White Phosphorus in Spec Ops: The Line and the Transition of FPS Shooters
As the technology of war advances, so too must the weapons in popular first-person-shooter video games such as Call of Duty and Battlefield. The usage of white phosphorus (known as Willy Pete in Vietnam) in the conflicts during the latter half of the 20th century and the early 21st century has caused many a controversy with human rights and just war theory. Due to its chemical properties, white phosphorus can absorb more phosphoric acid (the acid that causes burns after exposure to the chemical). The way white phosphorus irritates and damages tissues has lead to it being banned from use against civilians, but this law has been overlooked in the past few years, particularly in the Gaza War of 2008-2009. White phosphorus’ inclusion in the video game Spec Ops: The Line represents the change of gamer taste in today’s culture; as a society we have gone from being able to experience one dramatic moment and remain pleased to constantly needing an assault of action to risk losing our attention to something more exciting.
Spec Ops: The Line is a first-person shooter that stands out from the rest of the franchises we as a society are consistently bombarded with advertisements for; the complete lack of jingoistic motives behind the protagonists and killing of foreigners break down the game to a basic search-and-rescue concept taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. With such a simple idea behind the plot, Spec Ops: The Line could have easily failed and faded into obscurity. Instead, it manages to make the player question their real motives behind playing video games in the shooter genre.
The first time the player is introduced to white phosphorus is on the receiving end; this immediately signifies a change in how war games affect the player. Typically, a player is given a new technology and is allowed to use it to their heart’s content regardless of the consequences. Here, the players sees the NPCs roll around in the sand trying to extinguish the chemical burns as their skin is slowly charred; however, the player is forced to endure more firefights amidst the bodies, removing the attention from the gruesome deaths and placing it back on the game’s objective. The emotional whiplash between the horror of chemical burns and the fast paced action ultimately leaves the player with a shock and awe combination that can be summed up by the casual gamer in one sentence: “Whoa, that was cool!” The player is given a taste of a new technology and then has it revoked as quickly as it is dangled in front of them. If Spec Ops: The Line was any other first-person-shooter, this moment might be the one moment people remember that distinguishes it from the rest of the genre; thankfully, Spec Ops is not as superficial as the cover may allude.
A few levels after the first appearance of Willy Pete, the player is forced to use white phosphorus against the 33rd battalion in order to progress. Through the radar camera used to survey the immediate area, the game presents the player with a large white grouping of people. The player, assuming this to be a large crowd of rogue soldiers, fires without discrimination (partly due to the fact that any hostile shows up on the camera in white). It is then revealed that the large group of white was actually a refuge for forty-seven civilians. By firing the mortar at the refuge, the player character (and effectively the player) is responsible for all forty-seven of their deaths. This kind of twist fills the player with a genuine sense of dread as they realize the atrocity they have committed. The player messed up and the game shows the bodies of the men, women, and children murdered through this senseless act of violence. While the deaths may have been virtual and have no affect on the real world, this kind of reaction is unexpected from the player. They could have been prepared for an overwhelming disgust or pleasure from all of the gore or a cathartic wash of the senses as they try to unwind from a stressful day but true regret in an action that they have performed is something that shooters have stayed away from.
Toward the end the player is hit with a white phosphorus mortar and the player character begins to hallucinate a desert of fire for a few moments. Instead of walking through the aftermath and seeing what happens to others, the player directly experiences the effects of the chemical bomb. While the fire is all brought on from a hallucination and isn’t actually occurring, the player sees a visual manifestation of Captain Walker’s guilt from killing the forty-seven civilians. Not only does the player feel bad, but the main character shares in their regret, acting as a refreshing break from the machismo main characters of Call of Duty games who show no remorse in killing entire armies of people.
The over-exaggerated use of action and twists in modern video games is a direct reflection of controversy based sales. After Call of Duty: Modern Warfare every video game franchise (including Call of Duty) has attempted to outdo the games before it. Spec Ops: The Line subverts this and provides the gamer with two very well done twists that comment on the state of shooters in the video game culture; the players are forced to question why they are drawn to this genre as a whole if the entire plot of the games are based off of these incredible acts of violence. Perhaps a quote by the player character is predicting the future of twists in shooter video games: “Maybe the loss is worth the gain”. If we lose the subtlety found in older games and are more in favor of always being entertained to the point of saturation, maybe we’ll eventually find a better way to tell a story without needing to resort to the glorification of violence to this extent.
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