I Love The Smell of Narrative In The Morning

I’m not a big fan of first person shooters set in real-world conflicts. I played through the first Modern Warfare game a while back, and I found the whole thing just a little bit… distasteful. Like I said in my review, I’m not quite sure why you’d want to recreate that great war feeling in your living room.

Digital portrayals of wars all too often end up trvialising the actual conflict to the point where they’re little more than firefights between “goodies” and “baddies”, but at their very worst they can end up as propaganda-like displays of “tub-thumping jingoism“, as was the case in the recent Medal of Honor: Warfighter. However, despite my disdain for games set in modern conflicts, I was intrigued enough by the reviews of Spec Ops: The Line to buy it for myself. Why? Because this is a game that sets out to tell a story, and does it with aplomb.

The game takes Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as its inspiration (indeed, the Colonel Kurtz-style antagonist is called John Konrad), but it shifts the setting from Vietnam and Africa to a devastated vision of Dubai in the near future. Enormous sandstorms have destroyed the city, forcing the residents to flee and leaving skyscrapers buried in the sand. Konrad’s squadron volunteer to help with the evacuation, but soon all contact is lost with them. Eventually a distress signal is received by the military, and your squad of Delta Force operatives is sent in to make contact with the survivors, but all is not what it seems…

The Dubai setting is an inspired choice, laden as it is with messages about the hubris of capitalism. The foolish opulence of the city – an aquarium in the middle of the desert! – has been reduced to tatters, with silk curtains becoming tents for refugees and silver necklaces being melted down into bullets, the only currency that matters now the apocalypse has descended. The ruined city provides some of the most memorable images I can remember witnessing in a video game, from ocean liners washed up in the desert to leaning skyscrapers half-buried in the sand, with herds of oryx leaping across burnt-out cars and abandoned suitcases.

Into this hellhole wander the hapless Delta Force trio of Walker, Lugo and Adams, and perhaps what impresses most about the game is that you’re quickly made to care about what happens to these grunts. In most war games I’ve played I can barely remember the names of any of the characters by the end, but in Spec Ops I was transfixed by the tale of these three soldiers. It helps that the voice acting is excellent, and the interactions between the three run the full spectrum from light-hearted jokes to unnerving pathos, with each soldier displaying a unique and memorable personality. Most importantly though, the characters develop and noticably change over the course of the game, which only serves to bring home how one-dimensional most other video game characters are.

I would dearly love to tell you what happens to them, but I’m afraid that to say anything about the plot would generate massive spoilers – all I can say is that you have to play this game for yourself, it really is astonishing. Perhaps what impresses most is the way that the game uses every tool at its disposal to further the narrative – even down to unexpected messages on the loading screens. The music is also excellent, a mixture of an evocative and brooding original soundtrack mixed with some classic licensed tunes from the seventies that perfectly fit with the Apocalypse Now vibe. One of the stand-out scenes occurs when you first encounter Radioman, a sort of DJ version of Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist who presides over a home-made radio station like a ringmaster of the absurd: as you infiltrate a run-down TV studio covered in bizarre grafitti he begins blasting out ‘Hush’ by Deep Purple, and suddenly all hell breaks loose. And it only gets crazier and crazier from then on in – pushing further into Dubai feels almost like drifting away into a dream.

Another thing I particularly liked about the game was the way it handled collectibles. I’m generally quite averse to going around and picking up random junk within games (I think the flags in Assassin’s Creed scarred me for life), but here the few pieces of ‘intel’ you pick up provide genuinely interesting insights into the characters in the game, and I eagerly looked out for them as I went, hungry for the secrets they reveal. This is the way to do story in video games: drip feed the good stuff.

And after all, story is Spec Ops‘ raison d’etre, and by the end I was left wondering why all games can’t tell a tale this well. Spec Ops plays on the strengths of video games in that it provides you with important choices, but it’s also sensible enough to remain mostly linear so as not to dilute the storytelling. Most important of all, because you’re the one performing the actions in the story, you’re made to feel complicit in everything that happens, for good or bad. I was moaning a few weeks back that there seems to be a general confusion in the video game industry about the best way to approach narrative in video games and that most game stories often feel almost like an afterthought, but Spec Ops clearly shows that not only can video games tell stories just as well as films or books, they can tell them in a way that simply can’t be done in any other medium.

[Penned in shock and awe by Lucius Merriweather.]