Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Tradition and Spec Ops: The Line

 Whereas if we approach the poet…we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.
                                                --T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent.

There’s a moment in Spec Ops: The Line, after you’ve unwittingly dropped white phosphorous upon unarmed, undefended, innocent civilians and unsuspecting, innocent U.S. Army aid workers; after you’ve discovered the former 33rd command team executed and decomposing; after you’ve discovered the radio that Colonel John Konrad is ostensibly using to get in your ear and show off what a general prick he is—there’s a moment where you find two men hanging from a bridge. One is hanging for the crime of stealing water. One is hanging for the crime of killing the family of the man accused of stealing water. And you have to choose who lives, and who dies.

I killed the man who killed the family.

You find out later that this was all a hallucination of the shattered mind of your player character reeling from the guilt of the white phosphorus incident and turning his erstwhile commanding officer into a bogeyman to blame for his failings. But that doesn’t make the action any less indicative. When I thought I had to make a choice, I chose the man who killed the family. I thought that was justice.

Here’s what I didn’t consider:

Killing the snipers holding us hostage and making the decision. This you can do.

Shooting out the ropes holding both men, to try and free them. This you can also do. The game is smart enough to give you more options; to think outside the box and take choices that you didn’t know were there.
I didn’t do any of that. Didn’t even cross my mind. I was given a choice, and I chose.

Was this the sort of instinctual training video games have given me that Spec Ops was intentionally trying to subvert? Was this an indication that I’m not one to think outside the box or seek another way? If I’m given two terrible choices, will I take one while ignoring everything else but the choice at hand? Do I in my heart of hearts believe that I knew who deserved to die—and what’s more, did I?

You might say it doesn’t matter. It’s just a videogame. A situation with as much bearing on real life as last morning’s Dora the Explorer. It doesn’t say anything about you. These platitudes, I think, miss the point. At worst, they’re the same sort of cognitive dissonance that Spec Ops so glibly introduces the interactor to. A willful denial of circumstance.

Spec Ops gave me a choice. And I chose. And when I really, truly dwell on it—I honestly believe I would have made the same choice in a real-life circumstance.

What does that say about me?

But we might remind ourselves that criticism is as inevitable as breathing, and that we should be none the worse for articulating what passes in our minds when we read a book and feel an emotion about it, for criticizing our own minds in their work of criticism.
There’s a not-insubstantial faction of video game fans that have been awaiting the genre’s first foray into “high art” (whatever that means) since the Playstation 2/Xbox/GameCube era. These are the people that are fellating Spec Ops as the greatest achievement since Super Mario Bros. 3. There an also not-insubstantial faction of video game fans—not casuals, mind you, but true “gamers”—that find the whole argument not only tiring, but foreboding. Games don’t need to be art; games just need to be fun. Games don’t need to appeal to the masses. Games just need to appeal to us. We’re fine the way they are, so what’s the fuss (Note: Channeling Dr. Seuss, apparently. –E). These are the people that upon playing Spec Ops would insist on the platitudes written above. There is only one difference between these groups of people: introspection.

Introspection is, after all, the root of criticism. And the growth of art coincides with criticism. The moment when man evolves from saying “I like this” to asking “Why do I like this?” and then proceeding from there. It’s how things are shaped.

Spec Ops: The Line is a third person cover-based shooter from Yager studios. It is a quasi-continuation of a franchise of largely forgettable games made for the original PlayStation. Its gunplay is functional, but basic. Its combat is stuck in the mid-2000s. It's short – 5-6 hours on normal difficulty setting (which, to be fair, is very much a challenge). All in all, at its most basic gameplay components, Spec Ops is nothing to write home about. It is in all the ancillary functions where it excels.

Games inhabit a unique place among entertainment, and in fact most other endeavors, in that they are a synthesis of product and art, and often the former is given far more weight. In this way games bear more in common with carpentry than most other art. That’s not a put-down, it’s just the way it is: the utility of the thing is inherently as important as how it looks. The interacted object (the game, in this case) only can be considered passable if at the least it fulfills the purpose consigned upon it by the interactor (the player). It’s great to have a fancy bookshelf, but if it collapses to kindling when any weight is put on it who’s really profited? 

Gaming’s relationship between these two facets remains at best uneasy. Games with severe gameplay limitations—bordering on outright broken—often are given a pass because of aesthetic and story. Likewise games sometimes are forgiven childish storytelling because of awesome gameplay. Balancing the two is a master act that few games have pulled off, and Spec Ops is not one of these. As competent as its gameplay is, it remains merely that: competent. 

So as a game, Spec Ops cannot be considered perfect. And it is not perfect. What it is is important. And its importance makes it great. As with comedy, timing is everything in art; this being the case, Spec Ops has pulled off one of the most gut-wrenching punch lines in the young history of the medium. Release a game like this when online gaming and the realistic brown shooter of both third-and-first-person variety hold sway over half the industry with an alarming dearth of context, release it near the end of a decade-long conflict that caused a nation to question its moral rectitude and how it treats its men and women in uniform, release it in the correct moment, and you have transcended the formula of gameplay and narrative. You become something great. This, ladies and gentlemen, is art.

