I will make comparison of two on the surface very similar player journeys, with one key distinction at the core.
Bioshock asks and answers all existential questions within its gameplay mechanics for you. While Spec Ops: The Line pushes you – the player in front of the screen – to ask and maybe answer the questions for yourself. …and therefore turned out to be one of the most interesting and perspective-changing interactive experiences I had this console generation.
After Spec Ops: The Line, for me, there is no more going back. My relationship with games has changed. Profoundly.
- Editor’s note: This article is full of spoilers, obviously.
Most game designers aim at creating a state of oblivion, making the player get lost in the world and colors and mechanics, immersed, in state of flow, hopefully completely forgetting the controller in their hand and their butt on the couch. To me, the most interesting and intense gaming experiences are the ones that make me self-conscious.
They challenge me with more than skill tests, logical conundrums or quizzes… they challenge me to explore who I am. Of course there is still some translation work involved, the virtual game world is an abstraction after all. Still, if a game makes me discover something about myself, imho it becomes truly meaningful. More meaningful, than any high score could be. It becomes a personal Voight-Kampff test basically.
Bioshock was one of those games. Anongst others, like Mass Effect, Limbo, Shadow Of The Collossus, Red Dead Redemption, Dead Space, Spelunky, Dragon Age 2, Alice – Madness returns, The Darkness… and now – very high on the list: Spec Ops: The Line.
Why compare Bioshock and The Line?
Well, the structures of both games and how they lead up to the existential revelation in the end are very very similar. There are major parallels in the way both stories unfold from a bird’s eye perspective. But even under close scrutiny, looking at individual elements, it becomes evident, that both games basically provide the same context for the player’s actions and decisions. But from there The Line takes you to a place where Bioshock didn’t dare to make you go.
Into The Heart Of Darkness.
Here is a quick overview of the key sequences in both games I’d like to discuss:
I assigned labels to the key sequences I’d like to discuss here and found, that treating the game sequences as metaphors for stages of a life’s journey using motifs from christian mythology ends up being rather appropriate.
Please note, that – while the credits roll after The Line’s conclusion – the campaign in Bioshock actually continues. There are a couple of missions following the big cataclysmic revelation. They basically contribute nothing to the experience than a completely unnecessary, undeserved and conciliatory winning scenario, which only serves to make the game get in line with normative expectations. So, I’m going to treat the conclusion in Bioshock as final as it is in The Line.
Anyway, let’s begin.
We crash-land in a hazardous environment (desert and ocean), instantly struggling for survival, with only one option to save ourselves: find shelter (in Dubai or Rapture). I both games we know basically nothing about the character we play before we crash land. Live basically begins here. Surviving an accident like that often gets referred to as “being reborn” or “getting a second chance for life”. Note: In The Line the order of events was shuffled to start the game with the crash.
In both games, when the city gets revealed, the creator is superimposed over the world he shaped… In The Line Konrad is standing on a balcony sharing his top-down view with us, while in Bioshock Ryan’s voiceover accompanies the skyline shot.
Very soon after the crash landings in both games – before we start exploring the cities – we get introduced to the creators. The Creator is a superiorly powerful, intelligent and ruthless being. Godlike. The evil of the world gets blamed on him, because he supposedly created it, but he still has followers willing to die for his ideals.
We never meet the creator until the end of our journey.
We only hear people speak of him, see monuments to his glory, gun down his disciples and get manipulated by his voice over a radio speaker. In Bioshock, Ryan is the one who envisioned and built Rapture, while Konrad is the one who established his own regime in the ravaged Dubai. In both games missions are structured around finding them and dealing with their followers, while riding a ghost train, witnessing the horrors of the world they helped create.
Konrad and Ryan both share another eerie similarity: They are both not only the architects of the unfolding scenarios, they are also both named in reference to the writers, who created the books, which inspired the games.
John Konrad represents Joseph Konrad, who wrote The Heart of Darkness and Andrew Ryan (anagram for We r Ayn Rand) represents Ayn Rand, writer of Atlas Shrugged (amongst other relevant books). They are literally named after the actual creators of each respective universe.
In each game we get presented early on with a wide shot of the city at the end of the introduction of the creators. This connects the creator with their respective cities and allows us to see the vast structures, we are going to explore. Both – Dubai and Rapture – are originally symbols of wealth, decadence and capitalism, featuring lush architecture, art and expensive interiors… which then got ravaged by a major catastrophe.
