Music and Detachment in ‘Spec Ops: The Line’

(Originally published 24/07/2013.)

In my previous post I looked issues to do with the reception of music written for video games within the art-music world, with reference to film music. This post is something of a follow-up, prompted by thoughts of how game music might be differentiated from film music in positive ways, rather than coming across as a poor relation marred by aesthetic problems. While it is true that the examples below are some of the more effective I’ve encountered, and are not representative of the vast majority of games, I see these as more of a proof-of-concept–signs of potential in the medium that set a goal for future development.

2K’s Spec Ops: The Line was widely praised, above all, for presenting a challenge to the jingoistic militarism currently in vogue among mainstream game production. Marketed as a fairly typical modern military shooter, the game eventually forces players to become complicit in the protagonist’s psychological downwards spiral brought on by traumatic conflict, sleep deprivation, and American betrayal–a clear comment on the gung-ho interventionist patriotism of the Call of Dutys or Battlefields that mark the industry’s ideological consensus. Much has been written at length on why this critique is effective, but from the perspective of seeking to understand music’s role, the principle concern is with its creation of detachment: both the protagonist’s mental detachment from reality; and the game’s forcing of the player to consider their detachment from the events which, in order to continue the game, they are made to take part in.

The sandstorm-ruined city of Dubai, as seen by protagonist Capt. Walker

The first significant use of music occurs midway through the second chapter, when the trio of protagonists, at this stage still in sound mind, enter an insurgent base to the sound of blazing guitars and a generic rock vocal–a moment that virtually screams ‘America, F*ck Yeah!’, in keeping with the early chapters’ lulling of players into a false sense of security. Shooting unspecified-middle-eastern insurgents to a pounding riff is modern gaming’s bread and butter, and in this early stage of Spec Ops its citation makes perfect sense–at this point in the characters’ story, they still consider themselves the heroes. Once the level’s set-piece firefight has concluded, however, an offhand remark from one of the protagonist’s squad-mates sets up the first moment of musical detachment. By asking (paraphrase) ‘Where’s that music coming from?’, the game forces the player into awareness of the artificiality of the situation: the characters can hear their own soundtrack. This subverts every assumption that comes with the medium–not only that the soundtrack is in a space removed from the action, but that it is subservient, and is only shaped by the world, rather than participating in events. This is enough of a jolt to draw the player out of the action, and to make them realise that they are interacting with an artificial world. As the game’s message is dependent on making the player feeling complicit in the protagonist’s (eventually) horrific actions, breaking immersion has the effect of constantly reminding the player of their agency within this world, and the active choices they make in participating in this story.

This music is moments later revealed to be controlled by the Radioman, a mysterious antagonist whose voice, and choice classic rock/soul picks, are piped directly to the protagonist for most of the rest of the game via the in-game radio. This use of radio is another of Spec Ops‘s subtler inversions of gaming convention. In-game radio stations are fairly common, especially in open-world games such as the most recent Fallouts, in which the radio serves as a complementary component of world-building. Crucially, however, in these games the radio is optional–there is an off switch, useable at the player’s discretion. In Spec Ops, not only does the music jarr with its environment, but it is inescapable.

The Radioman’s studio, from which ironically appropriate music is broadcast to Dubai.

In forcing players to acknowledge the Radioman’s power, the game invites players to consider the artificial nature of this situation. The most obvious example is the use of Martha Reeves & The Vandellas ‘Nowhere to Run’ at the moment when the Radioman reveals he has led the protagonists into an ambush. Not only does this song choice demonstrate to the player that their antagonist has created this situation as a form of psychological as well as physical warfare, but it also serves to, again, break the player’s immersion in the game world. The realisation of the Radioman’s ‘clever’ lyrical parallels provides a split-second breach of concentration, drawing the player into a fuller realisation of their situation: not only is their in-game environment constructed/orchestrated by a more powerful figure, but the game itself is also a construction, and their interaction is only ever on its terms. The choice of this particular song is motivated by more than its appropriate chorus lyric. The up-beat Motown groove continues to provide an immersion-breaking filter over the rest of the scene, creating a continuous dissonance between aural (happy summer soul) and visual (shooting people in the face) stimulation. This particular song was also used, by a similar military radio DJ, over footage of soldiers training in the film Good Morning Vietnam, and while one can’t be sure of this being an intentional reference, it certainly adds another web of intertextual links to Spec Ops‘s already busy frame of reference.

The music composed specifically for the game is less easy to consider with narrative significance, as it is composed of the sort of repeating fragments that follow the standard patterns of action-game soundtracks: silence in between firefights, and classic rock-esque riffs during combat. The soundworld of Spec Ops‘s incidental music is arguably sparser than other games of this type, with one particularly effective track consisting of solo bass guitar playing low-register repeating lines, almost so low that pitch becomes irrelevant and a heartbeat rhythm the only quantifiable effect. In other moments the lead guitar tone is touched with delay, creating a slightly distant effect. I won’t go as far as saying that this represents a subversion of rock-soundtrack sensibilities, but it certainly does something to undercut the pomposity that comes with this aural territory.

Spec Ops’s title menu, complete with ideology.

Perhaps the most significant use of music, however, comes from before one even starts the game. The title menu, complete with inverted American flag, torn and tattered by bullet holes, is accompanied by a Hendrix-like solo guitar rendition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. In one aural citation, the developers reveal the game’s purpose. Just as Hendrix, through playing the national anthem provides a critique of the nation, so do 2K critique the military shooter genre by themselves writing a military shooter.

Spec Ops‘s use of music is intelligent, mostly consistent, and an important contributing factor to the game’s message. If game music is to be more closely examined, there need to be examples that stand up to this sort of critical reading, and at time of writing, these are still few and far between. Games such as Spec Ops: The Line however, prove that game music, if approached correctly, is a central element of the medium’s approach to narrative.



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