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance…It involves, in the first place, the historical sense…not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of literature…has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.
The fact that you’re being duped—or at the very least that something is going on that you’ve hitherto been unaware of—doesn’t, believe it or not, occur until a bit after the white phosphorus incident, and the gameplay itself is what gives you the hint. The white phosphorus is gut-wrenching, unexpected, a twist that in a modern military shooter is akin to something out of Homer; that is, ingloriously sublime. A quintessential horror so beautiful in its atrocity its takes one’s breath. It is a seminal moment in the game, and in a perfect world would become a seminal moment in gaming. 

But it’s not quite there that you start to suspect something’s going on beneath the surface. It’s after, directly subsequent to the in-game moment enumerated at the beginning of the post.

Ludo, Adams and Walker have to make their way through a sandstorm to shelter on the other side. In game this is nothing knew. A gameplay affectation that you’ve done at least once before, maybe twice. But for some reason—maybe the white phosphorus incident, maybe an intentional gameplay mechanic, it becomes something a lot more gruesome. An insane, twisted, harrowing run from both the elements of nature and man. A lack of clarity in conflict. For me, even with all I had heard about the style of the game, it was here that I started to understand its complexities, forcing you on a heart-pounding pace from checkpoint to checkpoint, bullets flying, enemies hidden and flanking, on and on and on, not-stopping, not even bothering to slow down. Really, just barely hanging on to survival. The game tosses you into a conflict with severe flippancy and doesn’t quite care if you live. Firefight after sandstorm, atrocity after injury and not a second to catch your breath. I soon came to the realization that the game’s not on your side. It’s not wanting you to have fun. It’s wanting you to barely keep up. It wants the veins to pop out of your arms and your eyes to go bloodshot and to have you leaning forward in the seat feet planted on the floor and teeth gritted. It’s not interested in your relaxation, only your comprehension. I tried to play this game in a position of comfort. It didn’t work out too well.

Suddenly the merely-competent gameplay carries a sinister undercurrent. Enemies obviously spawning from distinct points, weather related vision-obscuring disasters, bullets whizzing every which way, cover sometimes shattering right in front of you, your characters reactions to injury slowly turning from professional notation to unhinged raving. The game won’t let you leave. If you play it, you will work. You will not have fun. But you won’t be able to put it down either.

This is called engagement, and it’s a concept that games have a hard time fulfilling, internalizing, or appreciating. Engagement is not the same thing as fun. They are not mutually exclusive, certainly: something can be fun and engaging very easy, and quite often this is the case. But there is a certain a certain level of fun that is not engaging at all. This is time-wasting fun. Fun that is a distraction but that you can put down whenever you want. Like a game of horseshoes.

Spec Ops is notable for being on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. In many ways it is not fun at all. Literally. From its tough slog of the gameplay to its fast, near Olympian sprint-like pace from fire fight, cutscene, fire fight, cutscene, to those accused, hell-bound turrets near the end of the game when you’re storming the hotel, Spec Ops cannot really be designated fun in any way, shape, form or fashion. Even its video-gamey aspects—say, slowing down when a perfect headshot sends a guy's entire skull blasting like shrapnel from the ruined stump of his neck—come and go so fast that there’s barely any time to relish such a “fantastic kill.” No fun, no happy-go-lucky, no pleasure in seeing a man’s head get blown off, what kind of garbage Call of Duty clone is this?

The answer being that it’s no Call of Duty clone at all. It is engaging, it is gripping. It is not a pleasure to play Spec Ops—but it does make you think. It is in the same vein as Call of Duty and Gears of War, but not of the same blood. It carries the same tropes, but it spins them in different ways, makes the player truly examine what, exactly, it is they are doing. It doesn’t try to be Battlefield. Instead, it does something much more important: it responds to them.

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.
Criticism creates growth in all walks of life. Criticism is how we learned what does and doesn’t work, what we should and shouldn’t do. This holds true as well for video games. And Spec Ops is an encouraging step forward for the medium, if only that it signifies that games have reached a point where they can respond to themselves.

There have been games before that critique the medium as a whole, or critiqued its unique relationship to an interactive other (the gamer) that’s an integral part of its function. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Bioshock immediately jumped to mind. But gaming has never really been able to respond to the products of its own creation. Part of this is its relative youth as a medium. The story aspect of video games has been around pretty much since its inception, but its use of narrative has only been salient since maybe the nineties. Not to mention the advent of gaming period didn’t come until the late seventies. Meaning gaming simply hasn’t had time to respond to itself. It hasn’t done enough, built enough of a foundation. For a while there was nothing really to respond to. 

