Update: Killing is Harmless is now available at Stolen Projects.
The rise of an entire genre of entertainment that promises to settle players into the experience of realistic military combat is one of the stranger quirks of video game history, but the result is undeniable. Military shooters, as they’re sometimes called, are big earners for the triple-A studios, and rank among the biggest sellers of any given year.
When the trend first gained momentum in the late 1990s, one of the early innovators was a franchise called Spec Ops. Until a few years ago, there was every reason to believe that the series had gone permanently defunct. Then came word that 2K Games, best known for the BioShock and Borderland, had inherited the brand from its parent company, Take-Two Interactive, and hired European studio Yager Development to produce the first installment in a decade.
The result was Spec Ops: The Line, a strikingly self-conscious military shooter that takes its cues from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the anti-war films of the 70s and 80s. Commercial response to The Line was muted, but the game stirred discussion in a critical community sometimes conflicted by its own relationship to the violence that anchors the genre.
This month will mark the publication of the most detailed exploration of the game to date, a book-length exploration entitled Killing Is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line. The author, Brendan Keogh, is a graduate student at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and has written for front-line game sites like Gamasutra, Kill Screen, and Edge. Accompanying Keogh’s text are screenshots from the game itself, as well as original images by illustrator Daniel Purvis, whose site will sell the eBook under the Stolen Projects imprint. Keogh agreed to talk with Culture Ramp about the project in advance of its November 21st release.
Brendan Keogh: I’ll start with a question, if I may: What did you think of the book?
Culture Ramp: I think it’s really interesting, if you don’t mind the scare word. “Interesting” is one of those ambiguous, but indispensable words. There’s a lot going on in the book, and likely a lot of room for disagreement, but it functions on so many levels that I hope it stirs up a hell of a lot of conversation.
BK: Excellent. That’s a good kind of interesting! I’ve tried to stress that it is indeed a subjective reading of the game and not an objective, this-is-exactly-what-the-game-means/end-of-discussion kind of thing. I would rather this start conversations than conclude them.
CR: And along those lines, one of the things that I found fascinating about the book was the obvious care you put into tying together a lot of the existing criticism and discussion about The Line. Not just with the appendix at the end, but also by linking directly to other critics in the text of the book.
BK: Yeah. I guess, in part, that is just the academic in me coming out. But more so, I think it is important to really connect with the other critical discussions happening around the game in order to situate my own thoughts. A lot of people have said a lot of interesting things about the game (both for and against it) and I think it would be quite arrogant of me to neither draw from them nor draw attention to them.
The “Critical Compilation” was a bit of an afterthought, after I started to realise just how many people had managed to do what I completely failed to do (that is, write something succinct about the game). I have followed Critical Distance for years now, and I think I largely owe Critical Distance for my personal rise out of the gaming blogosphere, so compiling that seemed like a good way to give back to that community, if I can call it that.
CR: It’s curious to me that you say it’s the academic in you coming out, because I usually associate the academy with a more hierarchical approach — authorities lecturing students. But there must be something about RMIT’s approach that encourages a lot of discussion, because it seems like the gaming criticism community in Australia is really exploding as of late.
BK: Well, maybe I should have said it is the ‘beginner academic’ in me coming out! I’m only eleven months into my PhD, so I am still very much at that stage in my academic work where I am grounding everything I say in someone else’s arguments. So I guess, at this early stage of my academic career, citing other people often is still second nature. It’s something I’m going to have to step away from as I start writing my own dissertation’s content. I’m going to need to be more confident in my own arguments and my own voice without always having to point to what someone else said to get my back.
But, that said, I think the best academic work is still the work that is more collaborative and open. I would hope that going forward, even after I find my own academic voice, I still regularly draw attention to other writers and ideas I find interesting, even if they directly contradict with my own point of view. I really think games criticism (and I guess criticism in general) should be less about who is right and wrong and more about just testing interesting ideas against each other.
