[Contains spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line]
Who built Dubai?
Officially, the Sheik built it, and if one accepts Great Man historiography perhaps it's even true. A person more dedicated to the facts would say that Dubai was built by slaves, men lured to the capitalist mirage by promises of good wages for hard work who found only the latter waiting for them. A city is more than steel and glass, however, and the sick, stratified society of Dubai was not constructed by the men and women who toil hopelessly in its lowest tier. That system was made by those for whom the laborers are invisible. So, maybe Sheik Mohammed built Dubai, after all.
In Spec Ops: The Line, the natural forces that oil money has so far kept at bay have struck back against the city, burying the modern towers in the red sands of its desert. In the shattered metropolis, a new society has been built, one that breaks the game's protagonists and shows the foolishness of their heroic pretensions. Spec Ops would have you believe that nobody built this Dubai, that it developed on its own, and nobody can be blamed.
It's a lie, of course. Yager built Dubai.
Spec Ops does not reveal this situation at first. It embodies the evil of its Dubai in Colonel John Konrad, commander of a US battalion trapped in the buried city. The game sells us the proposition that his orders, his decisions built Dubai. Captain Walker rationalizes the crimes that he commits by insisting that Konrad's deeds made them inevitable.
Then, at the end, the game rips the rug out from under this justification. Konrad has been dead for weeks; the voice Walker has been hearing existed only in his own head.
Spec Ops: The Line has a lot to say about war, and the appetite that Americans and gamers have for it. When a hallucinatory Konrad berates Walker for trying to save people with a gun, the critique strikes home, as it was intended to. It's something worth saying, Spec Ops says it well, and we should value the game for that.
I also think, however, that this is a gutless and cowardly critique.
Consider, in contrast, another game where you play a monster, BioShock. This game promotes the impression that you can take a moral route through its fallen capitalist mecca (sound familiar?), but whatever choice you make with respect to the Little Sisters, you are murdering dozens of innocent slaves, to say nothing of the people who died in the plane crash. In its climax, BioShock also undercuts the power fantasy that sustains violent games, but this moment includes a tacit acknowledgement that the developers are complicit. If BioShock's protagonist is the avatar of the player, then Ryan and Atlas are the avatars of the developer, the architects whose hands created the chaos of Rapture. Not only are they the game's antagonists, but their "Would you kindly" acknowledges that the player's violence is a consequence of the developer's choices.
Spec Ops, by contrast, pushes this idea aside. The architect turns out to be an illusion; there is no villain other than the player. That illusion even goes so far as to say that none of the evil Walker caused would have happened if he'd turned back, as if the game offered that option. From the moment the game's first bullets fly, no route of retreat is available. The only way for a player to end Walker's destructive journey is to pull the disc out of the tray.
I guess it seems pretty easy to demand that when you've already collected someone's $60.
BioShock admits, and Spec Ops retreats from, the complicity of the designer in the glorification of and lust for violence. This follows a rich tradition of one-sided blame, to be sure. Movies, comics, rock and roll, gangsta rap, and (of course) video games have all been blamed, sometimes simultaneously, for the decline of civilization and morality. These attacks ignore the role audience demand plays in the creation of popular art in a capitalist system. It is no better, however, for someone to spend years creating horrors and then bash the audience for having the temerity to experience, much less appreciate, them. It is, instead, an act of cowardice, an attempt to turn blame outward, without examining the parts of the structure that implicate the creators.
The truth is we are all to blame. The players are to blame for indulging in entertainments that speak to their basest natures. The developers are to blame for creating those entertainments, and the publishers for funding them. The critics and journalists also deserve the blame, for exhaustively previewing and then dutifully heaping accolades on each new year's iteration of graybrown military murder games in a never-ending quest for pageviews and ad impressions.
We all built Dubai. Would that we all had the guts to admit it.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.