It was a formulaic shooter. Keogh’s mission was to play it, extract observations of interest, and then get the hell out of there. It seemed easy enough at first. An inverted American flag. 1960s protest music. A mad Colonel named Konrad, for Christ’s sake. It was on-the-nose, by the numbers, Creative Writing 101 stuff. 1 Someone at Yager clearly read a little Tim O’Brien in high school. Disappointingly, it looked like Keogh’s mission was over. Time to punch out and move on to the next game.
But that’s when things got officially weird.
It started innocuously: a stop sign here, a graffito there. Wait, what are the lyrics to that Vietnam-era rock song playing during this shooting gallery? It’s singing “hush” during a firefight! And it’s contemporary to the Vietnam War! Captain Walker tells his ally to ignore the music, “shut up,” and keep shooting! So. Many. Layers.
Keogh, lost in the sand of virtual Dubai, found himself obsessed. There must be meaning here, he thought. And the semiotic clues left carefully behind by the developer lured him in. Would you kindly note the increasingly unhinged loading screen hints? With blinders on, 2 he pursued these clues in search of that elusive quarry: a game worth critiquing.
Just as Captain Walker comes to Dubai believing that Konrad is there for him to save, Keogh comes to Spec Ops believing that there is a brilliant game for him to unearth. 3 And as with Walker, Keogh is driven mad when the thing he is looking for, his driving motivation, is not there. 4
There is no Spec Ops: The Line. Or rather, there is, but not the game that he claims is there. The real Spec Ops is a middling shooter, fumbling at meaning like a college sophomore trying to shoehorn Important Themes into his shitty creative writing paper. Keogh does not see that game. Consistently, he points out the game’s flaws only to immediately shrug them off. An example:
“Where’s all this violence come from?” admonishes Radioman. “Is it the
video games? I bet it’s the video games.”
It’s almost a moment of dry comedy, the violent videogame reprimanding
violent videogames while I stand surrounded by gore and mannequins.
Radioman breaks the fourth wall a couple of times (E for Everybody’s
thirsty; singing to the background music), but none as explicitly as this.
It’s the bluntest moment that the game explicitly notes it is talking about
videogame violence. On one level, it is a painfully forced and unfunny joke.
On another level, Radioman is exactly right. (112)
Notice that it’s “almost” droll, but Keogh is not willing to commit to the claim. Look at those last two sentences: the book is full of claims structured as “perhaps this is [terrible / a technical bug / unintentional] — or maybe it’s GENIUS.”
Killing is Harmless is (unintentionally) a damning critique of Spec Ops, in the exact same way that Spec Ops is (intentionally) a damning critique of its genre. Look at how broken this is!, they both say. Now accept it and move on!
In the end, he is not even critiquing a game. He is critiquing a mirror. He is critiquing himself. And he is unwittingly critiquing games criticism.
I don’t mean to be unfair to Keogh. Killing is Harmless could stand in for any piece of effusive game criticism. In particular I’m reminded of the elation of the game criticism blogosphere when BioShock was released. BioShock essentially created an entire genre of game criticism, of which Killing is Harmless represents a logical extreme. In fact, in an insightful stroke, Keogh goes so far as to designate Spec Ops a “post-BioShock” shooter.
I’d like to end this review by noting that I am happy that this book exists. It is clearly thought-provoking. It was moving enough to compel me to write this review. Reading it helped me sort out many of the reasons why I had such a visceral hatred of Spec Ops: The Line during and after playing it. I now feel like I understand the game better than I did than before I read the book. While I disagree wholly with Keogh’s reading of the game, I disagree with it on the grounds that the game, Keogh’s game, does not exist. As a Borgesian work of speculative criticism, it is masterful.
Late in the book, Keogh notes: “I don’t think I have ever before projected so much onto the surface of a playable character.” The book is a projection, and an interesting one, but it’s no more or less than that. It shows that anything can be profound to someone.
NOTE: Be sure to check out Keogh’s response in the comments below.
- This is painful stuff. Some descriptions of the imagery found in Spec Ops, straight from the pages of Killing is Harmless:
Back on the ground, in the middle of the foyer on the low roof of a booth, a stone angel lies splayed on its back. Looking up after the skirmish is over, I notice that three other angel statues are suspended from the far-above ceiling as though flying in a spiral towards the sky. It is the highest one that has apparently snapped from its chains and fallen back to earth, dead. It’s hard not to read it is an Icarus analogy (85)
We go past one boat called White Bird as a literal white bird (maybe a seagull?) flies off the hull into the sky. Maybe a ham-fisted metaphor that any chance of peace has flown away from Dubai? (120)
…even Keogh calls it ham-fisted, although much of the book is filled with praise for the game’s writing. ↩
He sees symbols to analyze where there are none:
As we abseil out of the building down to the road, doing as Konrad’s voice orders us, there is a reflection in the building’s window beside Walker’s. I can only see it briefly and on my first game, like a Dear Esther ghost, I wonder if I saw it at all. It’s a reflection of a body, hung from its wrists. [...] I’ve played this section over and over, and I can find no body to connect to the reflected, blurry haze of a woman’s strung up body. [...] I suspect this reflection is of the dead woman that Walker has locked in his memory, the one who tried to protect her child from my white phosphorous attack. (88)
This passage is accompanied by a screenshot of the blur. I see the blur he’s talking about. I can see something that could be a rope leading up from it. All I can see is a graphical glitch. I’m certainly at a loss as to how it could be a body, much less how someone could tell its gender. ↩
I have heard criticisms that The Line is weakened by the same old, fight-countless-enemies-over-and-over gunplay. This might be a fair criticism of shooters generally, but it is an unfair criticism of The Line specifically. Yager, the game’s developers, were told by publisher 2K that they must make a “squad-based military shooter.” Mechanically, the game had to be conventional; Yager had no option but to include countless acts of violence. It isn’t disappointing that The Line didn’t removed the endless killing typical of military shooters; it is commendable that the game subverts the endless killing it had no choice but to include by explicitly acknowledging it. (56)
Yager were told to make a shitty game, and made the best of it. Keogh found himself playing a shitty game, and made the best of it. ↩
Walker is desperate to find something significant here, but Adams and Lugo note that it is just another base, that the crimes they committed outside were for naught. (85)
With some very minor editing, that sentence could have stood in for this entire review. ↩