On Killing is Harmless

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I recently had the concept of “sandwich criticism” explained to me. It goes something like this: you open a critique of a paper, or anything really, with a positive note. That’s the bottom slice of bread. They to proceed to make the biggest shit sandwich in the world, piled high with negative remarks, verbiage, and open hatred. Then you close by saying “this was a great contribution, good work, yes!” That’s the top slice of bread. I give this weird explanation because I want you to understand that I’m not doing sandwich criticism of Brendan Keogh’s Killing Is Harmless.

That said, I am going to heap praise where praise is due: Killing is Harmless is all of the right moves. The book itself, as an object, is a great idea. I fully support the project of working through a difficult text in public and drawing readers into that experience with you–that’s what this blog is, after all. I also think that the games criticism community needs to be exposed to more long-form criticism. At this point, you have to either hope for a long-running series or read academic books in order to get substantial, and systemic, criticism of a game.

Beyond that, I think that the general comments that I have about Killing Is Harmless are well-covered by Darius Kazemi’s review. I share the same problems that Darius does–Brendan buys into the narrative so much that he can’t pull away, and at the end, I think he’s reading himself more than anything else. This is fine; I understand that, and it is sometimes valuable when done correctly (I also believe the Keogh is doing it correctly). Brendan manages to ride a very fine line between my own game centered criticism and his deeply personal subjective experience.

What I’m doing here is not reviewing Killing Is Harmless. I am deploying a critique of it, just as I would any other book that I read and thought critically about. The following is the result of reading Killing is Harmless in two sittings and then promptly losing all of my notes for the latter half of the book. It is also the product of a lot of thinking–I read it a few days ago, and since then I have mostly been mulling what I want to say over in my head. A book of this weight deserves a fair chance and not an immediate, gut-check criticism. I gave it some time, and here we go.

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1. Mental Illness and Choice

Keogh opens Killing is Harmless with a Foreward that develops a theoretical framework for the book. In essence, he is setting up the stakes of his argument–he contextualizes the game is a particular time and culture, particularly through his use of the term post-Bioshock.[1] From that, he develops a core question of current “manshooter” games–why are we doing this? Keogh sees Spec Ops: The Line as a game that explicitly addresses this question and ultimately succeeds in at least partially answering it–we do it because we justify it to ourselves constantly. We make the slaughter of human-shaped polygons acceptable behavior, and this is mostly communicated to us by the blase attitudes that the characters of the games have toward those deaths. “Good guys” like Nathan Drake kill thousands of people over the course of a single playthrough of a game, but the effects of those deaths are never felt–they’re never taken seriously.

Spec Ops does take it seriously, however. It puts the violence, and the responsibility for that violence, squarely on the shoulders of the focal character of the game, Walker. Keogh writes that as

Walker is forced to commit increasingly terrible acts, who he is changes. What he looks like changes. What he sounds like changes. Perhaps what is most disturbing about Walker is that the more damaged he becomes, the more like a normal playable character he appears.  If Walker goes insane over the course of The Line, Nathan Drake and the many other playable character that came before must have been insane long before we joined with them. [2]

He follows a few sentences later:

The Line suggests that our characters are sociopaths because of what they do in their games, and then it draws attention to just who it is that is making these sociopaths do these things that they do: the player. Suddenly joking about sociopathic characters isn’t so funny when we are indicted along with them.[3]

It is this discussion of nonnormative mental states that I want to tease out. The argument that Brendan is making goes like this: “a person forced to do the things that we do in contemporary shooting games would develop a mental illness of some kind.” He also wants to shift the focus a little–instead of thinking these are always-already “ill” characters, we should understand that we, as players, are the ones in control. If Walker “loses his mind,” we are ultimately the responsible party.

I think there is a critique to be made here about the nature of contemporary warfare. The hierarchical structure of the modern military, particularly the United States’ armed forces, has had a very hard time adapting to postmodern warfare. The development of the language of the “enemy combatant” signals a shift in legal and designation thinking; we cannot clearly identify enemies so much as bodies with unknowable motivations. The military is deployed, told to do XYZ objectives, and then are let loose. Friends and enemies meld into one another; a parked truck is a bomb; a human being is a target and a terrorist and a shop owner; the contemporary period has highlighted the polyvalence everything, but the military structure hasn’t adapted well. In that sense, Walker and his two subordinates are a living testament to the inability of the human to adapt to the conditions that the American military creates. How do you navigate a space where objectives are crystal clear but your obstacles are not?

