Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line review

    I've mentioned that Spec Ops: The Line is one of the few video games I consider to be art. An otherwise generic first person shooter somehow managed to tell a story about pain, redemption, loss, and war. It also nicely deconstructed video games, particular third-person shooters, as a whole.

    Killing is Harmless is Brendan Keogh's lengthy discussion of the game level-by-level, attempting to figure out just what the developers were intending from the work. He avoids the rather obvious and meaningless conclusion the game is solely a deconstruction of shooters and instead invites alternative theories. He writes the book much like the game, journeying through his conclusions like the player travels through the game.

    The author examines the hidden meaning behind each element introduced into the game as it is introduced. It's an interesting way of writing an analysis and works well for me. Unfortunately, Brendan Keogh is a little too focused on his own reactions and this sometimes makes the book seem a little dry. If he'd gone out more with alternative theories to events, the book would have been more enjoyable.

    For example; one area I strongly disagree with is the author's interpretation of the endings. Brendan Keogh believes the "best" ending is about denial of reality. I believe it is about forgiveness and redemption. That, even in the hell of war and darkness, there can be hope. The author maintains the more nihilistic and self-destructive endings are more honest (even moral!), which I absolutely disagree with.  In my humble opinion, a major theme about Spec Ops: The Line is the horrors of war but only one ending is really about setting your weapon down and embracing peace. The fact this quality is ignored makes me reduce my score for the book.

    There are moments like this scattered throughout the book. Parts where fans of Spec Ops: The Line will disagree with the author but find no alternative interpretations in the book. Brendan Keogh simply moves on and continues his observations. It can be very frustrating for readers who have strong opinions on the material (like myself). Despite this, I still enjoyed Killing Is Harmless. The subject matter is dear to my heart and the parts I disagree with are not universal. He gets strongly into our heroes' state of mind and its increasing degeneration over the course of the game. His detail is great and you get a sense he really feels for the characters involved.

     Really, our main area of difference is whether or not we believe the story is one with any shred of hope or not. Brendan Keogh believes the game is nihilistic, our heroes doomed and damned by their actions from the moment they choose to head into Dubai. I favor a slightly more upbeat interpretation, maintaining the possibility of redemption exists throughout. Ultimately, Brendan Keogh's views may actually be closer to what the developers intended but I stick by my conclusions.

     I especially appreciated the way the author examined the movie influences scattered throughout the game. Spec Ops: The Line is informed by movies like Jacob's Ladder, Apocalypse Now, and several other works. Examining how these influences compare and contrast to the narrative doesn't take up too much space but are a nice aside, helping to make sure the reader knows just what exactly is being referenced at specific points.

    I recommend people with Kindles pick up this book over the physical copy but, either way, it's worth your money. Just don't expect too much from the prose. There's no amazingly deep insights which will change your view of everything.


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