Reviews Comments: The Pile Driver

The Pile Driver
"If you have a point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use the pile driver."

Astute readers will note that as a (paraphrased) quote from Winston Churchill, and Yaeger certainly subscribe to it in this brutal, harsh, tirade against modern 'hero fantasy' gaming. In it, you will be pointed to and accused of horrendous atrocities. There will not be a 'beacon of hope' that offers an unambiguous gleam of light. This game starts grey and goes pitch black.

It is about bloody time.

This game can perhaps be seen as a masterful piece of introspection. The actual gameplay is so-so; anyone who's played Gears of War will be right at home, Halo and Co D fans will adapt quickly. The graphics are just about passable, though the vistas and environments will blow your mind from time to time. All this is secondary to the experience of the thing, the fact it demands you look at what your own hobby might imply, the fact it raises questions that we, in defence of our treasured media, frequently take completely for granted. It has been rightly accused of being anvilicious, crude, without mercy, railroading you into situations and then guilt tripping you for it. This is forgivable, however, when it is presented as a way to get you to shut the fuck up and actually think for five minutes. The accusations of ham-fisted and uninspired preaching are true, valid and utterly missing the point.

Your actions have real consequences. That alone puts it above 90% of most shooters, and most RP Gs. Yet, these consequences are ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of things, because that's not how things actually work in a chaotic hell-hole like the one presented. Sometimes, no matter your best efforts, things go to hell. You are 'not' a hero, you can't save the world. That 'might' be the message of the game, but people seem to be divided on it once you get past the "it's a bit creepy you enjoyed killing those imaginary people, isn't it?".

Look, Spec Ops: The Line has quickly become a rather large case of marmite for the gaming community. This troper, personally, adored it. I found it heart-wrenching, potent and unrelenting. Others found it simplistic, preaching and narmy. Try it, decide for yourself, because a game that aims to make you think rather than just kill a few hours deserves your attention, one way or the other.


There's being blunt, and then there's bending over backwards and undermining your point while doing so. The game is astonishingly hypocritical, which I chalk up to the game trying to be "about" too many things; The plot schizophrenically switches between at least three different themes, maybe more. I still have no idea what the fuck was supposed to be happening. And no, your actions do not have "real" consequences, because those actions are forced upon you. It's not like in, say, Dishonored, where going on a murder spree means beefed up security, more rats and zombies in later areas (yes the game has zombies, because of course). Hell, most of your actions in Spec Ops mean exactly dick in the grand scheme of things, or have an impact that's so mild, so tiny, that it might as well have had no impact at all. Just because you have something to say, does not excuse you telling it poorly. Too often people like Yeager arrogantly puff out their chests and assume they have something important to say, and then they never say anything meaningful.

And while I'm in rant mode, Churchill was a complete warmonger who had to be swiftly voted out of office to avoid him declaring war on Russia. I can't say I'm surprised he'd advocate the pile driver.
comment #17611 MachineMan1992 8th Jan 13
Honestly, the thing this game made me think about the most is just how incredibly far video games still have to go as a true storytelling medium.
comment #17613 nrjxll 8th Jan 13
When you're making a GAME, there are two major components that have to taken into account: STORY and GAMEPLAY. If one falls apart in the presence of the other, then there is definitely a problem. If you have to sacrifice the gameplay for the sake of the story, then you deserve neither. Story should serve gameplay, not be kept on opposite sides of a wrought iron fence made of tigers.
comment #17614 MachineMan1992 8th Jan 13
It depends on how interested you are in the story. I've been able to see games with questionable to poor mechanics through to the end because I was invested in the characters or the narrative to the point where the gameplay issues stopped bothering me. Conversely, I've been able to enjoy games with questionable storytelling (like Braid) because the gameplay flowed smoothly enough that I stopped paying attention to the story. The point can be made that the game is weaker for forsaking one of these aspects, but it doesn't necessarily make them less fun to play.
comment #17615 JackAlsworth 8th Jan 13
Why should the game world bend to your whim, though? Why should the actions of a single man alter the way everything works? Why should your compassion or lack thereof be acknowledged by chorusing angels or cackling demons? Why should the choices you are presented with be binary - yes and no, black and white, good and evil? Why should they not be simple illustrations of a character or a setting or a theme, rather than big switches that change the fundamental structure of the future you meet and the situation you face? I much prefer choices that say something about the player character, or the player - especially ones layered into gameplay the way choices are in The Line. I stared at those bound, hanging men and then cut their ropes. I fired into the air to disperse the civilians. I collapsed the shadow of Konrad and made up my mind that in so doing, I'd broken Walker's illusions. These choices change very little in terms of the game, but they changed (or didn't change) the way I perceived the game, as well as Walker himself.

