The Fourth Wall and the Sledgehammer in Spec Ops: The Line

Many of us grew up hearing about the evils of using the word “you” in writing. It is often taught — somewhat lazily — as a steadfast rule, when really it’s more of a way to keep you from making unintended shifts in tense.

Often, in writing, we’re supposed to put our audience in a glass box, where they’re seen, but not interacted with. This is true not only in writing, but in many forms of media.

This is why it’s so jarring (and rare) to see someone on a TV show or in a movie look directly at the camera.

That would be breaking the “fourth wall,” that fictional plane that separates actor from audience, beyond which we suspend our disbelief and accept that the fiction we see is in an enclosed space, and that the characters on screen are ignorant of anybody watching. We expect that we are invisible spectators, watching events unfold independent of our own existence.

But what happens when you break that fourth wall on purpose? That’s something that happens, particularly when you want to say something directly to your audience. I’m doing it right now, for starters. But I want to talk about a game that does this in a more subtle, more controversial, and (I would argue) more meaningful way.

Spec Ops: The Line logo - foreground person with bandana covering face, background people marching with guns

Spec Ops: The Line succeeds in many ways both as a game and as a storytelling device. As a representative of the intersection between video game and digital narrative, it may be the most important game to come out in several years. But before I get ahead of myself with praise, some background.

First, a disclaimer. This is about a game with plenty of mature content, and there will be screen shots involving small amounts of blood. I’ve not included anything too graphic here, but I figured some fair warning was necessary. Now then.

Spec Ops: The Line is a squad-based military shooter that looks and feels — on the surface — like another throwaway title in a long line of games about pointing guns at things until you win and save the world. If that’s what you’re thinking about this game, you’re half right.

This game is a shooter that is, in and of itself, critical of it’s own genre. It is controversial because it covers topics that many games in its genre (which is generally built around providing the player with a militaristic power fantasy) don’t touch.

The Call of Duty series isn’t terribly interested in having its fan base explore how characters exposed to so much violence and such awful kill-or-be-killed experiences are prone to post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental conditions as a result.

Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t just explore these themes. It makes you — not the in-game avatar, but the player, yeah you there on the couch with the controller — feel responsible for them.

Without giving too much away, the game puts you in control of a character who begins with a simple mission: locate and assist survivors stranded by a natural disaster in Dubai. But as the game progresses, that character ends up killing armed survivors, American soldiers, CIA agents, and even innocent civilians, all in the name of an increasingly ill-defined goal.

The game does allow a certain amount of moral choice, but the core fact is that to progress in this game means to stack up increasingly traumatic war atrocities because, as the game’s characters repeatedly tell each other, “we don’t have any choice!”

That’s when the game starts speaking to you. While it loads a new level, it starts asking, in a roundabout, introspective way, “Why are you doing this? You have a choice; you can not play this game. Why are you playing a game that forces you to do these awful things? Is this really fun for you?”

And then it chastises you for taking part in such atrocities from the comfort of your own home. It doesn’t want you to feel comfortable with the decisions you’ve made.

It’s an incredibly powerful message, that really says something about the triviality of war games and those who seek to play them. More relevant to those of you on this blog, it is a genius way to break down the fourth wall that can only be accomplished digitally.

The developers of Spec Ops: The Line made a game in which you have objectives to advance, which forces the player to take ownership over the story advancement. But then the game itself has the gall to ask why you followed those orders so easily? You knew it was morally reprehensible, and you did it anyway, without a second thought? What kind of person does that?

It’s a gutsy fiction writer who writes a piece of fiction and then chastises the audience for enjoying it, but in the case of war games, it’s an important message about the real-life consequences of the “wars” gamers engage in for fun.

It’s a point that could never have been made if not for the writer’s ability to break that fourth wall in such a novel way. It isn’t the characters themselves that suddenly notice they’re actors in a piece of fiction. It’s the game itself that guilts you — pleads with you — to stop playing, stop taking pleasure in this madness.

As a result, Spec Ops: The Line is not an especially fun game. It isn’t trying to be. It creates dissonance, discomfort, guilt, angst, and even nausea. You, as a player, are not intended to feel joy at accomplishing your goals. Every step further into the story, every accomplished objective seems to make the situation a little bit worse, both for the characters you control (who slide further and further into madness as the stress and trauma build) and the increasingly wrecked city and people of Dubai.

In a medium like video games, which is ostensibly about getting a break from reality, this is a game that anchors the player to it, and chides the player for ignoring how backwards it is that an entire genre of games plays up traumatic experiences for fun.

It’s not fun. And that’s what makes it a great game, and a narrative that will be talked about for years to come.

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