Excerpt: 'Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line' by Brendan Keogh

From The Gate:

In early 2010, Wikileaks released deeply disturbing footage from a US Apache helicopter that showed the gunship’s crew gunning down civilians and a Reuters’s journalist in Baghdad. I have seen photos of battlefields before; I have seen planes smash into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre from a hundred different angles; but I have never before watched through the eyes of someone lining up an individual in a crosshair and opening fire. It was gut-wrenching, made only more harrowing by the disconnect in the crew’s voice as they seemingly cared not at all for the men they were slaughtering.

Part of me wanted to hate the troops involved—the way they hope the wounded man curled up in the gutter would pick up a weapon so that they can finish him off; the way they chuckle when US ground troops arrive and a tank runs over a body. But I know that this is unfair. Though I have (thankfully) never experienced a conflict situation personally, I imagine that constructing a barrier between “Us” and “Them” is the only way one could handle consistently having to kill fellow humans. The most gut-wrenching aspect of the video, then, is not the behaviour of these individual troops, but the depiction of an environment that fosters and encourages such an irreverent othering of enemy combatants and civilians alike.

Less than a week after watching the leaked video, I started playing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The Call of Duty games have always tried to stress that wars are not won by any one individual hero, but by thousands of individual men and women (though, the series has failed to depict those women particularly well) who do not fight for ‘good’ or ‘evil’ but merely for different sides. The games do this by constantly switching the player’s perspective between different characters, collaboratively building up a network of warfare. As an extension of this, the series has tried to depict war as truly horrible, by stressing that the people dying around you are people and the people that you are killing are people.

It never really works, though, as inevitably the player behaves like they are playing a videogame. The horror of war is that you are killing people; however, just as the US troops in the apache seem utterly detached from the men they gun down—rendered as identical, grey silhouettes on the other side of a low-res computer monitor—the enemies running at the player in Modern Warfare are not individual men with their own histories and stories but cloned NPCs spawning just off-screen indefinitely until the player passes a certain point. While Modern Warfare did a decent job of immersing me in the stories of its characters, it failed to immerse me in their war.

That was until the “Death From Above” mission.

“Death From Above” places the player as a gunner of an AC-130U gunship. As the level begins and I look through the black and white monitor at the ground below, as the gunship’s crew chat about who and what to shoot with about as much gravitas as one would recite a grocery list, I can’t help but remember the Wikileaks video. I begin to feel sick in the stomach before I even fire the first shell.

Much of Modern Warfare doesn’t work because it is so detached from the horrors and chaos of war, primarily focused as it is on entertaining. Conversely, “Death From Above” works so well because it is so explicitly detached from the war depicted in the rest of the game. At the end of the previous mission, the player is still on the ground as playable character Soap as the gunship enters their airspace. It unleashes a few shells that utterly obliterate a group of Russians and the surrounding buildings just ahead. It is loud, violent, and chaotic.

Then the camera lifts up to the perspective of the gunship. The player becomes detached from what is happening down on the ground, but I still carry the memories of the game up to that point. For the duration of “Death From Above,” the player is invincible and never in danger from those you are destroying. In no other mission does your character or his squad mates boast about their actions or mock their enemies, but in the gunship, the crew keep a running commentary on their kills as though racking up points, as though reassuring the player’s character that the enemies are nothing more than identical targets on a screen. “Smoke em!” “Niiiice!” “Good kill, good kill” “Yeah! Direct hit right there!” The utter destruction the gunship brings is diluted to the monitor as a dull, monochrome thud. Occasionally it is interjected with the gunfire cackle in the background of Captain Price’s transmissions, further contrasting the calm. Throughout the entire level, a soft drone of something that sounds like an air-conditioner fills the background.

“Death From Above” plays with the detachment that necessarily comes with any videogame’s attempt to depict war. You are not really “there,” but in many cases neither is reality’s modern soldier. When Wikileaks released the video, Julian Assange stated that, “the behaviour of the pilots is like they’re playing a video game. It’s like they want high scores in that computer game.” And he is right. This is not a simplistic “videogames make people violent” statement, but an observation that as videogames try harder and harder to realistically depict war, war is more and more beginning to play out like a videogame. The US Army uses videogames as training simulators and recruiting tools alike. Drone controls are shaped like PlayStation controllers for pilots that have grown up bombing distant villages all their life.

This is what “Death From Above” plays with, and it is how it so successfully and unnervingly depicts how horrible war is—by showing just how distanced we are becoming from those horrors even as our media is becoming so much more intimate with them.

*

That above section is a re-worked version of a blog post I wrote after I first played “Death From Above.” I went back to read the post before I made the inevitable contrast between “Death From Above” and what occurs in Chapter Eight of The Line, but I realised that so much of it is so directly relevant to what The Line is trying to achieve that reproducing most of the post in full was worthwhile.

