Shooters finally have something to say in 2012

"To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless." Wait, what?

I'm, like, an hour into Spec Ops: The Line when this message pops up on a loading screen. "What a weird thing to say," I think to myself. But I can't shake it. I keep playing. I keep shooting. I keep killing, and I'm not sure who for. Myself? I have to defend against those that would do me harm. Or am I killing for my--rather, Walker's--government? They sent me to Dubai, after all. But really, I'm doing it for entertainment, right? That's why I'm playing a video game: So I can be entertained. By killing over and over and over again. Whatever, that's silly. WHY AM I EVEN THINKING ABOUT THIS?

Several hours later, and I'm knee-deep in dead bodies. Some are enemy combatants; most are innocent civilians. A few are children, charred to the bone by a mortar strike. Which I orchestrated. Another loading screen. Do you feel like a hero yet? No, as a matter of fact, I don't. Thanks for asking. Then another: If you were a better person, you wouldn't be here.

For all the praise The Line received for making players feel uncomfortable while playing it, nothing I encountered in that game left as lasting an impression as its loading screen jabs. Their sole purpose was to break the fourth wall and call you out for having fun while killing people (OK, sure, Spec Ops had its issues with "fun"). Which happens a lot in a game where the driving mechanic is, you know, killing people.

But The Line isn't so much a commentary on war as it is on war games. And while its narrative didn't always make sense, it did frequently make me stop for a second and think to myself, "Hmm, that is pretty messed up." That doesn't happen very often when I'm playing a shooter. 

After finishing The Line, I thought a lot about my regular diet of big dumb shooters, with their generic "terrorists" that needed to be shot because I needed to feel like a hero, damn it. But The Line's self-aware commentary added a layer of interaction I'd never experienced in a shooter before, and I continued to see mature themes pop up in games I hadn't expected them to as the year progressed. 

Take Halo 4, for instance. This was a series I knew--I knew--would be easy to digest. I'd hop in, shoot some aliens, enjoy the banter between Master Chief and Cortana, and call it a day. But the opening cinematic introduced an all-grown-up tone that was foreign to the series. In it, children were being groomed as soldiers. These kids would later become Spartans, the greatest killing machines mankind would ever see. I became a Spartan the same way, you know. I spent a hell of a lot of time playing Doom, Quake, and Half-Life in my formative years.

"Do you believe the Spartans' lack of humanity helped?" asked an interrogator of Dr. Halsey, the founder of Halo's Spartan-II program. "Do you believe the Master Chief succeeded because he was, at his core, broken?" I found these to be extremely self-aware questions. Master Chief was merely an extension of myself; he was a hero because I was a hero. And here's this dude, calling Master Chief a sociopath because he's destroyed thousands of aliens. So what does that say about me? I couldn't discern if Halo 4 was merely reinforcing its fiction, or if it was giving a nod to the enjoyment I derive out of shooting anything that moves.


  • Rub3z - December 12, 2012 10:56 p.m.

    Okay, maybe it just seems like I'm trying to sell Max Payne 3 to you guys at this point, but... dammit, this reminded of this article I read on how the gruesomeness and grotesqueness of violence is being portrayed in games, notably Max Payne 3. Here, you really should read this if you liked this: You're welcome. And very good job, Ryan. Engrossing read.
  • GR_RyanTaljonick - December 13, 2012 8:33 a.m.

    Thanks! Max Payne 3 was TOTALLY exhausting in the way it was (purposely) hyper violent. I've never seen heads explode so completely. It was one of those few games where taking people out often made me cringe.
  • valance23322 - December 12, 2012 2:41 p.m.

    No shooter can have anything even resembling a coherent story due to the sheer format of the medium
  • drummer2288 - December 12, 2012 2:50 p.m.

    You ignorant twelve year old nit wit.
  • deceasedxo - December 14, 2012 6:12 a.m.

    Hahahahaha, no.
  • scaler2000 - December 12, 2012 10:21 a.m.

  • jackthemenace - December 12, 2012 9:35 a.m.