I understand why conditions like post-traumatic stress happen to a significant number of soldiers. Thrust into a bad situation and trained to do the unthinkable, they perform as they are told to. And that doesn’t come for free.

Keogh is never able to address this issue, however, because he is mostly focused on Walker’s mental state and how it interfaces with “choice.” There are several moments in the game where material “reality” does not match up with the subjective experience that Walker (and the player) perceives. The finale of the game reveals it in a series of quick cuts to these scenes–the radio that Walker used to speak to Konrad, the “villain” of the game, was broken the entire time; Konrad’s forcing Walker to distribute capital punishment was totally imagined by Walker. There are several of these events. Keogh, in characterizing these events, lenses them through “choice.” He writes that

The Line says something about how we define choices. Each time Walker insists that he ‘has had no choice’ he is in fact refusing to acknowledge the choices he has already made. He chooses willful ignorance simply because it is easier–as we all do regularly.[4]

A few sentences later he writes that

His blatant denial of the situation, the way that he makes things worse by refusing to open his eyes, is not a unique character trait.[5]

Keogh’s goal here, I believe, is to further solidify an argument that he makes throughout the book: players always have a choice. There is no such thing as being “railroaded” or forced into bad choices in a game because we have the ultimate power: we can stop playing the game. For Brendan, Walker’s biggest failure is the fact that he says that he has no choice when he really does (he could leave Dubai); this is also our great sin as players.

But I find this discussion of choice as applied to Walker as a character to be misplaced. The opening of the book, after all, is focused on how we, as players, generate characters with mental illnesses. Keogh’s assertions over and over again that Walker should just have chosen, that he should just have opened his eyes, is ignoring his own point that Walker is mentally ill. At best, he has severe trauma from seeing hundreds of human beings murdered; at worst, he has deep-seated mental illness that has gone unchecked for years. Asserting that he has a choice implies that he should somehow just “get over it,” that Walker, if he would just pull his head out of his ass, could see the world for how it really is and get out of Dubai.

In the chapter “The Gate,” which deals with the infamous killing of civilians through a player-controller white phosphorous attack, Keogh writes

Of course the real choice Walker has is to turn around and leave Dubai, and the real choice the player has it to not play a military shooter that asks you to drop white phosphorous on people. . . . Walker is choosing to be in a situation where he has no choice, and so am I. The Line doesn’t really want players to stop playing at this point. It simply wants us to accept responsibility for the situations we allow ourselves to be in.[6]

A few pages before this, Keogh addresses his own “sanity/insanity” dichotomy as it pertains to the characters, which I think is important to put out before I address the above quotation.

Watching and playing their adventure, it is hard by the end of the game not to think of the members of Delta as having always been insane. But what moments like this outburst show is that they are, in fact, among the most sane videogame characters of all time. The insane ones are those that don’t react to what the player forces them to do.[7]

What I understand this second quotation to be saying is that the characters, as they exist in relation to me, are “sane” because they react “realistically” toward the violence that they commit and witness. The “insane” characters (do I need to expressly say how uncomfortable I am with this language?) are the ones who do things that they players tell them to; they quip when headshotting nameless enemies from two hundred yards. The “sane” person has a choice, has the ability to walk away, and because Walker is “insane” he cannot see that he should give up his missions.

If we accept that Walker has a mental illness, and I do (whether it is pre-existing the narrative of the game or developed over the course of it,) I can’t say that he had any choice at all. A depressed person doesn’t have a choice to be depressed. A schizophrenic doesn’t have a choice on what she or he perceives in the world. And, therefore, if we follow the Walker/player analogy that Keogh sets up, then the player didn’t have any choice either. Let’s be honest here–with our interesting critical interjections aside, the player doesn’t have any options when it comes to deployment of white phosphorous or violence against digital humans in Spec Ops. We can always turn off the game, but, frankly, I think that is a cop out. We are never forced to interact with media. There is a choice to begin playing, or to begin watching, but after that we enter into a kind of contractual relationship with the work–the game has an expectation of me. It expects me to give it attention and to play it on its own terms, with the promise of a “full” experience. The Line doesn’t want me to stop playing after I kill civilians; it wants me to witness.

