I want to start this blog off with a quote. I’m not going to cite it just yet because I’m going to do this thing where I blow your mind at the end. So here it is.
“We talk so much about how video games are art. But at the same time the violent video discussion comes up and get people up in arms saying violent video games don’t affect me, they aren’t a big deal. If video games are art they have to affect us. The truth of the matter is violent video games, whether subconscious or not, affect us in some way. I wanted this game to affect you in the way it really made you think about the violence you are inflicting in the world and you’re thinking about the characters going through that.”
This quote sums up why I’m where doing what I’m doing. I write this blog because I believe that video games, being the first visual and interactive story telling medium, have the capacity to affect us just as strongly if not stronger than a novel or a film. Let me give you an example of what I mean. This is from the Deus Ex: Human Revolution DLC expansion The Missing Link. By the way, Human Revolution inspite of its very known and talked about flaws, was still hands down my favorite game of 2011 for this upcoming reason. Seriously, go play The Missing Link; it had all the best parts of Human Revolution with none of the bad stuff. It’s a standalone too, so you don’t even need to buy the full game (but you should also do that too). This will involve spoilers so if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want spoilers, well, too bad. I need to do this to make my point so I can blow your mind.
In The Missing Link Adam Jensen gets caught in his little stow away attempt from the main game and is brought to a black site detention facility where you discover that the facility exists to run human genetic and augmentation experiments. All of the “prisoners” are innocent people detained on vacation simply because they had the right or wrong genetic markers. You eventually manage to find a scientist there willing to blow the whistle on the whole thing to the U.N. but then the bad guy running the facility finds out and tries to the scrap the whole project by killing everyone with cyanide gas. The mysterious hacker who has been helping you throughout The Missing Link tells you that there’s no way to shut the gas off, you can only reroute it to either the cell blocks or the lower section where the whistle blower is.
And so we come to our choice. There is no clear good or evil option, no morality bar, no reward beyond advancing the game. All you have is a button, a video a screen of people choking, and ticking clock. Do you save the whistle blower or the prisoners, all of whom are innocent people? I saved the game, put it down and thought about what I was going to do for nearly thirty minutes. When I came back I made my decision, and in doing so I learned a little about myself. I learned that even though I like to think that I’m pragmatic and pride myself on how I can “make choices free of emotions” (this is something I’ve said) I realized that when it comes down to the line, 1,000 human lives is worth more to me than a single, albeit far more important person, even if they’re all fictional, and I think this has made me a better person in realizing this.
If this sounds familiar it’s because you watched Extra Credits (good for you), and more specifically you watched their episode “Enriching Lives”. Like the guys there I believe that games can enrich our existence just as much as any other form of art can. But unlike the example they used, The Missing Link actually did embed its choice in the mechanics of the game, like a good game should. I believe that the stage of video games perception as immature entertainment for children is coming to a close, possibly within the next ten years. So let’s go back to that quote because it’s very telling of the direction the industry is starting to take.
It’s from Walk Williams; he’s the lead writer on the upcoming 2K shooter Spec Ops: The Line. If you remember the Spec Ops games then Jesus Christ you have good memory for crappy titles. The Spec Ops franchise was a series of budget military shooters for the Playstation that shriveled up and died along with that console ten years ago. They were the games you bought when Rainbow Six was sold out. Now it’s being reinvented into something I doubt anyone thought was possible with a pedigree like that. Spec Ops: The Line is a game about three soldiers being sent into the city of Dubai after global warming (I think) created the mother of all sandstorms and it kicked the shit out of this shining example of human opulence. From its screenshots you’d think it’s another hopelessly brown and gritty game about shooting terrorists in a middle-eastern city, a concept we’ve only seen a hundred billion times already.
But Walk Williams and the rest of the guys at Yager Development want to do something more with this game. They want to take that kind of moment I described having with The Missing Link and embed it into the entire experience of the game. From what I understand you’re not even fighting terrorists, most of your enemies are former US marines under the command of the main character’s mentor who’s going bat shit crazy, attacking US troops on sight and burning civilians alive with white phosphorus. How many games have the balls to make you shoot at American solders? Spec Ops: The Line wants you to be affected by its violence, and create the same kind of disgust and horror in its audience that books like Heart of Darkness and films like Apocalypse Now! were able to do. The way will do so is right there in its title, the theme of The Line. This is a game that’s going to make you draw a line in the sand on where you stand regarding decency and human life, and then do everything in its power to make you cross that line, and in the process, help you learn who you really are. This is a game that’s not going to be fun, but it will be engaging.
Games receive a lot of flak for being violent, and for understandable reasons. After all even if it’s completely fictional, there is still something messed up about saying how you enjoy decapitating hundreds of people an hour for fun and then say it doesn’t affect you at all. That sounds like the kind of thing a sociopath, not a functional member of society should say. So what I’ve always wanted was a game that wanted its violence not to be fun, but engaging, the same way playing Silent Hill isn’t really fun (it’s scary as hell and the controls are awful) but it’s engaging. So now we come to the part where I blow your mind. 2012 is going to see a lot of important games: Mass Effect 3, Guild Wars 2, I Am Alive and hopefully The Last Guardian. But if Spec Ops: The Line succeeds on its promise, then a brown, third-person, cover-based, modern military shooter, might be the most important game to come out this year. And if it fails, then at least I know it will have failed through ambition, something this industry needs more of. I hope to get my hands on this once its nebulous release date is set, and see where I draw the line.