Videogames are about doing as you’re told. Short-leash shooters like Call of Duty keep you in line with objective marker sticks and action-beat carrots: they say jump, you press X to ask how high. Bigger games like World Of Warcraft and Fallout give you the space and freedom to play how you like, but they still have rules; sure, you can strip your Lone Wanderer down to his Vault-issue undies, but his pork ‘n’ beans are strictly off-limits (probably a good thing considering how accurate VATS can be).
Videogames are about doing as you’re told. And so too, it seems, are videogame reviews. We all remember the woeful tale of Jeff Gertsmann, the reviewer at Gamespot.com who, having had the gall to award Kane and Lynch a not-so-superlative seven out of ten, was hauled out of his job by the Eidos Thought Police. Though he’s since bounced back with GiantBomb.com (which in a poetical turn of justice was this year purchased by Gamespot owner CNET) Gerstmann’s story is a horrifying example of how ad revenue and PR influences videogame journalism. It’s scary that Eidos thought it could buy a good review with advertising money; it’s even scarier that Gamespot agreed with them.
It’s “good business”. If you want access to review copies, leaked screenshots and exclusive interviews, you have to keep developers on-side by chucking them some good press every now and then. But more than that, it’s about saving face. Gamespot had spent weeks bigging up Kane and Lynch. To call the game rubbish would be to admit they were wrong. Do that once too often and pretty soon your readership is going to start browsing for more confident opinions.
Which is why every review of Spec Ops: The Line has been saying the exact same thing. For six months or more, we’ve been fed a steady trickle of hype-pieces, touting The Line as a grisly, uncompromising treatise on the horrors of war. Official Playstation Magazine called it “harrowing” “macabre” and “very Apocalypse Now”. Back in April, IGN described Spec Ops as “bleak and dark… a brave attempt to break new ground.” Even I stuck my uninformed oar in, promising BeefJack readers that The Line would “leave you with some searching questions” and “examine the human condition more closely than any shooter to date”; all this without having actually finished the game.
We were doing as we were told. Yager had advertised a “provocative and gripping third person shooter, that challenges player’s morality” so to keep things sweet, that’s what we advertised too. And when the game turned out to be a pool of slo-mo, gore effect, rock soundtrack kill-spunk, it was too late to back down. Spec Ops: The Line has you blowing heads off and punching lights out, all captured in hell-yeah Zack Snyder speed ramping. And it’s fun – shooting games have been fun for twenty years, and Spec Ops’ mechanics are nothing new.
All the reviews calling Spec Ops gritty and harrowing, talking up the depiction of PTSD and battle fatigue, are bumph. Spec Ops: The Line is no more a look at the horrors of war than jumping on a bouncy castle is a look at people’s fear of heights. It’s a lark, a loud, bombastic, bloody shooting gallery that wants you to pull the trigger. Even if it doesn’t want to be, Spec Ops is enjoyable. War, I imagine, isn’t.
It’s cynical of me to chalk this up to good PR; developers can handle some bad publicity, and most game journos are happy to give it to them. I’m not sure it’s that the gaming press is necessarily toothless – it’s more that we’re just desperate. The piss-thin gruel that we’ve come to expect from computer games has us so starved of any real substance, that when a game like Spec Ops promises to be bold and provocative, we latch onto it like it’s the last loaf of bread. We’re desperate to find something profound; seemingly meaningful games are so few and far between that we inflate their worth beyond all proportion.
We do what we’re told: when ThatGameCompany promise us emotion and artistry, and then delivers lightweight froth like Journey, we nevertheless respond with fervour and gratitude. Good business is one thing, but when writers like me plug our ears, cover our eyes and just review the game we wish we’d played, we aren’t doing our jobs properly. Spec Ops: The Line’s awkward morality choices have nothing to say about the horror of war. But following orders and doing as you’re told despite your better judgement, in the hope that it might make things better, that is the horror of computer game journalism.