Or, Video Games that Challenge the Player’s Expectations
The word of the day is Deconstruction. Deconstruction is, as I understand it, when a writer takes the tropes (the concepts and archetypes we viewers expect from a genre or series) and turn them on their head, questioning elements of the story that we take for granted. TVTropes has a lot to say about deconstruction in fiction, and I’m going to do my very best not to parrot what they say. You can try to read about deconstruction on Wikipedia, but a quick skim down that article will show that deconstruction is a messy, vague concept on whose meaning academics cannot agree. I am not an academic, or at least not one with a degree in literature. Instead, I’d like to lay out a simple explanation before talking about how different videogames use deconstruction as a story-telling tool. If you know what deconstruction is, great! Skip ahead to the subheading of your choice.
Superman is a much beloved, long-running franchise about a superhero with outstanding abilities—flight, super strength and endurance, heat projection from his eyes, etc—who nobly uses his powers selflessly and fights to protect and save. Truth, Justice, and the American Way, though I think that last part was dropped at some point, probably in the 90s.
Irredeemable, on the other hand, is a single comic series about a superhero with the same abilities who, as a result of the pressure and expectations that come with being a paragon of heroism, snaps and starts murdering people. He goes on violent rampages, killing and psychologically torturing his friends, who struggle to understand him and find a way to stop him. Superman is about an idealized, largely flawless hero of justice. Irredeemable is a much more cynical take on how that hero might act in the real world. Irredeemable, therefore, is a deconstruction of Superman stories and similar ones because it challenges the notion of a character above reproach, perfect and powerful and trustworthy.
As an art form unto their own, video games occasionally use deconstruction to tell a story, prove a point, or just get the player thinking. I want to talk here about a few of my favorite games that rely on deconstruction. Video games that do this can deconstruct movie genres, other video games, or even their own past iterations. I really, really like when videogames do this, as you’ll see, because this sort of look at genre tropes gets players like me thinking, and it shows a thoughtfulness and attention to detail I can really appreciate. After all, a creator has to know a work well, know its tropes, to deconstruct it. What will follow are two examples of videogames that rely on deconstruction and my own opinions on how they do so, and do it well. Here for your reading pleasure, Metal Gear Solid and Spec Ops: The Line. Heavy spoilers ahead, since I delve into plot and characters in detail, as well as minor swearing.
Metal Gear Solid (just the first game, on PlayStation)
Metal Gear Solid involves deconstruction of action films, especially eighties action films, and their buff, self-assured, macho and generally white male protagonists. It has a lot in common with Die Hard, the film series starring Bruce Willis, both in its plot structure and in how it treats its main protagonist. Die Hard’s John McClaine—in the first film, at least—is portrayed as alternately panicked, scared, and vulnerable but still able to rise to the occasion and fight the threats against his own life and those of everyone else in Nakatomi Plaza. McClaine spends the first leg of the movie barefoot and running away, cutting his feet on glass as he struggles to fend off the antagonists, vague foreign terrorist/thieves, one at a time. On top of that, Bruce Willis, star of the series, was originally recognized as a comedy actor on television, rather than the iconic badass he is today. I wasn’t born yet when Die Hard came out, but I imagine plenty of moviegoers questioned the casting of a comedic actor as an action hero; one way or another, McClaine didn’t fit into their expectations of the kind of protagonist an action film would have.
Like Die Hard, Metal Gear Solid involves a disgruntled white male American (here dubiously named Solid Snake) moving about a facility which has been occupied by terrorists, stealthily killing them and hindering their goals. Like John McClaine, Solid Snake acts outside the typical realm of action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger, using stealth and guile rather than brute force to progress (that is, if you play the game how it was meant to be played—as a stealth game). Like John McClaine, Solid Snake is utterly uncomfortable as a hero, spouting such lines as “There are no heroes in war. All the heroes I know are either dead or in prison” and, in Metal Gear Solid 4, “I’m no hero. Never was, never will be.” And like John McClaine, Solid Snake’s doubts, social issues, and grim self-image are used to enrich his character, making him far more interesting than just a burly yelling man with a gun.
In Metal Gear Solid, Snake’s biggest issue is that killing and warfare—things a typical action hero would take for granted—have isolated him from other people. See his exchange with Meryl, the main heroine of the game, here.
Snake: I’ve never been interested in anyone else’s life.
Meryl: So you are all alone. Just like Mantis said.
Snake: Other people just complicate my life. I don’t like to get involved.
Meryl: You’re a sad, lonely man.
