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 game play 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 concole generation.
After Spec Ops:The Line, for me, there is no more going back. My relationship with games has changed. Profoundly.
Warning, this article is full of spoilers.
Video Game Existentialism
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 intresting and intense gaming experiences are the ones that make me self-concious. 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 abstarction 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 the 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 gave 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 in reference to 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 mission 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.
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. Though he shaped the world around us and speaks to us, we never meet the creator until the end of our journey.
Here Ryan is the one who envisioned Rapture, while Konrad is the one who established his own brand of law and order in the ravaged Dubai. In both games missions are structured around finding them and dealing with their followers, while being appalled by the environment, 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.
More on the creators and their similarities and function in The Revelation.
In each game we get 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 kapitalism, featuring lush architecture, art and expensive interiors… which then got ravaged by a major catastrophy. In Dubai a massive sandstorm struck, while in Rapture everyone got mad. The fall of man, another biblical motiv, a paradise lost. Two cities drowning in sin and getting devine 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 starting to literally tear each other apart.
In The Line the biblical motifs are much more obvious with the sand storm mimicking the great flood and the paradisaic imagery of the resort hotels you fight in. Other small signs, like the classic music played when
God’s Konrad’s Angels soldiers rain Judgement bullets from the Heavens helicoper. The track played by the radioman during the helicopter attack is Giuseppe Verdi – Dies irae (see youtube/wiki).
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. The game never ever calls into question if any of them actually deserved a bullet to the head.
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. And there are many many occasions, where your actions in combat result in explicitly unjustified killing. 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.
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, inclusing respective button prompts. The moments of moral decisionmaking are encapsulated, have a clear beginning and end and are reserved for special characters. There are no accidents in Bioshock.
In The Line the moral choices are much more organic and varied and are triggered via basic game mechanics, like shooting or moving. Also even the predetermined next steps in many missions get treated by NPCs as morally questionable. Your partners often disagree with your avatar’s orders and Konrad explicitly reprimands you for your actions over the radio.
After witnessing the horrors, after surving endless onslaughts of enemies, after countless kills we performed to get here, we finally meet the creators.
Konrad and Ryan are both endulging 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 philosophies 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. You then move on to break the mind control, because this is where your responsibility lies. At least this is the road the game leads you on. You have no say here. You 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 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.
Goooooooooood Morning, Dubai!
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 define 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 rationalise “shoot-first-ask-later”-mentality 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 self-conscious as 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. And sometimes I actively try to undermine that… see what happens.
In hindsight though the delivery 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. And the fact, that the resolution was much as dictated to me as the criticized earlier commends where… Well, 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’s job to allow me to do what I think is right… it’s mine. Like Konrad said:
And like Ryan said: A man chooses. A slave obeys. After that revelation in Bioshock I could have chosen to stop playing. It would have been the only way to no longer be a slave.
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.