Moral choices: killing in Far Cry 3 and Spec Ops: The Line

“I hated it… in the end it does not matter if you execute a civilian, leave him to be killed, or try to save him. Just doesn’t matter.”

This is a comment on a Gamasutra article about Spec Ops: The Line (2012), specifically with regards to the moral choices that the player is presented with during the game. Set in the ruins of Dubai after a catastrophic sandstorm, The Line is the story of Captain Martin Walker’s recon-mission-gone-wrong. As he attempts to track down Colonel Konrad (The Line wears its Heart of Darkness influences quite plainly), Walker experiences and participates in horrors that eventually break his mind and spirit.

It is these horrors to which the commenter is referring: at certain points in the story, the player is given a choice between how to react to a specific situation. With one of Walker’s squadmates, Sergeant Lugo, lynched by a mob of locals that the American troops are purportedly there to protect, the player is put on the spot. Fire into the air to disperse the mob, or – as Lieutenant Adams insists – open fire on the mob itself and take vengeance for Sergeant Lugo’s death.

Whichever way you choose [1], the story doesn’t change. Adams continues to blame you for Lugo’s death, even if you comply and gun down the civilians, and the events of the narrative are not altered – as the commenter says, it “just doesn’t matter” what choice you make. Or does it? I would argue – strongly – that this choice matters very much indeed, on a moral level rather than a narrative one.

Morality is a subject in which games have become increasingly interested, particularly in the role-playing genre. In titles like Mass Effect or Fable, virtually every action the player makes is assessed on a sliding scale of good or evil, which in turn affects how non-player characters react to the player and even governs which quests/missions become available in the game. Fable even goes so far as to transform your character’s appearance depending on how you’re playing the game: consistently evil characters grow devil horns and consistently good characters walk around with a glowing halo.

A "good guy" in Fable

A “good guy” in Fable

Morality is a core mechanic in these games. Essentially, they reward the player for the consistency of their character’s moral stance (sometimes it’s fun to play the bad guy). Unlike The Line, these games explicitly signpost every moral decision, either with in-game alerts or as part of the character menu. Yet what does it therefore mean to play the good guy? The player is being actively rewarded for their moral choice: be good to join the Jedi Order, or make this character like you so that they sell you gear for less. Can an act truly be called “virtuous” if there’s a tangible, otherwise-unattainable reward gained by it?

To take this on a step, and return to the above quotation, what if a player’s moral choice – good or bad – leads not to a reward but to a narrative change? Multiple endings have become increasingly prevalent – even Black Ops 2 (2012) offered a plethora of possible outcomes depending on players’ actions and choices, including whether or not to spare the chief antagonist, Menendez [2]. BioShock (2007) is rather more primitive, offering a “good” or “bad” ending depending on whether the player chose to harvest (kill) Little Sisters or save them. Role-playing games generally offer a huge divergence of story and outcome that hinges on player choices. Arguably, those choices “matter” on a narrative level, rather than a moral one.

Bioshock's "good" ending

Bioshock’s “good” ending

The Line has frequently been compared to Far Cry 3 (several critics have argued that they satirise the shooter genre), and there is much to be said about the relative ways that the two games handle moral choices. At the end of Far Cry 3 (2012), your character is given a binary choice, intimidatingly-presented. After one of the game’s many expositionary drug trips, Jason comes round to reality to find himself holding a ceremonial knife to his friend’s throat as she begs him to stop. The choice is to either complete the tribal ritual by killing her, or “save your friends” [3]. A choice, right at the end of the game, independent of anything you might have done before, and even called out as such by the tribal leader Citra:,

“Complete the path, or all your progress, […] everything you have done on this island will be erased.”

The irony here is that by attempting to trap Jason by warning him that he’ll lose all the warrior power that he has earned and developed up to that moment, Citra fails to realise that there is a part of Jason that wants very much to lose that power, as addictive as it is. The choice is more murder – this time of the friends you originally set out to save – or a shot at redemption. Choose the honourable option and you save your friends and Jason is on his way to being absolved of sin for all the hundreds of people he’s killed. Simple as that, a single click of a button.

Left click or right click

Left click or right click

This concept treads fragile ground. Far Cry 3 changes narratively depending on this final choice; The Line does not. True, The Line also has multiple endings, but they all leave Walker as a broken man [4], whereas Jason is given a second chance. As a player, Walker’s story is more satisfying because it forces the player to see the moral consequences of their actions: there is no escape for him from the civilians and soldiers that have died by his hands. Conversely, the moral loophole offered by Far Cry 3 cheapens the significance of Jason’s (and the player’s) actions up to that point. Like Walker, Jason comes to relish his kills – in his words, “killing feels like winning”. But unlike Walker, Jason can escape from that insane moral stance, without consequence.

Far from being a game where a player’s actions “don’t matter”, The Line holds those actions up to the light and reveals their ugliness. When Konrad presents Walker with two prisoners and asks him to select one for execution, it is possible for the player to defy Konrad and instead turn Walker’s fire on Konrad’s men. Indeed, this seems like the heroic choice: don’t shoot the prisoners, shoot the “bad guys”. This was the choice I made and felt better for it. Does it change the outcome of the game? Not in the slightest: in a late flashback, we are shown that the two “prisoners” are already dead, and Konrad is just a voice in Walker’s head. But did I feel that I’d done the “right” thing by defying the game’s antagonist, and refusing to follow Konrad’s eye-for-an-eye philosophy? Absolutely I did.