Yahtzee, if you really wanna cite him, declared The Line his game of the year for taking on the main genre juggernaut and rending the values it implicitly promotes down to their core. Single soldier kills hundreds in the name of his personal values. He witnesses terrible atrocities that only strengthen his resolve to end all wrongs by putting a bullet in the head of the man behind it all. Ultimately, he discovers this is impossible. It's a delusion. Madness. War doesn't work that way and neither does reality, so sort of mind believes it does?

Apparently, those behind certain unnamed franchises and the people who play them - because while we can tell the difference between reality and fiction, it's absurd to say that the media we consume has no effect on our values or that games never attempt to reflect/react to reality to a certain extent. That's what The Line says; that's everything it's trying to say. The whole message. Much like Heart of Darkness had only a single thing to say - that dark heart is within us all and it's so easy to fall to it, especially if we can justify it as right. Conrad played on popular themes of the time in suggesting that "darkness" was savagery and "light" was civilisation, but ultimately revealed that metaphor had very little to do with what was being done in the Congo. Similarly, The Line makes as if to repeat a recurring story structure in the ideal hero (embodying the player) entering a warzone and righting every wrong with violence, and then pulls that justification from under us. It wouldn't work if there was no gameplay/player because the player needs to feel they have a hand in these events (as they should. We should, rather. Would the delusion Walker constructs be so compelling if we didn't want it to be true, somewhere, somehow? Would anyone be so angry that choices "have no effect" if they didn't believed it should be otherwise, given how rarely that actually happens in reality? Games are little worlds constructed especially for us to toy with). Gameplay and story in The Line are utterly inseparable.

As for the post-WP scene, I say that was right to be a cutscene. We need to see Walker's face. I didn't find it gratuitous; sure, the sight of the burn victims is ghastly, but the focus is more on the protagonists and their reactions (and the player's, by proxy). This wasn't a terrible thing the bad guys did. It was something we, player characters and players alike, brought about. As fleetingly poignant as I found the level "Aftermath" in Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare, for personal impact and emotional response The Line is far more complex, intense and lasting. I still can't put into words how I felt about Walker and Dubai and Konrad and the hell they all made for themselves and the role I played in it - but I would be overjoyed if any game I played or wrote were to evoke anything like that response again.

I mean, as long as I still get my escapism as well, with a degree of extra sophistication as a result. Fun has limited storytelling impact. Games ought to be compelling.
comment #17618 NanoMoose 9th Jan 13
"Why should the game world bend to your whim, though? Why should the actions of a single man alter the way everything works? Why should your compassion or lack thereof be acknowledged by chorusing angels or cackling demons? Why should the choices you are presented with be binary - yes and no, black and white, good and evil? Why should they not be simple illustrations of a character or a setting or a theme, rather than big switches that change the fundamental structure of the future you meet and the situation you face?"

I dunno, maybe because it's a game? Having impact over the world around you is what separates videogames from non-interactive mediums like films and books. I know I cited Dishonored's security and zombie infestations as the result of your actions. I'll admit that it's a rather extreme example, but it makes sense from within the context of story. On the other hand, while the villains are pretty much bad to the bone, the guys who work for them aren't; you'll often find notes or eavesdrop on guards talking about how their going to propose to their girlfriend, or how they're just trying to keep their heads down and hope they don't get the plague. If you kill them the game calls you a bastard, and you know what? This time its justified, because murdering them was your choice, you did it. You could have snuck around them, or knocked them out, but nooooo; you had to kill them. And this is one area where Spec Ops fails the hardest, in trying to guilt the players, they fail to provide any alternatives other than murder. If the game had the option to shoot-to-wound (tricky, but doable), or sneak around them (would require major tweaks to gameplay), then the game would be totally justified in saying "you killed all these people because of your blood lust, You Bastard."