As for the Australian games criticism community, there is certainly something interesting happening here over the last few years. I don’t think RMIT, my university, has particularly anything to do with it, however. There are quite a few of us spread out at different universities in Melbourne and Sydney (with a few more in Brisbane and Adelaide). And there are even more of us who aren’t at universities at all and are either blogging or are on the games journalism side of criticism, such as Katie Williams who freelances all over the place or Tracey Lien, who is over at Polygon now. I really can’t say why there are so many Australian game critics. There just seems to be.
Actually, one possible and simple reason could be that Ben Abraham, the original founder of Critical Distance, is from Sydney. It’s quite possible that that site being Australian-based for so long gave so many more of us a bit of advantage in getting our voice out there. Maybe.
CR: Getting back to the book, one thing that struck me was that a close reading like the one you give ties the criticism to another form associated with video games: the walk-through. Was that an approach that occurred to you right off the bat, or did you make less linear passes first?
BK: I think at first I really had no idea what I was writing, to be honest. The idea of writing an entire book going through the game from start to finish certainly didn’t cross my mind at first. I think my “problem” was that what I found most interesting about The Line was how the entire game just fit together, how every element of it really pushed toward this one thematic thing. So there were particular elements that I wanted to talk about in relation to that thematic push, but I really just couldn’t talk about what they were doing out of the context of what the rest of the game was doing.
Instead, I opened up a blank document and just started typing. I started with the menu screen and just kept on writing, and maybe a chapter or two later I realised that I was indeed writing my way through the whole game.
Its relation to the walk-through certainly struck me. Back when I was struggling to figure out just what to call this thing I have written to get people interested in it, I did consider calling it a “critical walk-through.” I guess, now that I think of it, that term might still be more accurate than a “critical reading.”
But no, I never attempted less linear passes at it. I did, though, consider perhaps writing a collected series of essays on the game. Say, one on virtual depictions of violence, one on American interventionism, one on Heart of Darkness, and so on. But the more I thought about that the more I realised I would have to jump back and forward all over the game. So I went back to my couple of chapters of word-vomit I’d already written and just kept on writing my way through the whole game, and just let the themes emerge from the writing organically like they do in the game.
CR: I don’t want to suggest that it’s as limited as the sort of walk-through that Nintendo Power used to publish. The thematic concern definitely changes the form.
BK: Definitely, but I think it is certainly related to walk-throughs, still. I think the straight up walk-through format probably has more insights into certain games than they are often given credit for. I was at a talk a few months ago where some people working towards conserving video game history discussed how they save walk-throughs of games to keep a record of how those games were engaged with. It’s really interesting!
CR: Soft Skull Press has been releasing book-length criticism of cult movies. One of the first was Jonathan Lethem’s reading of They Live, and he takes a similar approach, going through the movie scene-by-scene. But it’s different when you do that with a game.
BK: That kind of scene-by-scene analysis that is done with films, or the page-by-page analysis that is done with literature was certainly the kind of thing I was aiming for with this project.
I think the biggest difference with doing it to a game is that no matter how tightly authored the game is, you can’t talk about it as this textual object completely distinct from the player. Even in a game like Spec-Ops, where every player is going to play through every scene in essentially the same order, save one or two arbitrary binary choices, it’s important to realise that the player isn’t just the “reader” of the text, but also one of the cogs in the text that is making it function in the first place.
So with writing like this, I think it is important to kind of acknowledge that subjectivity as a really determining factor. I don’t simply mean that “games are all about player choice” or any of that rhetorical garbage. But far more simply, where I chose to turn the camera, how fast I choose to make Walker walk at certain points, what difficulty I’m playing on, all these things alter the text that I am consuming.
So I think that is the main difference of doing this to a game [rather] than to a film. If you talk about a disembodied, generalised ‘player’ you are limited in the kind of criticism you can do, which is why I don’t shy away from the first-person. I am going scene-by-scene through the Brendan-plus-The Line text. If that makes sense.