Left or right?

Left or right?

So do the player’s choices in The Line matter? For sure they do: they matter on the player’s internal moral compass. While The Line doesn’t provide an alternative to killing (outside of simply turning off the game and refusing to play), it made me think about my actions. Lugo and Adams frequently question Walker’s orders (without disobeying them, significantly), particularly when firing on Konrad’s American 33rd Battalion.

At one point – when Walker’s grip on reality is becoming strained – he ziplines into a neighbouring skyscraper and surprises a 33rd soldier there. But the soldier doesn’t appear as an enemy to Walker – it wears Adams’ face and uniform. The only option (again, other than turning off or allow Walker to be shot by “Adams”) is to hit “Execute”. Earlier in the game, hitting this button would see Walker knock out the downed enemy, usually with a knee or a rifle butt; here, Walker bludgeons Adams’ face into bloody oblivion, a shockingly violent moment in a game about violence. The real Lt Adams then ziplines into the room and gasps:

Adams: Jesus… what the fuck did you do, Walker?

Walker [panting]: He, uh, caught me off guard.

Lugo [after a pause]: Hey, it happens… come on.


In the above clip, the player allows Walker to linger over the corpse of the man he has just killed (murdered?) for a few seconds, just enough to show the Captain’s chest heaving. Note too that Walker noticeably gasps as his Adams-vision flashes back to reality [5] – his actions are taking a toll, mentally and physically. This is what The Line wants the player to feel: the impact of the violence and murder that the game’s characters are enacting at their command [6]. As madness grips him, Walker is almost reduced to tears by the game’s conclusion, whispering “I didn’t mean to hurt anybody” – again shifting the responsibility onto the player.

The Line does not offer rewards or incentives for making moral choices – shoot the civilians or fire into the air, in this respect it doesn’t matter what you do. Not to The Line. Yet in some respects this purifies the player’s moral choice: it simply comes down to whether, despite all the questions that the game asks, you still feel comfortable killing someone. And that does matter.

It matters because your choice doesn’t change the game, and, unlike Far Cry 3, you can’t exonerate yourself for your actions. When Walker orders a devastating attack on what he mistakenly believes to be the enemy but transpires to be a large group of civilians, he has to live with that fact. This is mirrored by the player’s position when The Line presents its choices – the only variable is whether the player will be able, like Walker, to blink away the consequences and “keep moving”.

Walker

If Far Cry 3 presents an outright satire of the shooter genre[7], where killing feels like winning, flamethrowers are awesome and warrior power is to be embraced, then The Line is more subtle but no less satirical. In one of the game’s endings – the one I saw on my first playthrough – Walker is finally picked up by American soldiers. One of them asks, in the game’s closing lines, “If you don’t mind me asking… what was it like? How did you survive all this?” To which Walker replies, squeezing his eyes shut, “who said I did?”

Where Jason can escape his actions at the end, for Walker killing will only ever feel like defeat. That fact alone adds meaning to the choices the player makes in The Line. Does murder matter? To Walker, sure it does.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] It didn’t actually occur to me to fire into the air. I tried to walk out of the mob’s circle, hoping that this would be enough to disperse them – it’s not. That led me to conclude that there was only one option available: shoot the civilians. Honest!

[2] I do feel that Black Ops 2 deserves a lot of credit for not making the implications of its moral choices as black and white as might be expected.  As each ending is influenced not only by the player’s decision to kill Menendez or let him live, but also by whether they completed all optional Strike Force missions and fulfilled certain other objectives, there is a multitude of possible outcomes, some more “good” than others.

[3] I guessed that a scene like this was coming – the mission is called “Hard Choices”, after all – and I had mentally prepared myself to do whatever it took to fulfil Jason’s apparent destiny to become the ultimate warrior. But I couldn’t do it – credit to the game for the way it switches from dream sequence to close-up of Liza’s face, credit to the animators, and credit to voice actor Mylène Dinh-Robic for being just too human for me to go ahead with it…

[4] Arguably the most “positive” ending for Walker is that he has truly accepted his status as an insane killer. Instead of surrendering to the US troops, or dying at their hands, the player can kill every single one of them which leads to Walker’s ominous “welcome to Dubai” sign-off.

[5] Reality, or Walker’s version of reality, as Brendan Keogh has highlighted in his excellent close critical reading of the game, Killing Is Harmless.

[6] I like to think that Lugo’s casual dismissal in the above scene is The Line’s comment on the notion that perhaps not every player will feel this way, that shooting a civilian “doesn’t matter” unless there is a narrative change effected by that action. As Lugo says: hey, violence happens. This is jarring given that it comes from a man who so openly decried Walker’s actions in an earlier scene that leads him to scream that Walker has turned them into killers. Like many players, Lugo has already become desensitized to the murder around him and is able to just dismiss it as part of the experience.

[7] Far Cry 3’s writer, Jeffrey Yohalem, has often referred to his game as a genre satire, notably in a series of interviews on Rock Paper Shotgun. Here is one – although it should be noted that there is some contention as to whether the game constitutes satire, as highlighted in that same article..