There's one poster on The Game Overthinker's blog who goes by the name of Jannie who had many criticisms, many I agree with. Heres a few:

''War is bad.

Now, shockingly, this was something the writer found impossible to summarize in a sentence. So instead he decided to use the most heavy handed narrative imaginable.

I'm serious when I say, you can GUESS the lines that come out of people's mouths before they happen...several missions before. I practically narrated the "bad guy's" monologue to my friend midway through the game, with the sole exception that I didn't anticipate he was already dead. I thought it would turn out that the player was Colonel Crazy.

Is it a good game? Yeah, it is. It's fun to play and it has a nicely dark aesthetic, kind of like Bioshock on land, very grim and fatalistic. IF they had just stuck with the idea you're going to stop a rogue mercenary outfit from massacring civilians in post-apocalyptic Dubai it would have been fine.

The problem is that, whenever someone thinks they have "something to say", they literally NEVER DO. Because people that actually HAVE something to say, people who are introspective and thoughtful enough to I mean, they're usually busy BEING introspective and thoughtful instead of puffing out their chests and arrogantly assuming anyone else finds their musings profound enough to care.

Ironically, most do, but that's only because they're usually so used to a hundred people screaming I'M IMPORTANT! ASK MY OPINION! when they meet someone whose opinion actually matters but doesn't really feel the world revolves around him, it's truly shocking.

That's why The Line is bad, not because it's a bad game, but because it's a retread of every cliche used by every cliched anti-war screed ever, mixed with anti-video game propaganda, mixed with a PROFOUND misunderstanding of why people join the military, mixed with sand physics.

Believe it or not I'm not a huge FPS fan. Halo, Modern Warfare, that's about it. I'm actually FAR MORE of a fan of Beat Em Ups and Shoot Em Ups, frankly. But I'm also keenly aware that, regardless of what Bob or Aidon or whoever has to say or how many snarky remarks Max Scoville pulls from his asshole, Gears of War had more to say about the ambiguous nature and horror of war and genocide and racial intolerance than The Line said about it. And, god help us, it was actually fun too.

Indeed, I'd argue that it's a perfect example of Bob's idea of taking a template and using it to tell a compelling story. It's also, you know, A GAME FIRST and a treatise second.''

''I never actually thought about the hypocrisy of The Line before now but you're [Sabre] absolutely right. It's like Funny Games where they say that this is wrong and horrible and you shouldn't watch it...then when the women turns the tables on the killers, suddenly he rewinds everything and stops her.

Sooo...what's the message here? Killing is bad, but unavoidable because sociopaths are actually ancient druids with time magic powers?

It misses the point so wildly it's STUNNING.

In that same vein, The Line misses the point by a country mile. It forces you to "play soldier", without the option for a bloodless path like (way, way better games such as) Dishonored or Deus Ex and THEN berates you for killing enemies.

I honestly never even realized that discrepancy until now, possibly because I was reeling from the revelation that two trained Delta Force operators were just humoring a crazy man for weeks on end while descending into a wartorn post apocalypse, and never stopping to tell him he was seeing and hearing things that weren't there (or just shoot him since he's clearly treasonous at that point). Jesus that's even worse now.''
comment #17619 MachineMan1992 9th Jan 13
So what if it's a game? Why should every game do that? Are you so desperate for a power fantasy you want every game to conform to your will with every action you take? Do you really think the developers are tailoring everything for you, and specifically you, when they lay these things out? Those binary moral choices are the most basic, clanging, brainless expression of the interactivity games offer, and the only reason they're popular is because they're easy. Interactivity is the player having some (non-zero) agency in the narrative's progress. Having an impact on the game's world is one expression of that, not the only one, or the best one.

