Playing Hero: Spec Ops: The Line in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy

The following is a guest post from Riley MacLeod:

Riley MacLeod is a queer transman, writer, and activist based in Brooklyn, NY. His theatrical works have been seen on stage at WOW Cafe, Bank Street Theatre, and Under St. Mark’s, and his prose can be found at PrettyQueer.com and Relevant Magazine, among others. He is co-editor of “The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard,” published October 2012 by Topside Press.

Before we start, it seems important to note that I tend to avoid modern military shooters at all costs. My twin sister, her husband, and several of our friends spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I can think of too many people close to me who’ve seen combat in one form or another, who’ve come back missing friends or body parts or parts of their humanity. Given this, I’ve never managed to feel comfortable tooling around in an approximation of that experience for fun during a low-key weekend night. Also, I’m an anarchist, and the jingoistic, kill-the-bad-guys messages most of these games embody leave me feeling sick and alienated more than entertained. So the lens through which I approached Spec Ops: The Line is one I think the developers didn’t intend, and a testament to the immensely worthy things I think the game is attempting to do.

Though it’s been out for almost half a year, I didn’t hear of Spec Ops until Hurricane Sandy hit New York. As the storm approached, I’ll admit to feeling like a lot of New Yorkers felt, a combination of skeptical and anxious. As my windows started rattling and the lights flickered on and off, I huddled in front of my PC planning to game until the power went out. I was scared, unsure of what was going to happen, and I wanted something to distract me, something to help me feel powerful in the face of the impenetrable onslaught of Nature. I tend not to play games to escape reality, but, that night, I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate. My headphones drowned out the roaring wind, and the world of whatever game I was playing engulfed me and gave me new things to worry about. To my surprise, my power stayed on, my inland Brooklyn neighborhood appeared unscathed when I darted outside to check, and I went to bed that night shrugging off the big disaster they’d threatened us with.

The next morning, as the toll of the devastation became clear, I realized the hell my communities had gone through while I blithely fired away at virtual bad guys. My friends and neighbors were under water. A couple in my neighborhood had been killed, and people were dying by the handful on Staten Island, where someone dear to me lived. The lines of race and class in the City glared brighter than usual, with those on one side bearing the brunt of the neglect by FEMA, the Mayor, and the Red Cross. The home I had shared for years with my ex had been critically damaged, and after two years of frustrating silence I found myself on the phone with him, being enlisted to run interference while he and his roommates decided what to do next, bringing up a whole host of unresolved conflicts that I swallowed down hard in the interests of my community. Everyone felt lost, confused, isolated. I saw people I hadn’t seen in years, people with whom I had difficult, complicated pasts, as we came together to help those who had bigger problems to worry about than our anarchoqueer conflicts. I spent one day climbing the 30 floors of Chinatown highrises with a flashlight in my teeth, arms and bag loaded with water and MREs, skirting fearful-looking National Guard guys and piles of feces in darkened stairwells. We knocked on the doors of stranded elderly people, calling tentatively into English, Spanish, and Mandarin with our offers of assistance. It looked like a video game, but it felt vividly like real life. I felt like I was helping, doing something, despite the social awkwardness and occasional opening of old wounds. You’re being a good activist, the situation told me. You’re being a good ally, being the bigger person in social conflict. You should be proud, the situation told me. You’re a good person. You’re a big help. You’re a hero.

So I helped that one time and then rested on my laurels. I did. I went back to work, and I went back to games. And I came across some reviews of Spec Ops: The Line one night, some teasers as to what it promised, and I was intrigued. I circled around its $30 price tag on Steam. I wondered how to justify spending $30 as my email and Facebook feed filled with pleas for financial help. I think that Spec Ops is a game that pushes you to justify yourself, and it was pushing me before I even decided to play it. Someone besides this developer needs your help, the game seemed to threaten me, even as it promised lush graphical environments and a commentary on violence and intention in games, all things I salivate over. Someone else needs your thirty dollars. Are you really going to spend that money and time on a game?

