storytelling, are always prone towards comedy because the goal of games in general is to win. A happy outcome (for someone at least) is generally expected in games.

Of course, death, a representation of failure or a lose-state is present in modern video games, but usually only in the weakest of forms. Extra lives and especially copious save points and the ability to continue underscore the nature of modern games and their stories. They are intended to be won, to have their narrative arcs completed.

Likewise, while characters are faced with conflict in modern video games, characters progress in their stories and game mechanics reflect that idea. In the “comedy” of video games, characters develop, getting stronger as they face adversity. They gain experience points, they level up, and this progression marks the character’s eventual march to the resolution of the goal of the game. They get stronger and stronger as characters so they can eventually resolve the game’s plot, so that they can win the game. They are characters well suited to the positivity of comedy.

The goal of Pac-Man, on the other hand, is the inevitable goal of tragedy, to show you failure, to get you off the machine so another quarter can be dropped into it. That being said, defining Pac-Man as a tragedy is difficult given how little real plot or character development there is in the game. Pac-Man isn’t Grand Theft Auto in which you witness the development of a character in a fully realized story. It features a narrative premise, maybe, more so than a plot per se. This isn’t Moby Dick in which we witness the once supremely competent and capable Captain Ahab descend into madness or Macbeth in which the titular character slowly sinks into moral depravity. Pac-Man is a character doomed to failure, but his escapades don’t result in seeing him change in any way as a “person,” and the game itself doesn’t represent any decline in Pac-Man as he gets closer and closer to his end. Pac-Man eats dots just as competently on his first life as he does his final life.

The idea of a video game character that suffers a general decline, though, again, may just seem counter to the way in which games are designed. Who wants to get less capable as a character as they progress? The role playing game in particular militates against this very idea with constant progression and regular character “development” serving as a central pleasure of the game. There is an optimism to even games with the darkest subject matter, given that so many story-driven games have adopted role playing game elements like leveling up, gaining new powers and abilities, and acquiring better equipment and weapons.

All of which is what makes playing Spec Ops: The Line such a strange experience. It is a game that clearly wishes to tell a tragic story and even its game mechanics serve to complement that idea. In The Line, winning, as it turns out, is not really the ultimate end of the game’s protagonist. The Line fails to provide a game space in which a player takes on the role of a character who will resolve the goals of his mission.

As Captain Martin Walker, the player is charged with taking on the role of a soldier sent to extract Colonel John Konrad (appropriately named given the game’s indebtedness to Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness for its basic structure) and a division of U.S. Army soldiers with him from a war ravaged and storm ravaged Dubai. Unlike most video game characters, Walker’s character development is far from positive, as the events that surround his attempted extraction lead to his making some morally questionable decisions and also begin taking a toll on his mind. The game, of course, reverses the plot of Heart of Darkness. This reversal becomes clear with the game’s revelation that it isn’t Konrad’s descent into a feral and primitive state (as would be the case with the novel’s infamous Kurtz character) that the player is witness too, instead it is Walker’s own “heart of darkness” that will be revealed through his mission to extract Konrad (and in that sense, perhaps, the player’s own, since the player is the one making these terrible and horrific decisions for Walker).

The game marks this decent from traditional video game hero into a tragically flawed and mentally declining individual in various ways. The load screens in the game feature the all too common tips and hints that many games do to better play the game — at least they do at first. While these interstitial sequences include suggestions about how to approach strategic situations (flanking is a good idea against machine gun emplacements, for example) during the early chapters, these helpful messages are replaced by ironic pronouncements like “To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless” and questions like “Do you feel like a hero yet?”

The game features the ability to give Walker’s two companions, Lugo and Adams, direction on the battlefield by marking targets that you wish them to engage while you focus your attentions elsewhere during a firefight. In the early chapters, when Walker marks a target he says things like “focus your fire “ on a particular target. Later in the game’s final chapters, Walker will simply state, “kill the fucker.” Likewise, Walker’s brothers in arms will let Walker know early on in the game if they are having trouble targeting a character, and they let him know quite calmly and reasonably that they are “breaking off,” whereas when this happens late in the game (after events have gone sour and Walker’s leadership has led them to do some very bad things) that if Walker wants a character killed then he should “fucking kill him yourself.”

Walker and his fellow soldiers’ attitudes decline steadily as his character unravels and the game changes the player’s sense of how a simple mechanic, like issuing battlefield commands, has been warped by the downward spiral of this tragic hero. However, in terms of actual gameplay itself what marks Walker’s decline most clear is the changing level design of the game. It is certainly not uncommon for games to get harder as a player progresses in them, to allow escalating challenges to represent the significance of getting closer to the prize and closer to winning, but generally shooters make up for such difficulty spikes with more powerful weapon drops available to the player to fight greater numbers of more powerful foes. This idea is present in The Line as well, however, the last few levels of the game spike in difficulty in an almost obscene way. The final level of the game is essentially a fight through a corridor of death.

Corridor fights because they limit mobility (and thus tactical options) are frequently difficult situations in shooters. In The Line, the game’s last level is a terrifically slow slog through a narrow series of corridors in which scores of soldiers hurl grenades regularly at you while you hide behind cover. And you need cover desperately because you are pinned in the crossfire of twin machine gun nests that are stationed at both sides of that corridor. This final fight is less a pleasurable shooter challenge than it is an agonizing practice of patiently waiting for the right moments to hopefully score a kill and reduce the number of foes pinning you down. Walker’s journey does not lead up to a moment of gameplay in which you feel empowered, practiced, and competent at your job. It leads to an effort that has to be endured because the end seems as if it is almost in sight.

Walker and the player’s final choice in the game mark the tragedy of this downward spiral from badass video game hero to a character and player that is morally comprised by the very activity of playing hero. When it is revealed that Konrad is dead, and thus, that no one has been egging Walker and the player on to make terrible choices in order to serve the greater good of completing the mission, the player is left with the choice to shoot the hallucinatory image of the man that represents making morally reprehensible decisions for the sake of the mission, Konrad, or to allow that image (which is really just the product and justification of Walker’s own mind) to shoot Walker. In either case, a psychic suicide feels warranted after what Walker, after what you, have done over the course of the game.

This game is a tragedy because it manages to make victory, to make its win-state, into inevitable loss. The self, the game seems to argue, is extinguished by participating in the act of playing this kind of game and the decline of that self has been marked by every action taken over the course of playing Spec Ops: The Line

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