Mentioning Dishonored and Deus Ex (and 'Thief, and Metal Gear Solid and Alpha Protocol and so on) as "better" for the choices they offer is to miss the point by a wide margin. They're exceptions, and they're not examples of the story that The Line is peeling apart. Perhaps you should think about the reason the main response to threats in The Line is violence. It's not because Yager weren't capable of making a game that had any other options. It's because most games don't have those options. Most games don't bother to consider what killing hundreds of people would do to the psyches of their protagonists, either - or the players if they were allowed to consider/witness what effects these methods would have. The Line'' did and made it part of its plot. (And this is pretty incidental, but "shooting to wound" cannot be done consistently or reliably by anybody with any firearm. Guns are tools designed for killing and, by and large, that is what they do when their bullets meet a person. This is something anyone who has even a modicum of firearms training knows, such as a soldier, which is why soldiers have to be psychologically conditioned to kill fellow human beings.)

Similarly, in offering you empty choices or no choices at all, it reflects the majority of games. The only difference is that, in witnessing these awful consequences, you want a different outcome. But there is none - maybe because that's the kind of game it is, or maybe because you're playing as Captain Martin Walker.

To reduce the message down to simply "war is bad" is wilfully misinterpreting the game's message. Of course war is bad. It's hellish, it's agonising, it's mentally scarring, regardless of the side you're on. That's not the point The Line makes - it's looking directly at the player and saying "This story you hope for, the one about a hero defeating a villain, the one where you kill people just like you to make yourself feel better, the one where all good needs is a bullet to destroy bad. What does wanting it or believing it so much say about you, and about us?"

I struggle to see those reviewers as ones who actually gave the game more than a cursory glance. It "forces you to play soldier" because you're playing as a soldier! You think militaries usually order their soldiers to search for non-lethal options when they make contact with hostile forces, or that soldiers are conditioned to deliberate before pulling the trigger when faced with an active, obvious threat? Similarly, Funny Games is not a comparable piece of media. For one, it's not interactive; for another, it has no viewpoint character whose distorted perceptions change those of the viewer; third, gorn films aren't a staple of the mainstream film industry with an enormous, fervent fanbase and a visible effect on the games developed and released or any pretensions of reflecting reality; fourth, in The Line no character speaks directly to the audience or exhibits awareness they're in a piece of fiction or holds power over its progression unless you count Walker's delusions. (And, you know, being ignorant of the game's actual progression doesn't strengthen their points. Adams and Lugo do question Walker; they question him, argue with him, condemn him and eventually abandon him, and that's over days. Maybe two or three. They have their own story-arcs, too, and their own reasons for acting as they do. And the setting's not post-apocalyptic, because there is actually supposed to be a world out there for the characters to go home to, which the characters reference all the time; post-apocalyptic settings are about what you do when that's impossible.)
comment #17624 NanoMoose 9th Jan 13
My point is that this game is hypocritical. I appreciate that Yeager are trying to deconstruct the genre by showing the results of what would happen if three guys went in and killed hundreds of people. Having the protagonists descend into madness while I steer the crazy train would have been really cool. The problem is that the game is so ham-handed and at the same time rock stupid that it gets in the way of my enjoyment. The game spends so much time lambasting the player for stuff outside their control, its really distracting. So what if you kill dozens of people? They shot first! Am I supposed to feel bad? Am I supposed to feel sympathy for disposable clones I know nothing about?

Then there's the themes of the story; What are they? Is it War Is Hell? Is it taking responsibility for your actions? That good guys do bad things? What?

"So what if it's a game? Why should every game do that? Are you so desperate for a power fantasy you want every game to conform to your will with every action you take? Do you really think the developers are tailoring everything for you, and specifically you, when they lay these things out?"

Who the fuck do you think you are to talk down to me like that!? Who are you to claim all I want is a power fantasy!? Do you even read the shit that you put in your comments!?
comment #17625 MachineMan1992 9th Jan 13
"Honestly, the thing this game made me think about the most is just how incredibly far video games still have to go as a true storytelling medium."