In Dubai a massive sandstorm struck, while in Rapture everyone got mad. The fall of man, another biblical motif, a paradise lost. Two cities drowning in sin and getting divine punishment for it. Both cities are surrounded by an endless empty deadly terrain – an ocean and a desert – effectively turning the cities into prisons with their citizens locked inside, starting to literally tear each other apart.
The biblical motifs in both games go much further than that. While we enter Dubai after it is flooded (with sand), the threat of the great flood is a constant companion in Rapture, with leaking pipes and cracked glass. Dubai – as the touristic attraction it once was – features stereotypical paradisiac imagery in its resort hotels. Both cities are challenging God – Rapture by explicitly rejecting God as one form of authority, Dubai by having the highest sky scraper in the world, analogous to the tower of Babel.
Interesting fact: the classic music played when Konrad’s soldiers attack the protagonists with a helicopter from the sky, is not only a reference to the Ride of the Valkyrie in the helicopter sequence from Apocalypse Now (the movie adaptation of The Heart of Darkness). The track played by the radioman during the helicopter attack is Giuseppe Verdi’s Dies Irae – a sequence from an opera in which God sends his angels to rain down judgement from the Heavens. This musical metaphor further indicating John Konrad’s status as a godlike figure.
In total the christian mythology references in Spec Ops: The Line are more, than in Bioshock, starting with the three kings crossing the desert and much much more references.
- Editor’s note: Rapture and Dubai are both game worlds in my backlog of places I want to explore in detail in the future, like I did with Arkham City for example. Though I think this will take some time before I go there again. You can check on the game world tag to keep an eye on that.
The more we descent into Dubai and Rapture the more we get exposed to the corruption, the madness and the sin… and we are confronted with it, forced to react to it, fight it. The people around us are depicted as wrongdoers… monsters.. and it is our trial not to become one of them. This is where we experience the first core distinction between the two games, which will be very important once we start sorting things out after The Judgement.
In Bioshock you are told where to go and you are never explicitly confronted with any questions, regarding how okay it is to gun down Splicers. They are the enemy and you need to take em down. The splicers are all corrupted by their own desires, to be beautiful, to be strong, to be smart. They used Adam – an omnipotent chemical with a not so subtle biblical reference in its name – to modify their god-given bodies and paid a price for that. The game never ever calls into question if any of them actually deserved a bullet to the head. They just pop up in front of you, attack you, you kill them
and then loot the bodies… …that’s about it.
On the other hand in The Line, your character is the one deciding what to do and when, you aren’t following orders, you are giving them. There are many many occasions, where your actions in combat result in unjustified killing and the game tells you, that the killings where unjustified. Some inhabitants of Dubai are just scared of you, follow wrong orders… some aren’t even involved in hostile activity and you still kill them.
The game stops the game flow to take time to make you – the player – understand, that collateral damage here means people died and suffered because of your decisions.
In both games we get confronted with morally ambivalent proposals. In Bioshock we repeatedly encounter Little Sisters and are asked to either save them or harvest them, including respective button prompts. The moments of moral decision making are encapsulated, have a clear beginning and end and are reserved for special characters. There are no accidents in Bioshock, all immediate consequences are explained to you in neat little user interfaces and through character exposition.
In The Line the moral choices are much more organic and varied and are triggered via basic game mechanics, like shooting or moving. Sometimes it is obvious, that the player is at an decision point, but sometimes shit just hist the fan without any warning. Also even the predetermined next steps in many missions get treated by NPCs as morally questionable. The lack of a clearly indicated border between decisions sequences and linear play keep the player continuously involved in what happens and make even the predetermined outcomes feel relevant.
After witnessing the horrors of humanity’s corruption, after surviving endless onslaughts of enemies, after countless kills – some in combat, some not – we stand before our maker. Konrad and Ryan are both indulging themselves in recreational activity (Konrad paints, Ryan plays golf) and both are calmly expecting us and both are well kept and look healthy. (In contrast to the citizens they rule over, who live in the dirt, suffer, die, starve and kill.) We have to go upstairs to talk to them. All this symbolizes how much they are above things.
Then Ryan and Konrad drop expositions bombs and this is where it gets interesting.
The revelation in Bioshock:
Ryan discloses to you, that you are a brainwashed agent. You are conditioned to follow commands, which start with “Would you kindly…‚”. He monologues about free will and how free will makes you a man, not a slave. “A man chooses. A slave obeys.” Then the man chooses to force you to beat him to death with his own golf club, by saying “Would you kindly kill.”