Another line of Snake’s lines affirms how violence has disconnected him from human relationship and other people: “It’s only when I’m cheating death on the battlefield. The only time I feel truly alive.” Snake’s emotional issues are intertwined with one of the game’s main messages, that love can bloom at any time, even on the battlefield. Throughout the game, Snake listens to the dying words of several antagonists who praise him, admire him, or help him out in their own separate ways. Snake bonds with Meryl and Otacon, another of the game’s protagonists, and in the game’s “good” ending, Snake rescues Meryl declares his lover for her, admitting a desire to live for her instead of himself (the sequel toys around with this message, but that’s another story). Snake therefore begins to overcome his flaws, dramatically provided by the deconstruction of his action hero roots, and grows as a character, with several more friends and loved ones in Metal Gear Solid 4.
Hideo Kojima, creator of the Metal Gear series, is an avowed cinema fan and much of the Metal Gear series draws from the film Escape from New York, including the name of the protagonist, Snake Plisskin. Kojima was certainly aware of audiences’ expectations of action heroes, and he likely used them to set Metal Gear’s Solid Snake apart as his own character. Solid Snake exists as an antithesis to typical Hollywood action heroes, and this is reflected in Metal Gear Solid’s gameplay as well: run into a room full of enemies looking to outshoot them and you’ll generally be surrounded and killed. Snake’s portrayal as a traumatized, disgruntled hero dragged into battle is what makes him interesting, makes him stand out as his own complex character instead of just a power fantasy for the player.
Even then, plenty of fans idolized Snake as a fighter and hero, ignoring his nuanced emotional issues in favor of focusing on the action hero he referenced. Kojima certainly noticed this, too, and he deconstructed that examination of Snake, too, in a delightful game called Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. But again, that’s another story.
Spec Ops: The Line
This one may be new to you. Spec Ops: The Line is a 2012 third-person shooting game by Yager Development and part of Spec Ops, a series of military shooters I’d certainly never heard of. Unlike the other Spec Ops games, which are largely run-of-the-mill shooters without any fluff like jetpacks or quality, Spec Ops: The Line is a more narrative-driven game based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. Another well-known work based on Heart of Darkness is the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, probably one of the most bizarre war films of the 20th century. Spec Ops: The Line draws from both of these, applying their dark and scathing logic to video games as opposed to history.
Spec Ops: The Line came out in a time bloated with American military shooters, when the Call of Duty and Battlefield series competed year by year, game by game, and generically named games like Bodycount and Medal of Honor: Warfighter tried to ride by on their coattails. With its fairly bland cover (a few men holding guns standing in front of another man holding a gun) and its fairly bland box blurb (Their mission is simple: Locate survivors and radio for Evac), I believe Spec Ops: The Line tried to pass itself off as just a simple war shooter, setting up the players’ expectations so the game could pull the rug out from under them. Come to think of it, Apocalypse Now’s box blurb is fairly bland and non-indicative as well: “…Captain Willard, who is sent on a dangerous and mesmerizing odyssey into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade American Colonel named Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has succumbed to the horrors of war and barricaded himself in a remote outpost.” Apocalypse Now is no guts-or-glory war story like Patton or Kelley’s Heroes. It’s a movie about a man on the fringe who goes into a hellish warzone to kill a colonel who’s gone right off the deep end.
Spec Ops: The Line starts with all the trappings of a typical military shooter. Three American soldiers are dropped into some brown-tinted ruins on a mission to retrieve something, in this case a battalion of American soldiers who have gone missing while providing relief to the sandstorm-battered natives. Most games of this kind have the USA fighting either Russians (referencing the Cold War) or Middle Easterners (referencing the War on Terror); Spec Ops: The Line’s setting is Dubai of the United Arab Emirates. Wisecracking and waving about typical modern military guns and equipment, the soldiers advance down a linear path and quickly get into a shootout with brown-skinned natives. Calling these kinds of games racially insensitive might be a step too far, but I feel at least some cultural assumptions are being made, for example, when Russia eagerly invades all of continental Europe in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.
To top it off, the lead character Captain Martin Walker is played by Nolan North, one of the most prolific video game voice actors, who has played main protagonists in 2006’s Assassin’s Creed, 2008’s Prince of Persia, the entire Uncharted Series, and 2013’s Saint’s Row IV, which actually has “Nolan North” as a selectable voice option. I feel it’s reasonable to suggest that Nolan North’s “Drake” voice is an archetypical hero voice, intentionally establishing the status of whoever bears it.
Just minutes into Spec Ops: The Line, the typical narrative begins to twist a bit. Instead of angry foreigners, Walker finds himself fighting against the “Damned 33rd” Infantry Battalion, a decidedly American combat unit under the command of Colonel John Konrad and the very troops they were sent to find. In a thinly-veiled-if-veiled-at-all jab at the US military’s occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Damned 33rd have taken it as their mission to safeguard the people of Dubai and have committed horrific atrocities in the name of keeping the peace. Even before the protagonists arrived, a three-way-war took place between Damned 33rd, a splinter group disgusted with said atrocities, and a CIA black ops unit, with the citizens of Dubai trapped in the middle. Instead of helping, the US forces have only made things worse.
