To start, I need you to head online and download the demo of Spec Ops: The Line from Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network. Take 45 minutes, play through, then come back here. We’ll have a little pow wow.
Spec Ops: The Line, from fresh-faced development house Yager, is a bold attempt at transposing a great piece of literature – Joseph Conrad’s famous Heart of Darkness – into videogame form. This is the first time anything of this scale has been attempted since Visceral Games’ atrocious handling of Dante’s Inferno. In that sorry case, the rough – and I do mean rough – general outline of a man travelling through the nine levels of hell was used to create, SHOCK, nine different levels of a second-rate hack’n’slash videogame.
It goes without saying, then, that the track record for these kinds of promises in gaming is not very good.
Just the same, Yager has come forth with far more genuine intentions than Visceral ever bothered. In the early days of the game’s development they stressed the importance of character and consequence. Their game was to take place in Dubai, a real-world location. In contrast, modern Call of Duty games tend to take place in ambiguous ‘Middle East’ locales (that are usually just Saudi Arabia) in an attempt to skirt any real-world connections. Yager didn’t take to that ethos. Their offering would feature real locations and reflect the harsh realities of real war.
Conrad’s original Heart of Darkness, and its film adaptation Apocalypse Now, were both harrowing affairs. It is well known that Coppola had a disastrously difficult time filming the movie, with lead actor Martin Sheen famously suffering a nervous breakdown during filming. There are no known stories of Conrad’s experiences with madness, but he seemed to have a primal grip on the thing, if nothing else.
The pervading themes of madness, despair and devouring isolation could potentially be excellent source material for a videogame. David Jaffe, designer of the first God of War as well as the occasionally-fun Twisted Metal games, once suggested that games may never make us cry. This has always been considered the Holy Grail of narrative game design, that we as players might reach the end and be so moved that we are brought to tears. Opinion is turning on the matter, though, and Jaffe suggests that designers would be better served focusing their attention on the emotions that games are particularly well-suited to eliciting instead. Fear, anxiety, panic, relief, exhaustion. These ‘core competencies’ of game design dovetail nicely with the core emotions expressed in Conrad’s original work, as well as the film adaptation. Presumably, one could create a pretty compelling piece of interactive fiction from these constituent parts, utilizing mechanics that make the player feel endangered and frequently on the precipice of failure, much as Marlowe felt in the original text (and much as Konami and Capcom have down in their powerhouse Survival Horror franchises Resident Evil and Silent Hill).
That right there is the key, by the way, for if Heart of Darkness is truly frightening, it is due to the fear we feel for the sanity of our main lead. Apocalypse Now changed his name to Willard, but he is, just the same, the stand in for a damaged and weakened society, pressed to the edge of reason by endless war and endless killing. The danger of the original work and the weight of the film adaptation rest entirely on the shoulders of this main character. The villain Kurtz, as a human being, is already considered lost. His story can end only one way, and that is despair, either through death or survival. To him, both are a punishment. The story arc, then, cannot be driven by him, for his is doomed never to experience change.
Imagine the possibility that you, as a player, are Marlowe/Willard, and that the consequences of your actions carry with them the combined weight of the darkness of all humanity. Each step in the game world is matched by choices that forever render your character damaged and weakened. Each potential combat encounter carries with it a lasting consequence, your usually-reckless ‘videogame killing’ tempered by the fact that your character is slowly losing himself (or herself, god forbid) to the same darkness that capture the villain that they are trying to assassinate.
It’s a heavy concept, and if this pre-release demo is anything to go by, Yager is not up to the task, for they have fundamentally misconstrued the power of the original tale. It’s not Kurtz that drives the tale, but the willingness of Marlowe/Willard to reach down to his level and yet still manage to surface, damaged, but alive and sane, and possessed of a willingness to continue.
The problem with Spec Ops: The Line is not necessarily the way in which it frames these struggles inside typical jingoistic ultra-violent nonsense – which is typical for a big-budget action game that’s attempting to sell a few million units – but instead in the bland and thoughtless design of it’s main character. Truthfully, I’ve already forgotten his name. He is voiced by Nolan North, a talented by overexposed actor who plays the lead role in practically every videogame released in the past four years. An extension of this problem is seen in the games visuals, which lack the intricacy in facial detailing to properly convey the weight and heft of the emotions which are (presumably) on display. Gears of War, overwrought nonsense though it is, manages better verisimilitude than this.
Fundamentally, you can’t attempt to tell an emotional story without the technological credentials – nor the writing – necessary to give it any weight.
It doesn’t end with Gears of War, though. LA Noire, Heavy Rain, Half Life 2 and even Red Dead Redemption are all releases that have utilized advanced facial modeling technology to drive their character emotions, and thus, their stories. Combined with accomplished artistic design, these games have made players buy into the emotions projected on-screen.
In contrast, look at the main character of Spec Ops: The Line. He’s made to be bald because detailed hair in modern games requires a lot of computational power and often looks fake. He’s made to look like a grizzled war vet because that’s the exact same thing that seems to be selling 20 million Call of Duty games each year. He sounds like Nolan North because Nolan North seems to be popular in other games.
They’ve gutted the entire conceit, reducing the most important character in the story to nothing. Their mistake is in assuming that Kurtz, as a charismatic villain, is the most important character, but he’s not; he stands in for the darkness of us all, and could have easily been replaced by the insanity of his surroundings. Conrad goes to great length to show the way in which the Congo drives men to insanity. Coppola did the same using the Vietnam War as his backdrop. Yager’s response is, what, Dubai?
Really… Dubai? Do they even understand the work that presumably inspired them in the first place?
It’s pathetic, and it misses the point by such a wide margin that I don’t even think they should be given credit for ‘trying’. All that’s left is a bunch of irritating foul language and third-rate shooting mechanics, the powerful iconography and narrative accoutrements of better games, films and novels swapped in for any meaningful content.
Skip this game, please, but mourn the fact that once Spec Ops: The Line fails in the market (and it will), other developers will forever be blocked off from even attempting an adaptation of this nature. Garbage like this pushes us back in the industry, good intentions be damned.