But we can’t deny that gaming hasn’t really desired to respond to itself either. There have been other concerns. Fanservice is one, both the sexual and power fantasy kind. The onus is more on making something that the interactor will want to keep interacting with, rather than something that has an impact or imparts a message. And it hasn’t really shown much of a push to move away from that, the ubiquity of online play being a huge contributor here. Being as online play and online multiplayer is nigh-expected for games, and being that there are only a few genres and types of games that can comfortably accommodate online play, instead of response, there is merely a sort of uniform Xeroxing effect. Even Spec Ops has an online segment, for no real reason other than, probably, the publisher wasn’t willing to put it out without an online segment because, probably, fans of games, especially this genre of game, are going to expect it to be there no matter how underwhelming. There has been no response, merely imitation. Spec Ops: The Line, in a perfect world, represents a response, and the beginning, perhaps and maybe, of a movement.

Art is about response. Every so-called new thing is built upon the old, and completely indebted to it. It is why the old axiom about “reading a lot and writing a lot” if you want to make a career of the latter practice is always bandied about. You have to not only read story, but understand its history. What others did, why they did it, why it matters, if its old, cliché, been done before. How to put your own twist on it.

In this post-structuralist world this attitude is a mite bit disregarded. The individual creativity is triumphed over all, really. It’s the individual who creates things in a vacuum, and the “best” artists are people who are able to take this so-called vacuum and make art from it. This is why a lot of art gets accused of “ripping someone off” even if similarities to anything else are negligible. Why people rebut the landmark qualities of Citizen Kane with cries of how thisthisandthis were done before in this movie. This is also why the average poem in a college bi-monthly literary magazine is uniformly terrible. There’s no room in a post-structuralist, rigidly individual society for reliance on others, especially on dead people in the past.

But such a paradigm does exist, has always existed, and will continue to exist. All art, even groundbreaking art, will have everything from is spice to its base firmly rooted in the history of the respective medium; what is up to the individual artist is to take the history offered to him and decided what to do with it. How to spin it in his own way. And Spec Ops breaches the issue through what I will go ahead and title the Star Wars method.
Star Wars was a response to a lot of things. It was a nod back to the serials of the 1930’s, the space adventures of Buck Rogers and company that so entranced George Lucas as a child. It’s also a firm adherent to the “hero’s journey,” a trope and methodology of storytelling that has been around since literally the beginning of human history, and probably a while before. But for our purpose, we’re going to talk about the other response of Star Wars, the one that made it such a popular, lightning-in-the-bottle film in 1977. And that is its message of hope; but not just that it had a message of hope—that good triumphs over evil, and there are still heroes and a bright future for humanity—but that its message of hope came at an indescribably perfect time. Star Wars¸ whether George Lucas meant it or even realized it, was a response to the doom and gloom of the early seventies cinema, a doom and gloom which of course mirrored the zeitgeist of American culture as a whole. And its 180 degree twist from the accepted notions of film narrative at the time is what made it such a phenomenon, and that, more than anything, is how it changed cinema’s landscape, even more than its revolutionary special effects. It was the attitude of Star Wars that made people really think about how they viewed their life and they way they watched movies. Star Wars could not have existed, or certainly would not have made the impact it did, without the years of cynicism that came before it.

The case is the same for Spec Ops. The very existence of a decade’s worth of brown, realistic shooters is what made it not only possible, but so heartfelt. It’s the attitude. Spec Ops is responding not to simply a trend in gaming, but to a movement that becomes more unsettling the longer you gaze at it. As game guru Tom Bissell suggests, the game really compels us to look in the mirror and ask: are we all not a bit crazy to like these "realistic" shooters? The answer’s a bit more complicated than a yes or no. What’s not complicated is what Spec Ops signifies for the industry, if we let it. If it can change the scope or make people dwell on this or that advertisement just a little bit more—then it will truly have done something that’s to this point unheard of in the medium of video games. It will cause a shift, and change in the movement. Romanticism was a reaction to the cold, sterile logic of Enlightenment. Will the era of the Realistic Shooter be replaced with the era of the Introspective Shooter? Will Spec Ops herald a new era of video game criticism and intra-medium comportment? Only time will tell. But what a landmark for the industry if it could.

Someone said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.
I was in GameStop the other day when an advertisement for the new Medal of Honor came on. Touted for being written by Tier One or Line One former military—pardon the glitch in memory—and promising the most realistic war experience ever seen in a videogame. What does it mean that Spec Ops: The Line alone made me regard this advertisement with more than a bored dismissal, but without outright disdain? Does a piece of art that makes a person looks at even a small portion of their life with more consideration indicate a master work? Maybe not. But maybe, just maybe, Spec Ops is a sign of something more. A sign of things to come. A sign that games, while not necessarily having to be serious, might just take what exactly they’re saying more seriously.

Until next time,

Mr. E 

No comments:

Post a Comment