Most interestingly, it is that detached othering I talk about in that post which The Line tries to counter. No, ‘counter’ is the wrong word. The Line doesn’t counter the othering necessary for conflict so much as consistently draw attention to the fact it is happening. As Walker, I never stop othering my enemies, but I am constantly reminded that I am othering them. All the little moments that humanise the 33rd, the very fact that the 33rd are Americans, exposes the inevitable othering the mind does when faced with the need to commit grave violences. The Line pokes at the wound, refusing to let me forget that these are human beings. All of them.

Thematically, Chapter Eight most closely resembles Modern Warfare’s “Death From Above” mission, but the purpose it serves is more akin to Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian.” It is the turning point of the narrative, the moment that the player/character voluntarily commits an utterly unthinkable act when asked and must live with it for the rest of the game. The plot hinges on this point. Everything up to now was the slow fraying of the typical, generic military shooter distorting into something ugly and dirty, and this is where the rope snaps. The Arabic insurgents made way for American soldiers, screaming in a language I understand. The clean executions have made way for more brutal, intimate affairs. I have made (futile) choices about who will live and who will die. One of my men punched the other in the face. Forget fraying. Things are falling apart.

*

“The gate” that Delta assume Gould needed us to capture stands in a bottleneck between twin, giant towers. I am not entirely sure if these towers have real-world counterparts. The closest I found in my research is the Deira Twin Towers, which look similar but not nearly as tall.

We approach the gate from the balcony of a building opposite, where a 33rd guard is looking down over the massive 33rd encampment between here and there. Walker tells Adams to take him out. Adams, who not that long ago was warning us to look out for “guys like that” who run at you with a knife, pulls out his own knife and slits the throat of the guard.

As Adams approaches his prey in a cut scene, we can see the blood and dirt and sweat covering him, the pressures that events thus far have put on his bodies, the layers that have been peeled back. Most shocking is when he mutters, “Sweet dreams, bitch.” to the dead soldier. It feels like my characters have started to become something ugly without my noticing, right in front of my eyes.

Doing recon, Lugo notes that we will never get through the army between us and the gate. Adams notes a mortar nearby, and Walker decides to use it to take out the camp. But Lugo protests, noting that it is white phosphorous. As typical by now, Walker insists that we don’t have a choice.

“There’s always a choice!” Lugo insists. But Walker disagrees: “No, there’s really not.”

And, in a practical sense, Walker is right. There truly is no choice. If you try to defeat the 33rd with conventional weapons, snipers appear on the rooftops and quickly take you out. Neither can you actually get down from the balcony without launching the white phosphorous. Within the game, there is no way to advance but to use the mortar—and what is there to do if not advance? But still, many players got angry that the game apparently alludes to a choice without offering one. Of course, the real choice Walker has is to turn around and leave Dubai, and the real choice the player has is to not play a military shooter that asks you to drop white phosphorous on people. So, really, Lugo and Walker are both right. Walker, like a truly post-Bioshock playable character is right that sometimes there is no choice and you just have to kindly do what you are told. But Dubai, unlike Rapture, is not on the bottom of the ocean. Walker is choosing to be in a situation where he has no choice, and so am I. The Line doesn’t really want players to stop playing at this point. It simply wants us to accept responsibility for the situations we allow ourselves to be in.

Adams and Lugo reluctantly set up the mortar while Walker readies the aiming computer.

“Prepare to fire?” Walker says.

“Is that an order, sir?” Lugo spits, clearly not impressed.

“Yes. It is.”

Adams fires the camera; it flies up into the air and releases a parachute so that the camera I am targeting with hovers above the battlefield, slowly descending with the wind.

The soldiers see this, of course, and open fire on our position even as the camera’s perspective crawls up over Walkers shoulder and focuses on the screen of the targeting monitor. For a moment, I can see the outline of Walker’s reflection, but it quickly fades away, leaving nothing but the black and white blurs of the screen.

The fading out reflection creates a detachment. It says, “Hey. This isn’t really you. These aren’t really people. They are just targets on a screen that a computer is responsible for. You have no role in this.” It creates the distance and othering that modern war relies on in order to allow heinous acts to be committed. I’m not here. This isn’t happening.

I fire the first mortar onto some soldiers and entire sections of the monitor are engulfed with white. On one level, I know what is going on. I can hear it. Over the top of and beyond the monitor, I can hear the screaming of the soldiers. I can’t see it, but I know they are on the ground, in flames, the clothes and flesh burning from their bodies. I remember the scene I just walked through not that long ago. But I can’t ‘see’ it; I can’t see ‘me’. I’m detached from my actions by a technological mediator distancing me from the battlefield. This isn’t me. I’m not here.

