The credits on Spec Ops The Line have started to roll, and I collapse back into the sofa with an audible sigh of relief. Not that I didn’t enjoy the game, it’s more the fact the subject matter Spec Ops The Line follows is so brutally dark. Whilst my notes will soon form into a review on the very site you’re sat on at this very moment, right now I’m emotionally exhausted.
For the many gamers like myself who do end up investing some level of emotion in games with a ‘deeper’ narrative, it seems in the last few years that video games are shooting for much darker and once taboo themes. So why is this growing trend becoming so popular? Is this the inevitable next step video games are making in their crusade for artful legitimacy? Or are there just more emotionally messed up people writing game scripts these days?
Back in May I spent countless hours in Rockstar’s beautiful yet pointless sequel Max Payne 3, and whilst I was John Wooing my around San Paulo I found it nigh on impossible to take the narrative seriously. The first two Max Payne games were very dark affairs, the subject of drug abuse and worsening mental health giving us some of the most copied dream sequences in history. And whilst the third game is just as gritty, it was the decision to make Max self-destructive alcoholic that seemed unnecessary. Did Max’s nihilistic nature need a physical crux on which to destroy his health? Or did the writers just need something to replace the presence of drug Valkyr in the first games? His alcohol abuse & painkiller abuse just became a game mechanic rather than an attempt to make anything approaching a legitimate statement. Max Payne 3 is a sound third-person-shooter, but narratively it’s a convoluted mess.
With Spec Ops The Line I genuinely applaud Yager Studios for trying to create a game that questions the morality of military intervention and the whole concept of carrying a gun and using it. It shows how there is no good or evil, just the perspective of the person and the choices they make in the moment. And trust me when I say this game goes to some dark places, because I rarely feel uncomfortable with a game or movie anymore. But when in one scene you come face to face with the horrific consequences of your actions in a distorted battlefield, the sentiment is cheapened when your character is screaming “Wooo!!! I got another one!” as you headshot another hapless NPC. It upends your state of mind and makes you realise your still playing a game that lets you shoot people and woop about it.
Some of the subject matter covered in Bioware’s recent colossal threequel Mass Effect 3 are without a doubt as dark and uncomfortable as the brutal survivalism of The Last of Us or the self-destruction of Max Payne 3. But the backdrop of an alien future seems to somehow protect these themes from feeling cheap. Science fiction can cleverly dress real-world subjects like genocide and racial prejudice up in allegory and metaphors. Games set in alternate realities not too dissimilar to our own bring with them the inescapable desire to compare them and judge them by real world standards.
To me, video games have always been a legitimate art form, and always will be. They don’t necessarily need to employ adult themes like drug abuse, murder & mental health to justify the gravitas of their contribution. But whilst videogames will always choose to use these subjects to varying degrees of success for many years to come, a game is ultimately still a game; it should be there to entertain & help you escape life for a few hours. My only hope is one day a developer can find the perfect equation for balancing gameplay with realistic narrative without making it feel like a video game. Not much to ask now is it?