Disgustingly, I was. I justified myself. I’d done enough, or the power had come back on in Chinatown, or I couldn’t go help in the Rockaways because my bike was broken and there weren’t any trains. Or I would have spent that $30 at my favorite bar if it weren’t under the Hudson, or I had just received a paycheck even though the people who paid me couldn’t get to their office, or… whatever. I bought the game. I was curious. I deserved a break. The experience would be interesting and worth it, would teach me… whatever I wanted to tell myself. It was my time. It was my $30. Other people were helping. Whatever.

Spec Ops casts you as Delta Operative Captain Martin Walker in the middle of an apocalyptic Dubai that has been destroyed by a giant sandstorm, a setting heavily influenced by the developers’ own experiences growing up in areas prone to natural disasters, according to an article at Polygon. In Spec Ops you can use the weather as a weapon, bringing down waves of sand on unsuspecting enemies, or a sudden sandstorm can wipe out your careful combat progress and leave you bumping into bad guys as you all slog toward safety while still trying to get shots off on one another. Buildings are destroyed, interiors askew, and bodies and wreckage abound. The graphics of cars engulfed in sand on a highway weren’t all that different than the cars buried under water in my old stomping ground of Alphabet City, and the constant use of words like “evacuation” and “rescue” seemed to be drawn straight from conversations I had when I logged off. I poked around this wrecked model of Dubai, trying to see if  I could right anything, save anyone, while, a few miles from home, there were real-world things that needed righting and real-world people who needed help. It wasn’t lost on me, but, just as Spec Ops reminds you that you’re doing at every turn, I pushed it aside. I told myself it was OK to play games. I deserved to play virtual disaster games while the aftermath of a real disaster still clamored loudly for my attention. Work sucks these days, I told myself. Playing a game is OK. You helped out before. You don’t want to run into your ex out there, do you? You deserve a break. You deserve this.

Spec Ops is a game all about getting what you deserve. As Captain Walker, your choices become more and more limited and more and more horrible as the game progresses. Your squad (and eventually the game itself) berates you for what you’ve done, and you fire at wave after wave of enemies who, as other American soldiers, look just like you and shout in your voice. I was enchanted by this. As my Captain Walker made his dashing advance from one cover to another, the AI enemies would panickedly shout to each other that I was in the open, would yell “Shit shit shit!” just like I could hear myself doing when my headphones slipped off my ears. My squad equally warned me of enemy advances, and as the battles wore on, each wave of run and gun became increasingly chaotic. I can’t count the number of times I accidentally wounded Lugo and Adams, Walker’s faithful squad, because they looked just like the “enemy;” on the other hand, I can’t count the number of times my screen suddenly lurched and went grey because I didn’t fire on a nearby enemy, thinking it was one of my own guys. At some point a load screen sagely told me “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you,” and the question struck me so hard that I had to pause the game and go think about it. What was I doing with what had been done to me? I was playing video games while calling myself an activist. I was sitting in my dry, well-lit apartment while my ex and old friends couch-surfed and phoned FEMA. My character was suited in the same uniform my sister had worn when her Humvee nearly exploded in Iraq, when our friend DJ stepped on an IED and lost half his face. I was spending my money on my own entertainment rather than the coats and food my neighbors desperately needed, while, in the game world, I attempted to help digital refugees of a digital disaster by digitally killing them in droves. Walker and his squad bickered and blamed me– me, the player, not the narrative or each other– and the game began to feel distinctly personal and un-fun, the opposite of the escape I’d sought when Sandy hit. Spec Ops isn’t a game that welcomes you, isn’t a game that bends to your will like so many other games are designed to do, and I felt like I was forcing it to let me finish as it wore on and unraveled. At some point I found myself achievement hunting because, hell, it’s a game and there are achievements, but my resolve wavered when the AI whimpered for mercy as I stalked them for close-range kill points. I didn’t feel the pride I usually felt as I guiltily admired my list of achievements. I didn’t feel good at all. I finished the game, went to a party instead of a fundraiser for the demolished queer homeless shelter (justified because, hey, I shared the link on Facebook, didn’t I?), sat quietly thinking about the game, then woke up the next day and played through the brief, brutal campaign again.

