Now We Pay Video Games to Make Us Feel Bad
Last year, the game Spec Ops: The Line was released to critical acclaim. No characters were carried over from the Spec Ops series, no stories, nothing. It was its own little entity, and if you decided to play the game purely on the fact that this was from the Spec Ops series and thought it looked like a good FPS where you could shoot some freedom-fries-hating terrorists, you would have been sorely disappointed.
By that we mean to say you would have played a Heart of Darkness-based, dramatic game that tried to expose you to the horrors of modern warfare by challenging you to make decisions (that weren’t guided by helpful text screens that made it obvious what the “good” or “bad” choices were), and actively wanted you to dislike playing it.
The game, which puts you in charge of a three-man Delta Force squad seeking out a group of soldiers who have apparently gone rogue in the midst of a natural disaster in Dubai. It gradually makes your protagonist sink to new depths of crazy as you are exposed to varying horrors that could be better or worse depending on your decisions. Though not much better. You could say, disperse an angry mob of a crowd by firing your gun into the air rather than by, y’know – killing them. Like you do. And while the former is a much better choice than the latter, you’ll still end up doing things like, SPOILER ALERT – accidentally firing white phosphorus rounds on both your enemy combatants and a large group of civilians.
It’s not fun. It’s not the escapism that most people are looking for in modern war-based FPSs, and it makes you want to stop playing. Even if you make it to the end, (once again, SPOILER ALERT) it actively scolds you for doing all the terrible things you did because you “wanted to be a hero.” I’m not very good at video games, so I often stick to games where I win by making the most bad guys dead with my magic evil-erasing bullets, but this game wants you think about the people you’re killing. At one point, and I’m not even going to throw up a spoiler tag on this one because honestly, you should know better by now, a guy announces the personal details of the men you’re killing over a radio.
This works for a warfare-based FPS that wants to make a statement. War isn’t supposed to be fun, and those fighting are more three-dimensional than what are presented in most games.
But if random possible terrorist slaughter isn’t as black and white as it seems, then the same should go for orc or dragon slaughter. Maybe even for virus-carrying space aliens or zombies. For your rumination, I’ve considered what it would be like if other games wanted you to think about the implications of your decisions on the level that Spec Ops: The Line does.
The alien species you’ve been systematically murdering initially attacked in fear of you coming to conquer their planet. Probably because you showed up in giant gunships out of nowhere and began to form random colonies on habitable planets in their system. Not wishing to become a slave labor force, they took it upon themselves to create a show of force as a deterrent, but have been trying to start up negotiations with you. These have all failed because you continually prevent positive discourse by literally jamming guns down their throats and firing bullets inside their bodies, trying desperately to ignore the very human looks of fear in their eyes and the way they beg you not to gruesomely murder them in vernacular English. Superiors have noted that though your methods may be “totally awesome,” they might also be a bit excessive.
A scared villager asks you to slay a dragon living in a nearby cave, as it has apparently been terrorizing them for the past few weeks since it took up residence there. After the slaying is all done, you stumble upon a hatch of eggs that are then taken by the villagers and sold for a high profit. You realize that the dragon wasn’t actually harming anybody and just wanted a quiet, safe place to raise its young, while the villagers sought the opportunity to sell the dragons’ eggs to really creepy collectors and fat ogres that just wanted to make an omelet. That said, dragons breathe fire and look different, which makes you feel weird, so you keep slaying, despite being unable to rationalize your actions to others or to yourself in the mirror every single night when you can’t sleep.
As you continue to destroy priceless gems and rubies in search of the perfect combo high score, you come to realize that your insatiable greed is destroying an entire nation’s currency, leading to mass starvation and an astronomically high body count. Destroying chains of gems and other valued stone may bring you satisfaction, but you find it increasingly hard to justify your satisfaction at hearing a dinging sound when you’ve done something apparently right with the thought that no, it’s all so very, very wrong.
As it turns out, every opponent you are deemed to face in the Death Fist Blood Punch Tournament comes from varying backgrounds of hardship and strife, from a young woman trying to prove herself to her chauvinistic relatives who never believed in her to a young man trying to win the tournament’s grand prize money to give to his ailing father for life-saving treatment. You are apparently the only person who has entered the tournament for the listed reasons of, “punching people in the head is awesome.” Each head punch, though filling you with the adrenaline and other good-body-feelings from the thrill of battle, now resonates with the pain of each fighter with just as, if not more, noble causes than you.
The young man with the dying father still requires the money for his father but now on top of that he needs years of treatment for the injuries you inflicted on him, including but not limited to: 1) Several dislocated vertebrae in the spine from grabbing it with a hook and attempting to yank his entire spine out of his body. 2) Ruptured internal organs. Really, most of his organs. You somehow managed to kick him directly in his pancreas. 3) Shattered jawbone from your flaming uppercut.
In addition, you also kicked a giant lizard man, the only known member of that species, in half. This has set back years of study on this species, as the individual was formerly alive and more than willing to share the story of his people. You also managed to destroy the world’s only moving, fighting, thinking robot prototype. Also kicked in half.
The avatars you subject to endless concerts playing cover songs develop horrible anxiety after your awful fake guitar playing gets them routinely booed off stage for years. You press them on, in lustful search of a “five-star rating.” The pressure becomes too much for the avatars who only ever wanted you to be proud of them and they begin abusing prescription anti-depressant drugs to cope. After you aren’t even satisfied with the five stars and change the scheme to, “totally nailing that Dragonforce solo,” they move to oxycontin.
Patrick is a writer and comedian living in Chicago and thinks way too much about the personal lives and hopes and dreams of fictional characters. Go look at Patrick’s Tumblr. It’s fun, there are cartoons and stuff. Then go follow him on Twitter @fatfraud. There are fewer cartoons there.
Patrick previously cared for the plight of the virtual man with An Apology to All Henchmen I’ve Murdered, but isn’t above dialing up the crazy, as shown in his Christmas Gift Ideas (For Your Sworn Enemy).