That's the thing, there have been been games that "get" how to tell stories in an interactive medium. Half-Life and Half-life 2 both had the player never leave the perspective of Gordon Freeman, letting glean the plot from stuff happening around you. Call of Duty: Zombies tells it's story entirely through clues and implications.
comment #17626 MachineMan1992 9th Jan 13
The theme is that the version of war most games of that genre exhibit is a delusion. Maybe a poisonous delusion. That's all.

To answer your questions: They're still people that you killed, and you entered the game knowing that they would be there for you to kill. You may not sympathise with them, but you can wonder why you want that to be fun. Why you need disposable clones of human beings that you nothing about to shoot at and kill.

I never said you wanted a power fantasy. I never even said a power fantasy was a bad thing to want. I asked a rhetorical question based on your reaction to the choices you made not having that much effect on the game. Interactivity is not the whole game changing to reflect what you do; I wanted to demonstrate how odd it was to have that definition of the word by turning it around and extrapolating/exaggerating the sort of mindset you'd need to expect that. I'm sorry it came across as an insult, because that wasn't my intention.

I'm going to stop here, because you are upsetting me. I don't know why the heck you're so mad at this game or the people who enjoyed it and enjoy discussing it, or why you flagged the review.
comment #17627 NanoMoose 9th Jan 13
I didn't flag this review.

Well of course war in games is a delusion, its a game. It's fiction. As for why I'd want killing to be fun, well, here's two reasons: 1) I'm a player, one of the most ethically unrestrained entities in entertainment. Really, if the game wanted to shock me- the guy who mowed down an airport full of people in MW 2, the guy who punted people across cities in Prototype, the guy who sold New Vegas into slavery an smiled while he did it- then they didn't go far enough. 2) Because IRL killing is disturbing, and I don't know why anyone would want that in their entertainment.

And I'm mad at this game and people who like it because it's getting really damn tiresome hearing endless praise for the very things I consider marks against the game, with nary a dissenting opinion from the lot.
comment #17628 MachineMan1992 9th Jan 13
Are you so desperate for a power fantasy you want every game to conform to your will with every action you take? Do you really think the developers are tailoring everything for you, and specifically you, when they lay these things out?

Yes, I sure can't see why anyone would be offended by this statement.

I mean, come on. I'm actually probably closer to your view of The Line then I am to MachineMan1992 (even if I think the game was ultimately a failure at what it tried to do), but you're coming across as condescending in the extreme.

There's a reason why I try and stay out of this review section. Yeesh.
comment #17629 nrjxll 9th Jan 13
As I said, I apologise. I genuinely did not intend that to be an insult, but I am very tired of the assertion that every choice must be world-changing for a game to be properly "interactive". Spotting my own condescension also isn't something I'm very good at. I'm sorry I didn't notice. If I could edit it, I would.
comment #17630 NanoMoose 9th Jan 13
Soundtrack was nice though.

Bottom line, if your game has shitty gameplay, I don't care how awesome and subversive your story is: I'm going to call it a shitty game.
comment #17635 MachineMan1992 10th Jan 13
"To answer your questions: They're still people that you killed."

Except it's war. It sucks, yeah, but that's how it is. If someone is shooting at you and trying to kill you, they're a hostile threat. You have the right to defend yourself, even if it means having to kill the person who was trying to kill you. And yes, the military in real-life does train its soldiers to use methods and tactics in reducing as much destruction and casualties as possible.

"I never said you wanted a power fantasy. I never even said a power fantasy was a bad thing to want."

That's what the developers are saying. They don't seem to get that escapism, wish fulfillment, and power fantasies are not only not bad in of themselves, they are necessary for us, as human beings, to help us cope with some of drudgery in real life. Everyone has different needs and impulses, it's part of human nature, and fiction helps people relieve those things. And yes, fictional violence in games helps relieves those stresses and impulses, and the developers have the nerve to say that it's all wrong and we're pathetic for engaging in something healthy and non-harmful to real life people. What, would they prefer us who are stressful with pent-up emotion to unleash it all on real life people?

Spec Ops The Line talks about choices repeatedly, that Walker's team should've gone back, so unlike other shooter games, you'd expect there to be choices, but no, instead it just railroads it all into forcing you to do terrible things to proceed and never shuts up on guilt-tripping you and wants you to take responsibility. And no, I don't accept the "just turn the game off" retort as a valid option.