CR: That gives Killing Is Harmless a biographical function as well. It’s a record of your experiences with the game. It’s effective in part because it’s so confessional. In particular, I was interested by the way that you describe replays of the game — killing an NPC that you had previously allowed to live before, or listening in on a conversation between NPCs, then going back and killing them before they could run through the scene again. Experimentation seems like a special demand that critics in other mediums don’t necessarily face.
Early on in the book, you suggest that there’s “something fundamentally unsettling” about the shooter genre, but we’ve been coming back to the genre for 20 years now. What accounts for the genre’s stubborn appeal?
BK: Well, first up, I think it’s important to clarify — and I hope I make this clear in the book — that when I say shooters are fundamentally unsettling, I don’t necessarily mean that they are “bad.” I think far too many critics have written off The Line as a failure because it’s message that “shooters are bad” doesn’t work when it itself is a shooter. But The Line isn’t trying to say “shooters are bad.” It’s just trying to say, “Isn’t it kind of weird we enjoy something as unsettling as shooting a whole bunch of people. Let’s look more closely at that.” Which, personally, I think is a far more interesting thing to be about.
As for the genre more broadly, I think quite simply that the basic actions of shooters (navigating a 3D space, pulling a trigger to create a change from a distance) are intimately connected with what we do with video game controllers when we play video games. It’s perhaps just a really easy connection to evoke in players. But with that said, I don’t think it is simply laziness on the behalf of developers that we have all these games.
Like many other video game players, though certainly not all of them, I thoroughly enjoy going through the motions that shooters ask of me. I enjoy moving through the open spaces at my own will in a shooter like Far Cry 2. I enjoy being part of an intense, cinematic action scene like in the Modern Warfare trilogy. I enjoy sticky-cover games like Gears of War and The Line because they remind me being a kid, playing with fake guns in the backyard, pressing up against the corner of the house for cover like your life depended on it. I think those basic actions afforded by shooters allow a whole heap of really interesting scenarios and experiences.
What I don’t like about shooters to now is the complete lack of self-awareness. I mentioned I loved how I can be a part of the cinematic story in Modern Warfare. Well, I do. But the story itself I absolutely hate. It’s all American and British heroes against the nameless and faceless Russian and Middle Eastern men.
So the fact that the various forms of the shooter are ‘unsettling’ isn’t a problem, I don’t think. It’s that so many players and developers refuse to accept that what they enjoy is unsettling that’s the problem. Games like The Line at least try to focus their attention on that unsettling-ness, which I think is really important.
CR: Is it possible for the genre to sustain the sort of reflexive view of violence that The Line encourages, or is the game necessarily a one-off?
BK: Well, realistically, considering how poorly it has sold when compared to far less reflexive shooters, like Medal of Honor: Warfighter, I don’t think it is going to change anything on the development end. Publishers are going to do whatever is most likely to make money, of course, and The Line didn’t make money so I don’t think it will necessarily start a new trend in reflexive shooters. I could always be wrong about that.
But even if The Line doesn’t trigger a wave of reflexive shooters, I think it might already be part of a wave that is happening around it. There are several games of late that are really curious about questioning video game violence in a more nuanced, complex way — both shooters and in other genres. Dishonored had its (somewhat hamfisted) idea that the more people you killed, the darker the ending you got, which actually played out in a somewhat interesting way. Klei’s Mark of the Ninja makes a really fascinating and surprising comment on the way we behave in games. I haven’t played Hotline Miami yet as I’m still waiting for the Mac version, but I hear it is really interesting in this regard, too. And next month Far Cry 3 comes out, which I have played a bit of at a preview event. I can’t say if it succeeds or not, of course, but it too is certainly trying to be a bit more reflexive about video game violence.