The revelation in The Line:
Konrad turns out to be already dead for a long time and the Konrad you talked to all day and who is now right in front of you is a hallucination. A figment of your mind, which conveniently provided a villain for you, so you could go out on a violent power fantasy rampage and feel like a hero doing it. He reveals, that the decisions you made are meaningless and the only thing you could have done to not perpetuate the horror and not become a monster yourself is stop marching on.
In Bioshock you kill your creator and have as much responsibility for this kill as you have for all the others before… none. Except from the explicit decisions sequences with the little sisters, the game completely absolves you from everything you have done so far by making you slave to the game’s system. You then move on to break the mind control, because this is where the road the game leads you to. You have no say here. You continue to be slave to the system, continue to follow the voices in your radio until the credits roll, just that they now don’t use the “would you kindly” phrase anymore.
The Line presents you with the fact, that you are slave to your own self-constructed system of justifications and slave to your own desire to feel like a hero. The game makes you responsible for every trigger pull you performed and then gives you a choice. Do I wait until the Konrad-figment shoots me, do I shoot him or do I shoot myself? It’s your choice, you can die right here or go out scott free. Though how much of this is not just happening in your head, since you have been talking to a ghost the whole game is another issue.
I woke up.
Both games guide you through a hypothetical extreme situation and let you express yourself within the limitations of the game mechanics and campaign design. Both games frame spreading destruction as a method for survival and finally a path to redemption. They conveniently give you an already damned world and god-character to blame it all on, so you can feel like a hero.
It’s a diligent construct to rationalize the still dominant “shoot-first-ask-later”-mentality in games, in a medium which is nowadays technically able to treat those issues with way more thought, than it cares to do.
But Spec Ops: The Line has the guts to let this construct fall apart.
When I first played Bioshock, it flashed me. What you say, I was blindly following orders and haven’t even noticed it? The experience Bioshock gave me actually changed my relation with games. A bit at least. I now no longer just accept the orders barked at me in radios and head sets. I’m now a self-conscious part of the system. I understand now that game devs in general expect me to respond as reliable to button prompts, level design, enemy units ect as they expect it from their KI or GUI. Sometimes I actively try to undermine that… see what happens when I exploit the boundaries of the interactivity. And sometimes I get pissed off, when the game forces me into actions, I cannot reconcile with the feeling I want to have playing a game.
In hindsight though the delivery in Bioshock was kinda clumsy and very much on the nose. After all they pulled a rabbit out of a hat without establishing the hat first. It was an answer without a question. After I was granted the knowledge, that I was manipulated the whole time, the quest structure stayed the same. The game did not give me a framework to actually benefit from what I have learned in that moment. The game did not let me put their lesson into practice.
Today – thanks to Spec Ops The Line – I know now, that it is not the game designer’s job to create systems which allow me to break free… it’s my job as a player to break free from those systems.
Video games are many things. Some are quick tests of skill and brains about arranging colored squares into groups, just fun, some are sport simulations, rather trivial, …and some are interactive hypothetical situations regarding ourselves, our societies and norms.
How many games made me do things in this hypothetical space, which I didn’t feel like doing? How many kills did feel odd to me, even within an exaggerated fictitious war scenario, but I still marched on? How many days did I spend just mindlessly following waypoints, screen prompts and nice voices? How many times did I accept pretty girls void of any personality as a bribe to save the day? In how many games did I reluctantly accept racial stereotypes as just what the enemy looks like?
I know. Everything is fictional. All happens in a virtual space. But how long are we going to let games tell us to do things we don’t want to do? …to accept rewards we don’t want to have? …to accept ideas we reject?
Where and to what degree do we accept this bullcrap outside of games?
I’m fed up. To be honest with myself, I kinda already was for a long time. I’m still going to enjoy a good mindless carnage, exploitation and brick-stacking. But games, that only work when I turn my brain off and only work when I turn my morals off… I’m fed up with me playing by their rules.
I’m fed up with harming people as my only option. I’m fed up with moral choices, which in the end amount to nothing but a narcissistic exercise.
Spec Ops woke me up… by pointing the finger at me for playing along. …for keeping on pressing buttons, even if I didn’t approve of the results they triggered. …and for not pressing the one button I may have should.
- Editor’s note: This article is an edited version of an article originally published in october 2012. You can find the original article and other older articles in the pdf archive.