It's like if someone was holding a gun to my head and forcing me to do a bad thing where someone gets hurt, or else I die. I do the horrible thing and someone gets hurt. Would I feel bad for doing it? Yes, I would because I did it. But at the same time, I was forced into doing it against my will. Does this mean that I should take the full blame for this horrible event that I had no control over? If the answer is yes, then the developers, especially Walt Williams, are morally bankrupt, self-righteous hypocrites for doing this to the players and letting the true culprit run away scott-free.
comment #19517 Rahkshi500 24th May 13
Le Sigh. In spite of whatever good points this thing made, it is still Way too Pretentious and Hypocritical. Which is sickly fitting, given the game it is of. And yes, I did in fact enjoy The Line to a very large degree for what it was. I would have enjoyed it more if it didn't ruin the lovely story it crafted of Walker etc. al.'s downfall by trying to indict the gamer for its' own crimes.

To start with, in spite of invoking a quote of Winston Churchill, it appears the reviewer has absolutely no idea of who Sir Winston was or his past, because he most certainly would NEVER have agreed with more than a few of the points being put forth. Let's start with this, shall we?

"Your actions have real consequences. That alone puts it above 90% of most shooters, and most RP Gs. Yet, these consequences are ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of things, because that's not how things actually work in a chaotic hell-hole like the one presented. Sometimes, no matter your best efforts, things go to hell. You are 'not' a hero, you can't save the world. "

Except no, that is not always how it works. In the least. To start with, the entire *reason* Churchill lived to help lead the Free World through WWI, WWII, and the early Cold War was *because* he not only had the luck to stumble across the only British inhabitant in several miles after escaping the Boer POW camp, but said British Farmer *took him in and helped him escape.* Contrary to this reviewer's belief, things actually DO NOT always have no effect in a chaotic hellhole. What one person chooses can affect matters, as a simple perusual of Hotel Rwanda or Schindler's List can prove (both for good and for bad, just as Go(e)th opted to shoot people from his porch). In fact, it is even contrary to *The Line Itself* as shown by the mere existence of the "Golden"/Bitter Sweet Ending even in spite of how utterly undermined and rightfully guilty Walker is.

Yes, it is true that in a Chaotic Hellhole, no matter what one does things can end up badly. That much is a valid point. The problem is that not only do they *not always end up badly*, but plenty of other games- probably in the "90% of games" the reviewer claims TL is above- have addressed that issue far better. The Walking Dead in particular will always end with a few people dead, a few people alive, and Lee turning into a Walker. But at no point does that translate into your choices having "no" meaning or not changing anything, and in reality what you can change can be very important indeed.

I do not even know what this reviewer is calling "real choices" and given the rhetoric and abysmal performance here I am not sure I want to know, but it certainly does not have much or any validity. "Why should the game bend to the whim of a single person?" Because gu'vner, sometimes THAT IS HOW IT ACTUALLY WORKS. In real life. Mac Gruder kept the Union Army from taking Richmond with a handful of troops and his imagination (and no, I do not view him as "the good guy"). Audie Murphy turned back more German efforts than I can count. And for that matter, Walker upturns the entire equilibrium of post-sandstorm Dubai with just two others (even if he is guided to that end by an unflinching, unyielding story). The sort of chronic undervaluing of the individual in critics like this is almost literally clinically psychotic, and utterly self-defeating by falling into pitfalls *the Devs themselves did not fall into*, and often beating against the very story they set up (for all its' faults).

It makes the decision to put a Churchill quote up here emblematic of both the pretentions to greater knowledge the Fan Dumb of this game have, but also their chronic ignorance of the actual truth. I am not even going to dignify things like Nano Moose and his problems (of which there are MANY) with a response, except to say this:

This review epitomizes the problems with the entire mindset this game's Fan Dumb has, and ultimately how they do both reality and the game itself a disservice. The former by warping what really is to fit their own horrendously skewed version of what is, and the latter by neglecting the game itself and its' actual credits and boons in an attempt to make it something that it is not.
comment #19928 Turtler 23rd Jun 13

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