So there is still this trend around The Line (if not because of The Line) to really just investigate these violent acts we’ve been enjoying for two decades or so now. I think maybe it is just that developers and players alike can only perform these acts unquestioningly for so long without wanting to stop and ask what those acts themselves really say.
But on the question of whether or not that is sustainable, I guess it probably isn’t. After a while games will have to stop being reflexive and then do something with what they learned from being reflexive, I think. Some people think we’re already at that point and that simple reflexivity about video game violence is already old and boring. I don’t think I agree. I think for the next while there is plenty of reflexive thinking to be done there by games. Then we can move on to, I don’t know, maybe a shooter where the Russians and Middle Eastern enemies actually have names, maybe.
CR: Is moving on from the genre itself a possibility? At one point in Killing Is Harmless, you suggest that the “squad-based military shooter” was a constraint placed on the design team by its publisher, 2K.
BK: Yes, that is what Walt Williams, the game’s lead writer has said in a variety of interviews: that 2K told Yager they had to make squad-based military shooter based in Dubai, but everything else was up to them.
Personally, I think that is partially what makes The Line so fascinating. People say it would’ve been a more effective game if it wasn’t a conventional squad-based military shooter, but that was something it was never actually going to be. It was, from its conception, forced within this rigid, tick-the-numbers kind of model from a big video game publisher. But rather than just create yet another conventional military shooter, the team took the hand they were dealt and subverted it in a way to critique the box they found themselves in — if I may mix my metaphors.
But certainly, in the triple-A space at least, big publishers wanting to understandably play it safe with known formulas certainly stifles innovation in certain ways. But at the same time, I don’t necessarily believe we need to “move on” from the genre so much as treat the genre with a little more intelligence and respect. Which is precisely what I think Yager have done.
CR: Any thoughts as to what a “third wave” of shooters would look like?
BK: Ha! Well, hopefully, they will get a lot more personal and a lot less “epic,” focusing on the personal arc of one or a few characters rather than grand sweeping wars full of flat nobodies. Hopefully they’ll be grittier, more mundane, more muted. I think we’ll see more and more shooters that acknowledge the fact that the protagonist of such a game can’t really by any definition be considered a good guy. I hope we get shooters that are less jingoistic and a lot more morally ambiguous.
Mostly, I hope we get more shooters that simply take themselves seriously. Too many games (not just shooters) try so hard to look like they don’t care — like Borderlands 2, for instance. More games that don’t have to be funny, more games that don’t even have to be fun, would be an ideal third wave, I think.
But this is all terribly optimistic. We might see more games like this in the future, to be sure, but I don’t doubt that for each of these games we get we’ll get ten more completely unreflexive, hugely problematic bro-shooters. But I guess that is the same in any popular creative medium.
CR: So what now? Do you go back to writing the sort of criticism you wrote before Killing Is Harmless, or did the process of writing it change your approach?
BK: That will all depend on how well Killing is Harmless sells! If by some miracle it does phenomenally well and is received positively, it’s certainly something I’ll consider doing with more games in the future.
But that said, I don’t think every game necessarily needs something this long. Well, you probably could write something this long about many games out there, but I don’t know if I need to in order to say what I want to say about them. Some games might be far better suited to the collected essays approach than the critical walk-through approach, to be sure.
As for whether or not it will change my writing, I think, really, Killing is Harmless is more so the end result of the way my writing has already changed over the past twelve months or so. I have really started to shy away from broad, generalised writing about games and have instead been attracted to the really specific, really fine-grained description and analysis of specific games. I think long-form or short-form, video game criticism needs a far greater detail on specific games, and that’s really something I try to forward in my own writing.
A few months ago I started a column at Gameranx called “A Sum of Parts”, where I write four articles, over the span of a month, about one specific game. I pitched that column because I really wanted to force myself to be more specific in my analysis. A lot of games criticism is up in the clouds, looking down at games from a satellite or something. I want to be down rolling in the mud, looking at specific things.