(Warning this post contain major spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line. The real effect on this game can only be experienced it firsthand without being spoiled, so if you haven’t played it, please just exited this and buy this game. Buy this darn game. It only going to cost you 20-30 bucks on steam and a couple hours of your life. Whether you’ll like it or not, i guarantee it wasn’t like anything you’ve experienced before. Thank you)
Power Fantasy. In the most simplest terms, it means a sense of empowerment and the illusion of strength. It was one of the most powerful thing our media can provide us, whether it was books, movies or video games. Among anime fandom, the word itself is commonly associated with one of the recent popular anime, Sword Art Online.
Video games in particular, are a lot more prone for this. With its interactive nature, the consumer can insert themselves onto to the role of it’s protagonist better than any media (especially RPG). Because of this, many games from the AAA industry always design their games around the idea of the player being the hero off their story.
There are one rare game however, that challenge and question the notion of Power Fantasy.
Spec Ops: The Line are a many things. A tactical cover based shooter (i used the word “tactical” loosely), a compelling story about horrors of war, a critique on how detach “Modern” FPS is from reality and also examination of PTSD. But Spec Ops does one unique thing that can only be done with its interactive medium. And that is subverting Power Fantasy.
Like i said before, many AAA title often design their game to give a sense of Power Fantasy to its player. Spec Ops however, was designed to do the exact opposite.
In fact, it probably has something to say about it.
Let’s dive into the rabbit hole shall we?
On the outset, the game started normally enough. You played as Martin Walker, a leader of Delta Force team who was sent on a recon mission to Dubai, which is destroyed due to massive sandstorm, after discovering distress signal sent by John Konrad, the leader of the famous Damned 33rd battalion. Originally, The 33rd stayed at Dubai to help out evacuation of it’s citizen, however the government lost contact with them after a while. The original mission for Walker and two of his crewmates was just to scout on potential survivor and report back as soon as they discovered any sign of them. Gradually, Walker/we soon discovered the details on how the evacuation gone awry and decided upon himself/ourselves to sort them out.
Now normally, this is the part where Walker and his team will solve everything out and left making Walker/us the hero. We all think that’s going to happen right? Right?
The first warning the game give to the player, is the moment where Walker and the player began to spend most of the game fighting the rogue Damned 33rd, who is our protagonist fellow US soldier. For the first several minutes/hours also, the game pretty much hit every checkmark of every generic shooter out there and seems to frame what should have been morally questionable action that Walker/us commit on real world as the “correct” one. After all, this is a video game isn’t it? It’s not like we’ve done this before in so many shooter games right? The game also uses it mundane/generic gameplay to actually make you feel bored on killing the Damned 33rd and desensitized you toward the violence that happened throughout. And it was all for the sake of the first tragedy that’s about to strike in.
The white phosphorus scene.
The scenario is Walker/us and his team ran into enemy stronghold and planned how they should proceed. Seeing a white phosphorus mortar right next to them, they/we decided to used it. After raining hell toward the enemies, Walker and team proceed pass through the stronghold only to discover that they/we also just massacred an entire refugee of Dubai citizen’s, that also held up at the stronghold, using the white phosphorus. And the result/effect to the citizen’s is…..something you can imagined already.
This scene served as the first punch to the gut for the player. What so ingenious and effective about this scene is because the moment where Walker/us was using the white phosphorus and accidentally massacred the refugees, it was not a cutscene. It was a pure gameplay moment. The refugees are only shown as a bunch of white dots gathered on one place (this also served as nice commentary on how light it is to kill in a game) and the game also let you walk your way toward the stronghold to let you see the horrible consequences of your action. This sequences also served as a message on how the true horrors of war is ultimately our own capacity to commit horrible inhumane crime for the sake of victory.
And it doesn’t get better from there.
Slowly, Walker and his team mental state began to break down from their rationalization of their guilt and any semblance of bonds between them cracked and each time you progress on to the game, the scenario and the circumstances keeps getting worse and worse. And slowly the player themselves began to question Walker’s sanity as with his teammates and you also started to wonder the point of why you’re doing this.
What’s also amazing thing about all of this is, that the game was self aware that its an interactive medium. The game acknowledge that us, the player, is also involve and participate on this. And every so often, the game break the fourth wall and talk directly to you. From the line on the loading screen such as “This is all your fault!” or “The US military does not condone the killing of an unarmed combatant. But this is isn’t real, so why should you care?” and most importantly if you’re playing this on Steam, the game listed your account name on the opening credits as “special guest”.
From this, the game actively and constantly blamed the player. But we always knew that killing people mindlessly is just something that we always do in shooter, but somewhere in our consciousness there’s knowledge that the game spent setting up that says no, you shouldn’t kill those US soldier. And we in turn kept rationalize our own action because this is a video game right? This isn’t how it should have gone in so many other shooter right? We’re the heroes here aren’t we? Our morally questionable, stupid, reckless action/decision are supposed to be the “right” thing to do isn’t it !? It was all Walker’s fault doesn’t it !? You told us to do it didn’t you !!?
From there, each bullet that pass to our enemies and the kill cam that slows down everytime we kill our enemies became less of a glorious accomplishment, but more of guilt inducer.
And so many times, his team asked Walker that this isn’t what we’re supposed to do and he should have just stopped. It’s actually the game telling us to quit, but we convinced ourselves that it’ll get better because again this is supposed to be a game right?
And then comes the climax.
A while after the white phosphorus scene, Walker began to come into contact with Konrad through radio, seemingly taunting Walker to find him. Convinced that Konrad is the one responsible for all of this, Walker/we relentlessly searched for him ignoring our original mission.
After all the misery and tragedy Walker/we all have to go through, we finally found Konrad. And then we find out that the real Konrad is actually dead for a long time and the Konrad that Walker talk to throughout the game and the one appear before him is actually his imaginary projection to dump all of his guilt upon.
And Konrad finally deliver the finishing blow to Walker/us. The core reason why Walker/us pushed on through and our own escapism.
“The truth is, you’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not………..”
As a gamer or even just media consumer in general, sometimes we have a notion of believe that Power Fantasy can be not just about escapism and in fact, it can gave us the confidence that we need to go through the hardship of our life.
But Spec Ops: The Line thinks otherwise.
It flat out stated that Power Fantasy is just pathetic.
It tells how miserable it is for us turning onto Power Fantasy for self value and empowerment whether through watching video game or watching certain black swordman commit torture. It tells us how trying to “feel” heroic on accomplishing objective that we always took for granted so many times in a video game and yet we never looked back upon or even question, is just sad.
While after that scene there’s multiple possible endings, in the end it doesn’t really matter.
Because by the end of this game we win nothing, resolved nothing and gain nothing except guilt and the horror that we’ve just experienced.
But it’s okay. Even after all of the horrible war crime that we commit, civilian that we massacred, the consequences of our ignorance toward the warning that the game gave us, the misery that we’ve caused throughout the game all for the sake of trying to be a hero, it’s all right.
– To be honest there are already plenty of much more articulated analysis of this game out there in the internet (Granted the game is two years old). But i rarely see an analysis under the context of Power Fantasy (At least to my knowledge). And considering how Power Fantasy became more prevalent in anime (like SAO that i just mentioned or Mahouka) i feel like this is something that’s becoming more relevant, so…yeah.
– While you could argue that the entire game is just cheap guilt trip manipulation, let’s be honest here, every media that we consume is emotionally manipulative in some way. Sometimes, to get your message/point across you need to adjust audience mood or emotion accordingly.
– Special thanks to Extra Credits for their analysis of the game 🙂 :