    Well, I'm definitely going to have to try and get hold of a copy of Spec Ops now. And this is the second article in so long that I can remember from GR that was really thought provoking and poignant. Not that I don't love stuff like Cundy's cosplays and the silly features, but this kinda stuff really makes me feel like video games ARE an art medium to be respected. And there was definitely a game I played recently- although I can't for the life of me think what it WAS now- that really made me consider whether what I was doing was right or not, and what the implications would be for people if it really happened. Great stuff. Thanks, Mr. Taljonick :)
  • GR_RyanTaljonick - December 12, 2012 10:16 a.m.

    Thanks, glad you enjoyed it!
  • deceasedxo - December 12, 2012 8:50 a.m.

    Really well written article. I do find it hilariously ironic how game companies selling violent games for profit have a strange sense of conscience. Who's worse the people fighting the wars, the players or the people making a profit from the two?
  • ObliqueZombie - December 12, 2012 8:28 a.m.

    Wow, first a drastic website change and now these great pieces? I'm liking this a lot. Great article, Ryan; very well done. That doesn't mean GamesRadar is going to lose its silliness does it?! D:
  • GR_SophiaTong - December 12, 2012 9:02 a.m.

    No, we'll certainly keep a blend of great pieces like this one and the silly ones :)
  • zombi3grim - December 12, 2012 7:44 a.m.

    Yes! Thank you! Ive been saying these things about shooters for the last couple of weeks and Im glad Im not the only one noticing how the stories are developing.
  • punkduck2064 - December 11, 2012 6:49 p.m.

    Great article, I loved the exposition in spec-ops and the deeper direction that halo's start was taking. I feel that shooters have trying to mature their stories for a long time but have been too afraid to pull the trigger, excuse the pun. The first one I can think of for this generation was Haze on the Ps3, but that game suffered at the expense of it's story. After that Killzone 2 made a big statement about the justification of war that got barried by it's arcady game play. I'm excited that games have reached a point where their audiences are willing to entertain a deeper story... and blow shit up.
  • DarthKratos - December 11, 2012 6:46 p.m.

    Those quotes from Spec Ops remind me of Snake commenting on "virtual simulations" in MGS and, to a greater extent MGS2.
  • Revolt189 - December 11, 2012 6:34 p.m.

    Fantastic article. I think this trend really, truly, started with BioShock, but even then it infused enough RPG to make it a hybrid shooter. Call of Duty? Halo 4? Not so much. Spec Ops: The Line made me re-read Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."
  • shawksta - December 11, 2012 6:19 p.m.

    Very Interesting article, Shooters are doing things that make them worth than simple shooters people throw them off to be. Just a little tidbit but i just LOVED Borderlands/2's whole Weapon assets, there is no gun that is always the same and every type of every gun type has different special traits, stats and sometimes elements to suite your fancy. It was nice scavenging for a cool gun with that one property that made it a deal breaker for you.
  • ultimatepunchrod - December 11, 2012 5:11 p.m.

    Nice article. I really want to play these especially Spec Ops. I like the idea of having this oorah nonsense mentality in most shooters being subverted.
  • SenorHurt - December 11, 2012 4:12 p.m.

    I agree this is the kind of intelligent article that I will be looking forward to see on Games Radar. Not that I'm against silly, fun stuff. Well written and interesting. I think this will be the area where 1st person shooters will have to evolve. I mean can the graphics get much better? How many custom cross-hairs or gun skins will we really need? More games like Bioshock that makes you think will be awesome. It's amazing that it isn't more common for games to break the fourth wall. The first example I can think of is the fight with Psycho Mantis in Metal Gear Solid. But I can count on one hand the number of games that I have played that had moments that caused me to reflect on my role as I played the game. I haven't played Spec Ops or Far Cry 3 yet but after reading this article they are now at the top of my 'get around to playing this game next' list.
  • GR_RyanTaljonick - December 11, 2012 4:19 p.m.

    You shan't be disappointed!

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