I fire mortar after mortar, taking out men, RPGs, and APCs.

One last APC is right at the back of the camp and, through the heat-sensitive camera, I can make out a large number of other people on the far side of a wall. Some people have claimed that these people were “obviously” civilians and, on later plays, I can see that now. On my first game, I sincerely thought they were soldiers trying to hide from the white phosphorous. Regardless, there was a red square over the APC, marking it as a target I had to take out, so I fired. On the monitor, the white pixels that were the phosphorous funneled into the room with the people. I could clearly hear their screaming.

I’m not sure when my (Walker’s) reflection became visible again on the monitor. I think it was a subtle, slow fading in as the screen turned whiter from the phosphorous. As the final group of (what I thought were) soldiers collapsed screaming, I wasn’t looking at them; I was looking through them back at myself. I was looking at Walker reflected on the aiming computer but I may have well been looking at me, in my lounge room, reflected back off my television set. It may as well have been the reflection of some person in an American airbase looking back at and through themselves as they flew a drone over an Afghan wedding. A reflection of an Apache gunner on a video reel that would eventually find its way onto a Wikileaks website. It says, “No. You cannot blame the technology for this. This is you. You are here. You are doing this. This is happening.”

The scene is so chilling not because of the crime I’ve committed, but because the game forced me to acknowledge that I committed them. It slaps my face right there on top of the crime.

*

“No one’s moving. It’s over,” says Lugo.

“Okay. We’re done,” says Walker to his own reflection. We’re done.

And he is right. They are done. In this act, Walker, Adams, and Lugo have lost something that they will never get back. Something that was still just hanging on after everything that had happened so far has been shaken free.

In the Gamespot podcast, Walt Williams notes that Chapter Eight is about the moment you stop seeing your enemies as human and, further, that ‘the line’ alluded to in the game’s title is meant not so much to suggest a line crossed, but a line between expectations and reality that gets blurred. As Walker looks up from the targeting computer and the reality of what I have done takes shape before me, I realise what happens when that line is blurred, when it is crossed: atrocities.

We take a rope down to the road and walk forward. Everything is black and covered in greenwhite particles and smoke. There are bodies everywhere. There is screaming. Charcoal-black 33rd soldiers are crawling among the wreckage without legs. On later games I would shoot them and put them out of their misery. My first time, I just walk past them, absolutely dumbfounded that I did this. I didn’t have a choice, but that doesn’t matter. I did this. There’s no way I can deny it. I saw my face reflected in the targeting monitor. Somehow, I voluntarily did this.

J.G. Ballard once said of his novel Crash, “I want to rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.” As Group Editor of PC Powerplay and Hyper magazines David Wildgoose pointed out to me after I played this scene, this is exactly what The Line is trying to do. Not just to Walker, but to the player. It says to the player: this is what you do when you play a military shooter. The trap the game has laid across seven rigidly generic chapters has been snared. I walked right into it and revealed that I was always the monster the game knew I was, and now the game is going to make me accept it. As the AC-130U gunner of Modern Warfare, I never had to see what I wrought, but The Line forces me to walk right through the carnage I have unleashed. It gives me the safety and the absolving distance of a targeting computer then rips it away again, rubbing my face in what I have done.

“This. This was too much,” whispers Lugo.

It’s a superbly affecting and utterly terrible scene, accentuated through articulate audiovisual design (much like the previous mass graves) that make the smoldering ruins absolutely miserable to see.

On the far side, we find a 33rd officer on his back. His face is burnt off, and he is on the edge of death. All he can say is “Why?” over and over.

“You brought this on yourself,” says Walker, already building up a mental wall in place of the computer screen that has been torn away from him.

“We were trying to help,” the soldier says, and dies.

Walker sounds surprised and walks on to look in a nearby building. I wonder if Walker already suspects what he will see, if he realises what he actually saw on the monitor and knows exactly where to go. After all, the players that knew they were indeed civilians still fired on them for the sake of progressing the game. Why wouldn’t Walker?

30 to 40 civilians, burnt to death by white phosphorous. The 30 to 40 civilians the 33rd took from the refugee camp back in Chapter Four. What were they doing with them? I still don’t really know. Maybe they were going to kill them because Dubai could not handle that many people. More probable, they were taking them behind the gate to protect them, and the refugees left at the mall were angry at us for scaring the 33rd off. It doesn’t really matter anymore. The point is we killed them. We killed the civilians, and we killed the 33rd who, one way or the other, were trying to help.

In a cut scene, Lugo snaps and starts screaming, blaming Walker for making them all murderers. Meanwhile, Walker just looks at two corpses, a woman trying futilely to protect her child from the incandescent particles with her hand. Like the female hostage executed in front of Gould, this woman is used in a problematic, gendered way. The nurturing woman is the starkest contrast to our common, masculine understandings of war. Yet, the symbolism is no less powerful for being cheap.

