In most forms of media, the audience is easily able to disconnect themselves from the actions and identity of the main character. The sentiment is one of passive viewership, as typically, these mediums are unable to accommodate any kind of participation. Thus, when a character is portrayed as doing something good or evil, any spectator will applaud or condemn them for their deeds as though they were someone distinct. Responses like these create a rather intricate web of relationships in any viewer’s mind: these groups are good for some reason, these groups are bad, these neutral, etc.
Video games, though, are different. Because the player is an insert into the game itself, the projection of their own qualities and tendencies onto the playable character is much stronger. This has advantages and disadvantages; while the player likely has a stronger connection to that character, their inherent traits are usually reeled in to make room for the player to project their own onto them. In this sense, the playable character in a video game is reduced to a vessel that allows for self-insert and control, as opposed to the completely autonomous agent that are the characters in a movie or TV show. As a result, the actions taken by playable characters themselves are frequently mitigated so as not to offend the intentions or mindset of the player.
Become the Anti-Hero in Spec Ops: The Line
However, there are a few titles that attempt to capitalize on the complacency this practice has engendered in the gaming community. Some creators have realized that occasionally forcing the player to take a backseat to the playable character’s actions can make for riveting plot and gameplay, magnified tenfold when the actions are contrary to what the player would typically desire. This defiance of expectation is why a video game anti-hero is so shocking to behold — you, the player, are doing the terrible things; you are the anti-hero, and not some entity far removed from you. The most memorable example of this is Spec Ops: The Line, where the playable character, Walker, becomes increasingly psychotic and violent during his tour in Dubai.
Spec Ops: The Line is so successful because of how deceptive it is. At the time of its release, the game’s marketing painted it as a run-of-the-mill military shooter, a genre that was saturated even in 2012. It begins how many military games begin: shooting enemies, collecting ammunition and progressing through the seemingly standard plot of rescue, search and destruction.
Quickly, however, Walker’s state can be seen deteriorating. His gear becomes dirtier and bloodier, and his communication with his team becomes far less professional than at the beginning. Instead of saying, “Priority target, focus on him!” when giving an order, he starts saying things like, “Kill this guy!”
After witnessing the character’s gradual descent into monstrosity, players must ask themselves if they are also committing evil deeds. After all, the player is responsible when Walker guns down hundreds of foes. While this question creeps into players’ minds, Spec Ops: The Line climaxes with one of the most memorable and infamous scenes in gaming history.
Spec Ops: The Line Will Make You Question Your Morality
If somehow the player was blind to the gradual decline in Walker’s mental state, what’s known as the “white phosphorus scene” serves as a slap in the face that nobody could miss. Walker’s squad must advance through a region with countless enemies, far too many for them to dispatch on their own. Ignoring the pleas of one of his companions, Walker suggests using white phosphorus, a weapon known for its truly horrific effects. Phosphorus is extremely reactive with air, so when it is set on fire, it is very difficult to put out; this in combination with its ability to stick to surfaces means that its use on infantry is unspeakable.
Despite knowing these effects, the player is forced to rain white hellfire from above, burning alive what may be hundreds of enemies that are unable to fight back. Worse yet is when, advancing through the carnage, Walker sees that he also massacred 47 civilians. Spec Ops: The Line pulls no punches here. The scorched bodies are fully shown, and it’s an oppressive reminder that the player is at fault for the earlier insistence of killing.
The reason this chain of events is so effective is because the players’ actions are being held firmly against them. Walker becomes an anti-hero as a result of the in-game murder that most gamers are completely desensitized to. When he suggests using white phosphorus, players feel as though it is a shooting gallery set piece like any other, and proceed without a second thought. By taking advantage of this complacency, Spec Ops: The Line makes its point beautifully. It uses the player’s own actions as evidence.
Spec Ops: The Line shows how people who become jaded are capable of doing terrible things, and this lesson is mirrored between Walker and the player. By leveraging the advantages of the medium and player choice, it constructs a web of moral associations in players’ minds that include themselves, forcing them to seriously reconsider an entire genre. Such innovation is rarely found, and it shows the critical power the anti-hero can hold in the right hands.