Spec Ops: Making Them Human

In 2015 I wrote my thesis on Spec Ops: The Line. I’ve tried to stay away from it here on my blog, because I don’t like the idea of rehashing old material. That said, I’m on a bit of a big-budget FPS spree at the moment, and BlOps made me want to revisit The Line – so here we are. I don’t want to talk about the big main points – rehashing etc etc. Instead, there was one small little moment that caught my attention – I thought we might talk about that.

When you get into the start of the game, maybe the third or fourth chapter, you discover that the refugees are being spurred onto violence by the CIA. Note briefly that all of the trouble in the game is caused by American intervention – the CIA sets the population against the 33rd, Delta Squad (the protagonists) murder basically everybody – really the 33rd are the only decent Americans in the game, and they end up being your main enemies. I suppose there’s also the initial sandstorms… you can’t really blame anybody for those. Anyway!

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So you’re watching the CIA guy prowl through and issue orders to the refugees, and there’s one particular refugee who’s in conversation with him. The CIA guy’s a tosser, but the refugee seems pretty decent. He’s human, he’s talking, he’s being relatable and ordinary – and then you get spotted, and he points a gun at you. You shoot him, he dies, the end. You keep moving. Nothing’s said, it’s not recognised that he’s human, the game just keeps going. It’s one of the things I really appreciate about The Line – it goes to a great deal of trouble to make the people you’re shooting seem human. As far as I’m concerned, the whole game is an exercise in regret. You don’t feel bad for what you’re doing, necessarily, but you feel bad because Walker (the protagonist) is exclusively doing stupid and harmful things. You play a clumsy fool who ends up murdering hundreds (thousands?) of people. It’s sad – and possibly the most convincing portrayal of evil I’ve ever seen. Forget all this shit about the evil options in RPGs – this is where it’s at. Doing bad things shouldn’t feel good.

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Anyway – I mostly wanted to focus on the idea of humanising your opponents in video games. There’s Conversational Refugee, and also Medic Refugee, just above. He’s bending over one of his comrades and trying to save his life. If he spots you, he’ll pull a gun on you. It’s an ambiguous moment, again – you feel bad about his death, but also there’s a point where it’s you or him. It’s not so much about whether or not you should shoot him though – it’s more that the whole situation is stupid in the first place.

It’s these little humane actions that really put the moral ambiguity into The Line. I suspect that its skill at humanising enemies will help it age really well – because when something’s acting human, it doesn’t really matter whether or not it looks human. It’s one of the reasons we react so strongly to animals that’re behaving in familiar ways. If you’ve ever seen a dog look guilty, you’ll know what I’m talking about. We just have a very instinctive connection with things that act in ways we’re familiar with.

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As a point of comparison, we might draw out the airport scene in Modern Warfare 2. Personally, I didn’t feel any emotional ambiguity about my actions – I’m quite happy mowing down civilians, because there’s no human connection there. They don’t act like people, there’s nothing that particularly inspires me to see them as humans – it’s not the same as shooting actual people for me, because they’re just not humanised enough. There’s a couple individual exceptions there – for instance, there’s one guy who’s trying to drag a bleeding friend to safety. I feel bad for that guy. He’s trying to do something decent in the middle of a slaughter. He’s stupid, because he ends up getting shot, but he’s trying to do something decent – you can associate with that. It seems human. But for the most part, it’s just a game. It’s just pixels and sound files.

The thing that shifts enemies from ‘pawns in a board game’ to ‘immersive engaging characters’ is really just how they act. They don’t even have to be realistic, really. If you take something like animation – not the motion-capture shit, just pure hand-drawn animation – it’s sometimes entirely unrealistic. Nobody mistakes it for real life. But we associate with the characters we see because they act in ways that we recognise as human.

Of course, at the heart of all of this theorising we should recognise the impulse motivating this representation of the enemies. The Line wants killing to become morally ambiguous – not in order to punish or condemn you as a player, but in order to make you look at Walker’s actions in a different way. That’s all fine and good – but you can’t just plonk humanised enemies in any video game just because The Line did it well. There has to be a purpose. That’s why The Line did it well – because a purpose existed. So what other things could you use humanised enemies for?

One thing could be the testing of particular moral decisions. For example, say you’re playing a game like Civ where you have to maintain a society. Say you decide to impose the death penalty – maybe you have to carry that out yourself, and maybe you’re not confronted with a hardened criminal, but some shaky nervous pathetic little sack of a human being. Are you willing to impose the death penalty on people like this? Or is there another way? I imagine you could also get into some really interesting vigilante stuff – when you’re fighting criminals, how do you treat their families? Are you obliged to protect them, or should you use them as bait? Or should you target the families to punish the criminals? It’s a tough question – and the more humanised the families, the heavier the gut punch when you make your decision. At any rate, there’s options.

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