Do I really accept responsibility? And does it want me to? If the intent of the game, whether that be its own or that of its designers, is to force me to accept responsibility for forced actions, then there is an unsettling message being sent to those who live with mental illness. This thing that you have no control over with? Take responsibility for yourself. And what about deployed servicepeople? Are they supposed to take responsibility for actions that they are ordered to do. After all, they also, structurally, have no choice.

Brendan chooses to find a strength there. The game, by forcing the player to do something terrible and then own up to it, is a maturation of the genre. I can’t see that, though. I can’t see that as anything other than a massive failure on the part of the game. I don’t see a beauty in the assertion of personal responsibility in the face of massive and brutal structural issues; the game makes the player do one of the most evil things possible in modern war and then smugly asks “well, did you learn the right lesson from that? Choice was impossible all along!”

Fuck that.

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2. Dark Hearts

In preparing to write this critique, I went back and reread the final section of Heart of Darkness. How could I not? Spec Ops: The Line hangs from the story’s skeleton. The story of one person becoming more and more like the other, oddly, provides a template for Killing is Harmless. As Darius Kazemi wrote in his review, Brendan played The Line and was “lost in the sand of virtual Dubai.” He went in. He came out changed. I want to balance the following criticisms with my admission that the process of being fundamentally altered by a piece of media is a good thing. I’m glad that Brendan had the experience he had while in relation with Spec Ops.

The criticism that I am about to block out in short, staccato rhythm will follow this vague pattern: the process of reading and playing Spec Ops pulled Brendan in so fully that he couldn’t help but see every single moment of the game as significant. This abundance symbolic material meant that every moment of gameplay generated an excess of material to interpret. This, ultimately, caused an overreading of the game that generated a fictional equivalent; the game that Brendan played isn’t a game that exists.

The strange thing is that, on face, I think he should have every right to do that. God knows that I’ve done that my fair share, and most people who interact with and write about games regularly do it too. After all, Brendan is very clear in the Foreward of the text that he is merely attempting to get at what The Line did for him:

So what follows is not a defense of The Line nor is it a praise of The Line. It is simply a reading. It is an attempt to pick apart this game from start to end to try to understand just how I was so powerfully affected by it.[8]

This caveat, however, gets thrown out the minute that he begins making statements about what things means. There is very little prefacing of “I took this to mean” or “for me.” The word “meant,” as an appeal to the designer-gods of the experience of the game, is used fairly often. A song is “meant to make us feel uneasy about our actions.”[9] The “not to Abu Ghraib is meant as a kind of balancing.”[10] This is a lot of implicit understanding intent for a book that claims not to “know, objectively, exactly what The Line is ‘about.’”[11]

The abundance of significance the Brendan finds in the game–in his detailed analysis of the music, the set pieces, and the characters–was mostly lost on me during my playthrough. I went through the game. I caught brilliant glimpses, but it was mostly dreck. Brendan actually gets close to my understanding of the game as a whole during the chapter on “The Pit”:

Overall, I’m still at a loss of the meaning of the mass grave at this particular point in the game. Is it foreboding? Is it to show just how hard life is in post-storm Dubai? Are all these bodies executed people? Is this the “LIAR’S LAIR” the graffiti alluded to? Or is this a simple grave? I still don’t really know, and I struggle to contextualize it in the broader game. Maybe it is truly nothing more than something dumped there for shock value. Well, it worked.[12]

I, too, am at a loss of the meaning for that part of the game, like most of the game. Where Brendan and I diverge is that he must contextualize it in the larger system of meaning that Spec Ops represents. You can see it in the paragraph–he tries to make it work, it doesn’t, he runs through possibilities, and then he asserts that it has meaning even in its total failure to actually express coherent meaning.

Killing Is Harmless tells Spec Ops: The Line “you will have meaning whether you like it or not.”

There is a bitter irony to the fact that this narrative is based on Heart of Darkness. The novel is about Marlowe going into the deepest part of the Belgian Congo following a Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader hired by The Company to extract resources from the heart of Africa. Kurtz is chosen by The Company because of his particular skillset–it is efficient at turning the natural, living world into various material goods. In other words, Kurtz is a master of interpretation–he can see the world for what it “really” is; a forest is so many hectares of logs; an elephant is x amount of weight in ivory.