Very little is said in the scene, but the message is magnificently and terribly clear: Lugo is getting his anger out, but Walker is pushing his down, deeper into himself until it becomes a fundamental and irrevocable part of him. He looks at the woman and her child, processing what he sees and making it part of himself, scorching it into his memory. He is like a computer: “Processing…” He closes his eyes briefly, opens them again, and tells his men to keep moving.

Adams and Lugo are obviously shocked by Walker’s apparent lack of emotion, his apparent lack of empathy. But I’ve seen the cut scene, I saw him take it in. At the end of “Death From Above” and “No Russian” alike, I bid farewell to a playable character I never had to see again. I committed their crimes, forgot their crimes, and moved on. Here, I am stuck with Walker, and he is stuck with what he has done. He hasn’t disregarded anything. On the contrary, he is taking everything along with him. And, like some anthropomorphised emotional baggage, I have to take Walker along with me.

*

We continue on towards the gate, walking towards cover at the bottom of one of the towers that is clearly for a battle. It is the same generic military shooting that was happening before we became monsters, but everything is different. The first 33rd soldiers we encounter shout “MURDERERS!” at us. They want revenge, justifiably so. They are trashtalking us, and we deserve it.

More so, Walker’s voice has changed. I shoot a man dead and he shouts, “Got the fucker!” I kill another and he shouts, “And stay down!” He isn’t removing targets now; he is killing people. More so, on the brink of insanity, Walker is acting more and more like any typical shooter protagonist—most specifically the trashtalking Gears of Gears of War. Paradoxically, perhaps, Walker is both reveling in his violent acts as violent acts while also dehumanising his enemies in order to revel at all. He has redirected his own guilt onto the 33rd, and now he wants to kill all of them for what they did—that is, what Walker feels they made him do. So the misguided violence continues as Walker, still not walking away, wants to kill the 33rd for a crime that he himself committed.

We enter the building and continue to fight through the foyer. The inside of the building is hollow; looking up, interior balconies stretch up alongside an empty void. Back on the ground, in the middle of the foyer on the low roof of a booth, a stone angel lies splayed on its back. Looking up after the skirmish is over, I notice that three other angel statues are suspended from the far-above ceiling as though flying in a spiral towards the sky. It is the highest one that has apparently snapped from its chains and fallen back to earth, dead. It’s hard not to read it is an Icarus analogy, the boy so excited by his new wings that he flew too high, melted them, and fell back to earth. Walker refused to stop walking into Dubai, and now he has fallen beyond any chance of salvation. Like the stone angel splayed out dead, Walker has fallen. Or perhaps, like Icarus, he was never an angel in the first place. Not a man is righteous, after all. Walker is desperate to find something significant here, but Adams and Lugo note that it is just another base, that the crimes they committed outside were for naught. Indeed, while looking for just why this base is special, I find several monitors in a corner, on which blurry surveillance camera footage plays of the container full of civilian husks. The only things here are my crimes, lingering on.

*

Upstairs, we find Konrad’s most trusted men, his command team, dead and decayed, burnt to a crisp with white phosphorous. It is here that Walker first starts hearing Konrad’s voice. He finds a walkie-talkie on a pedestal beside the bodies, from which he thinks Konrad’s voice is coming from, and asks Konrad what is happening here. Konrad responds, “Survival. Plain and simple. Everything here is teetering on the edge of everything.”

Of course, Walker isn’t actually talking to Konrad. Konrad is dead, as we discover at the end of the game. Noticeably, it isn’t until the incident at the gate that Walker both decides Konrad is to blame for Walker’s crime and that he is definitely alive. Walker simply cannot live with what he did and immediately constructs Konrad to take the blame instead.

“Welcome to Dubai, gentlemen,” says Konrad, alluding to one of the first things Walker says to his own men at the start of the game. It’s one of many overlaps between the two men.

A window opens up on the side of the skyscraper, showing the ruins of Dubai stretching off beyond a highway. Walker and his men are meant to abseil down to continue their adventure, or so Konrad says.

It’s like déjà vu. The game started with the line “Welcome to Dubai” and a road to walk down, and now we are doing that again. Except this time, at least for me as the player, with a bit more humility and honesty. I have been slapped awake, shown guilty of my virtual crimes. The first eight chapters worked to lure me into admitting through Walker’s actions that this is what I do in military shooters and now that I have admitted it, we are going to do it again with a bit more clarity, a bit more transparency. You enjoy this. Admit it.

One mission objective appears on the screen as the next chapter starts: obey.

Excerpt published with permission of the author. Copyright 2013 © Brendan Keogh.