In the surreal but brilliantly appropriate end of the game, desert-ravaged Walker meets the elusive Colonel Konrad, whom he’s been searching for throughout the story, in a building outfitted with a lush aquarium that made me catch my breath after the burnt-out environments and stressful, perhaps intentionally awkward gameplay. Konrad is Walker’s moral predecessor in more ways than one, and when Walker finally finds him, he says point-blank to the player, “You’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not: a hero.” You spent 8 hours being a real-life hero to those people in Chinatown, Steam’s rigorous accounting of my gameplay hours told me, and 14 playing a fake one. And what kind of hero were you to those people you think you helped, anyway? Giving them MREs they won’t eat, disaster-hopping like the rest of the white punk activists?.. Like Walker insisting he was helping even as he wiped out hundreds of people in one unavoidable but difficult point in the game, had I forced myself into the real world just as much as I forced myself into the game? I started scanning through the rest of my gameplay hours on Steam, looking at the immense amounts of time I’d spent in virtual worlds while injustices and causes piled up. 100 hours and three playthroughs in Deus Ex: Human Revolution; 80 in the first two Mass Effects; 65 in Half-Life 2, my perennial favorite and the topic of one of my Master’s theses. What kind of hero was I playing at being? What had it all been for?

I’m a fervent believer that games are worthwhile ways to spend our time, can enrich our lives and teach us things, and I can list breath-taking and moving experiences I’ve had in them– but how do we make them translate meaningfully into the real world? Did I apply the joyous problem-solving of Portal to my real life difficulties? Did that one awkward night playing Braid with my ex right after our break-up help either of us think differently about the time passing unstoppably between us? And did Spec Ops’ steady interrogation over the absurdity of playing hero get me away from the computer and into the streets? Any game that leads to such a searing moral inventory can’t help but be worth it, I suspect, and one of the game’s many strengths is that it gives you no easy answers as to what you should do with the questions it raises. Weeks after the hurricane, while word of the people in public housing without power or heat fade from the news but not from the landscape of my city, I still haven’t been back to help, and I haven’t been back to Captain Walker’s Dubai. You call yourself an activist when you aren’t making change, the game reminds me, though I haven’t played it in over a month, like you called yourself a hero when you murdered Walker’s foes. What are you going to do with what’s been done to you? I don’t have the answers, but I’m excited that a game gave me the questions.

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5 Responses to Playing Hero: Spec Ops: The Line in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy

  1. Doone says:

    I think the author has the answer to that question and that’s a good thing. Because it’s the whole reason the article has a powerful message: activism. Change. That’s what we do with what’s been done to us when we believe things should be better/different. We fight to change ourselves in hopes that it will change the world.

  2. Bolegium says:

    Thank you for this post, coincidentally I’ve been thinking that TBH was in need of some Spec Ops: The Line criticism. I was expecting Spec Ops to be similar to the Haneke film “Funny Games” (which I have yet to watch), and as with the film, I was more than content to read analysis without ever participating in the actual game. As it turns out my abstinence was short-lived. Fully expecting, and to some extent hoping for a very discomforting experience, I chose to play the game – largely due to the spoiler alerts in many reviews advising to “play the game before reading further”, and partly because of a recurring bout of masochism.

    I played through once, replayed the ending the see the multiple outcomes, was beginning a second playthrough to find missed background story collectables when I just stopped and chose to quit. Barring another lapse into masochism, I have no intent to play Spec Ops again, and it’s one of the most important games I have.

    It’s always interesting to hear other experiences and readings of Spec Ops, even at TBH were I suspect its message might feel like ‘preaching to the choir’.

    • Alex says:

      Riley’s post is pretty timely since Killing is Harmless was just released and folks are talking about The Line again. I just finished playing it myself, and hopefully I will have time to write a little about it soon. I had a similar reaction as you; I appreciated the game quite a lot, but I don’t think I would be able to stomach a second playthrough.

  3. Riley says:

    Hi all,

    Thanks for your feedback. I’m excited to hear from other people who’ve played it– I’ve been trying to encourage my friends to check it out so I can talk about it with them, but it’s a tough sell when it’s prefaced with “no, it’s really a terrible game– you should play it!” I think the game has its flaws, but it’s a really bold move from a AAA title, and one of the most intense gaming experiences I’ve had, even knowing what I was going into.

    Excited to be part of the conversation here!

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