Kurtz’s story ends in his own death. His methods of interpretation turn back on him; he becomes so embroiled in the world that he came to pick apart that he can’t manage to understand himself anymore. He dies emotionally torn in two–the intended and his queen resonate through the ending of the novella.

The parallel to criticism is apparent to me. There is a violence in saying “this object means these things,” and that violence is especially pronounced when an object isn’t able to stay silent. Spec Ops rarely gets to speak for itself in Killing Is Harmless. At best, it is a nature that Keogh imprints with his own experiences and desires, including one point where Driver: San Francisco invades the body of Spec Ops in order to generate meaning from crows on a wire.

Is there a moment when we should allow a game to be silent? I don’t have an answer, though I have a suspicion that perhaps we should. I am open to the possibility of the unspeakable in a video game, by which I mean that the game itself can purposefully be resisting the ekphrastic desires of its human interlocutors. I’m reminded of the often-quoted section from the end of Heart of Darkness here:

This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare that could not see the flame of the candle but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts in the darkness. He had summed up–he had judged. ‘The horror!’ He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor  it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth–the strange commingling of desire and hate.[13]

Spec Ops: The Line was our Congo, Brendan and I. I’m the Marlowe to his Kurtz. He went in, figured it out, and lost himself there. He can’t come back–Spec Ops: The Line is now infinitely connected to him. He is on the Wikipedia page, after all. The critic who was the champion of a game, turning it from something forgotten into a viable critical darling dripping with meaning.

And I, like Marlowe, looked down into the precipice and walked away.

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NOTES

1. Keogh – 7
2. Keogh – 6
3. Keogh – 6-7
4. Keogh – 91
5. Keogh – 91
6. Keogh – 79
7. Keogh – 74
8. Keogh – 10
9. Keogh – 26
10. Keogh – 58
11. Keogh – 9
12. Keogh – 58
13. Conrad, Heart of Darkness 69

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5 Responses to On Killing is Harmless

  1. Ethan Gach says:

    This may only be tangentially related to your (stupendous) take on KIH, but more and more I can’t shake the feeling that a lot of “criticism” now is about rehabilitiating our gaming experience. We have FUN playing lots of games, but without either 1. an intense deconstruction of the tech and design involved, or 2. an interesting insight, there is nothing left to show for it at the end.

    And the truth is that a lot of games are interesting, and a lot of games are fun, but the cross-section of games which are both fun and interesting is extremely limited. In order to achieve number 2, “an interesting insight,” in the group of games which are fun (popular/news cycle worthy), but not actually interesting, you can (and here I’m a bit deeper into speculative territory) either talk about yourself, and use the game as a cipher for doing so, or talk about the game, and retrieve meaing from the top of an edifice built on pressumed irony and reflexivity. We come up against a cheap facade which is really just a cheap facade, and then search for the meta on the otherside, and are so intent on discovering it in order to redeem the venture we will start divining some strange shit.

    • kunzelman says:

      This isn’t unique to video games, though, right? It interesting that you use “divination” to describe the phenomenon, because reading chicken entrails is basically the same process.

      • Ethan Gach says:

        It’s true–none of it is exclusive to video games. I most other subjects its the difference between critical interpretation and apologistic/revisionistic readings.

    • Man, agreed.

      I think the prevalence of irony/reflexitivity in so many contemporary games or critical readings of contemporary games is because we’re financially compelled to either make stupid entertainment or, you know, change careers. “No, it’s a *critique* of violence” is basically the absolute best you can do when you have to make a game about shooting people.

      The telling thing in KIH for me was the reference in passing to the fact that the studio producing Spec Ops was contractually obligated to produce a cover shooter. The whole conflict between choice/forced-choice/obligation seemed to refer a lot more heavily to the circumstances surrounding Spec Ops (or Hotline Miami, or anything else with the “ha ha we told you to kill these people and you did it” plot twist) and the demands of capital than it does to the actual game.

  2. Ben Abraham says:

    Gosh I’m glad Sam Crisp mentioned this on twitter because, quelle surprise, I had missed this and it is terrific.

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