Saturday, July 28, 2012

He Turned Us Into Killers

Wake Up and Smell The Ashes
 Maybe it will fade with time, but Spec Ops: The Line has had a large impact on the way I perceive and approach shooters. Much like The Incredibles and Watchmen made me reconsider how superhero stories should be told, Spec Ops seems to have shifted what I look for in video game shooters specifically, and possibly in video games as a whole. Time will tell.

Previously, the best modern war game I had played was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. While the sequels devolved into Michael Bay absurdity, the first game in the Modern Warfare series presented a scenario perfectly pitched to play on post-9/11 fears while skillfully using the first person perspective to enhance the drama. Its story was extreme without being ridiculous, and felt believable. It still had the respectful tone towards war and soldiers which previous games in the series maintained.

It also, of course, went out of its way to make you the hero in the end. The last, slow motion sequence where the player shoots Zakhaev is one of my favorite examples of melding gameplay with cinematic trappings. After saving the world from the brink of nuclear war, you got to personally take out the diabolical mastermind behind it all. Badass status confirmed.

Spec Ops assumes you are literate in the genre it attempts to deconstruct, then forces you to confront the things you've done and why you play these games. Killing white dots from the AC-130 in Modern Warfare was a disquieting take on the way the US hunts its enemies today, but you were never forced to see the screaming victims who weren't lucky enough to be obliterated instantly. You were a force of righteous American justice, so why should you care? Spec Ops makes you hear the screams, see the missing limbs, and literally asks if you still feel like a hero. The game is still meaningful if you aren't as familiar with your standard military manshoot, but I feel the impact is lessened if you haven't shot waves of generic foes in Modern Warfare or listened to the chatty, snappy dialogue of your bros in Gears of War.

Spec Ops isn't perfect. It goes pretty far in making you feel like a standard military shooter badass. Headshots cause a short, dramatic slo-mo, and during an initial playthrough, you are bombarded with reminders of how far you have to go to unlock its many achievements. When many games pop up an achievement just for hitting the start button on the main menu, not being more subversive with the achievements in particular feels like a missed opportunity.

Perhaps we had to have games like Gears of War, Modern Warfare, and Army of Two in order to get to the point where developers are actively trying to make something different in reaction to them. Indie games seem to be perceived as the go-to place for "meaningful" games, for whatever reason. But we're getting to the point where triple-A games are moving beyond winks and nods to their influences and more towards actual commentary and incisiveness. There are more and more options available for games with good writing and thoughtful presentation while still retaining responsive gameplay and player feedback. These are the games I'm more and more drawn towards. I've played enough mindless games.
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