By the point they discover this, Walker has already exceeded his mandate and decided to diffuse the situation, trusting Konrad despite evidence of the colonel’s atrocities. The pivotal change comes when Walker finds white phosphorous mortars and blasts what he thinks is a hoard of enemy soldiers, only to find he has just murdered dozens of innocent civilians—women, men, and children. At this point, Walker’s sanity begins to crack. He blames the Damned 33rd for leading him into the situation and vows revenge against them. Walker finds a radio that puts him in contact with Konrad, who establishes himself as a self-righteous monster as he toys with Walker’s mind with accusations and moral quandaries. And Walker quickly concludes that he is the hero, and that Konrad is the villain.
Already Spec Ops: The Line has gone off the rails of the typical military shooter. But this subversion of expectations, this deconstruction of the medium, extends to the gameplay as well. Walker insists all the while that he has no choice, that he is being forced to commit war crime after atrocity even beyond the white phosphorous. The player might themselves bring up such an excuse, because the game’s areas are almost entirely linear, giving a player little freedom except to commit more murder as Walker, or turn off the game. As Walker becomes more and more traumatized, he sees enemy soldiers who aren’t present, and other enemies appear as his own friends, all of which the player is invited to shoot. As Walker becomes unhinged, his animation for executing a downed soldier falls from a simple headshot to viciously beating the victim to death. His declarations of each kill go from “Tango Down!” to “Got the fucker!”. And as the player likely reacts in horror at their actions through Walker, the loading screens abandon their helpful tips for statements like “You are still a good person”, “Can you even remember why you came here?”, and “To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.”
In media res is a fairly common storytelling technique wherein a story shows its middle before its beginning, often skipping exposition to launch right into gripping action. Spec Ops: The Line begins with a shootout between helicopters without context. Late in the game, when Walker actually boards he helicopter, he realizes they’ve already done this before. The seemingly typical use of in media res is used to demonstrate that as his sanity diminishes, Walker can’t even comprehend events in the proper order anymore.
The player can either turn off the game or press onward, guiding Walker along as his companions, and probably the player as well, question and then condemn Walker’s actions. But the game itself will not let the player forget that YOU the player fired the mortars. You the player killed all of those American soldiers. You the player had to see what came next, so you cooperated with the CIA operative to destroy the Damned 33rd’s water supply, and now every single person in Dubai is going to die of dehydration. When the loading screens aren’t blatantly accusing you (“This is all your fault”), they’re mocking you (“The US military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants. But this isn’t real, so why should you care?”).
As the game ends, Walker has gotten both of his companions killed along with everyone he’s met so far. Obsessed with blaming Konrad for everything that’s happened, Walker eventually discovers that Konrad has been dead for weeks. In the midst of Walker’s dissociative disorder, the voice on the radio was a hallucination; the ethical quandaries were mere delusions; Walker’s villain does not exist. As “Konrad” says, “The truth, Walker, is that you’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not. A hero.” But of course this logic doesn’t need only apply to Walker. That accusation is aimed at the player as well, the one who led Walker to do all of these things. As Walker blames Konrad for leading him into this, the player may blame Walker or the developers or anyone else for pushing them through this nightmarish game, when the simple truth is that the player pointed a crosshairs at hundreds of people and pulled the trigger.
Spec Ops: The Line is not just a deconstruction of military games; it is a deconstruction of power fantasy, of video games in general. Walker’s (and the player’s) expectation of being able to save the day as usual is shattered when the day is ruined, when the linear path forward and the inevitable plot and events lead Walker and the player to do horrible, horrible things. But this is by no means a perfect message. Savvy players may protest that it is the developers’ fault, that the developers are the ones who built a stage where the only way to progress was burning civilians to death, and this has some truth to it. Instead of throwing himself headlong into disaster, Walker should have followed orders and retreated to radio for help. For the player, on the other hand, the only alternative to going forward is to turn off the game, and that means the player has wasted their money. If the player knew how terrible things would be, how stacked the game’s deck was, I imagine most of the surprise would be lost.
Unlike other shooters, Spec Ops: The Line isn’t meant to stand on its gameplay, which is fairly repetitive run-of-the-mill itself. Spec Ops: The Line stands tall on its story, on the tricks it plays on its player and their innocent expectations. Yes, the developers created a scenario where the only way to progress is to commit evil. Yes, they made it so the game itself mocks you for your negligence, and yes, the player has no obvious way of knowing this when they start the game. At worst, the player is a monster for going along with Walker’s path of destruction, his fall to villainy. At best, Yager Development played a very mean trick on their unsuspecting players.
I think the devs have pulled off that trick extraordinarily well.